A lot of hay has been made on Twitter (I tweet at @ABAviationweek) of the ham-handed treatment of the media during this week’s 17th Annual Space and Missile Defense Symposium in Huntsville this week. And, there has been a tendency against the backdrop of the arrest of journalists reporting on the activities in Ferguson this week to blow this sort of thing out of proportion.
I was in Huntsville for the annual symposium this week. I was subjected to it. It’s not the first time I’ve raised my eyebrows at overly zealous security at this conference (I was questioned by the FBI in 2007 for accidentally leaving my digital recorder in the hall for speeches and been accused of being the “National Enquirer” of trade reporters for last year chasing down the MDA director for a quote). I have not gone a year without making a Gestapo joke to myself about security at the Von Braun Center where the event is held. Yes, the foremost US missile defense conference setting is named after a Nazi, who was highly influential in the development of US rocketry.
But, what happened didn’t stop me from doing my job like those reporters in Missouri. I think it is a good time to pause and discuss why lackluster media relations matter in this day and age -- for an industry such as aerospace and despite an understandable knee-jerk by defense and intelligence officials in light of the Bradley Manning and Edward Snowden scandals.
The SMD conference is an annual, must-see event for me. It’s the one chance in the US to get all the heavy hitters on missile defense together on the record. The MDA director always makes a pilgrimage to Huntsville to lay out his vision (even if he’s the sort to avoid crowds in DC circles), and often senior Joint Staff and policy makers use the conference as a venue to float new ideas and plans.
And getting them on the record is important on this topic. Since the inception of missile defense, it has been shrouded in secrecy. There is a lot of smoke and mirrors about what systems have demonstrated in the lab, in flight testing and can do in the event of an attack. Some of this is understandable –- this system would be the only line of defense in the event of an ICBM attack on the homeland. And, the US puts $10 billion into technologies for it annually, give or take a billion.
So, I’ll be going back to Huntsville next August. But, here’s what happened, and here’s how I view it.
During the most anticipated session of the symposium, Vice Adm. James Syring, Missile Defense Agency director, gave his speech. At the end, Syring jokingly said that he suspected Amy Butler was in the audience and he’d take my question in the hall after. Addressing press after a speech is often done by speakers as a nod to folks who pay hundreds of dollars at conferences and want to ask questions. After his speech, I bee-lined for the speaker exit (where there was a “not an exit” sign attached to a door labeled “exit” -– only in Huntsville) to chat with him. A woman -- wearing a name tag reading Dr. Frankie Stewart and “security” –- physically blocked me.
When I tried to parry right, she went right. Left, she went left. She put her arms out to the side like an NBA defensive player, which is funny given my 5’4” presence, and actually touched me, lightly pushing me. I quickly cited the admiral’s request to speak to me outside and she informed me that he was joking and he didn’t really want to talk to me. Well, that was a failed intercept attempt on her part. I got to him anyway. In the hall. As he said. And, he clarified some things from his remarks. All very standard operating procedure in DC.
Apparently, not in Huntsville.
Stewart followed us as we did this and subsequently spoke to the uniformed security and Huntsville police, gesturing at me and two colleagues, also from the DC trade press (that routinely covers Syring and MDA).
It is worth noting that all three of us preregistered for the conference and donned badges emblazoned “Media.” We were not notified of any special rules. We are very rarely asked to keep certain sessions at various conferences off the record, but that is always done before hand and professionally in a conversation with media as they register and pick up their badges for attendance.
In the next session, with USNORTHCOM chief Adm. Charles Jacoby, Stewart approached the three of us media and said she’d heard we were taking pictures of the presentations and slides. This is not allowed, she said, and she would have officers compel us to remove these files from our phones. The three of us noted her concerns but declined; she eventually walked away. Anticipating a phone show down, I tweeted the slides.
It is worth noting these slides are labeled “for public release” and “unclassified.” These sessions have no security restrictions. Media aren’t invited to classified discussions, and it would be against the law for an officer to publicly brief classified information. They are smart. They don’t do it. And, they are trained to engage media or -– when they want to -– avoid us.
For the next session, she and a Huntsville police officer were sitting with the three of us media, in the front row. The police officer said hello and looked kind of sheepish about the whole thing.
During another session, a prominent think tank fellow was approached by six uniformed security. They demanded he erase photo files of slides from his phone and threatened to get the FBI involved if he did not comply.
We were there, doing our jobs, taking notes on the latest developments in missile defense. Security for such an event should be to ensure that folks attending paid to do so and that conference goers are safe (just as any crowded affair, such as a high school sports match). Security for conferences is not to bar the media. If a conference doesn’t want media, they should not invite government officials traveling on taxpayers’ money to talk. But, they need those speakers in order to get the companies to come. And that is where the money is -– in companies buying booth space and sponsorships.
It is a shame the biggest Twitter traffic to come out of the conference was about one woman with an overinflated sense of duty or power or … whatever.
We media -– especially those of us reporting on national security -– like to sometimes whine about how hard it is to do our jobs. I’m guilty of it. There’s the age-old dance with senior defense officials, the “lost” interview requests and queries, the blow offs, the off-the-record no comments (yes that happens). And, then there’s the kabuki with industry pitching the latest widget, etc. Often it takes more time and work to get an interview than to do one reporting on defense. But, that is not a story. We choose the job we have.
What is a story and what matters is a continuing dialogue on the ins and outs of defense and the industry. There are technology questions, policy questions, funding questions. These are important. They address expenditues of nearly $1 trillion of national treasure annually. And, symposia are one of the vehicles through which this dialogue occurs. Taxpayers do pay for all of this equipment and for the very government that we journalists are covering.
I think it is incumbent on national security conference organizers –- this one is put on by the Air, Space and Missile Defense Association, the Air Defense Artillery Association and the National Defense Industrial Association –- to remember that there is a bigger picture to these settings. It is not just about connecting business development execs with customers –- generals and admirals -– and making money.
Bradley Manning and Edward Snowden weren’t even in the press, yet much of the blowback about leaks -- and subsequent paranoia -- is aimed at the press. I for one have sensed a clamping down on what would be normal discourse since these scandals erupted.
The press is here to document what is and isn’t happening. We want to find the facts and report them. It is a rare few that are bad apples –- something like we are told when a GBI or EKV fails in a test. They aren’t indicative of the entire system.
I’m just sad to say that during this conference the most buzzed about thing was overzealous conference security –- not the technology, policy and funding questions about defending U.S. and allied forces and lands from missile attack.
And now, on to the next story.