Pentagon Forces Out Popular Press Spokesman
Press relations take a turn for the worse at the Pentagon.
The Defense Department has parted ways with a senior media adviser who had years of experience working with reporters, a move that is sure to aggravate the administration’s already difficult relations with the press corps.
The abrupt departure of Steve Warren, an Army colonel who established a rapport with Pentagon correspondents over the course of his career, coincides with broader complaints raised by journalists about how the department is providing information and handling media access to Defense Secretary James Mattis.
Warren’s career included a stint as spokesman for the U.S.-led military campaign against Islamic State and running the Pentagon press operation. He had been courted by senior officials after Donald Trump was elected president, and encouraged to retire from the Army in order to apply for a senior media advisor job at the Pentagon, a civilian position.
He is currently on what the Pentagon calls “terminal leave” until November. He was placed in that status in anticipation of assuming his civilian role.
Dana White, the assistant secretary of defense for public affairs, played a key role in Warren’s departure, current and former officials told Foreign Policy.
In an emailed statement, White said Waren became ineligible for the position due to White House objections. Warren’s name “was put forth for consideration as a political appointee within OSD/PA once he retired,” White said. “Unfortunately, the White House determined he was not a suitable candidate for the position.”
White has worked as a publicist for Fox News, served as an adviser to Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), and held jobs with the defense giant Northrop Grumman and the Renault-Nissan Alliance before launching her own Washington-based consultancy.
Reporters covering the Pentagon have repeatedly appealed for more media events with Mattis, who has rarely held press conferences since taking office. The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Joseph Dunford, has kept a low media profile as well.
Several reporters who had committed to travel with Mattis to the Middle East were informed late Monday — just four days before they were to leave — that they had been disinvited from the trip. This follows a pattern that has become increasingly common under Mattis, where reporters who have completed their visa paperwork and made plans to take multi-day international travel were told they were no longer welcome, with little explanation.
Booting reporters off Defense Department trips at the last minute has infuriated veteran journalists covering the military. The Pentagon Press Association raised the issue on Tuesday in a meeting with department officials, which included White, the Pentagon’s top press official.
Press relations have already deteriorated at the White House and the State Department in the Trump administration. Secretary of State Tillerson is often reluctant to speak to reporters while the president and his deputies openly castigate the news media as dishonest and untrustworthy.
Compared to the White House or the State Department, however, the Pentagon has had a less confrontational engagement with reporters since Trump was inaugurated. That’s partly because military and civilian press officers handle much of the media work, instead of political appointees.
The Pentagon also allows credentialed reporters unfettered access to much of the building, where they can walk into many offices to ask questions. And it also provides a dedicated press center in the building.
While Mattis has stayed away from on-camera appearances in the briefing room, he has developed the habit of showing up unannounced in the press center, surprising reporters and public affairs officials alike, who scramble into the room when he’s spotted. His most recent appearance was Monday, when he dropped in after picking up his dry cleaning, holding an impromptu on-the-record question and answer session.
Warren, a seasoned hand who worked as a public affairs officer for years, is well-liked by reporters for his sense of humor and blunt-speaking style. But when Warren served as the U.S. military’s spokesman in Baghdad, his straight talking caused friction with the previous White House, and rubbed some Pentagon officials the wrong way.
The Obama administration avoided using the word “combat” to describe the mission of U.S. troops advising Iraqi forces fighting Islamic State militants. But after a U.S. Army Delta Force soldier was killed in a raid in Iraq in October 2015, Warren refused to employ the euphemisms used by White House officials when he briefed reporters from Baghdad.
“We’re in combat,” Warren told reporters. “That’s why we all carry guns. That’s why we all get combat patches when we leave here. That’s why we all receive imminent danger pay. So, of course it’s combat.”
This story has been updated with comment from the Pentagon.
Photo credit: KHALID MOHAMMED-Pool/Getty Images
Dan De Luce is Foreign Policy’s chief national security correspondent. @dandeluce