Department of Defense

DOD News Briefing with Secretary Gates and Adm. Mullen from the Pentagon

July 8, 2010


I would also like to take this opportunity to say a few words about the guidance I issued (pdf) last week dealing with this department's engagement with the news media.

For starters, when I took this job more than three and a half years ago, I spent my first few months on the job telling military audiences that the press was not the enemy and that to treat it as such was counterproductive and self-defeating. Accordingly, in my approach to media relations I've attempted to be as straightforward and cooperative as possible and encouraged this department's leaders to do the same.

None of that has changed.

In short, last week's memo was not about how the media does its job but about how this department's leadership does ours. It is not a change of policy but a reaffirmation of an existing policy that was being followed selectively at best. It reflected the fact that for some time now, long before the recent Rolling Stone article, I have grown increasingly concerned that we have become too lax, disorganized, and, in some cases, flat-out sloppy in the way we engage with the press.

As a result, personal views have been published as official government positions, and information has gone out that was inaccurate, incomplete or lacking in proper context. Reports and other documents, including on sensitive subjects, are routinely provided to the press and other elements in this town before I or the White House know anything about them. Even more worrisome, highly classified and sensitive information has been divulged without authorization or accountability.

My hope and expectation is that this new guidance will improve the quality of press engagement by ensuring that the people the media talk to can speak with accuracy and authority. This should not infringe or impede the flow of accurate and timely information to you or to the public. That is not my intent, nor will I tolerate it.

An additional personal observation. Over the last two years, I have lost a first-rate Central Command commander and an outstanding commander of ISAF in Afghanistan due to their own missteps in dealing with the media. I've had to recall a combatant commander to Washington for a verbal reprimand for speaking out inappropriately on a sensitive foreign-policy issue. I've had two very different presidents each on several occasions express concern to me about senior Defense officials, both civilian and military, speaking out inappropriately on foreign-policy issues.

These instances together with my own frustration -- with premature disclosures of personnel, budget and other options under consideration -- led me to conclude several weeks ago that we need greater coordination and discipline.

Effectively communicating what we do and how we do it remains a top priority for me. In fact, I consider it my duty. It's a responsibility I have, not only to the commander-in-chief and to you in the media, but to the American people. I take it very seriously. And I expect everyone else in this department to do the same.

On that note, we'll take your questions.


Q I and many of my colleagues have a lot of very basic questions, about how this new media policy is going to work on the ground. And I hope that you'll have some very specific guidance about who is covered, what's covered, and whether this amounts to a pre-screening policy.

I wanted to ask you something more broad on that point. Since your predecessor was widely criticized for reining in dealings with the press and said that he had a bunker mentality, does this mean that you are also developing late in your tenure here a worry that the press has in fact become the enemy?

SEC. GATES: No, not at all. This is not about you. This is about us.

This is about us doing things in an uncoordinated way. It is about people in this department speaking out on issues where they don't have all the facts, where they may not have the perspective.

It is about somebody in one part of the world, in the military or a senior Defense civilian, speaking out on an issue without realizing that the same subject is being addressed in a different place and also is sensitive. And it's trying to give them that kind of situational awareness.

A lot of the interviews you ask for are already vetted through Public Affairs or orchestrated through Public Affairs.

And so this is as much about our being better coordinated and our making sure of what the -- what the parameters of an interview are so that people that are being interviewed, if you will, stay within their lane and are not speaking out about issues that they don't know everything about or where they may not be informed at all.

So this is more about our being more intelligent and thoughtful about how we respond to requests for interviews and to try and make sure that the information you're getting is accurate, as well as making sure that our people aren't speaking out about issues where they may be treading on sensitive ground and not even know it.


Q May I also follow up very briefly on the media memo? Because, again, in it you say, sir, any means of media and public engagement -- any means -- with possible national or international implications. That is perhaps, I think, the broadest, by any measure, bounding or restriction: any means of public engagement.

Could you explain, do troops and commanders and people in the United States military give up -- I'm quite serious -- their right of free speech, their right to speak freely? Does any public engagement they have, which is what your words say, now have to be screened? Do they -- what rights of free speech does a person in the United States military have?

SEC. GATES: Let me ask the chairman --

ADM. MULLEN: From my perspective, this isn't at all about the First Amendment. It's very much about what the secretary laid out in terms of coordination and synchronization and the discipline.

