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Media, Talk to the Hand

July 3, 2010

Cute kittens demonstrate how the new policy works.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates – top military adviser to the president – announced a new policy yesterday requiring military officials to seek permission from the Pentagon before speaking to the media.   This is not a good development.  As bad as the media is at finding an objective, factual story, they shouldn’t be restricted from interviewing the military.

Truth be told, the McChrystal interview in Rolling Stone wasn’t that embarrassing. McChrystal had to be fired for procedural reasons, not because he said anything specific that he shouldn’t have.  A top general just can not appear to be in disagreement with his superior, the Commander-in-Chief.  He can not appear to question his mission publicly.  It damages morale and makes the entire military hierarchy question their commands. Not firing him would have opened concerns about who was actually in charge.  Obama had no choice.  McChrystal should never have allowed it.  He knew better.

Requiring Pentagon clearance all media interviews of military personnel is not only a massive overreaction, it eliminates any realistic civilian oversight of the military.  The press released potentially damaging military secrets during the Bush administration – the locations of military bases and interrogation facilities, etc. – and maybe some of the reporters or editors responsible should have been investigated for criminal intent.  But severely restricting media access to the military during a war wouldn’t have been appropriate, even in that situation.

The Rolling Stone article didn’t contain any classified material, it was just a profile of McChrystal and his staff.  It may not have been flattering, but it was a very interesting article.  The fact that it brought down the commanding general in Afghanistan was not the fault of the interviewer,  Michael Hastings.   General McChrystal was to blame for allowing his staff to be so candid.  That would not have been prevented if the Pentagon had required approval before the interview.  The only way to prevent it would have been to block the interview entirely.  And that is the only thing the Pentagon will be able to do to prevent such mistakes in the future.

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