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Robert Gates and the Press

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Secretary of Defense Robert Gates addressed the Naval Academy in Annapolis, exhorting the graduating midshipmen to “remember the importance of two pillars of our freedom under the Constitution: the Congress and the press.” And he went on: “The press is not the enemy and to treat it as such is self-defeating.”

I have two comments to offer.

First, I admire Robert Gates. He is a person of integrity and he is doing his best to restore the enormous damage the Defense Department’s morale and traditions suffered under his predecessor. I say this as a critic of both Rumsfeld and Gates, and someone who tracks their public statements with some care. The difference between Gates and Rumsfeld is enormous, and it shines through in public statements like those Gates made in Annapolis, but also in his already extensive Congressional testimony. Gates’s comments are marked by care, professionalism, balance and respect for the truth. He avoids mouthing empty and propagandistic phrases which were the hallmark of Rumsfeld. He prefers candid acknowledgements of problems and objective assessments of facts, often at odds with the official White House line. He has attempted valiantly to address the pre-cancerous sore called Guantánamo. Gates has a professional, correct relationship with his general staff. He has taken other initiatives, still unreported, which will be a credit to him when the time comes for official biographies. In a good many of these efforts he has been rebuffed or overridden by the White House. But I respect Gates for his forthrightness, his concern for traditional values and the meticulous care he brings to bear on many of the enormous problems before him. If the Bush cabinet has one member worthy of respect and praise today, his name is Robert Gates.

Second, Gates is correct to highlight the festering problem surrounding the Pentagon’s engagement with the press under Rumsfeld. Larry DiRita and others in the Pentagon Public Affairs office drew on and nurtured the dark side of the press to do their work – they played the access game, they manipulated and cajoled. To a certain extent these are the tools that any effective public relations professional uses. But when that professional is a public servant, he needs to pay more attention to institutional integrity and to his responsibility to the public.

Finally, there has been a very dark side to the Pentagon’s interaction with the press – the vilification and mistreatment of local-hire press. There are two cases in this regard that stand out, the two journalists now in illegal Pentagon custody: al-Jazeera’s Sami al-Hajj and the Associated Press’s Pulitzer-Prize winner Bilal Hussein. If Gates wants to prove to us that he’s serious that the “press is not the enemy,” then he should, personally, take a long sober look at these two cases and allow the AP and al-Jazeera to make a direct case for the release of their employees. I for one do not believe that al-Hajj or Bilal Hussein would have been arrested and detained under a Pentagon headed by Bob Gates. It’s time for him to press his mark on the institution a bit deeper.

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