Emails obtained using a FOIA request reveal how naval officers really feel about critical reporting.
At first, the 2014 crash of a U.S. Navy helicopter off the coast of Virginia seemed like an unfortunate—but nevertheless fairly routine—training accident.
But after reading Navy investigative reports, meeting with sources, and speaking with colleagues who’d been researching the case, my team and I quickly realized that there was more to it. The crash was a symptom of much deeper problems related to how the Pentagon works, and it was clear that we needed to bring these problems to light.
And so after nearly three years of production, involving dozens of interviews, more than 50 public-records requests, and more than 150 hours of footage shot, the investigative documentary Who Killed Lt. Van Dorn? finally screened for the public in October 2018.
The film investigates the death of Wesley Van Dorn, a widely revered Naval Academy graduate and pilot. On January 8, 2014, he was killed in a training mission when the MH-53E Sea Dragon helicopter he was flying plunged into the Atlantic after a fire broke out on board. The film digs into the causes of the crash and, through the experience of ordinary sailors and marines, raises questions about the defense establishment and the Pentagon’s priorities.
I produced the film at the Investigative Reporting Program at UC Berkeley. It was the culmination of a four-and-a-half-year reporting effort that included collaborations with The Virginian-Pilot, NBC News, and Honolulu Civil Beat.
Our reporting revealed that the Navy knew about safety issues on the helicopter and leadership problems in its squadrons, but was slow to do anything about them. We found that 132 people have died on the Navy and Marine versions of this helicopter in the past 35 years, despite it never being shot down in combat. The 53E is the deadliest aircraft in the military.
Who Killed Lt. Van Dorn? picked up an audience award at its first film festival—others went to the future Oscar winners Green Book and Free Solo—and it continues to stir people.
One party, however, consistently refused to contribute to the documentary: the U.S. Navy.
The Navy participated in our ongoing newspaper coverage and in the NBC News story we helped produce, and we used some video we gathered along the way. But despite our requests, made over more than two years through phone calls and emails, Navy officials would not engage with us for the film. And so, after a screening in Norfolk, Virginia—where Van Dorn’s squadron is based—in November, we filed a Freedom of Information Act, or FOIA, request for internal Navy communications about the film. The response came back in mid-February.
It’s hardly surprising that an arm of the government would decline to participate in a story that it perceives as negative or potentially embarrassing. Nevertheless, the heavily redacted response—covering 64 pages—offers a glimpse behind the curtain to reveal a Navy bureaucracy obsessed with damage control.
“Garbage journalism,” “we have little to worry about,” and “my hope is that this will now slowly go away” were among the opinions Navy officers expressed about the film that critics have described as “riveting” and an “outrage-inducing … blistering expose.”
The Navy has a 181-page public-affairs policy to guide officers in how to perform their duties as communicators: “[Public-affairs] principles include accountability to the public, full disclosure, expeditious release of information, alignment, and professional ethics.” The timely release of accurate information, no preferential treatment to certain individuals or media outlets, and providing information even if it may not be flattering are tenets that are supposed to help the Navy maintain its credibility.
“Potential embarrassment is not a justification to withhold information,” the document states. But when it came to data that would have showed that the Sea Dragon still lagged far behind other aircraft in the fleet in terms of safety, the Navy did just that: withhold.
The documents we obtained show that avoiding the film and its findings seemed to be the priority for the Navy.
For this article, I posed a range of questions to the Navy, both to the service’s top public-affairs office at the Pentagon––the U.S. Navy Office of Information––and to the office that handles press for aviation in Norfolk. Some of my questions were directed to people who I believed wrote some of the redacted emails. I wanted to know about the Navy’s policy for deciding whether or not to participate in stories; sought clarity on specific emails that we received, which are included below; and asked for reactions to comments put forward by others. The Navy gave one response to cover all the questions.
“Per the Department of Defense’s principles of information, Navy Public Affairs is committed to the accurate and timely public release of information,” Commander Dave Hecht, the public-affairs officer for Naval Air Force Atlantic, said in an email. He added that according to the Navy’s public-affairs policy, “information is not withheld to protect the government from criticism or embarrassment. The Navy routinely supports a wide range of externally-produced media productions, including documentaries within guidelines set in Dept. of Defense (DoD) Instruction 5410.16. Unfortunately, the Navy cannot support every production request which does not meet those expressed requirements. Each is evaluated on a number of factors to put forth the best and most accurate image of the U.S. military.”
