According to several stories in Defense One, communications with the public and the press are being actively discouraged. A March 13 story notes:
The U.S. Air Force is slashing access to media embeds, base visits and interviews as it seeks to put the entire public affairs apparatus through retraining — a move it says is necessary for operational security, but one which could lead to a broader freeze in how the service interacts with the public.
According to March 1 guidance obtained by Defense News, public affairs officials and commanders down to the wing level must go through new training on how to avoid divulging sensitive information before being allowed to interact with the press.
Before settling on retraining its public affairs corps and commanders, the service considered an even more drastic step: shutting down all engagement with the press for a 120-day period, a source with knowledge of the discussions said.
The guidance, which was marked as “for official use only,” was distributed to public affairs officials following a February 2018 memo on operational security signed by Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson and Chief of Staff Gen. Dave Goldfein. The story indicates that the guidance reflects a renewed focus on operational security that stems from the Trump administration’s recently released National Defense Strategy.
The seven-page guidance states:
In line with the new National Defense Strategy, the Air Force must hone its culture of engagement to include a heightened focus on practicing sound operational security. As we engage the public, we must avoid giving insights to our adversaries which could erode our military advantage. We must now adapt to the reemergence of great power competition and the reality that our adversaries are learning from what we say in public.
As Steve Aftergood notes, the new Air Force guidance does not distinguish between classified and unclassified information. Nor does it define the scope of “sensitive operational information” which must be protected.
Secrecy News also notes, moreover, that “As it happens, a counter-argument in favor of enhanced Air Force release of information was made just last week by Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson.” The Public Affairs Management, Air Force Policy Directive 35-1, March 8, 2018, which notes in bold “COMPLIANCE WITH THIS PUBLICATION IS MANDATORY, states:
1. Overview. The Air Force has an obligation to communicate with the American public, including Airmen and families, and it is in the national interest to communicate with the international public. Through the responsive release of accurate information and imagery to domestic and international audiences, public affairs puts operational actions in context, informs perceptions about Air Force operations, helps undermine adversarial propaganda efforts and contributes to the achievement of national, strategic and operational objectives. This directive establishes the framework for Air Force public affairs operations.
2. Policy. The Air Force shall conduct comprehensive, active communication programs at all levels of command—in garrison and while deployed—to provide Airmen and their families, Congress and the American public timely, factual and accurate Department of Defense and Air Force information that contributes to awareness and understanding of the Air Force mission.
2.1. The Air Force shall respond to requests for releasable information and material. To maintain the service’s credibility, commanders shall ensure a timely and responsive flow of such information.
2.1.1. The Secretary of the Air Force authorizes delegating the review of information proposed for public release to the lowest level competent to evaluate the content. Generally, reviewers shall assess the potential implications of releasing the information, ensuring it is not classified, does not disclose operationally sensitive elements, and does not conflict with established government policies or programs.
2.1.2. Public affairs programs shall not practice propaganda, disinformation or activities intended to bias, mislead, misinform or deny otherwise releasable information.
2.2. The Air Force shall develop and maintain cooperative and responsive relations with the public and media. Public affairs activities will support leaders at all levels in fostering public trust and support through active community outreach.
2.3. The Air Force shall collect, preserve and accession visual information products to meet operational, informational, training, research, legal, historical and administrative needs.
2.4. The Air Force shall organize, train and equip its bands to conduct appropriate engagements to foster sustained public trust and support, sustain warfighter morale, build partnerships, foster national pride, patriotism and service and recruit talented Airmen.