In brief, the document is between public relations elements within the Department of Defense. Here Jeff Jones, NAVSAFECEN Deputy Director for Safety Promotions, is seeking clarification about a point of contact for media inquiries regarding UAP.
The point of contact, Joseph Gradisher, explains the situation:
Here are three significant aspects of the document:
- "Make no comment" – no interviews have been authorized, and none are to be given.
- The Public Affairs team have asked to selectively be included in the FOIA process, to avoid complicating "messaging efforts"
- There is a secret guideline document explaining what may and may not be publicly discussed regarding the UAP issue
- These security guidelines appear to be an afterthought; the primary issue seems to be avoiding headlines and further FOIA requests
There are a few problems here.
As of at least October last year, many in the press and public have received replies like this from Department of Defense spokespeople:
To maintain operations security and to avoid disclosing information that may be useful to potential adversaries, DOD does not discuss publicly the details of either the observations or the examination of reported incursions into our training ranges or designated airspace, including those incursions initially designated as UAP – that also includes the UAPTF and its activities.
I received a reply like this myself last year, after I wrote to inquire about policy parameters around the UAPTF interfacing with allied countries. The context for my question was the Japanese defense minister publicly asking former Secretary of Defense Esper about American UAP policy – apparently prompted by Japanese confusion over conflicting media reports.
The Japanese are not alone. The Senate itself rebuked the intelligence community for "inconsistent" information sharing and communication. It seems no one, not the public, key allies, or Congress are getting satisfactory information.
Of course, the public shouldn't expect that the Department of Defense fully reveal everything it knows at every juncture – that would likely be dangerous. Some secrecy regarding key details is likely needed.
It is also important to acknowledge the sheer amount of nonsense the communications team must deal with. Without doubt, this must be one of the toughest public affairs jobs in the Department of Defense. Simultaneously managing the utterly trivial and the genuinely sensitive can't be easy. The constant hectoring from conspiracy theorists and Internet cranks would be wearying for anyone.
However, revealing nothing is also damaging. It prevents allies from aligning their policy with ours, senior leaders from knowing what needs to be done, and the public from being properly informed about how their tax dollars are used.
The email above rather plainly describes a communications strategy of stonewalling. That strategy isn't adequate, even given the challenges described above.
First, while FOIA mechanisms might be burdensome, it is not a largesse. In other words, it isn't up to spokespeople to "let" FOIA happen in any particular way, or to selectively tinker with it on certain topics.
Not to overly parse Gradisher's language, but the phrase "we let the normal FOIA process work as it is supposed to...but we have been requesting that FOIA offices coordinate with us" implies consciousness that this situation is abnormal, and a departure from how it ought to work. Otherwise, why remark on it at all?
In purely practical terms, slowing down the FOIA process to coordinate on the "messaging" of what is effectively a non-message is silly, at best. At worst, it gives the appearance if not the substance of meddling.
It would be one thing if there was a reasonable, well-articulated policy and regular access by credible journalists. Streamlined messaging around a provocative topic would always need to be done carefully, but it makes sense – it would actually serve to keep the public informed and to tamp down undue speculation.
But that is not what we've seen. Instead we've seen the "make no comment" aspect of the communications strategy – an icy silence that confuses allies and is ripe for exploitation by unscrupulous media figures and others who use it to prop up conspiracy theories.
In essence, it would seem this document does not describe a policy of careful communication. In effect, it calls for no communication. Worse, it appears that security is really an afterthought and an excuse. It is addressed in a throwaway paragraph about guidelines (they can be given, if needed, but appear not to be strictly necessary).
The document spells out the obvious: the lack of communication is a strategy to avoid headlines and FOIA, not a principled stance to avoid compromising security.
What is the easiest way to repair this situation?
In short, the Public Affairs team should quickly grant an interview with a credible, experienced journalist who will ask probing questions.
Further stonewalling, especially following the release of the document above, would be counterproductive. It would give merit to the accusation that the Department is hiding something.
Stonewalling would continue to fuel conspiracy theories at a time when the United States, as a country, is desperately struggling for public sanity. If this seems hyperbolic, I invite you to watch the online discourse about a secret guide that defines what may and may not be said about UFOs.
An interview could help mitigate that by explaining the legitimate need for secrecy, and provide sorely needed facts.
In essence, the interview should convey with simple and plain language the following:
- Why does the program exist?
- What are its specific goals and objectives? What are its challenges?
- What has it achieved so far?
- What can the public expect going forward?
- Why should the public have confidence in this program?
This is the minimum we should expect about virtually any publicly funded endeavor. They can answered within the bounds of national security; such questions are asked and answered on a routine basis in defense reporting.
They should be answered now, even if it makes a few headlines and generates a few more FOIA requests.