Defense Secretary Robert Gates is consolidating his power over who can speak and what they can say. The casualty will be candor about the wars America fights.
Gates sent a memo last week ordering officers and officials not to talk to the press unless his personal staff approves. That was chilling enough.
But Gates has sent other shut-up signals that leave the impression he wants his voice, and his message alone, to represent the Pentagon.
The most onerous was a far-reaching gag-order he had top and mid-level officials sign during internal deliberations on the 2010 defense budget. With the threat of firings hanging over their heads, it essentially shut up the world’s largest office building.
The wide-ranging gag-order put off-limits for public discussion any “pre-decisional or otherwise, concerning the administration’s deliberation of the nature and amounts of the President’s budget for fiscal 2010, and any supplemental budget request submitted during the current fiscal year.”
Republicans, including Rep. Randy Forbes of Virginia, saw the silencing as a way for Gates to restrict information to Congress.
“Can I expect a candid answer from a senior military official when I ask them about the process used to establish priorities, either now or after the president’s detailed budget is released to the public?” Forbes and five other GOPers asked Gates in a letter. “Members of Congress deserve candid answers from senior military officers that are not suppressed or censored — either directly, or implicitly via culture of regulations that muzzle their independent professional judgment.”
The gag-ordered stated, “I recognize that a significant factor in the successful and proper preparation and completion of the President’s budget is the strict confidentiality that must be observed by all government participants in the planning, programming, and budgeting process, and that a failure to comply with these confidentiality requirements may compromise the administration’s ability to formulate and submit its budget.”
Gates has cast his shadow in other ways. Four four-star generals have been fired on his watch.
He fired Gen. T. Michael Moseley, the Air Force chief of staff, supposedly for weak controls over the nuclear arsenal. But Moseley allies suspect it was because the fighter pilot had emerged as the most outspoken Joint Chiefs members, one who was willing to push-back against Gates’ air-power vision which included scuttling production of the vaunted F-22 stealth fighter.
Gates fired Marine Corps Gen. Peter Pace, a big proponent of the war on terror and traditional values, by not giving him the customary second two-year term as Joint Chiefs chairman.
He fired Gen. David McKiernan, the top commander in Afghanistan, then saw his replacement, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, fired by President Obama for indiscreet remarks to Rolling Stone.
Days after McChrystal, the military’s best terrorist hunter, got the boot, Gates issued new limits on talking to reporters, the New York Times reported last Friday.
“I am concerned that the department has grown lax in how we engage with the media,” Gates wrote. “We have far too many people talking to the media outside of channels, sometimes providing information which is simply incorrect, out of proper context, unauthorized, or uninformed by the perspective of those who are most knowledgeable.”
From now on, the memo seems to indicate, all interview requests must be funneled to a political appointee, Douglas Wilson, assistant secretary of defense for public affairs.
A few days after McChrystal was fired and before Gates sent out the press-control memo, the defense secretary told reporters they are not the enemy. But then he added:
“I think that people clearly need to make smart decisions about how they engage, the circumstances in which they engage, what they talk about. And there is, in my view, a need for greater discipline in this process on our part and a greater understanding that somebody who is giving an interview in Europe may not understand that something they’re saying has an impact in Asia. And so we need to be a little smarter about how we approach this.”
This can only have a chilling effect on the flow of information from source to reporter to the public. Why would an Army two-star division commander, for example, bother with a lot of face time with reporters knowing he risks the wrath of Gates by saying something the defense secretary thinks is “out of proper context,” or “uniformed.”
This is the same Gates who shut down another flow of information from the Pentagon to Americans. Because the New York Times did not like the process, Gates ended the periodic Pentagon briefings for retired officers who go on TV or on the radio to explain the war on terror.
Two independent investigations—one by the Pentagon inspector general, the other by the Government Accountability Office (GAO)—found the program did not violate any laws or rules.
The GAO, which is not shy about hammering government agencies, wrote this:
“We conclude that DOD’s public affairs outreach program to RMOs [retired military officers] did not violate the prohibition [against propaganda]. We found no evidence that DOD attempted to conceal from the public its outreach to RMOs or its role in providing RMOs with information, materials, access to department officials, travel, and luncheons. Moreover, we found no evidence that DOD contracted with or paid RMOs for positive commentary or analysis. Consequently, DOD’s public affairs activities involving RMOs, in our opinion, did not violate the publicity or propaganda prohibition.”
Gates was unimpressed. The informative program remains in mothballs.
McChrystal and his staff crossed the line in complaining to Rolling Stone about Obama officials. But guess what? The candor led to reform. The article seemed to be a cold slap of reality for the President who suddenly realized he presided over a dysfunctional national security team at odds with itself. In announcing McChrystal’s firing, he made an extraordinary public plea for unity — not in Afghanistan but in the White House.
Gates’ press memo. The gag order. The firing of generals, both active and retired. All this adds up to a Pentagon chief overreaching to control his message.