A long-standing and widely-accepted American truism asserts an educated and informed public is essential to democracy. It is also “Department of Defense policy to make available timely and accurate information so that the public, the Congress, and the news media may assess and understand the facts about national security and defense strategy.” Unfortunately, publicly available Defense Department data show top Trump administration Pentagon appointees are doing less to keep the American people informed than their predecessors.
During the past year, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr. and their staffs have done fewer official press briefings, reduced the number of traveling media embeds and curtailed press access to information. This reduction of public access is diminishing the American people’s ability to fully participate in the democratic process. If this trend continues, it could be problematic for America, especially during an election year.
Many longtime Pentagon observers surmise Mattis and Dunford have constricted their press engagement in acts of self-preservation — to avoid making public statements that may be perceived as opposing, being out in front of, or outshining their inexperienced and volatile commander in chief. They are playing to an audience of one, and many believe President Trump’s leadership style has pressured them into keeping a low profile.
I am concerned because, as a Marine officer, I worked for Mattis and Dunford and knew both to be more media-forward in their approaches.
Mattis co-authored a book in 2016 describing the hazards of the military-civilian gap — that is, the theory that Americans are losing their cultural connection with the small number of people who serve — and recommending solutions. He is also known for telling troops “the media are an entirely winnable constituency.”
It is clear that since Trump took office, senior defense leaders have reduced the level of public transparency, relative to defense activities and policies, compared with the previous administration. For example, Mattis and Dunford have done fewer news conferences in the Pentagon press briefing room than their predecessors.
Publicly available Defense Department records show former Defense Secretary Ashton B. Carter made six such official appearances in 2016. Mattis appeared twice in 2017. Dunford appeared in the briefing room four times in 2016 and only twice last year. On-camera, on-the-record media appearances by the generals leading each service branch also seem to have decreased.
Subordinate public affairs leaders have followed suit. Records show that since assuming office in April, the Assistant to the Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs, Dana White, was absent from the Pentagon briefing room for the first six months of her term. Her predecessor under the Obama administration averaged almost four briefings per month in 2016. White finally began to hold a few official briefings late in 2017.
This is unfortunate because, instead of hearing directly from top defense leaders, the American people are now almost entirely reliant on filtered information from the media. We need to be able to hear directly and routinely from senior defense officials to keep informed.
To their credit, both Mattis and Dunford have continued the long-standing tradition of taking reporters on overseas trips, but both have reduced the number of traveling media and thus the public reach of their ideas. Data also show Mattis made fewer public speeches and media engagements in 2017 than his predecessor did in 2016, and he has frustrated some reporters covering the Pentagon by conducting the majority of his press engagements as impromptu, informal, off-camera sessions.
Dunford has done much of his press engagement on background to avoid being directly quoted. He also has stopped posting transcripts of his speeches and interviews on his official website. The last one dates to Nov. 9, 2016.
Late last year Mattis began increasing the frequency of his informal media briefs and notifying the Pentagon press corps in advance so reporters can plan to attend, but these efforts are not enough.
Members of the press corps and the Defense Department public affairs staff describe the military-media relationship within the Pentagon as fractured. This is troublesome since senior government officials rely on the media to communicate with the American public. Some public affairs officials and a significant number of the media have described the situation as an unprecedented lack of transparency and believe this is negatively impacting the public’s understanding of the military.
When Defense Department officials reduce public engagement, the American people become less knowledgeable about global national security considerations and less informed about their military. When less informed, the American people are less prepared to participate in the democratic process and less inclined to support defense spending.
Without the transparency provided through the media, citizens are less capable of evaluating political candidates’ positions to decide whom to elect to best represent their interests and less able to voice their opinions and concerns to their elected leaders. Constricting the level of official public engagement also further widens the commonly decried military-civilian gap.
Fully appreciating the difficulties associated with managing a president inexperienced in national security and foreign affairs, the limiting actions of these senior defense officials may prove to be a double-edged sword. While preserving the favor of the commander in chief and their ability to influence his thinking, they are, through limiting public access, struggling to uphold Defense Department policy and may be diminishing the democratic process they are sworn to uphold.
With so many critical national security issues in play, from nukes in North Korea, to Russian interference in U.S. elections, to the future of Iraq, and Afghanistan, the American people deserve to hear the justifications for the commitments of American troops and resources abroad directly from top defense officials. Without a commitment by Mattis, Dunford and other top Defense Department officials to repair their fractured relationship with the press, the American people’s ability to learn about defense operations and policies and make decisions about the future of this country will continue to decline, and this is bad for democracy and the military.
Joe Plenzler is a retired Marine Corps officer. He served in the Pentagon as the spokesman to the Marines’ commandant from 2010-2015.
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