In another section of the course on insider threats, the media is labeled an adversary, and DoD personnel are instructed to report any contact with the press to their “information security office.”
Price Floyd, who served as acting assistant secretary of defense for public affairs in the Obama administration and director of media relations at the State Department in the George W. Bush administration, also criticized DoD’s new policy on operational security and response to leaks.
“I think this administration confuses leaks with stories that are written that they don’t like,” Floyd said. “Because this administration, of course, gives out information to the press without attribution all the time. In other words, they’re leaking. They want the stories the way they want them.”
He also took issue with how the training course is framed, arguing that in his experience it inaccurately portrays the overall relationship between the military and the media.
“If for some reason a reporter got wind of something that was classified or secret, all it would take is a conversation with public affairs and someone to say, ‘look this is classified, it is secret, talking about it right now puts lives in danger.’”
“I think this witch hunt by Esper is just a way to try to clamp down on what they view as fake news,” he added, “when in fact all the media is doing is reporting the facts.”
Mick Mulroy, an ABC News analyst who served as the Pentagon’s Middle East policy official in the Trump administration, said he does not believe DoD intended to label all protesters and journalists as threats, but called the language in the training materials “poor word choice.”
“‘Adversary’ is a loaded term, we use it to define Russia, for example,” Mulroy said, drawing a distinction between protesters and journalists appropriately exercising their constitutional rights with “protesters that use violence against the military or service members that leak classified information.”
“However, in this climate of labeling the media being a threat to the people and protesters all being lumped together (both violent and nonviolent) the military will want to ensure that they are not adding to the problem with this type of terminology,” he said. “I don’t believe they intended to do that with this choice of terms, but it should be adjusted.”
The new OPSEC effort was launched just weeks after Esper told lawmakers in a hearing that he had begun an investigation to go after leaks, following a New York Times report about intelligence that Russia was paying militants to target American forces in Afghanistan.
Leaks “hurt our nation’s security, they undermine our troops, their safety, they affect our relations with other countries, they undermine our national policy,” Esper told lawmakers this month. “It’s something we need to get control of. It’s bad and it’s unlawful and it needs to stop.”
A separate memo released around the same time as the first laid out new guidelines for the force when interacting with members of the news media.
Bryan Bender contributed to this report.