Was Air Force's Media Freeze Justified? Defense Experts Weigh In

FILE PHOTO -- Chief of Staff of the Air Force, Gen. David L. Goldfein, responds to a media question during a press conference at the National Museum of the United States Air Force, April 18, 2017. (U.S. Air Force/Wesley Farnsworth)
FILE PHOTO -- Chief of Staff of the Air Force, Gen. David L. Goldfein, responds to a media question during a press conference at the National Museum of the United States Air Force, April 18, 2017. (U.S. Air Force/Wesley Farnsworth)

Bleak times may be ahead for the relationship between the press and U.S. military branches as officials maintain that operational security should outweigh public outreach, according to a former senior Defense Department official and a national security expert.

What's more, recent decisions designed to protect national security may become strict conditioning factors for how future leaders and public affairs officers engage with the press, and an illegitimate way to project strength over weakness, the experts said.

"A natural concern for OpSec is pushing us into a situation where I believe the Defense Department is becoming unhealthy in its outlook toward engagement with the public and with the press," said a former senior Pentagon public affairs official, who asked not to be named because of current employment implications.

This week it was revealed that the Air Force is curtailing its media engagements and limiting the amount of information it releases in what it says is an effort to protect operational security, according to a March 1 memo, first reported by Defense News.

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Media embeds, base visits and interviews have been suspended until further notice with limited exceptions, the memo said.

"The way the Air Force comes out of this, at the end of this training program, whenever it's finished, they won't be the same. There will be a persistent chilling effect," the former senior official told Military.com in a telephone interview Thursday.

In the wake of the memo, press organizations protested the move.

“Security must be balanced against the need to inform the public,” said John M. Donnelly, the president of the Military Reporters & Editors Association, a non-profit organization that speaks on behalf of military, national security and homeland defense reporters.

Donnelly went on to say that while it’s understandable there is a need for operational security practices, there is still a need to inform the public.

“We worry that the definition of the kind of unclassified information that can be withheld is subjective,” Donnelly said in a statement. “When it comes to unclassified information, the presumption in a democracy should favor disclosure. Ultimately, the proof will be in the execution of this new guidance, and MRE will be closing watching that,” he said.

In days following the memo's exposure, the Air Force's training manual on how best to preserve and control OpSec leaked on Facebook, with examples of recent media failures when dealing with sensitive information.

One story related how, during an ongoing effort to send a message of strength to North Korea, a B-1B Lancer flight mission in the Pacific was canceled due to maintenance issues; another highlighted the "kill chain" procedure airmen use to target terrorists in the Middle East; a third detailed how the National Space Defense Center in Colorado began 24-hour operations to hunt space threats and spy satellites.

The Air Force told Military.com these three stories did not prompt the memo, but were just examples leaders highlighted when putting the training manual together.

The former senior official said it still appears to be an overreaction.

"The one about the bomber probably seems valid," since it draws on failsafes and mission execution, the official said. "But as a public information official, I'd come across articles that revealed information that none of us were comfortable with. There's ways to deal with it and try to amend it, correct it, and move forward."

The official said operational security remains a valid justification.

"There's absolutely nothing wrong with looking at OpSec from time to time and doing some navel-gazing and saying, 'Hey, do we have it right? Are we giving too much information out there?' Are we classifying too little, and are we publicly disclosing information that could harm us? That is normal, it's natural and responsible," the former senior official said.

The U.S. Navy has also clamped down on media engagement in recent months.

Chief of Naval Operations Adm. John Richardson last March issued a memo telling sailors to steer clear of "events that are primarily for marketing, and that don't make an intellectual contribution to warfighting," as well as openly sharing information with the press.

The Pentagon that same month issued similar guidance in which Defense Secretary Jim Mattis cautioned about publicly speaking about readiness shortfalls, which he argued could give adversaries an advantage.

One expert questions how far the Air Force, and the DoD as a whole, will go before they say "OpSec" for everything, becoming more reserved in giving out information.

