WASHINGTON – New requirements that even top brass get Pentagon approval before talking to the press will not muzzle the media's watchdog role or stop soldiers on the front lines from speaking freely, Defense Secretary Robert Gates said Thursday.
Gates defended the directive issued last week but offered few new specifics about how it will work.
The brief, stern memo from Gates also restated prohibitions on release of classified material. But it is the requirement for pre-approval of media contacts that has raised free-speech concerns and sown confusion about what and who is covered.
"This is not about you. This is about us," Gates said during a Pentagon press conference. "This is about us doing things in an uncoordinated way. It is about people in this department speaking out on issues where they don't have all the facts, where they may not have the perspective."
The Pentagon chief said he issued the order because of his concern that the military has become "too lax, disorganized and in some cases flat-out sloppy" in dealings with the press.
Gates conceded that there will always be leaks — his own memo on media engagement was leaked the day it went out to top military and civilian defense leaders — and he implied that leaks have their place.
Media reports on shabby conditions at Walter Reed Army Medical Center and design flaws in equipment sent to the front lines in Iraq drew in part on anonymous tips, and Gates cited some of those reports as alarm bells he had used to make improvements.
He appeared sensitive to criticism that he is hiding bad news, including news from the stalemated war in Afghanistan. Pentagon officials have said that rules for reporters traveling with military units, called embedded reporters or embeds, will not be affected.
"If you're a captain in a unit that has an embedded reporter, as long as you're within the guidelines and the rules, we expect you to be open with that embedded reporter," Gates said.
"On the other hand, if you're a captain in this building, working on budget options, I expect you to keep your mouth shut."