Pentagon reporters left in dark as Iran tensions escalate

Heightened anxiety in the Middle East is coinciding with the one-year mark since the Pentagon last held an on-camera briefing from its chief spokesperson, adding new criticisms that defense officials are not being transparent amid a military build-up.

A Defense Department press secretary has not held a previously-routine on-camera briefing since May 31, 2018. And once-regular off-camera gaggles, usually held for Pentagon reporters on a weekly basis, have ceased to exist since late last year.

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Reporters for months have called for the press briefings to resume, a request that has grown more urgent as the Trump administration refuses to explain the reasoning and intelligence behind quickly escalating tensions with Iran.

Journalists, as well as many lawmakers, are seeking answers as to what information the administration received that prompted the hasty deployment of a bomber task force and carrier strike group to the region earlier this month. They also want to know whether the U.S. is preparing to take military action against Iran.

The administration on Wednesday also moved to pull non-emergency U.S. personnel from Iraq as part of the unease with neighboring Iran, saying only that “anti-U.S. sectarian militias” may threaten U.S. citizens and companies throughout the country.

Over the past year, instead of media availability with defense officials, reporters have been invited to attend unorthodox press events, including one in mid-October when actor Gerard Butler participated in a 32-minute press conference in the Pentagon briefing room to promote the Navy and the 2018 submarine film “Hunter Killer” that he starred in.

More recently, Kiss frontman Gene Simmons and his wife Shannon Tweed attended a veterans’ event at the Pentagon on Thursday, with Simmons giving a speech in the briefing room.

“You don’t have to explain what you don’t say,” Mark Cancian, a former defense official and senior adviser with the Washington think tank Center for Strategic and International Studies, said of the Pentagon’s press relations.

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“I think there’s a reluctance to get out in front on issues because with the White House it’s a little hard to say where they’ll end up, and the president values loyalty very highly. So I think there’s some reluctance to become too visible in the public,” he said.

Cancian noted that the Pentagon has a history of staying mum on operations leading up to military movements against an adversary – much like in the lead-up to the Gulf War and the invasion of Iraq in 2003 – due to concerns about operational security. 

But he added that there’s a broader trend of the Pentagon limiting information.

Former Defense Secretary James MattisJames Norman MattisAmash rips Trump over move to send troops from Syria to Iraq Defense chief says US troops leaving Syria will go to western Iraq White House staggers after tumultuous 48 hours MORE “really was concerned about not putting out information that might be useful operationally to potential adversaries, and as a result you’ve seen much less put out about a whole wide range of topics,” Cancian said.

The lack of information in recent months comes as the Pentagon faces increasing criticism for curtailing its interactions with the press.

Chief Pentagon spokesman Charles Summers, named to the post in January after his predecessor Dana White stepped down, has yet to hold an on-air briefing with reporters.

Acting Defense Secretary Patrick ShanahanPatrick Michael ShanahanDefense chief calls on European allies to be wary of China's investments, blasts Russia Pentagon chief approves 20 more miles of border wall Why Dave Norquist is the perfect choice for DOD's deputy secretary MORE, meanwhile, prefers talking to reporters off-camera while traveling, or briefly ahead of official events. He has given only two sit-down, on-camera interviews -- both with Fox News -- since being named acting Pentagon chief in January.

Mattis was also called out for his limited engagement with reporters. Compared with previous defense secretaries, Mattis took fewer journalists with him on his plane when traveling and spent less time overall with reporters.

Shanahan spokesman Lt. Col. Joe Buccino told The Hill that while defense officials “have not determined a schedule or rhythm, routine on-camera briefings as well as off-camera gaggles will resume, should Acting Secretary Shanahan be confirmed by Congress.”

A source close to Shanahan said the pause on press availability was due to him being hampered by his interim role.

As a point of comparison, White House press secretary Sarah HuckabeeSarah Elizabeth SandersWhite House correspondent April Ryan to moderate fundraising event for Buttigieg White House press secretary defends lack of daily briefings: Trump 'is the most accessible president in history' Sarah Huckabee Sanders says she is 'relentlessly' attacked by women MORE Sanders has not given an on-camera press briefing since March 11.

And President TrumpDonald John TrumpZuckerberg launches public defense of Facebook as attacks mount Trump leaning toward keeping a couple hundred troops in eastern Syria: report Warren says making Israel aid conditional on settlement building is 'on the table' MORE, who has long bashed unfavorable coverage as “fake news,” on Friday argued on Twitter that media reporting has led to confusion over his plans for addressing the conflict with Iran.

“The Fake News Media is hurting our Country with its fraudulent and highly inaccurate coverage of Iran. It is scattershot, poorly sourced (made up), and DANGEROUS. At least Iran doesn’t know what to think, which at this point may very well be a good thing!”

He later wrote, “With all of the Fake and Made Up News out there, Iran can have no idea what is actually going on!”

Journalists have also been hampered by limited public appearances by senior military leaders and political appointees since February 2018. An internal memorandum, signed by then-Deputy Defense Secretary Shanahan, said that only one senior military leader and one senior civilian leader could participate at an “outside,” non-government event “per day per event unless circumstances warrant greater participation.”

Officials said at the time that the memo was meant to conserve resources and ensure leaders can focus on work, though the directive was privately criticized as an effort to prevent officials from offering views that could conflict with Trump’s.

“I’ve certainly heard journalists say that . . . the amount of information they’re getting and the amount of opportunities they have to get information have gone down, that certainly appears to be the case,” Cancian said.

“I’m not surprised about reluctance to talk about deployments to the Persian Gulf, but the problem’s clearly much broader because that has only occurred in the last couple of weeks and this trend has been going on for years, since the beginning of the administration.”