WASHINGTON — The U.S. Air Force is slashing access to media embeds, base visits and interviews as it seeks to put the entire public affairs apparatus through retraining — a move it says is necessary for operational security, but one which could lead to a broader freeze in how the service interacts with the public.
According to March 1 guidance obtained by Defense News, public affairs officials and commanders down to the wing level must go through new training on how to avoid divulging sensitive information before being allowed to interact with the press.
The effort, which represents the third major Defense Department entity to push out guidance restricting public communication over the past 18 months, creates a massive information bureaucracy in which even the most benign human-interest stories must be cleared at the four-star command level.
Before settling on retraining its public affairs corps and commanders, the service considered an even more drastic step: shutting down all engagement with the press for a 120-day period, a source with knowledge of the discussions said.
Instead, the service settled on the retraining plan, a temporary move which Brig. Gen. Ed Thomas, director of public affairs, said could be completed “in the coming weeks.”
“In today’s challenging information environment marked by great power competition, we will continue to be as transparent with the American public as possible while protecting sensitive information on our operations and capabilities,” Thomas told Defense News. “We owe both to the public, and it is vitally important for the public to understand what we are doing on their behalf and with their tax dollars.”
But two former Air Force secretaries and an influential congressman all raise the same concern: that intentionally or not, this will send a message that engaging with the public simply isn’t worth the risk.
Rep. Mike Gallagher, R-Wis., told Defense News the memo fits into a trend of recent moves inside the Department of Defense toward less transparency, which could ultimately undermine the DoD’s efforts to address long-standing problems. Gallagher serves on the Seapower and Projection Forces Subcommittee, which oversees several key Air Force programs like the B-21 bomber.
“I fully support the National Defense Strategy’s focus on great-power competition,” Gallagher told Defense News, “but I think the department has it backwards. It is precisely because of the scale of the challenges before us that transparency is more important than ever. I worry that by failing to discuss problems, we will only ensure there is no public pressure to fix them.”
Shrinking Air Force access
The renewed focus on operational security stems from the Trump administration’s recently released National Defense Strategy, according to the Air Force guidance. That document, which was marked as “for official use only,” was distributed to public affairs officials following a February 2018 memo on operational security signed by Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson and Chief of Staff Gen. Dave Goldfein.
“As we engage the public, we must avoid giving insights to our adversaries which could erode military advantage,” the March 2018 guidance read. “We must now adapt to the reemergence of great power competition and the reality that our adversaries are learning from what we say in public.”
Until wing-level spokesmen have been certified by their corresponding major command, responses to reporter queries that potentially could include details about “operations, training or exercises, readiness or other issues which may reveal operational information to potential adversaries” are subject to approval by the Air Force’s public affairs headquarters at the Pentagon, known as Secretary of the Air Force Public Affairs, or SAF/PA. Exceptions can be made for human interest stories, community engagement pieces or other lighter, fluffier news, which can be approved by major command public officials.
What this means is that if public affairs officials at Lackland Air Force Base in Texas haven’t received their training, a local story about military working dogs would need the approval of Air Education and Training Command before being allowed to proceed with an interview or any engagement.
Beyond limiting the Air Force’s interactions with journalists, the new guidelines pose new restrictions on public appearances such as air show demonstrations, trade shows, industry conferences and think tank events, which can move forward if authorized by SAF/PA’s engagement division.
And although Air Force band performances will be permitted to continue, all band members who interact with the media must receive training from public affairs.
Exactly what constitutes sensitive information is unclear. The Air Force’s guidance lays out “potential engagement areas” alongside topics that could possibly pose “operational security risks.” Classified information and vulnerabilities are included in the latter area, but so are details about flag exercises, the number and location of operational assets, or information related to current readiness — some of which are routinely shared with the public.
The guidance notes that “neither list is all inclusive,” and that public affairs professionals “use sound discretion and exercise discretion when evaluating all engagement opportunities.”
Pausing a turnaround
The guidance comes as the Air Force was finally repairing a damaged public affairs reputation. The service infamously clamped down on talking after the 2008 firing of both its chief of staff and service secretary, which had a chilling effect across the service.
