Base officials: New Air Force media rules won’t affect MacDill transparency

A KC-135 Stratotanker, a military aerial refueling aircraft, undergoes maintenance at MacDill Air Force Base last year. These planes, which have been flying since President Eisenhower was in office, are now being flown more than twice as much as scheduled because of ongoing foreign conflicts. [LOREN ELLIOTT   |   Times]
A KC-135 Stratotanker, a military aerial refueling aircraft, undergoes maintenance at MacDill Air Force Base last year. These planes, which have been flying since President Eisenhower was in office, are now being flown more than twice as much as scheduled because of ongoing foreign conflicts. [LOREN ELLIOTT | Times]
Published March 14

TAMPA — New restrictions on media engagement shouldn’t impact the flow of public information from MacDill Air Force Base, officials say.

"We don’t anticipate any change in transparency," said Air Force Capt. Jessica Brown, chief spokeswoman for the 6th Air Mobility Wing, the base’s host unit.

Earlier this month, the Air Force issued new rules imposing limits on how and when public affairs officials can talk to the media. The memo, first reported by Defense News, comes amid concerns over competitors like China and Russia finding out what the U.S. military is doing.

"As we engage the public, we must avoid giving insights to our adversaries which could erode our military advantage," the memo said.

MacDill is home to two Air Force wings, two major military commands, dozens of other units and pumps billions into the local economy. With nearly 20,000 employees and residents, the base is a vital part of the community. Restricting the flow of information has raised concerns from at least one organization representing journalists.

"When it comes to unclassified information, the presumption in a democracy should favor disclosure," said John Donnelly, president of the Military Reporters & Editors group. "Ultimately, the proof will be in the execution of this new guidance."

Until Air Force personnel finish new training, base visits, interviews and media embedding are suspended until further notice, according to the memo. Limited exceptions may be approved by the public affairs office of Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson. Even questions about human interest stories and personality profiles have to be referred to a higher headquarters for approval.

In the case of MacDill, that would mean approval from Air Mobility Command, located at Scott Air Force Base in Illinois.

But "don’t expect our engagement to change," said Brown, the 6th Air Mobility Wing spokeswoman. "We are still very much interested in communicating with our American public and sharing information.’’

Air Force 2nd Lt. Allison Mills, another 6th Air Mobility Wing spokeswoman, said the new rules won’t affect events already organized, including the upcoming Tampa Bay Community AirFest, scheduled for May 12 and 13. And the office is still fielding media inquiries.

Mills said several public affairs officials at the base have already gone through the new training, while the rest will soon. The training, Mills said, was done online and through conference calls.

"This is basically a retraining across the Air Force to ensure we are not crossing into any security information," Mills said.

Air Force officials stress that the measure is temporary.

"We always seek to strike the right balance of sharing information with the public and the need to prevent releasing potentially sensitive operational information that could be used by potential adversaries,’’ said Maj. Korry Leverett, a command spokesman.

While respecting the need for security, it "must be balanced against the need to inform the public, said Donnelly, with the Military Reporters and Editors group, which includes about 300 journalists, public affairs professionals, researchers, academics and students who specialize in national security.

"We worry that the definition of the kind of unclassified information that can be withheld is subjective," said Donnelly, the group’s president. "Given the ambiguity, officials who are wary about their careers may err on the side of withholding information. And in a worse-case scenario, such guidance could be used to justify keeping out of public view data that may simply be embarrassing to the Air Force but that the U.S. citizenry needs to know."

Contact Howard Altman at [email protected] or (813) 225-3112. Follow @haltman

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