It is not in any way, shape or form meant to preclude the -- the proper engagement with the press. And all of us in the military understand that being in the military, we follow certain guidelines. And this is -- this is to actually, in great part, emphasize guidance that has been out there for an extensive period of time but we've just -- we just walked away from.

And so I think in light of what's -- certainly in light of what's happened recently -- but it isn't just the Rolling Stone piece; it was -- would just reaffirm what the secretary said. It's something he and I have been talking about for longer than that, the need to, in fact, ensure that we're coordinated, synchronized, and that -- and that we do tell our story. In my engagement with the military since the Rolling Stone article, it's important that, one, we don't see the press as the enemy, and I've said that; two, that we don't overreact here; and, three, that we do tell our story.

And so it's -- and it is a -- it is a challenge today because of the 24-hour news cycle, because of the pace. We understand that -- and that in engaging the press and the media we have to do it from the position in which we're qualified to do that, very specifically.

Q Admiral Mullen, don't mean to take too much time, but "any engagement" -- are you in fact saying that a trooper in the field, before he e-mails, has a telephone conversation, posts something on his Facebook page, Twitters, has any public engagement with the media, it must be cleared by this building?

ADM. MULLEN: If I were to use the trooper in the field -- who is very specifically, let's say, with an embed -- I think the rules with respect to that embed should be understood going in, and then just follow those rules very specifically, as an example.


Q Secretary, in the interest of information and even accountability, it's often difficult to find senior military leadership who are willing to engage the media. Are you the least bit concerned that your memo could have a further chilling effect on their willingness to talk, not only to the media but to the American people?

And just out of curiosity, what was your reaction when your memo against leaks was leaked? (Laughter.)

SEC. GATES: That it was highly predictable. (Laughter.)

Look, let me -- let me address this more broadly. We need more internal discipline about how we coordinate the substance when people are going to be interviewed or going on one of the television talk shows or sitting down with you all, to make sure that they are not talking about issues that are outside their area of knowledge, their area of expertise, and to make sure that they know that if there are some areas, even within their areas of expertise, that may be sensitive, because it's in the middle of a decision-making process or something, the idea is not to turn off the interview.

The idea is to try and help the person who is giving the interview understand what the sensitivities are.

After all, every time before the chairman and I come down here, we sit down with people from our Public Affairs office. And here are the issues, here's what the press has in mind, here's what's on their minds.

That's the kind of thing we're talking about, so that when people do have interviews, they have greater situational awareness. We're going to have to use some judgment in this.

The reality is, stories in the press, and you've heard me say this before -- whether it was the stories on the treatment of outpatient wounded warriors at Walter Reed in The Washington Post or stories about MRAPs in USA Today -- have been a spur to action for me in various areas.

So the kind of reporting you do, as far as I'm concerned, is one of the tools that I have in trying to lead this department and correct problems. If you're not -- we understand that as the chairman suggested, speed in responding to you often will be of the essence. And this burden will fall on the Public Affairs office.

And I fully expect that if they're not being prompt enough that we will hear about that from you all. And we will take corrective action, because the purpose here is to be as responsive to you as we have always been, but for us to do a better job of preparing people before they have interviews. And we will -- we will make adjustments as we go along.

And I would just say, you know, if you're a captain in a unit that has an embedded reporter, as long as you're within the guidelines and the rules, we expect you to be open with that embedded reporter. On the other hand, if you're a captain in this building, working on budget options, I expect you to keep your mouth shut. (Laughter.)

Q To pursue another aspect of the memo and your comments today, which is the unauthorized release of classified information, charges were filed (pdf) this week against Private Manning in the so-called Wikileaks case. How significant a breach of national security do you view that? And given that a young soldier is alleged to have had relatively free access to information, was able to download it and take it out of his headquarters, are you ordering any kind of review of security clearance processes, computer security, or any other steps that are necessary?

SEC. GATES: Well, first of all, Thom, I don't know the seriousness of the breach. I'm not familiar with the investigation that took place, and so would basically have to say I defer to the Army in terms of the -- of the specific case.

