In the back of a dimly lit banquet hall, a member of a prominent Washington think tank sat taking notes and snapping pictures of speakers’ briefing slides using his mobile phone.
It’s a common scene at industry trade shows like this one, the annual Space and Missile Defense Symposium. The presentations by a group of defense industry executives was just about over when he felt a tap on his shoulder.
A uniformed private security guard told the attendee he needed to speak with him outside. Puzzled, the paying attendee complied.
Upon exiting the room he was immediately surrounded by four to six armed police officers in uniform, two of whom identified themselves as members of the Huntsville Police Department.
“I came out in disbelief, knowing full well there was nothing wrong with what I was doing, that it was an open forum with unclassified material,” said the attendee, who asked not to be identified. “I asked them repeatedly what I did wrong, and they told me I couldn’t take pictures.”
He then asked to see where this policy was written and was told by a female officer “something to the effect of, ‘how about you do it because we told you so.’ ”
A male officer, hand resting on his weapon, told him if he did not comply, they could take him to the FBI.
“At this point, I decided it was better to comply,” he said.
The police then let him go and went back to the banquet hall, but the panel discussion was finished.
This was just one of several acts of censorship and visible police intimidation at the conference, a forum historically known for its broad-ranging dialogue, impressive speakers and access to senior-level military officials.
Members of the defense industry, government, civilian attendees and reporters saw access restricted and were threatened with arrest numerous times throughout the four-day show at the Von Braun Center, a massive convention complex in downtown Huntsville.
After the show closed, the program chairman of the Space and Missile Defense Symposium, retired Army Maj. Gen. Al Sullivan, apologized at length to Defense News for the aggressive actions taken against conference attendees. He said the individual in charge of security at the conference will not participate in future conferences.
“We have known for some time that the person that has volunteered to do the security consistently oversteps the bounds and the policies that we had set up for this symposium,” Sullivan said on Aug. 15.
Sullivan said he has informed that individual that “I appreciate the work that she has done in the past, but she is not longer necessary and have made other arrangements.” He said he takes “full responsibility” for the issues encountered by the press and other attendees.
Part of the overreaction, Sullivan said, might have been due to a producer with the CBS news program “60 Minutes” attending the show.
The event is organized by a committee chartered by three trade associations — National Defense Industrial Association, the Air, Space and Missile Defense Association and the Air Defense Artillery Association.
I’ve covered the military in Washington for nearly nine years, so I’ve been to my share of trade shows, good and bad. But before this conference I’d never experienced anything like this kind of aggressive security — not even when I’ve traveled with the secretary of defense to international destinations.
In Huntsville, things got especially testy following a speech by Vice Adm. James Syring, director of the Missile Defense Agency on the conference’s third day.
Before the speech began, I was sitting in the front row, off to the right of the stage, the same place I sat for just about every presentation. I was approached by a woman and told that for security reasons, I would have to move. So while the request seemed odd, I started packing up my laptop, notebook and tape recorder.
The woman then picked up my phone, which had my work email opened on the screen. I took it back, telling her I could carry all of my own items, and then watched, stunned, as others filled most of the front-row seats I had just vacated.
After Syring concluded his remarks, he acknowledged an intent to meet up with another reporter, Aviation Week’s Amy Butler, in the hallway.
But when Butler tried to approach Syring, she was body-blocked by a member of the conference organizing committee, who told her the admiral had no interest in speaking with her. Syring then stepped in, telling Butler to walk with him and ask her question.
By the time I and another reporter caught up to them, three Huntsville police officers had formed a circle around Syring in the lobby.
Reporters and even patrons were sternly warned by on-site security not to take photos anywhere in the Von Braun Center, even though there was no mention of such a policy in writing, on signs or on the conference website.
During Syring’s speech, a number of reporters tweeted pictures of his briefing slides that contained historical information about US missile defense tests conducted over the past 20 years. The slides were marked “Approved for Public Release.”
But after Butler’s dust-up with security, reporters were abruptly informed that they could not take pictures of the slides or the speakers, due to conference policy, according to the woman wearing a security ribbon on her badge.
When reporters asked why this was, or where to find the policy clearly stated, the woman said that she was verbally informing us. When reporters pushed back, she informed us the Missile Defense Agency had contacted the conference and did not want the slides posted. Reporters asked the woman what her role was in the conference, but she abruptly walked off, sitting down a few seats away.
A Missile Defense Agency spokesman later said the agency had made no such request to bar photographs or sharing of the slides.
“We don’t do that,” he said. “Never have and never will.”
Taking photos is not against conference policy, Sullivan added.
“This should never had happened in the first place,” he said. “What we have told people is we don’t want them to come in with their cameras and videotape.”
After the warnings not to take pictures, an armed Huntsville police sergeant was stationed in the front row with the press.
“It shouldn’t have happened,” Sullivan said of the police officer being brought in to sit with the press.
Print reporters weren’t the only ones getting the harsh treatment as a half-dozen industry representatives said they experienced problems with security when trying to photograph their own display booths. Local TV stations were required to have police escorts with them when they were on the exhibit hall floor and were allowed to film only in designated areas.
Since the conference is unclassified and open to the general public, every item displayed on the exhibit hall floor was cleared to be there by the Defense Department, several industry representatives said.
“Bottom line: I was in disbelief,” the think tank member said. “As a paying conference attendee I had every right to be there, and there was zero indication that we could not take photos of an open panel.”
Sullivan said the organizing committee has amended its media policies and will in the future send the ground rules to the press when they register for the conference.
“We’re going to make sure we welcome you people,” he said. “We want you here. We want you involved. We appreciate the publicity that comes out of this.” ■