"Harkening back to a strategic guidance document to excuse behavior or validate irrelevant choices is a major pastime at DoD," said Loren DeJonge Schulman, deputy director of studies and the Leon E. Panetta senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security.

"'For national security reasons' is, too, of course, as you know. Both of these are valid rationales for changing behavior, but they are too easily and too often a lazy cover," said Schulman, who served as the senior adviser to former National Security Adviser Susan Rice and was a special assistant to Defense Secretary Robert Gates.

If OpSec is the reasoning, there must be a rationale that should be conveyed to the press, Schulman told Military.com on Thursday.

"If increased OpSec is needed for the U.S. counter-terrorism campaign, why? Where? Clearly, DoD is expanding operations in a number of fronts, e.g., West Africa, but it has made no case for it," she said.

Not (Totally) a Trump Thing

The tension between the Defense Department -- the overseer of global, but veiled, military operations -- and America's Fourth Estate has been growing for some time, and can't be laid at the Trump administration's door.

Not totally, anyway.

"There is a much less friendly media environment in this administration than we have seen in prior ones," the former defense public affairs official noted, but said the underlying tension between the Defense Department and the press did not start with President Donald Trump nor with Mattis.

Then-Defense Secretary Ash Carter was more buttoned up than most top leaders, urging four-star generals not to be very forthcoming, the former senior official said.

"This didn't just start with Jim Mattis. Ash Carter started it, really, and that's a different president," the official said.

But within the last handful of years, officials too have been strategic about how they approach the press, especially during the sequestration and budget cap era.

"If your job is to protect the country, you want to be able to do it with the best resources and best capabilities possible and, if you don't have those, you want to draw those to Congress' attention," the senior official said. "But you flip now to an extreme version of this where you can project strength."

Under this administration, the senior official argued, there is a fixation that the audience -- reading, listening, watching or consuming news in some way -- is an adversary like Russia or China.

"I don't disagree with that logic; you do have to be mindful of that," the senior official said.

But with Trump's open battle with traditional media, that balance is missing, the official said.

"That permeates throughout the entire system, and you're seeing that at DoD," right down to the Air Force, the former senior official said.

What is uniquely different under this administration is "the president's avid, aggressive use of social media and his willingness and ability to make policy and personnel decisions through social media," the official said, referencing Trump's Tweets about the department's transgender policy, rebuilding military strength, and threatening military action against North Korea.

Mattis, a leader who is "naturally humble," the senior official said, meanwhile is trying to lead responsibly and prudently and is mindful of "doing it in a way that he's not undercut by the commander in chief."

Unpredictable and conflicting messages from Trump, however, are not helping, Schulman added.

"If the potential for conflict on the Korean peninsula necessitates a serious revisitation of OpSec, you wouldn't know it, because the administration's messaging on this topic has been so inconsistent," she said. "Leaks are driving our perceptions, not any effort by the Trump national security apparatus to make a case for … anything."

She added, "It's hard to know if the security environment is so different as to justify a significant change in transparency and public posture because, as a rule, this administration has resisted talking about it."

The DoD's frustrations, Schulman said, have "far more to do with leaks than with standard-issue public affairs engagement."

Still, in the midst of all that, honest and responsible reporting can be achieved without violating OpSec, the former senior official said.

Chilling Effect for Years

But the most worrisome aspect to all of this is how future leaders learn from these public engagement training exercises.

Captains and first and second lieutenants looking at the latest memos, "They're going to remember it," the senior official said. "They will remember that they had to get trained, they'll remember that Air Force leadership had to put the hammer down, and it's going to give them one more excuse on why they shouldn't talk.

"What has started out as at least ostensibly a reasonable, prudent concern over operational security is becoming not just a chilling effect but could become akin to a deep freeze on public engagement," the senior official said.

-- Oriana Pawlyk can be reached at oriana.pawlyk@military.com. Follow her on Twitter at @Oriana0214.

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