I reached out to the Office of Information to see if it had anything to add. In an email, it said it did not.
On my final reporting trip for the documentary, in late 2017, I asked my main public-affairs contact again whether Van Dorn’s squadron would be willing to participate in the film. He declined and gave me the usual rap, that it’s Navy policy not to work with filmmakers who don’t have a distribution deal in place. Instead, he said he’d send me some updated data that reflected how the Sea Dragon’s performance had improved.
The emails we obtained show that he got in touch with the Naval Safety Center, the office that tracks safety data. “What I’m looking to do is showcase how procedural changes instituted since 2014 have resulted in a decrease in mishaps and a much safer airframe. Thanks for helping me tell this story,” he wrote.
The reply, we discovered, was grim. While the aircraft didn’t have a major accident from early 2014 to 2017 (apart from Van Dorn’s), it still had a crash record about three times higher than the overall naval helicopter fleet during the same period.
The official never shared that information with me.
While many military reporters were understandably reluctant to discuss with me their treatment by public-affairs officers—they want to keep doing their job—some have clearly encountered the same treatment. The Navy’s attitude is also reflective of the overall direction at the Pentagon, where there hasn’t been a televised briefing in nearly a year.
“The military wants control of the message, probably more than others, because they’re used to being in control,” says Dana Priest, a Pulitzer Prize–winning reporter for The Washington Post who spent years covering the military and national-security issues. “The actual facts … seem to be of secondary consideration. It’s backwards. It seems like what you’d really care about is the substance.”
In advance of the screening in Norfolk, the local newspaper, The Virginian-Pilot, told its readers that the reporting in the film “may anger, frustrate and surprise you.”
“Watching ‘Who Killed Lt. Van Dorn’ will not be the most pleasant thing to do the day after Veterans Day,’’ the newspaper wrote, “but it does honor those at the tip of the spear while administering some tough truth about the Pentagon.”
It may not be surprising, then, that the paper’s former military reporter, Mike Hixenbaugh, was dismissed in the emails as someone on an “anti-military crusade.”
Or that an officer’s position was that I’m “an annoying pain in the ass.”
“Sir,” the reply from the FOIA officer began, “unless there is anything else about the contents of the emails that causes them to fall under a FOIA exception, then those emails are potentially releasable.”
In one of the emails we received, a public-affairs officer wrote to colleagues and recommended that they keep their distance from our Norfolk screening. He said he was “sure” I planned to “ambush” naval leaders with a camera crew if they attended the film.
I didn’t have a film crew at the event, for which more than 200 people filled the theater. Van Dorn’s widow, Nicole; his parents; and many others connected to the three sailors who died in the crash and the two who survived attended the screening.
“The Norfolk showing of his film was supposed to be his big splash but it failed to generate much media interest,” another email said, while erroneously stating that the film had been out for nearly a year. It had just premiered a month before. “My hope is that this will now slowly go away,” the officer concluded.
Stories don’t always go away slowly or quietly, as much as Navy officers hoped the film would. A prominent recent example is ProPublica’s multipart series on two fatal ship collisions in the Pacific in 2017 that killed 17 sailors. It published in early February.
The report was based on more than 13,000 pages of Navy documents, court records, and extensive interviews. Just as Who Killed Lt. Van Dorn? pointed out leadership and maintenance problems as contributing factors to helicopter crashes, the ProPublica series pointed to overworked and poorly trained crews, short staffing, high pressure from leadership to keep up a relentless pace of operation, failing equipment, and lack of maintenance as the causes of the ship collisions. The Navy declined to directly answer questions for the story, the reporters wrote.
“We attempted to engage with the Navy on our big story for months,” Pulitzer Prize winner T. Christian Miller, one of the ProPublica reporters, told me in an interview in March. “We submitted written questions, told them what we were doing, and why we were doing it.”
He added, “Prior to the running of our story, I would describe the Navy’s input on our story as minimal. They basically turned us down in trying to help the story.”
Less than a week after the 26,000-word series was published, Senator Angus King of Maine asked Admiral Phil Davidson, the head of the U.S. Pacific Command, about ProPublica’s findings at a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing. Davidson encouraged the senator to look at the 280 ships that didn’t have collisions, not the two that did.
The Navy didn’t want to talk about the substance of the ProPublica stories, just as it declined to talk about the critical issues raised in Who Killed Lt. Van Dorn?
