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Top Marine General: ‘I’ve never told a Marine they could or couldn’t speak’ to the press

Commandant of the Marine Corps, Gen. Robert B. Neller speaks during a portrait unveiling ceremony at Atlanta, Ga., Dec. 2, 2015. Neller was the guest of honor speaker at retired Gen. Raymond G. Davis's portrait unveiling ceremony inside the Floyd Veterans Memorial Building. (Staff Sgt. Gabriela Garcia/U.S. Marine Corps)

Gen. Robert Neller, commandant of the U.S. Marine Corps, said he has not received or given any direction for Marines to stop talking to the press, and instead encourages the service to do public engagements. The commandant’s remarks stand in contrast to several of his fellow service chiefs’ stances on public engagement, and recent guidance and practices by senior Defense Department officials limiting public appearances and interactions with the press.

Under President Donald Trump and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, Pentagon officials have spent the last year and a half tamping down on public engagements, directing the ranks and department employees to watch what they say, hosting fewer on-camera briefings, and limiting the numbers of reporters invited to cover senior officials on trips abroad.

“I don’t feel that I’ve been restrained and I’m not restraining any Marines,” Neller said, in an interview at the Atlantic Council Thursday with Defense One Executive Editor Kevin Baron. “The media is part of American life; this is a democratic society. You’re going to write a story, and I think we’re compelled — and should be able — to convey to you our version of the story.”

Earlier in March, Air Force leaders issued a memo clamping down on media engagement. The service curtailed interviews, embeds, and base visits until public affairs officials and commanders down to the wing level completed new media training. Service officials said the restrictions were meant to protect against accidental disclosure of sensitive information. Until that training had been completed, responses to some press inquiries were subject to approval by the Air Force’s public affairs headquarters. The change was first reported by Defense News,

Neller said it’s exactly those younger professionals involved in the Corps’ day-to-day operations away from Pentagon headquarters who are best-positioned to engage with the media.

“I’ve never told a Marine they could or couldn’t speak,” he said. “In fact, I think they are the best spokesperson for our Marine Corps. I want you to talk to our young Marines. They’re outstanding men and women and they’re smart enough to know when to stay in their lane.”

Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson defended her department’s policy to lawmakers last week.

“It has to do with operational security. We have an obligation to be transparent, but not with things that our adversaries can use against us,” she said before the House Armed Services Committee. “It was time to go a reset and a retraining of our commanders and public affairs officials, which we have done.”

Several lawmakers she was addressing have criticized the services and Pentagon more broadly for their lack of transparency. Last year, Chief of Naval Operations Adm. John Richardson instructed sailors to be more circumspect in their public communications —  a policy that had “catastrophic” consequences, according to HASC member, Rep. Mike Gallagher, R-Wisc.

The public clampdowns have come for another reason: Trump. Mattis said last fall he was avoiding on-camera press briefings because he did not want something he said to be unfairly pitted against the president. It’s a concern for top generals, as well, as Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Joseph Dunford also has restricted his public engagements and interviews.

Neller, on Thursday, said he wants “the American people to know what their Marine Corps is doing, because I think we’re doing a lot of really great, important stuff.” And that work should be the focus of every Marine. While the public may be focusing on national security issues with increasing intensity, he said political developments and other hype shouldn’t make servicemembers swerve out of their lanes.

“When I go and talk to Marines, I understand they’re out there and they see all this, and I remind them, I say, ‘You took an oath to defend the Constitution of the United States against enemies foreign and domestic. Do your job. Do your job. And don’t bring in —  we’re here to defend the nation,” he said. “And anything that distracts us from that is, quite frankly, not beneficial.”

Earlier this month, during a speech at Marine Corps Air Station Miramar in California, Trump criticized the media, calling reporters in attendance “fake news.” Some of the Marines in attendanceapplauded. In its wake, the White House was criticized for using the military as a political rally while the troops were criticized for applauding what he was saying.

Neller downplayed it. “They were at an event, they responded to the president — he’s the commander in chief,” Neller said. “That was an individual event, but from what I’ve seen, when I talk to them and I see them in training, they’re singularly focused on what they’re supposed to do.”

The commandant said he still takes the time to remind them about their “responsibility” as servicemembers.

“I do remind them of where they are, their role, in the United States, that they’re in the Department of Defense and their job is defense,” he said. “They’re United States Marines, and there’s a certain expectation with that. We all have to do our best every day to live up to that expectation, which is not a low bar.”


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