Deputy Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan visits Naval Air Station Whidbey Island, Washington.

Deputy Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan visits Naval Air Station Whidbey Island, Washington. Tech. Sgt. Brigitte N. Brantley/Air Force

Pentagon Tells Leaders to Talk More With Contractors — and Less to the Public and Press

One day after Air Force leaders severely restricted media contacts, Deputy Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan encouraged Pentagon officials to engage more with industry.

Even as Pentagon leaders restrain military officials' contacts with the public and the press, they are pushing for more engagement with defense contractors.

On March 1, U.S. Air Force leaders suspended all interviews, embeds, and base visits for media organizations “until further notice.” The following day, Deputy Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan — a former Boeing executive — sent a memo to the Pentagon’s civilian and military leadership encouraging wider communication with defense contractors.

“Cultivating a competitive mindset requires that we optimize our relationships with industry to drive higher performance while always remaining within the letter and spirit of ethics and procurement regulations,” Shanahan wrote in the March 2 memo, entitled “Engaging With Industry.” “Leaders must talk with personnel about the importance of having dialogue with industry and help them understand the parameters for doing so.”

The move is the latest effort by the Trump administration to deepen relations between private industry and government. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis first encouraged expanded Pentagon-industry relations last April. Last month, at a trade show in San Diego, Shanahan talked about his desire to get industry “excited about working with the government.”

“Believe it or not, they work really hard at those shows to be able to share the products and services that they have and then to create relationships,” Shanahan told reporters traveling with him back to Washington. “Those shows really bring a lot of the government and folks out. That’s how they start to nurture those relationships.”

“If you don’t spend the time to go get to know them or see what they’re doing, it’s a missed opportunity,” he said.

The Defense Department’s No. 2 civilian, Shanahan manages the Pentagon and oversees the acquisition and budget efforts. His March memo, first reported by Inside Defense, directs Pentagon civilians and the military to “optimize our relationships with industry to drive higher performance.”

“Industry is often the best source of information concerning market conditions and technological capabilities,” Shanahan wrote. “This information is crucial to determining whether and how the industry can support the Department’s mission and goals.”

To drive home his point, he included two pages of “DoD Myth-Busting on Communications with Industry” and two of ethical boundaries.

The push for more Pentagon-industry communications comes after other top leaders have ordered restrictions on talking with the public and the press. In March 2017, the Chief of Naval Operations cautioned his people to be more careful in what they say in public, saying that he did not want to give adversaries useful information. Shanahan's boss Mattis struck a similar tone in an October memo. And now the Air Force has followed suit. Among other steps, it is ordering its public affairs officials to go through operational security training.

In January, a lawmaker told a major naval conference outside Washington, D.C., that the new tight-lipped policies were hurting the military's efforts to get what it wants from Congress.

“I don’t mean to single out the Navy here. I understand there was similar guidance from [the Office of the Secretary of Defense] across the services as well,” Rep. Mike Gallagher, R-Wisc., a retired Marine who serves on the House Armed Services Committee, told attendees of the Surface Navy Association annual symposium. “But I cannot emphasize how catastrophic a mistake I think that is.”