Best Defense

Thomas E. Ricks' daily take on national security.

The Pentagon is checking out journalists. So what?

Despite huffing and puffing by Stars & Stripes, this is not big deal. The Pentagon keeps files on journalists? Of course it does, and it should. Know your enemy, or know your customer, as the case may be. Commanders need to know who they are dealing with, and it is the job of public affairs ...

581496_090901_baboons2.jpg
581496_090901_baboons2.jpg

Despite huffing and puffing by Stars & Stripes, this is not big deal. The Pentagon keeps files on journalists? Of course it does, and it should. Know your enemy, or know your customer, as the case may be. Commanders need to know who they are dealing with, and it is the job of public affairs officers to tell them. I actually wish the military knew more about the media -- it is amazing how much bellyaching officers do about reporters without knowing what they are talking about. (For example, those who wax nostalgic about Ernie Pyle tend not to know that the worst violation of security by an American newspaper ever occurred during World War II, when the Chicago Tribune disclosed that the Americans had broken the Japanese navy's cipher.) Now, I would hope that the military files report on how reporters handle facts, rather than subjecting them to ideological measures, but we know that isn't going to always be the case. I mean, there are some real goofballs in military public affairs, but I've met some oddballs in journalism too.

Twice in the past I've actually been shown official military files on me. The first one was an Army file that described me as generally hard working but lacking persistence -- that is, I could be put off with some delaying steps. That gave me pause. I think the assessor arrived at that conclusion because when I was a daily reporter, I often fired off questions about minor subjects, scatter-shotting e-mails as I read stuff, and filed away the responses. (I had what I called "The Top 40 List" of potential stories, selecting off it what seemed to be newsy at the time.) But I was grateful for the frank appraisal.

Despite huffing and puffing by Stars & Stripes, this is not big deal. The Pentagon keeps files on journalists? Of course it does, and it should. Know your enemy, or know your customer, as the case may be. Commanders need to know who they are dealing with, and it is the job of public affairs officers to tell them. I actually wish the military knew more about the media — it is amazing how much bellyaching officers do about reporters without knowing what they are talking about. (For example, those who wax nostalgic about Ernie Pyle tend not to know that the worst violation of security by an American newspaper ever occurred during World War II, when the Chicago Tribune disclosed that the Americans had broken the Japanese navy’s cipher.) Now, I would hope that the military files report on how reporters handle facts, rather than subjecting them to ideological measures, but we know that isn’t going to always be the case. I mean, there are some real goofballs in military public affairs, but I’ve met some oddballs in journalism too.

Twice in the past I’ve actually been shown official military files on me. The first one was an Army file that described me as generally hard working but lacking persistence — that is, I could be put off with some delaying steps. That gave me pause. I think the assessor arrived at that conclusion because when I was a daily reporter, I often fired off questions about minor subjects, scatter-shotting e-mails as I read stuff, and filed away the responses. (I had what I called “The Top 40 List” of potential stories, selecting off it what seemed to be newsy at the time.) But I was grateful for the frank appraisal.

The second file was a summary of my work done by someone in Baghdad. It said I did a lot of preparatory work and so warned that officers dealing with me should be on their toes. The funny thing was that the writer seemed to think that my preparatory work was a bad thing. I always remember something Fred Reed, the Hunter Thompson of the right, counseled: If you are going to spend time with a tank outfit, save everyone some time by reading the damn manual on tanks before you go. And so on.

Readers of this blog know that I am a big fan of Stars & Stripes, so I hope they don’t take this dismissal of their scoop the wrong way.

Flickr user Sebastian Niedlich (Grabthar)

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at ricksblogcomment@gmail.com. Twitter: @tomricks1

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