WASHINGTON – Defense Secretary Robert Gates has tightened rules on media relations for the US military, only days after the top general in Afghanistan was sacked over disparaging comments he and aides made in an interview.
An official said the memo was not “intended to muzzle the press or the department.”
In a three-page memo sent Friday to senior military and civilian Pentagon staff, Gates said he was “concerned that the department has grown lax in how we engage with the media, often in contravention of established rules and procedures.”
In a copy of the memo obtained by AFP, the former Central Intelligence Agency director said “leaking of classified information is against the law, cannot be tolerated, and will, when proven, lead to the prosecution of those found to be engaged in such activity.”
Titled “Interaction with the media,” the memo instructs Pentagon officials to notify the Defense Department’s assistant secretary for public affairs “prior to interviews or any other means of media and public engagement with possible national or international implications.”
Gates’s message comes just days after US General Stanley McChrystal was swiftly relieved of his command in Kabul after he and his aides showed disdain for administration officials — including President Barack Obama — in a Rolling Stone magazine profile.
The episode set off an impassioned online debate about military-media relations and prompted predictions of a chilling effect for news coverage of the war and the Pentagon.
It has also caused Pentagon leaders to take a close look at how the military handles the media, as the department had increasingly empowered commands in Kabul and Baghdad to speak directly to reporters and release information about operations.
The new assistant secretary of defense for public affairs, Douglas Wilson, told AFP that the Gates memo “is not linked to the Rolling Stone episode” and “is not intended to muzzle the press or the department.”
“It reflects Secretary Gates’s concerns, which he has expressed for many weeks publicly and privately, regarding the department’s engagement with the press and the need to make sure that all those who engage with the press on domestic and international issues do so with full situational awareness, and are fully informed about what it is they’re saying.”
“Does it mean that a soldier on the field is going to be prohibited from speaking to an embedded reporter? Absolutely not. That is not the intent,” Wilson added.