Gates nominates new CentCom commander, talks about press restrictions

Sonja Elmquist Contributor
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Secretary of Defense Robert Gates announced Thursday the nomination of Marine Gen. James N. Mattis as commander of U.S. Central Command. If confirmed, Mattis would replace Gen. David Petraeus, who last week assumed command of U.S. troops in Afghanistan, and would be responsible for U.S. forces in the Middle East, North Africa and the Arabian Gulf, including Iraq and Afghanistan.

But during his press briefing, Gates devoted the most time to clarifying a July 2 memo outlining rules on military interactions with journalists.

Gates emphasized that he had been drafting the memo since before the June 22 publication of a Rolling Stone profile of Gen. Stanley McChrystal that led to the general’s forced resignation as commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan at the end of June. Petraeus now holds that command position.

The Department of Defense’s policy toward journalists was “being followed selectively at best,” Gates said at the briefing, characterizing many in the department as “lax, disorganized and in some cases flat-out sloppy in the way we engage with the press.”

The rules require military officers and Pentagon officials to notify the Defense Department public affairs office before talking to reporters, reasserting civilian oversight of military interactions with the press.

News stories about service members’ treatment at Walter Reed Army Medical Center and problems with military vehicles “have been a spur to action for me,” Gates said. “The kind of reporting you do … is one of the tools I have in trying to lead this department and correct problems.”

Gates tried to assure reporters assembled at the briefing that they would still be able to interview members of the military and that the Department of Defense will continue to disseminate information.

“This is not about you,” Gates said. “This is about us.”

Gates also offered details on the Defense Department surveys sent Wednesday to 400,000 service members worldwide to elicit their opinion on the potential lifting of the military’s “don’t ask don’t tell” policy. If the ban was lifted, homosexuals would be allowed to serve openly in the military.

“I would say that this survey is a very important element of this effort,” Gates said. “This size sampling is obviously the most significant element of getting the views of the troops…I wanted a significant percentage of the force to have an opportunity to offer their views on this.”