Pentagon & Congress

Emails: USMC spat with newspaper caused internal frenzy

Dozens of newly released internal emails provide additional insight into the Marine Corps' contentious effort last year to bar the independent Marine Corps Times newspaper and its newsstands from their traditional prominent spot at the front of on-base stores.

In response to a Freedom of Information Act request made 16 months ago, in February 2014, Marine Corps headquarters on Monday produced more than 100 internal emails related to the move, the high-level debate about it among top Marine officers and the wave of media coverage it generated. The communications are heavily redacted, but they do demonstrate the amount of time, effort and attention that the service's senior leaders devoted to a matter that mushroomed into a public-relations headache for the Pentagon.

Within weeks of the newsstand move, a Military Times investigation revealed the initiative originated nearly a full year prior, in May 2013, at the behest of the service's then commandant, then Gen. James Amos. Internal communications obtained by Military Times last year contradicted official statements justifying the newspaper's relocation and instead pointed to calculated retribution — referred to as a "ban" — for what would become a series of investigative reports examining a whistle-blower's claims that Amos abused his authority to ensure several rank-and-file Marines were punished for misbehaving in Afghanistan.

A monthslong investigation by the Defense Department Inspector General's Office eventually cleared the commandant of wrongdoing. Amos retired last fall.

All of the emails provided to Military Times this week are available here:

Among the emails released this week is an inquiry made to Marine Corps headquarters from Rear Adm. John Kirby, who at the time was a spokesman for then-Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel. "Can you give me some context on this MC Times story about exchanges moving the paper to the back? Think we may get asked about it and just want to understand," it says said. "Was the story accurate?"

The response, written by Brig. Gen. Terry Williams, then the director of Marine Corps public affairs, reads: "Copy sir, what is your office number?"

Also of note, one email sent to Marine public affairs officers from the Defense Department's press operations headquarters at Fort Meade in Maryland, outlineds social media statistics associated with a lengthy post published Feb. 12, 2014, on the Marine Corps' official Facebook page. Attributed to Gen. John Paxton, the Marine Corps' assistant commandant, the post attempted to explain to Marines why the newspaper had been was relocated within base stores, an explanation ultimately proved erroneous, only to be moved back just a few days later.

"We saw the bulk of our reach with Facebook where the post reached 245,000 people, was liked 1,037 times, shared 87 times and had 62 comments," the Fort Meade official, whose name is redacted in the email, wrote. "The conversation was split between Reawakening talk, backtracking on the decision, and CMC contempt."

CMC is an abbreviation for commandant of the Marine Corps. The Reawakening was a program launched by Amos in response to what he viewed as a series of public missteps by Marines that resulted in unwanted criticism of the service.

Another set of emails exchanged between Marine public affairs officers addressed the social media attention surrounding another Military Times story, this one highlighting a congressman's interest in the newsstand issue. These communications focused on how many times the story had been was shared on Twitter and who specifically had tweeted it.

Most reflections and recommendations on prosecuting a public affairs campaign in response to the reports are redacted entirely in the emails, as are many of the names associated with them. Marine officials considered those passages "pre-decisional advice," which is exempt from disclosure under FOIA.

One short exchange, however, does revealed the consternation that had taken took root behind the scenes. An email from an unidentified official to Lt. Gen. Terry Robling, then-commander of Marine Forces Pacific in Hawaii, linkeds to a story in which officials spoke to a Military Times reporter about the rationale for moving the publication.

"Sir, not good at all," the official wrote. "More when we speak."

Marine leaders first suggested the move was part of a broader effort to "professionalize" the front of the service's exchange stores by making room for books on the commandant's reading list and healthy snacks. Four public affairs officers, ranging in rank from colonel to major, were assembled to answer Military Times' questions and further explain how the newspaper's ouster was connected to planned changes in food and drink selections made available to Marines.

Amos' spokesman subsequently emailed the four officers to express the commandant's gratitude for "educating" the reporter. "Given the tone in the questioning," the email says said, "CMC appreciates the challenge you faced."

While officials maintained the move had nothing to do with Marine Corps Times' reporting, they ultimately moved the newspaper back to its original place on newsstands amid an outcry from Marines and other media. Paxton issued the order, along with his lengthy statement on Facebook.

Response to the move, also covered by Politico, the Daily Beast and other mainstream media outlets, demonstrated a "clear misunderstanding of intent," Paxton had said in his Facebook statement. Later, in response to lingering questions and criticism from Marines, Amos issued a statement saying there was "never any intention to ban" the newspaper.

There is little communication to or from Amos contained in the emails released this week. One message, written by his spokesman, amounteds to a heads up about the publication of Military Times' initial story concerning the newsstand move. The spokesman described the article as "full of the expected indignation."

Another email, written to Amos and Paxton two days prior to that story's publication, explained the public affairs team's strategy in answering Military Times' questions. Copied on the message were three senior members of the commandant's legal team, a two-star general serving as the headquarters staff director, and two lower-ranking media advisers. Officials had handled the query "by explaining that the policy looks to professionalize the front areas of the stores," it said says.

The commandant provided a concise response to the group: "ok."

Marine Corps Times' staff writer Hope Hodge Seck and Military Times' Pentagon Bureau Chief Andrew Tilghman contributed to this report.

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