The situation culminated in a 2016 informal poll by Foreign Policy magazine, which found reporters ranking the Air Force as the worst service to deal with. That result resonated heavily within Air Force leadership, triggering promises of more open lines of communication.
Deborah Lee James, Wilson’s predecessor as Air Force secretary, told Defense News it was her belief the service needs to be more open, not less.
“I have not seen the memo. However, I am sorry to hear about this development. If true, it certainly runs against the grain for what I tried to do as secretary of the Air Force,” James said. “Sometimes there’s positive news to talk about, and our airmen can be the best communicators. Sometimes there’s negative news to talk about. But much better that we be the ones to describe that news and frame it for the American people.”
Whit Peters, who from 1997-2001 served as both Air Force secretary and undersecretary, acknowledged there are times when the military needs to keep information back for security reasons. He said the memo restrictions remind him of the way the service handled information during the conflict in Bosnia. But he also warned the memo may have a chilling effect far beyond its printed text.
“The penumbra of this memo is worse than the memo itself. If you’re already an Air Force officer, who is disinclined to talk to the press, this just gives you one more reason to think it is not career enhancing to talk to the press,” Peters said. “And that is unfortunate because the Air Force at all levels needs to be talking to the American public about what a valuable service it provides.”
“I still think the Air Force does not do enough publicly to explain its mission and to explain why it needs to rejuvenate its whole fleet, both in air and space,” Peters continued. “So I would hope this doesn’t get in the way of the Air Force telling its story on why it’s important, and why it needs to be funded by the taxpayers.”
The Navy: A case study
A test case for the potential impact of the memo can be seen in the recent status of the U.S. Navy.
In March 2017, Chief of Naval Operations Adm. John Richardson issued a memo that directed admirals to continue to engage with the media. But it also implored Navy officials not to give “too much” information — even unclassified information — in a public setting.
“When it comes to specific operational capabilities however, very often less is more,” he said in the memo. “Sharing information about future operations and capabilities, even at the unclassified level, makes it easier for potential adversaries to gain an advantage.”
The memo, which was broad and lacked specific guidance, created a persistent atmosphere of uncertainty throughout the Navy where leaders and program managers have been unsure about what they can talk about and what they can’t.
And last October, Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis released a memo calling for employees to be “vigilant” in preventing leaks.
“It is a violation of our oath to divulge, in any fashion, non-public DoD information, classified or unclassified, to anyone without the required security clearance as well as a specific need to know in the performance of their duties,” he said.
The information chill both inside the Navy as well as DoD-wide has been noticed by lawmakers, who have called on the military to err on the side of transparency.
At a Navy conference in January, Gallagher dismissed Richardson’s concerns about giving away secrets in the press, arguing that if the Navy doesn’t talk about what it’s doing, members of Congress can’t convince their fellow members not on defense committees, let alone their constituents, that more resources are necessary.
“Despite the old adage that ‘loose lips sink ships,’ nonexistent strategic communications can sink entire navies,” he continued. “If the bias is towards silence to prevent adversaries from finding out about unique capabilities or potential weaknesses, guess what? There will never be a public constituency for acquiring or mitigating them.
“And, oh, by the way, our adversaries probably have a decent idea of what we’re up to anyways.”
The powerful chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, Rep. Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, also spoke out in January, saying that while secrecy is important, so is transparency, adding that it makes a difference in the DoD’s bottom line.
“As we’ve talked before, some of the folks in DoD are reluctant to talk too openly about our shortfalls because you’re broadcasting that to your potential adversaries,” Thornberry said. “And I admit, it’s a fine balance. But if we’re going to convince my colleagues who are not on this committee, as well as the American people, to fix these things, I think we do have to at least talk somewhat openly about what our problems are.”
Valerie Insinna was Defense News' air warfare reporter. Beforehand, she worked the Navy and congressional beats for Defense Daily, which followed almost three years as a staff writer for National Defense Magazine. Prior to that, she worked as an editorial assistant for the Tokyo Shimbun’s Washington bureau.
David B. Larter was the naval warfare reporter for Defense News. Before that, he reported for Navy Times.
Aaron Mehta was deputy editor and senior Pentagon correspondent for Defense News, covering policy, strategy and acquisition at the highest levels of the Defense Department and its international partners.