Tuesday, June 03, 2008

The Defensive Crouch

It's rule #1 of military public relations: when faced with bad news, go into a defensive crouch, lock the gates and hope those pesky reporters will eventually go away.

That strategy appears to be in effect at Minot AFB, North Dakota, where the 5th Bomb Wing recently failed its Nuclear Surety Inspection. So far, the unit affairs shop has been tight-lipped about the evaluation.

The inspection ended on May 25th, but the wing commander, Colonel Joel Westa, and his public affairs chief, Major Elizabeth Ortiz, didn't issue a statement until almost a week later, when they spoke with the Minot Daily News. Their comments came after this blog, Air Force Times and other media outlets reported serious security discrepancies during the NSI.

But Colonel Westa and Major Ortiz offered few details. As the Daily News reported:

Col. Joel Westa, commander of the 5th Bomb Wing at Minot Air Force Base, said he can’t comment on nuclear surety inspection findings because it’s against Department of Defense policy.

Maj. Elizabeth Ortiz, chief of Public Affairs at Minot AFB, reiterated that commenting on inspection findings is against policy.

Westa said Friday that there are some areas that need work and inspectors would return in 90 days to review those areas, as was also reported in a story in The Minot Daily News earlier this week.

[snip]

Maj. Ortiz noted that the release of the report is strictly against Defense Department policy, said Friday, “Someone not authorized received the report and released it.”

“This is a serious breach of sensitive information for anyone to release this, and the matter is being investigated,” she said.

In fairness, we should observe that Major Ortiz (and Colonel Westa) are correct in their comments about discussing inspection results. DoD policy discourages it, although there are plenty of examples of units reporting favorable evaluation grades to the news media.

A quick Yahoo search produced this glowing report from Whiteman AFB, Missouri in 2006, and even more details from a Minot in 2006. But, when the results are bad, the policy gives the Air Force a pretext for being less-than-candid.

As for the report, it's listed as "Unclassified Controlled Nuclear Information." Not exactly top secret. Moreover, the report was widely circulated on DoD's unclassified computer network upon its completion by the Defense Threat Reduction Agency (DTRA). Our contacts tell us that within hours of publication, there were plenty of copies floating around Minot; Kirtland AFB, New Mexico (where the inspection team is based), Air Combat Command Headquarters (the 5th BW's parent organization), and other installations.

On the issue of sensitivity, it's also worth noting that the failures at Minot were concentrated in the 5th Security Forces Squadron, charged with protecting the bomb wing, its assets and the surrounding base. So, we're not talking about nuclear weapons design, or highly classified technical matters.

Additionally, the problems highlighted by DTRA evaluators were nothing more than human errors on a grand scale: failing to inspect personnel and vehicles entering/leaving the weapons storage area; a faulty response to a simulated attack and ineffective security for weapons convoys. They even saw one security specialist playing games on a cell phone during a critical exercise event.

Does the public have a right to know that information? Given the gravity of the bomb wing's ultimate mission--nuclear operations--we'd answer in the affirmative. And, the unit's past problems with weapons security (evident in last year's mishap) support the argument for greater transparency.

But don't expect that from the folks at the 5th BW. Major Ortiz has ignored our requests for comment, and she's reportedly informed Air Force Times that base officials won't be speaking with that publication, either. However, they are still talking to the Minot Daily News, which provided a sanitized account of the inspection results, days after the DTRA team left town. What's that old adage about a blind hog and an acorn?

Obviously, the leaders of the bomb wing are under no obligation to speak to the media. Still, it's worth remembering Colin Powell's famous dictum that "bad news doesn't improve with age." If the 5th BW has suffered another black eye over the latest inspection results, then part of that blame lies with its post-evaluation strategy.

Instead of going silent, the wing should have released at statement, outlining what Colonel Westa said days later. The message would have been simple and direct:

"While we passed nine of ten inspection areas, evaluators found problems in our security procedures. Because of the demanding criteria for an NSI, this resulted in an overall failing grade. We are taking steps to correct these problems. Our strategic assets remain safe, our nuclear certification is unaffected, and inspectors will return in three months to ensure that these discrepancies have been fixed."

Not exactly the glowing press release that Minot issued in 2006, but it would have been an accurate description of what happened--and what will occur in the months ahead. More importantly, it would have put them ahead of the story--and not in a defensive crouch.

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