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July 15, 2010
Notes from the Pentagon

Gates press controls
Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates' July 2 memorandum to all top Pentagon and military leaders is part of multiyear effort to tighten controls on information provided to the media by limiting reporters' access by officials, both military and civilian.

The memorandum, "Interaction with the media," requires all officials to obtain approval from Mr. Gates' office in advance of all interviews and data releases. It is the latest step in a string of press controls imposed since Mr. Gates took over the Pentagon in 2006.

Pentagon press secretary Geoff Morrell said the memorandum was written before Army Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal was fired by the president after the general's aides were quoted in a Rolling Stone magazine article criticizing civilian leaders.

Mr. Morrell said the secretary has been frustrated for years by news stories containing classified and unclassified information on a range of topics, including "pre-decisional" information related to budget, personnel, policy and other matters that have made it difficult for Mr. Gates, and even President Obama, to make decisions effectively. He would not specify what news articles had upset the secretary.

Gen. McChrystal's ouster last month marked the second four-star to go down because of loose lips with the press, Mr. Morrell said. The first was the 2008 resignation of dovish U.S. Central Command commander Adm. William J. Fallon, who resigned after telling Esquire magazine that he was the only thing preventing a war with Iran.

If the generals had coordinated their press activities with the Pentagon, the resignations might have been averted, Mr. Morrell said.

The Gates memorandum states that "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 about and accountable for inter and intra-agency policy processes, operations, and activities."

Mr. Morrell said there are "scores and scores and scores" of news stories that illustrate the problem. (He noted that Inside the Ring has made "a career" of the use of insider information.)

The memo is part of an effort to develop better discipline. "We can't have people going off as lone wolves and speaking their minds and passing it off as department policy," he said.

Mr. Morrell made clear that the policy is aimed at plugging leaks of information to the press.

Asked whether the new policy will have a chilling effect on interaction with the press, Mr. Morrell said there is no reason it would as long as officials talk to reporters through "authorized channels."

"If it has a chilling effect on people talking in unauthorized channels, so be it. That's what we're trying to clamp down on," he said.

Other anti-press measures taken by Mr. Gates over the past several years include:

  • Canceling a public affairs program that involved briefings for retired military officers and others who made frequent media appearances, despite congressional investigations that found no improprieties with the program.

  • An unprecedented requirement that military service chiefs and other senior officials sign nondisclosure statements prohibiting discussion of the military's budget.

  • Sharply restricting the issuance of Pentagon building passes to news reporters, making it more difficult for reporters to gain access to the building and thus Pentagon officials.

    McMaster to Afghanistan
    Army Brig. Gen. H.R. McMaster, one of the military's key out-the-box strategic thinkers, is going to Afghanistan as an aide to new Afghan commander Army Gen. David H. Petraeus.

    Gen. McMaster is director of the Army Capabilities Integration Center's (ARCIC) Concepts Development and Experimentation Directorate, part of the Army Training and Doctrine Command in Virginia. He was picked up by Gen. Petraeus for duty in Afghanistan two weeks ago.

    "It's true. He's coming," Air Force Lt. Col. Tadd Sholtis, spokesman for the International Security Assistance Force in Kabul, told Inside the Ring.

    Col. Sholtis said Gen. McMaster's arrival date and position under Gen. Petraeus have not been nailed down, "so it would be premature for me to provide additional details at this point."

    The military blog Danger Room reported June 29 that Gen. McMaster, who also fought in the 1991 Persian Gulf War, will be deputy J5 in Kabul, the officer in charge of military plans.

    Gen. McMaster, whose regiment defeated al Qaeda at the Iraqi town of Tal Afar, is considered a high-profile specialist in counterinsurgency warfare. He told the Public Broadcasting Service in 2008 that his successes in Iraq were based on applying "the right level of resources to secure the population," as the first step in defeating insurgents. The comments echo the current strategy in Afghanistan.

    Russia's illusions
    The Russian military responded to comments in this space last week by Navy Adm. James Winnefeld, commander of the U.S. Northern Command, who stated that increases of Russian strategic bomber flights near the U.S. and Canada airspace over the past several years were an attempt by Moscow to maintain the "illusion of power."

    A high-ranking but unidentified senior Russian military officer told the state-run Interfax-AVN news agency Monday that "the main reason for the flights is not to create the illusion of power, &##8230; but to improve flying skills of strategic bombers' crews, which has continued for a long time, on a planned and systemic basis."

