Defense Secretary Robert Gates assured reporters on Thursday that he still does not view the press as the enemy.
His comments were in response to the media’s anger about a recent memo he sent requiring top commanders to get approval from the Pentagon for interviews “or any other means of media and public engagement with possible national or international implications” – in other words, damn near everything.
On Thursday, Gates said his memo was not a change in policy; rather it reinforces existing policy that was not being followed properly long before a recent Rolling Stone article that killed Gen. Stanley McChrystal’s career.
“I have grown concerned that we have become too lax, disorganized and in some cases, flat-out sloppy in the way we engage with the press,” Gates said. “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.”
He noted that Presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush have both expressed concern that senior defense officials were speaking out of turn on foreign policy.
Gates said he is not developing a bunker mentality, a la former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, whose relationship with the media was rocky.
“This is as much about our being better coordinated and our making sure what the parameters of an interview are so that people that are being interviewed, if you will, stay in their lane, and are not speaking out about issues that they don’t know everything about, or where they may not being informed at all,” he said.
Gates said his intent is not to block the press from getting information, but he acknowledged that transparency has its limits.
“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,” he said. “On the other hand, if you’re a captain in this building working on budget options, I expect you to keep your mouth shut.”
The quote reflects Gates’ approach toward media in general. He allowed reporters to cover the return of fallen troops to Dover Air Force Base, but he also required Defense officials to sign nondisclosure agreements preventing them from talking about the budget process.
And he expressed dismay after last year’s shooting at Fort Hood about information leaked to the press about the suspect. “
"Everything will be made public and clear at an appropriate time. I just don’t want to jeopardize this investigation,” Gates said in November. “So my view is: Everybody just ought to shut up.”
On Thursday, a reporter asked Gates Thursday how he felt that his memo, which decried leaks, was itself leaked to the press.
“It was highly predictable,” Gates replied.