Best Defense

Thomas E. Ricks' daily take on national security.

Censorship at the highest ranks of the U.S. military and the growing divide between the military and civilians

Lieutenant Colonel James Weirick discusses his experience with censorship in the military.


By James Weirick
Best Defense guest columnist

Much has been made of the widening gap between the military and civilians over the past few years as the military has moved to an all-volunteer force. Former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mullen, during a 2011 speech, warned of the dangerous disconnect between the military and the American people. Former Secretary of Defense Gates expressed similar sentiments during his tenure. In a 2010 speech at Duke University, Secretary Gates warned of the growing disconnect between military leaders and the civilian population they are sworn to protect.

In 2011, President Obama asked former Senator Gary Hart to form a bipartisan task force to make recommendations for reforming the military. One of the recommendations resulting from this task force was to restore civil-military relations. “Greater attention must be paid to the implications of a widening chasm between civilian and military sectors of society…. This may be achieved via educational programs that can give all Americans a deeper appreciation for military and security affairs.”

There is a supreme irony to the warnings by Secretary Gates. In 2008 and 2010 Secretary Gates was responsible for issuing directives that severely limited the ability of military members, specifically members of the Joint Staff, to interact with the public by restricting the information that could be shared with the media.

Recently, before I could submit for publication an article about the importance of unity of command in the current fight against ISIS to any media outlet, I was required to submit the article to the Joint Staff Public Affairs for coordination and approval. I was informed that before I could submit my article for publication I was ordered to remove the following two sentences, based on my “status as an active duty officer.”

“Mr. Allen’s decision to retire, rather than undergo the confirmation process necessary to hold the position of Supreme Allied Commander Europe, was based on his “profoundly sobering” realization that he had spent so much time away from his wife and two daughters. Mr. Allen’s decision to retire came on the heels of an investigation into potentially inappropriate emails he exchanged with Florida socialite Jill Kelly.”

These sentences deal with the 2013 decision by former-Marine Corps General John Allen to retire rather than undergo Senate confirmation to oversee U.S. and NATO operations in Europe. None of the information about Mr. Allen’s decision to retire, and his accompanying explanation, is classified. I learned of all of this through open-source articles and official government press releases. Similarly, this information could not be considered sensitive or pre-decisional, as I learned nothing about this matter through my official duties and Mr. Allen’s retirement occurred before I joined the Joint Staff.

Additionally, the Joint Staff Public Affairs recommended that I “forego sending [the article] out for potential publication.” The article was eventually published by two military-centric publications: Task & Purpose and Business Insider, Military & Defense.

When I joined the Joint Staff in 2014, I was ordered to sign a memorandum limiting my interactions with the media. This memorandum addressed three categories of information: 1) classified information; 2) “unclassified but sensitive and/or pre-decisional information”; and 3) “All Joint Staff personnel, military and civilian, will coordinate in advance . . . before any media interactions, formal or informal, that involve information regarding [Department of Defense] (DoD) actions or operations. Only after proper coordination and approval are interviews or disclosures of official DoD information to news media representatives permitted.”

I do not take exception to either the first or second categories of information. There is no right to disclose properly classified information. Similarly, the Joint Chiefs are making decisions about some of the most-important policies in the DoD. Candid conversations regarding these decisions, free from the worry that details of these conversations will be revealed to the media, is essential.

I do, however, object to third category of information, both its language and interpretation. This restriction unduly infringes on the free-speech rights of servicemembers. As it has been explained to me by the Joint Staff Public Affairs, I was prohibited from revealing anything about “DoD actions or operations” to the media without prior approval. This includes anything about my service in the Marine Corps dating back to 1997.

Article 88 of the UCMJ prohibits commissioned officers from using contemptuous words against “public officials.” These “public officials” are the President and Vice President, Congress, the military Secretaries, and the Secretaries of Defense and Homeland Security. Absent from this list are Secretaries of other departments or agencies of the federal government and members of any department below the level of Secretary.

One of the early cases interpreting Article 88 is United States v. Howe. The Howe case involved a second lieutenant participating in an anti-Vietnam demonstration, during which he called President Johnson a fascist and advocated for ending the conflict in Vietnam. Actions far more dangerous to good order and discipline in the military than any opinion I expressed.

Moreover, Mr. Allen is not occupying one of the positions specified in Article 88. In September 2014, Mr. Allen joined “the State Department to serve as Special Presidential Envoy for the Global Coalition to Counter ISIL.” This removes him from the protected class of public officials enumerated in Article 88. Moreover, as a member of the State Department, Mr. Allen is not in a role that involves civilian control of the military.

Additionally, pointing out that Mr. Allen decided to retire to spend time with his family and that his decision occurred after he was under investigation, does not amount to “contemptuous words” as defined by Article 88.

I engaged in nothing more than questioning the statements of a retired Marine general – who is now a civilian and not in my chain of command – concerning his explanation for his retirement. What justification can there be for prohibiting this type of protected speech? Would I be prohibited from questioning Fleet Admiral Halsey’s decisions while in command of the Third Fleet during the Battle of Leyte Gulf? Or questioning General Westmorland’s repeated requests to interdict the Ho Chi Minh trail in Laos? Would my “status as an active duty officer” prohibit me from expressing my opinion about these individuals?

I stand by my statements questioning the veracity of Mr. Allen’s proffered justification for submitting his resignation. In February 2013, then-General Allen justified his resignation based on his need to spend more time with his infirm wife and his two daughters. Immediately after his retirement Mr. Allen accepted an appointment with DoD, then by September 2014 he was Special Presidential Envoy for the Global Coalition to Counter ISIL.

This is important because Mr. Allen, like all Marines, is expected to adhere to the Corps Values of the Marine Corps. Among these values is “honor,” which requires Marines “to abide by an uncompromising code of integrity.” In my opinion, there is room to question the veracity of Mr. Allen’s explanation for his retirement to spend time with his family. Mr. Allen’s post-Marine Corps career has included positions of great responsibility that would leave little time to spend time with family.

It is important that servicemembers are free to express opinions in a public forum. My opinion about Mr. Allen may be incorrect. It could be that his wife recovered from her ailments and spending time with family was no longer of primary importance. The importance is not the content of my opinion, but my, or any other servicemember’s, right to engage public discourse.

This article’s focus on the process of having my original article approved was intended to demonstrate the obstacles any member of the Joint Staff must navigate before being able to communicate with the public. This process undoubtedly has a chilling effect on members of the Joint Staff even attempting to communicate with the general public. Why endure a process that removes unobjectionable material from a proposed article and discourages the servicemember from even submitting anything for publication? It is easier to just remain within the confines of the military and not engaged with the civilian community.

If, as Secretary Gates and Admiral Mullen lamented, there is a dangerous disconnect between the American people and the members of the military, then this disconnect will only be exacerbated by erecting barriers between military members and the media. If the military wants to bridge this gap, then encouraging members of the military to express opinions and share experiences should be the goal. Sadly, this is not the case. If the status quo continues, the gulf between the military and civilian communities will only continue to grow.

Lieutenant Colonel James Weirick is a Marine Judge Advocate. The views expressed in this commentary represent his own views and are not those of the United States Marine Corps or the Department of Defense. Doctorow

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 Twitter: @tomricks1