In August, Bob spoke with Pentagon Deputy General Counsel Charles A. Allen about their recently released Law of War Manual and specifically about language in the manual that could imperil the lives and ethics of reporters in the field. We were assured that the Pentagon was reconsidering the language and guaranteed a follow-up in a few weeks' time. Five months later, we have that follow-up. Bob speaks again to Deputy General Counsel Allen as well as to Pentagon Press Secretary Peter Cook, who both say that section will be revised in the first quarter of this year.
"Moss Garden" by David Bowie
BROOKE: This is On the Media, I’m Brooke Gladstone.
BOB: And I’m Bob Garfield. This summer, the Department of Defense released its long-awaited "Law of War Manual," a comprehensive guide to wartime protocols. Shockingly, within the nearly-1,200 page document was language that permitted field commanders to classify journalists as “unprivileged belligerents” and to treat them as spies. In August, I spoke to Charles A. Allen, Deputy General Counsel for International Affairs at the Department of Defense, about the manual's chilling implications.
Allen: We are going to be receiving comments and those will be considered seriously as we make updates to the manual.
Bob: When shall I check back with you?
Allen: I’d say perhaps in a couple of weeks we could get back with you.
BOB: He said the language was under review and assured us that he would check back in with a progress update. Now, about five months later, we have that check-in. With us again is Department of Defense Deputy General Counsel Charles A. Allen, and he’s joined by Pentagon Press Secretary and former Washington correspondent for Bloomberg TV, Peter Cook. Gentlemen, welcome.
COOK: Good to be with you, Bob.
ALLEN: Bob, thank you very much for the chance to come back and talk with you.
BOB: Where does that revision process stand now?
ALLEN: We are going ot be making some changes to that particular section, just to make sure that there aren't any misrepresentations or misreading of what was intended.
BOB: Mhm. And when can we expect this?
ALLEN: Within this, the first quarter of 2016.
COOK: Bob, this is Peter also, and these changes are being reviewed not only within the DOD, but within an inner agency process as well. Changes that have come about as a result of direct interaction with the members of the media, with other outside parties who have weighed in. Not just on the section regarding journalists, but on the other potential areas of change to the manual itself.
BOB: I understand the wheels of bureaucracy turn slowly, however, this was five months ago. The United States has a little north of 1.3 million active military stationed worldwide. There are hundreds or thousands of journalists covering them around the world including two war zones. All of those journalists at every moment were subject not only to the risks of the battlefield, but to the risks of rubbing a field commander the wrong way, and winding up in the dock for espionage. It's simply hard for me to understand why you didn't suspend the guideline, or whatever it is you're calling it, immediately, and then proceed from there.
COOK: Bob, this is Peter. As a former journalist myself, who looked at this manual when it first came out, and saw language in here that raised my eyebrows as well, that I thought was open to misunderstanding, I'm satisfied that the right steps in a reasonable pace of time are being taken now to address some of those concerns. And you may not be satisfied even with the end result, but people have moved quickly.
ALLEN: And I guess I would also take issue with one of your first comments, Bob, which was "correcting an error." In fact we don't believe that the section is erroneous, we do understand that it has been susceptible to some, what i'd call misreading or misinterpretation. And I think we were not as careful as we could have been and we will be, but again I would say that it is not an error, it just needs to be presented, we think, in a more careful way. And I actually think --
BOB: I'm sorry, let me just interrupt you to say this: the original language includes this clause, "relaying of information such as providing information of immediate use in combat operations could constitute taking direct part in hostilities, and thereby disqualifying a journalist of civilian protections." I don't want to seem myself like a hostile belligerent, but as far as I know, in about a century there has been no case of loose journalistic lips sinking ships. There are many many cases of rotten apple commanders themselves breaking the laws of war. And I dare say in such a hypothetical, the commander under the reading of this language is far more protected than the journalist in his sights.
COOK: Bob, this is Peter. My understanding of this manual is exactly intended to prevent the kind of situation you just talked about. Once people have this manual, and the legal advisers around them, any commander who made that decision would be subject to repercussions if at any point it was determined that they made a judgment here that was the wrong call.
ALLEN: I mean, that's right - Bob, I of course, I am concerned that you have that view that somehow there isn't the credible respect that we have for independent journalists. As of right now, the only substantive change in this first revision which is going to be coming out soon is in this very area. So, what am I doing? I am admitting that some of the language could have been tighter, I have a hard time stopping myself from the defense of gee it's 1200 pages and this is 2 pages. I'm really pleased with the result we have, but also I'm pleased with what we're gonna be doing in response to this.
BOB: I'm pleased myself that you're not clinging to that defense because many an innocent man has gone to the gallows on the basis of one line of law.
COOK: Those words of caution if you will have resonated and I think the end result here is going to be something that hopefully the journalism profession will see that in fact this manual can in fact bolster the position of journalists in a war zone. And offer more protections to them in that role.
BOB: When can we next have this conversation? When I can see the new regulation right in front of my eyes?
COOK: I can't give you a calendar date, I can tell you that it's gonna be soon.
BOB: Okay. Will you men get on the phone with me like this when the new language is promulgated?
COOK: I will certainly make a pledge that I will do everything I can to engage with you, and the Pentagon as a whole will be willing to do that for sure.
ALLEN: And I would definitely do everything I could to be available to Peter, to our other department of Defense leadership, and again, both conversations I found to be beneficial and I appreciate the opportunity.
BOB: Chuck, Peter, many thanks.
COOK: Thank you, Bob.
ALLEN: Thanks, Bob.
BOB: Charles A. Allen is the deputy general counsel for international affairs at the Department of Defense, and Peter Cook is the Pentagon press secretary.