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Ombudsman: Restrict access? DOD shouldn’t go there

By DAVE MAZZARELLA | STARS AND STRIPES OMBUDSMAN Published: November 6, 2008

On a night like no other when America’s open and democratic virtues were put on worldwide display, an ill-advised policy within the Department of Defense proclaimed to servicemembers and the news media alike: “No you can’t.” What a servicemember and a journalist couldn’t do, the policy drafters ordered, was engage in conversation on a military base as the returns from a momentous election rolled in.

Stars and Stripes’ plans for providing news of Tuesday’s election started out with a new and seemingly innocent twist, tied to the opportunities of the new media. Reporters were to go to the common areas of bases and observe the reaction of servicemembers as the voting was tallied and shown on TV and the Internet. They were then to file to Stripes’ Web site, via “twitter,” an electronic form for sending brief, staccato messages.

The Stripes editor in charge of the Pacific, Tom Skeen, explained that the reporters were to “go to common public areas on bases to capture the flavor of Election Day for a color story … [and] to simply observe and record what folks are doing and saying as the returns come in.” He said this in a message to the Office of the Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs (OSDPA) in the Pentagon, after, as a courtesy, he had advised the offices of U.S. Forces Japan.

The notification was one of “courtesy” because there was little reason to believe the plan would cause any problems. After all, the assignments called only for what is known as color, or atmospheric, coverage. The areas where this was to take place were public; only six months before, a memorandum sent worldwide by the former deputy assistant secretary of defense for public affairs, Allison Barber, had stated that “S&S reporters are entitled to pursue the news in the common areas of military facilities, such as shopping areas, MWR facilities, areas open to general public or common facilities in housing areas.”

But that wasn’t good enough for the Pentagon officials who received Skeen’s message. Permission denied, they said. And not only in Skeen’s Pacific bailiwick, but worldwide. “As a matter of long standing policy, DoD personnel are to avoid engaging in activities that could associate the Department with any partisan election,” Maj. Stewart T. Upton wrote after conferring with others. Appeals to OSDPA were unsuccessful.

What servicemembers say while in uniform can be construed as a position of the DOD, the officials said. No matter that servicemembers, identified by name, rank and location, express themselves regularly in letters to the editor of newspapers, and in blogs. No matter that every DOD restriction placed on uniformed servicemembers with respect to politics speaks explicitly of “official capacity” actions — giving a speech, writing a column, being active in a political event such as a demonstration. No matter that Congress has clearly stated that both Stars and Stripes and “military personnel on the frontiers of freedom” must be protected by the free speech provisions of the First Amendment.

There were other arguments for barring Stripes from this fairly routine election coverage exercise. For one thing, the officials said, commercial media were not being allowed to go on bases to cover election reaction, so Stripes also should not be. This is a recurring argument that ignores the unique position of Stripes — unique not only within the U.S. government but probably within any government in the world. It has been created and is supported within the DOD to provide news and information to troops in a way that no other civilian media want to do or can do. Stripes staffers work from offices on base. They have DOD ID cards. They live and work in many respects as servicemembers themselves do. And there is no small number of active-duty personnel on assignment to Stripes as editors, reporters and photographers.

In the face of the OSDPA pronouncement, which Skeen said left him “flabbergasted,” Editorial Director Terry Leonard ordered reporters to go about their tasks on election night, in base common areas. If confronted by authorities, they were to state their objections and leave peaceably. This is exactly the procedure that reporters use everywhere when, for instance, they are ordered out of courtroom or have an improper gag order imposed on them by a judge. State your case, cause no further fuss, and get out.

As the evening wore on, the ban sent out from the Pentagon was enforced in a few Pacific bases — Sasebo Naval Base in Japan and Camp Humphreys and Yongsan Garrison in South Korea. As of this writing, no other confrontations have been reported. Stripes staffers in other places were able to observe the election night atmosphere on base — in some cases the folks were more engaged by non-election television fare — and talk to several servicemembers, none of whom, as far as I could tell, said anything that would make anybody blush.

The difficulty with this unnecessary policy edict is not with how it played out around the world last night, but in any precedent officials see it as setting. It needs to be rolled back. It is unworthy of the principles DOD defends, of generous mandates from Congress, of the mood of the day.

Got a question or suggestion for the ombudsman on what appears, or should appear, in Stars and Stripes? Send an e-mail to ombudsman@stripes.osd.mil, or phone 202-761-0945 in the States. For several links associated with this column, please go to David Mazzarella’s Readers’ Corner blog. It can be found here.


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