Updated 7/21/20 at 6:18 PM EST with comments from Hoffman.
WASHINGTON — U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper has released a pair of memos to the Department of Defense, outlining concerns about operational security and issuing new guidance on dealing with the media.
One of the memos, entitled “Reinforcing Operations Security and the Importance of Preventing Unauthorized Disclosures,” was leaked to Defense News Tuesday morning. In it, Esper writes that “ongoing reviews reveal a culture of insufficient OPSEC practices and habits at DoD.” The existence of both memos was first reported by CNN. (After publication of this initial story, the memo was posted to the Defense Department’s website. )
“The Department of Defense (DoD) remains committed to transparency to promote accountability and public trust,” Esper writes. However, “Unauthorized disclosures jeopardize our DoD personnel, operations, strategies and policies to the benefit of our adversaries.”
A second memo, released concurrently, also lays out guidelines for the force when interacting with members of the news media must be coordinated through DoD public affairs, per CNN. However, a department spokesman denied that the two memos are directly linked, saying the media memo is focused on internal communications strategies.
The memos come two weeks after Esper revealed at a House Armed Services Committee hearing that he had “launched an investigation that is underway to go after leaks,” following reports in the media, based on intelligence sources, that Russia was paying insurgents in Afghanistan to target American forces.
At the hearing, Esper also said he is launching a new effort to “remind people” of operational security issues in the Pentagon. The memo obtained by Defense News seems to fall into that category.
The memo comes with five action points:
- A call to not share information with outside sources, even if they previously worked in the building. “Just because someone has a clearance, or previously worked for DoD, does not mean they have a need to know,” Esper writes, with the last part underlined.
- Ensure that the “appropriate DoD Public Affairs office” authorizes the release of information to media.
- Comply with the official prepublication review process, which Esper in the memo stresses is required “even after you retire, resign or are dismissed from your Government service or contract.”
- Comply with security clearance related obligations.
- Review current DoD wide OPSEC practices to make sure your office is in compliance. As part of this requirement, Esper has ordered that all DoD personnel, including civilians and contractors, take multiple courses hosted online by the Center for Development of Security Excellence within the next 60 days.
In addition, Esper writes that he has directed Under Secretary of Defense for Intelligence & Security Joseph Kernan to “take several actions to assess and improve our OPSEC and other security-related postures, policies, requirements, practices and, importantly, accountability.”
Brent Colburn, who served in 2014 and 2015 as the top public affairs advisor to secretaries Chuck Hagel and Ash Carter, questions whether Esper is going about this process in the wrong way.
“Leaks are a problem, and they can cause real damage, especially when they involve classified or operational information,” Colburn said. “But the number one mistake most leaders make when it comes to curtailing leaks is treating it like an enforcement problem. It’s not an enforcement problem, it’s a cultural problem. People who respect their bosses and believe in the direction of their organization are far less likely to leak.”
“Not all leaks are created equal. There is a difference between information that puts lives at risk, and information that puts egos at risk. One is always worth chasing, and the other usually isn’t.”
While the second memo has yet to be made pubic, Jonathan Hoffman, the department’s chief spokesperson, told media that the goal is not to create a chilling effect across the department.
“It’s not a blanket or ban on talking to the for authorized disclosures to the press, not at all,” Hoffman said, categorizing the memo as pertaining to internal coordination, particularity through recently stood up strategic communications desk. The goal is to have coordination on major issues throughout the DoD, he said.
There have been attempts in the past to limit communication between members of the military and the press; the memo immediately brought memories of a 2018 attempt made under then-Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis to put strict limits on information sharing with the media.
“I can just reiterate my commitment to you that we’re going to be talking with you guys about issues that come up, you’re going to be able to have conversations with the PAO’s and with senior officials and others throughout the building,” Hoffman said.
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.