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[] Defense News 29.10.01: Government Accountability,
Defense News
October 29 November 4, 2001

Government Accountability

The Pentagon s desire to control the flow of information about U.S. defense programs during the campaign against terrorism is understandable. But it s an urge that must be weighed care fully against the need for public accountability.

In recent weeks, high-level military officials have moved to prevent uniformed military personnel, Defense Department employees, and even civilian contractors from talking about defense matters to the public or the press. On Oct. 2, Pentagon acquisition chief E.C. "Pete" Aldridge wrote to defense firms, asking them to use "discretion" in talking to the public.

"Even seemingly innocuous industrial information can reveal much about military activities and intentions to the trained intelligence collector," said the defense undersecretary s letter.

Two days later, Air Force officials went further.

"Effective immediately, I do not want anyone within the Air Force acquisition community discussing any of our programs with the media on or off the record," wrote Darleen Druyun, the Air Force s principal deputy for acquisitions, in an Oct. 4 letter to program executive officers and other acquisition officials.

Confronted by Defense News reporter Gail Kaufman on Oct. 5, an Air Force spokesman denied that the letter was a gag order, and said the policy applied only to programs connected with "current operations" a rather elastic restriction. Within days, Druyun amended her policy.

"We will continue to respond to inquiries from the media. & We will also continue to issue announcements on major contracts," and to conduct news conferences on acquisition issues, she wrote to program executive officers and procurement officers Oct. 10.

Still, Aldridge s warning remains in force, and the Druyun episode reminds us that Pentagon officials sometimes are too quick to restrict communications. Even in wartime, the public is entitled to know how its tax dollars are being spent. The Pentagon plans to spend one-third of a trillion dollars in 2002.

It is in combat, after all, that billion-dollar arms programs receive their trials by fire, and cutting off or selectively revealing information prevents the public from gaining a clear sense of how well the weapons work. It is easy for Pentagon officials to argue that revealing production numbers and performance data can endanger troops and sometimes they are right. But it is too easy for public information to be pushed under the protective cover of operational secrecy.

In some ways, Sept. 11 and its aftermath have accelerated a trend. For the second year in a row, the Air Force has classified its Program Objective Memorandum, a general description of its five-year spending plan. Neither the Army nor the Navy sees the need to hide these numbers.

The challenge to government and the press is to strike a balance. The press should not report information, such as the movement of troops, that would place at risk the lives of men and women in uniform.

Meanwhile, the government is obliged to make most of what it does available to the public, particularly when it involves the expenditure of tax dollars.

In recent weeks, the Pentagon has tilted the scales in favor of unnecessary secrecy. This is inappropriate in a democracy, even one locked in battle with terrorists.

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