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Corps blocks public access to newsletters on lessons learned

June 1, 2015 (Photo Credit: Marine Corps)

The Marine Corps' self-improvement organization will no longer publish public versions of its monthly newsletters, citing a censorship process that had become too time-consuming and difficult.

The Marine Corps Center for Lessons Learned, organized in the early years of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, serves as a repository for after-action reports and other directed studies aimed at improving the way the Corps fights and operates. Most of the work the center does and publishes online is available only to Marine Corps Common Access Card holders. But until earlier this year, the center published a short newsletter that offered members of the public and outside organizations a brief snapshot of recent findings.

A January edition of the newsletter contained a summary of the Marines' 2015 aviation plan, an after-action report from the first 100 deployed days of the Corps' new Middle East task force, short reviews of books on the commandant's reading list and a scholarly article from Real Clear Defense, among other content.

Two months later, the newsletter cited a report on lessons and observations from 1st Battalion, 5th Marines' six-month deployment to Darwin, Australia.

Marine Corps Times has published more than a dozen stories based on findings from the center's reports. Most recently, a newsletter report detailed how Marines in South America had used the Joint High Speed Vessel to move around in theater, a development MCT reported on.

In 2014, Marine Corps Times learned through the report that Mexican marines were looking to expand the training partnership with their American counterparts following successes in counter-narcotics operations after members of 4th Reconnaissance Battalion spent a year deploying teams to the Yucatan Peninsula.

In May, however, MCCLL quietly put the newsletter behind a CAC-only wall, sealing it off from public access.

Christopher Sonntag, head of the Marine Corps Center for Lessons Learned Branch, confirmed via email that the days of public access to the newsletter were over.

"MCCLL was devoting an increasing amount of discretionary man hours each month in order to 'sanitize' the reports and [after-action reports] to ensure they didn't unintentionally include [for official use only] information," Sonntag said.

That sanitization process was necessary for "risk mitigation," he said, to keep sensitive information about tactics and procedures from landing in the wrong hands.

The question, he said, came down to whether MCCLL's single newsletter editor wanted to produce a report that was available later in the month, or dispense with the scrubbed version. They went with the latter option.

The decision raises questions of transparency, however. Making even censored versions of MCCLL reports inaccessible to the public prevents defense organizations and media outlets from learning what kinds of questions the center addresses or keeping the Marine Corps accountable to apply lessons learned. In the past, the newsletters were linked to by outlets such as the Small Wars Journal, a blog that "facilitates the exchange of information ... in order to advance knowledge and capabilities in the field," according to its website.

Sonntag wrote about the center for the veteran and active-duty audience of the Marine Corps Gazette in 2011, calling the organization a "one-stop gold mine of information."

The Marine Corps plans to continue the center into the foreseeable future; the Corps' Service Campaign Plan 2014-2022 encouraged deputy commandants and commanding officers to submit their lessons learned for Center for Lessons Learned archives.

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