Loose Lips Float Ships!

When I started teaching military-media relations nearly 25 years ago, “thinking of the media as an offensive weapon” meant planning for them to satisfy our public affairs goals. For me, those goals were “telling the Marine Corps story,” and supporting the news media by understanding their needs and role in our society. Little did I realize I would eventually be using them as a force multiplier or that their use would evolve to what it is today and what we’re seeing in Operation Iraqi Freedom—the media being fully integrated into battle as part of an information management plan that blurs the line between public relations and psychological operations.

The effort has gone from keeping the two separate, to purposely managing the two so their messages are mutually supporting. All of this has happened due to dramatic changes in the nature of warfare. Along with the technological advancements that have changed the face of war have come advancements in the military’s understanding of the need to control and manage the flow of information. Just as weapons have gotten “smarter,” so too has the military gotten more sophisticated about how to use the media to meet military objectives.

To understand military-media relations, one has to understand who controls the flow of information. It’s the Department of Defense that establishes the policies and practices for the military and how they will work with the media. The same Department of Defense that establishes the policies and practices for how psychological operations will be conducted. At the very top level of the military, it’s possible to merge the two into one plan.

Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, a master of information control and media manipulation, has put together a team in strategic positions to develop such plans. Victoria Clarke became the Pentagon’s assistant secretary of defense for public affairs in spring 2001. According to a recent Wall Street Journal article, Clarke is “running the Pentagon’s public-affairs effort much like a political campaign—tapping her years of experience in public relations and representing politicians.” The article notes that “by embedding reporters, Ms. Clarke and the Pentagon hope to better portray their side of the story and get broader coverage of the military’s achievements.”

Then, in November 2002, Jim Wilkinson was sent from the White House Office of Communications to head strategic communications at the Pentagon’s U. S. Central Command with General Tommy Franks. The primary purpose of his assignment was to “better co-ordinate communications between Central Command, the White House, and the State Department.” As recently as Afghanistan, that kind of position was held by a military officer. The perception in military circles was unmistakeable: The Bush Administration was putting one of “their people” in Central Command to control, not necessarily to coordinate, the flow of information.

The Department of Defense’s Principles of Information establishes the philosophy and policy for the release of information—at least in theory. The five “principles,” adopted in September 2000 by Secretary Rumsfeld, requires that information provided is accurate; that it’s provided in a timely manner, without censorship; that some Department of Defense programs “may require detailed Public Affairs planning and coordination in the Department of Defense and with other Government agencies”; and that “propaganda has no place in DoD public affairs programs.”

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