    "As for the American admiral's words that they supposedly do not react to our flights, this is surely their right and business," he said.

    Adm. Winnefeld stated that U.S. F-15 and F-22 jet interceptors and Canadian CF-18 do not shadow all Tu-95 Bear bombers that run up against North American airspace. Doing so would fuel Russian propaganda, he said.

    The Russian military official, responding to the admiral's comments, said that unlike the U.S. air defense system, "the Russian air defense system is built in such a way that it reacts to any aircraft approaching the border."

    "Perhaps, this is its fundamental difference from the American one, if you proceed from James Winnefeld Jr.'s statements," he said.

    Meanwhile, the Northern Command contacted Inside the Ring to update information provided by the command for last week's column on Bear bomber incursions.

    According to the command, aerospace forces detected and tracked five Russian bomber incursions so far this year, and two of the bomber flights were met with U.S. or Canadian jet interceptors. The interceptors normally used for the incursions are F-15s or F-22s, or Canadian CF-18 jets.

    In 2009, there were 17 incursions and 16 of the bombers were met by U.S. or Canadian fighter jets. In 2008, the Russians flew 12 bomber missions near North American airspace, prompting 11 jet intercepts. The 2007 figure was 18 bomber flights and 17 intercepts. And the period between 1999 and 2006 saw 11 detected encounters with Bear bombers, of which eight were intercepted by jets.

    The Russian bomber incursions have increased since 2007 as a result of Russia seeking to maintain the "illusion of power," Adm. Winnefeld, said in a recent interview. The Russian flights are designed to test U.S. and Canadian air defenses and jet interceptor reaction times as part of training for nuclear bombing missions.

    Court win
    The Obama administration won a major court victory this week that is sure to bolster its argument for holding civilian trials for suspected al Qaeda terrorists.

    The issue: the Constitution's speedy trial guarantee.

    The question: how can the United States hold suspects for years at the military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, without trial and then hope to try them in criminal court without violating the guarantee?

    U.S. District Court Judge Lewis Kaplan answered that question in the case of Ahmed Khalfan Ghailani.

    Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. had moved Ghailani from the war crimes tribunal system at Guantanamo to New York City. Ghailani's lawyer quickly filed a motion to dismiss charges that the defendant participated in the 1998 embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania.

    But Judge Kaplan ruled that the six-year delay did not prevent Ghailani from defending himself at trial scheduled for September.

    Judge Kaplan also gave Mr. Holder a boost by endorsing the idea of trying war criminals in civilian courts.

    "The court understands that there are those who object to alleged terrorists, especially noncitizens, being afforded rights that are enjoyed by U.S. citizens," Judge Kaplan stated. "Their anger at wanton terrorist attacks is understandable. Their conclusion, however, is unacceptable in a country that adheres to the rule of law."

    If the ruling had gone the other way, it likely would have put the brakes on any future Gitmo transfers. It would have prompted Mr. Holder to send terror suspects back to the prison for war crimes trials instead of dismissing charges.

    But now Judge Kaplan's ruling may embolden Mr. Holder to bring more defendants to New York, joining Ghailani and Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, the admitted Sept. 11 mastermind.

    "Assuming the ruling stands, then it gives the administration the option of bringing more Gitmo detainees to federal court for trial,"Charles Stimson, the Pentagon's top detainee affairs official during the Bush administration, told special correspondent Rowan Scarborough. "Some in the administration may interpret the ruling as a 'green light' for more federal cases out of Gitmo. Certainly the [American Civil Liberties Union] and the like will. But hawks and moderates at DOD/CIA will not see it that way."

    Mr. Stimson, a legal analyst at the Heritage Foundation, wrote in 2009 that the Ghailani case is not a war-on-terror prosecution but unfinished business related to the 1998 embassy bombings trial.

    This trial will most likely be a carbon copy of the one for Ghailani's co-conspirators held in 2000 and 2001. That trial took place before Sept. 11, and none of the evidence introduced at trial was gathered as a result of post-Sept. 11 interrogations. The case was not, and will not be, based on information gleaned from interrogations of other detainees, like some of the cases tried before military commissions.

    "Civil liberties and liberal groups will be sorely disappointed if they think that there are a lot of Ghailanis at Gitmo," Mr. Stimson said. "There aren't. His case is factually unique."

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