5 June 2001

The Issue Is Not Leakers, But Leadership By Fear!

Anthony F. Milavic,

Major, United States Marine Corps (Retired)

In a "Back Talk" piece published in the 14 May 2001 Marine Corps Times, Lt. Col. Dave Lapan, USMC describes “an alarming trend — the proclivity of service members to leak information to the news media.” A Marine public affairs officer assigned to the Directorate for Defense Information at the Pentagon, he crafts his assertion around leaks concerning the Ehime Maru incident and air strikes on Iraq rather than leaks concerning breaches of integrity by senior officers in his own Service. This disingenuous behavior is consistent with the cause of, as he characterizes it, “an alarming trend” in leaks. Also, in scolding leakers, he addresses himself to the symptoms and avoids cause: Leakers are the products of superiors who fear the truth and have inculcated fear of expression in their subordinates as a defensive measure.

 On 29 December 2000, the Commanding Officer, VMMT-204 (the Corps’ only MV-22 Osprey squadron) was taped telling members of his command to “lie” about the maintenance records of their aircraft; an aircraft that had been involved in two accidents that year killing 23 Marines. In leaking a copy of that tape to the Secretary of the Navy, the leaker also wrote, "deception”  did not cause the death of those Marines "but if it continues it will cause many more. . . ." I would suggest a Marine trying to save the lives of other Marines is NOT “alarming” but refreshing and consistent with the Corps’ tradition of Semper Fidelis. What is “alarming,” is: 1) a Marine officer telling those in his charge to “lie”; and, 2) the number of officers in his chain-of-command potentially involved in this deception. On 24 April, it was reported that the Pentagon’s inspector general had subpoenaed phone records of as many as 12 Marine Corps officers in an investigation of whether maintenance reports of the Osprey were falsified; i.e., others are suspected of lying in this affair.

This episode flies in the face of a long-standing Marine tradition of candor and is symptomatic of a sea change in that culture noted by a venerable Marine institution--the Marine Corps Gazette; according to its banner, “Since 1916 the Professional Journal of U. S. Marines.” In November 1998, this journal initiated a series called, “Hot Button Issues” that was described as, “A forum to discuss issues at the forefront of today’s Marine Corps . . . .” However, the opinions and/or observations published in this forum carried “generic bylines, such as Infantry Company Commander; Captain, AV-8B Pilot; Former MSSG XO; etc.” The professional journal of U. S. Marines decided to hide the names of its Marine contributors “on issues at the forefront of today’s Marine Corps.” These Marines were, for all intents and purposes, “leakers.” The Gazette staff knew that Marine officers were not expressing themselves on critical issues for fear of repercussions and went to this extreme to bring out the truth. Under a new editor, the last installment of this series appeared in the December 2000 issue of the magazine. The next month, the tape of the Commanding Officer, VMMT-204 telling his Marines to “lie” was leaked to the Secretary of the Navy and the media.

Evidently, this change in the Corps’ cultural environment was also noted by General Jones when he assumed the position of Commandant of the Marine Corps in 1999. One of the first things he attacked was the “Zero Defects” mentality that he identified in the Corps. The policy of Zero Defects means that subordinates’ errors are not tolerated and, by implication, their superiors don’t make any: As no one told the emperor he had no clothes, no one tells a perfect boss he is wrong. Therefor, subordinates are left to leaking as their only avenue of expression; at least, those who care enough about the Corps and their Marine brothers and sisters. As demonstrated by the Osprey revelations, General Jones has not yet eliminated the Zero Defects mentality he inherited.


Semper No Fear!


Anthony F. Milavic

Major USMC (Ret.)