Former DoD officials decry eroding media relations in the Pentagon

May 31, 2019
The Pentagon. Photo: Adobe Stock

On the evening of May 5th, a Sunday, reporters received an email from the White House containing an alarming statement from John Bolton, the president’s National Security Advisor. In 98 words, citing “a number of troubling and escalatory indications and warnings” from Iran, Bolton announced that the United States was deploying a Navy carrier strike group and bombers to the Middle East, to signal that any attack by Tehran on US interests would be answered with “unrelenting force.”

According to Kevin Baron, editor of Defense One, a national security news site owned by Atlantic Media, this prompted a deluge of questions to military leaders. The announcement of a ship deployment by the White House, first of all, was all but unheard of, Baron says; normally, information like that would come from the Pentagon or the Navy. Did the elevated source signal that the US might be gearing up for war? What exactly was the threat posed by Iran? And as for the carrier in question, the USS Abraham Lincoln, wasn’t it already on deployment? Over the coming days, reporters scraped for clarity, as public fears rose that war with Iran might indeed be imminent. “All of those questions could have been answered in a 30-minute press conference at the Pentagon,” Baron says.

Press engagement has become rare in the Defense Department under the current administration, however. At the time of Bolton’s email, it had been more than 11 months since an official Pentagon spokesperson conducted an on-camera briefing; today makes it a full year. Off-camera briefings, meanwhile, and less formal “gaggles” (which can be on or off the record) have decreased in both frequency and utility, according to multiple members of the Pentagon press corps—representing both mainstream and niche national security outlets—who spoke with CJR.

Reporters, naturally, have bucked at the trend. Former DoD officials are also speaking out—in op-eds and on social media—with warnings that the flagging relations between the DoD and the press damage the agency’s credibility and sow confusion in the public sphere. “It’s a failure of duty at this point,” Brent Colburn, a former Assistant to the Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs, tells CJR. “Briefings aren’t just a nice-to-do. The military is an incredible organization with incredible capabilities that has a responsibility to keep the public informed about what it’s doing on behalf of the American people and why. But that’s just not happening.”

It’s not just present tensions with Iran. Former officials, who served under Republican and Democrat administrations, say they have repeatedly watched with dismay as current officials have responded haltingly and apparently struggled to find a coordinated message amid major defense and national security stories: the announced withdraw of US troops from Syria, which led to the resignation of former Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis last December, only to be partially walked back in the months that followed; the reversal on the military’s policy towards transgender servicemembers; and the deployment of troops to the US-Mexico border which began last fall—all these could have been handled better, they say.

Colburn, who served in the Pentagon between 2014 and 2015, says that on-camera briefings were typically held twice weekly during his tenure, while off-camera briefings and gaggles occurred daily. Members of the press also had walk-in privileges for his and then-Pentagon spokesman Rear Admiral John Kirby’s offices. “I can’t imagine a day when I walked by [Kirby’s] office and he wasn’t in there with a reporter,” Colburn says. The frequent interaction served a necessary good, he explains, in that the DoD was more likely to get its message across clearly and that reporters’ stories were more likely to be accurate.

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David Lapan, a retired Marine colonel who served as a spokesman in the Pentagon under the Clinton, Bush, and Obama administrations, agrees that daily interaction with reporters is a must. “I always told folks, ‘If we don’t tell our own story, somebody else is going to,’” says Lapan. “The idea that, ‘Oh, I’m just going to talk less to reporters,’ doesn’t make a story go away.”  Lapan strived to provide as much information to reporters as possible, he says, but when it came to times he could not—in the case of classified information, for instance—or when he needed to implore an outlet to halt or delay publication of a story—when information might put troops at risk—he found the trust he had built with reporters essential. “If I’m not coming to you regularly with reliable information—if I don’t allow follow-ups, if there’s no avenue to push back against what I’m saying—how can you take my word for it when I do need you to accept what I’m saying at face value?” Lapan says.

Early in the Trump administration, conventional wisdom said that Mattis had adopted a cool public posture to avoid getting the military, which is historically apolitical, caught up in irascible and hyperpartisan proclamations from the White House. Critics, however, say he and top military brass ducked their heads too far. The DoD press office did not respond to a request for comment from CJR.

If the current state of affairs is allowed to continue—signs of improvement under acting Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan are scant, reporters say—the military risks not just losing good faith with the press but with the public. In public surveys, the military is routinely among the most trusted institutions in the country—but at a time when few Americans know someone who has served, that trust shouldn’t be taken for granted, says Kori Schake, who has held high-ranking positions in the DoD and National Security Council and who currently serves as deputy director-general of the International Institute of Strategic Studies. Denying the public an understanding of military affairs and the administration’s strategy in foreign wars, she says, “will lead to a less informed public, less government accountability for decisions, and a military community ever more distant from the public it serves.”

And the damage might not easily be reversed, according to Price Floyd, who like Colburn served as Assistant to the Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs during the Obama administration. “There’s a part of a generation of leaders that is being hugely impacted by this,” Floyd says. “They’re seeing what happens to people who speak out—not politically, but who are just stating the facts—and they’re learning that not talking to the press is the way to get ahead.”

UPDATE: Yesterday afternoon, reporters were notified in an email that the Pentagon briefing room will be closed for a week beginning today, “for carpet installation and other maintenance.”

Correction: This article originally misspelled Kori Schake’s name. She is Kori Schake, not Kori Schaki.

Andrew McCormick is an independent journalist and former CJR Delacorte Fellow. His work has appeared in the New York Times, The Atlantic, the South China Morning Post, and more. Follow him on Twitter @AndrewMcCormck.