Miller said that ProPublica again reached out to the Navy two weeks after the series published for a follow-up piece about whether the Navy was making the reforms it said it was implementing.
“This time they responded very quickly and we got an interview with the No. 2 guy in the Navy,” Miller told me. He added that the Navy has remained engaged since then.
So far, distribution for Who Killed Lt. Van Dorn? has mirrored that of many independent films, finding its audience through film-festival and community screenings. As rewarding as individual showings are, the process can be frustratingly inefficient for filmmakers.
My team and I knew we had a powerful story. So we decided to use another medium to help the story find a mass audience.
That opportunity was a collaboration with Reveal from the Center for Investigative Reporting and took the form of a nearly hour-long radio story, which we got to work on in the fall. We had great interviews with the film’s central characters, so a version of the film built around its audio seemed fitting. And maybe, with a national outlet in place, the Navy would finally participate and answer questions about the Sea Dragon’s terrible safety record.
Reveal is broadcast by more than 470 stations, and its podcast has 1.4 million monthly downloads. The Center for Investigative Reporting has won Emmys, duPonts, Peabodys, and numerous other journalism awards and honors. But somehow it still didn’t meet the Navy’s “threshold” to justify participating.
An officer said of the film and the radio adaptation, “If this is the best deal he can land, I feel we have little to worry about.”
The day before the fifth anniversary of Van Dorn’s accident, January 7, Dan Grazier, of the Project on Government Oversight, published a podcast of his own. Grazier, who left a career in television news after 9/11 to join the Marines, now focuses his attention on military reform. His podcast consisted of an extended interview with Nicole Van Dorn, followed by a brief interview with me.
A few days later, a public-affairs officer wrote that the “film/podcast is garbage journalism at best.” It’s not clear whether he was referring to the POGO podcast that was linked in the email or to the forthcoming Reveal podcast I’d told him I was pursuing.
I called Nicole to tell her about the email.
“Because I have now been on so many outlets, so many news articles, they’re desensitized to the pain of a widow and to boys who will never have their biological father back,” she said. “So it makes it easier, frankly, [to think,] She’s trying to make herself some kind of celebrity, to use her husband’s death to her advantage. That is the part that makes me really sad about the leadership of the Navy, and really fucking angry.”
When I told Grazier about the email, he questioned why the Navy would resort to smearing those who try to point out problems.
“That’s quite interesting considering that my contribution to this story was an interview with a widow of a pilot who was killed,” he said.
Regarding the email deriding Hixenbaugh as someone on an “anti-military crusade,” Nicole Van Dorn said, “It’s an attempt to transfer blame.”
“Which came first?” Nicole asked. “The issues that are plaguing the military, or Mike observing and publishing them?”
Hixenbaugh, who was one of the Investigative Reporting Program’s reporting partners for our ongoing coverage of the Sea Dragon and a fellow at our organization, is now a journalist for the Houston Chronicle. There, his Hurricane Harvey coverage helped the Chronicle become a Pulitzer Prize finalist. He began covering the military beat at The Virginian-Pilot in 2012. He told me he never regarded his—or our—coverage of the Sea Dragon as anti-military.
“Too often, I feel like they’re out there protecting the Navy’s interests or flag officers or protecting individual officers rather than just being honest brokers of the truth,” he said of public-affairs staff.
Retired Air Force Colonel Don Christensen agrees. The problem, he told me, is that those public-affairs officers work for commanders who, rather than the truth, prioritize self-preservation.
“It’s always defensive. It’s never self-reflective. They will never admit that they did something wrong, no matter what the evidence is,” he said.
Christensen was chief prosecutor for the Air Force, but he left the military frustrated after he saw a conviction in an officer’s sexual-assault case get thrown out by the officer’s commanding general. He’s now the president of Protect Our Defenders, a human-rights organization that focuses on sexual assault in the military.
The wagon-circling that Christensen and the other military reporters we’ve spoken with have encountered may help a handful of senior officers and other powerful interests, but it often does little for ordinary troops. And it hurts the military’s standing with the public.
As of 2018, according to a Gallup poll, the public regarded the military as among the most trusted institutions in the country, beating others (Congress, newspapers, public schools, organized religion, and more) by a wide margin. Seventy-four percent of respondents said they have either “a great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in the military.
There’s no guarantee that things will stay that way.
“The military is going to exist no matter what the bad news is,” Christensen said. “But lying about the bad news erodes the trust of the American people. Same with avoiding it.”
Jason Paladino contributed research for this article.