In some respects, what this illustrates is the incredible amount of trust we place in even our most junior men and women in the uniform. And I would be loath to change that because of a few examples, because there are a few bad apples. We have over 2 million men and women in uniform, and I believe we should always err on the side of trusting them because virtually all of them -- not 100 percent, but nearly 100 percent -- give us reasons every single day to continue trusting them.

So, no, I haven't ordered a review. If the results of the investigation suggest that might be necessary, then we'll take a look at it at the time. But my instinct is to take these on a case-by-case basis.

Did you want to add anything?

ADM. MULLEN: The only thing I would say -- add to that, Thom, is that I think it's being appropriately handled in the chain of command. I think that any commander, when they look at a case, looks at the facts as he or she understands them, and the mitigating factors as well, the specifics of which I just -- I'm not familiar with here. And then obviously, if it looks like it's going to be something that is bigger than it is just locally, then it comes up and then I think we have -- we would look at making adjustments. But there's no indication of that right now that I see.


Q (off mike) -- I just want to clarify something you said on the memo. If everybody's following the spirit and the letter of the memo, are you confident that stories like stories about the MRAP and the Walter Reed problems would emerge the way they did? You seem to be acknowledging that there will always be leaks, but I'm just wondering if you're confident that that would still happen.

SEC. GATES: Actually, I am, and it's largely because of my confidence in the persistence and the skills of the people sitting in front of me.


Q Can I ask a you a memo follow? Of all the litany of things you laid out -- your frustrations about having to call back an officer who misspoke overseas and all these other media-military foibles -- you didn't mention Bob Woodward's leak, the McChrystal report that he got in September. There was no leak investigation convened here. There was no threat to prosecute. There was a deafening silence.

Why did you not go after that at the time, sir? Because that was classified, every page. That was typical of what you want to avoid. But the silence was deafening here. And why -- I just want to know why not -- why didn't --

SEC. GATES: Because I was never convinced that it leaked out of this building.

Q What steps did you take to track that down?

SEC. GATES: I've got a lot of experience with leak investigations over a lot of years. (Laughter.) And I was very cautious in calling for leak investigations, especially when lots of people have access to documents.

Q And, Mr. Secretary, on the Rolling Stone interview specifically, to what extent did you know the actual controversial content of that article beforehand? And if you did -- do you wish you had? And you said you -- the idea is not to try to shut off the interview. Would you have tried to shut off that interview?

SEC. GATES: Well, I think -- I think that there is a question of -- I think you do have to address questions of appropriateness. And those are -- those are areas where I certainly depend on the advice of people who have been in the Public Affairs business and know these different publications.

And I think, frankly, this is a world that has gotten a lot more complicated, with a lot more freelance journalists, a lot more blogs, a lot more of everything.

And so people who have full-time day jobs doing something else aren't going to be a familiar with a lot of these entities.

So yeah, I think -- I think one of the issues that would be reviewed by Public Affairs is, is this an appropriate publication or television interview opportunity for this particular officer? These are -- like I said, these are judgment calls, and I -- we make them every day. We already make them. And so I don't see much change in that respect.

ADM. MULLEN: We had --

Q So -- (off mike) -- you might have tried to shut down them?

SEC. GATES: I don't --

ADM. MULLEN: I think that's pretty easy in hindsight at this point. But I would say -- to the first part of your question, is that there was no advance knowledge of that interview at all.

Q And also it would -- and General McChrystal was disrespecting his civilian leadership. Shouldn't the public have known about that? Shouldn't the civilian leadership have known about that?

SEC. GATES: I don't know the exact circumstances. I don't know what was going on in his headquarters. I don't know what was going on in Paris. And frankly, as far as I'm concerned, at this point -- first of all, let me be very clear about one thing. General McChrystal never, ever, said one thing or in any way, shape or form, conveyed to me any disrespect for civilian authority over the military. Never. I have never had an officer do that since I have been in this building, in three-and-a-half years.

So I think -- I think that this business of questioning of civilian authority, as far as I'm concerned, is -- has been taken out of context by virtue of the Rolling Stone article.

I believe, at least in my interaction with military, and from E1s to four-stars -- because I meet -- I meet with troops everywhere I go -- and I have never encountered, at any level of the military, any disrespect for civilian authority. So I think -- I think this was a rare circumstance and an unfortunate one. But I think we can move on.


Source: Department of Defense