Army Spokesman: Don’t Criticize President Over Sequester
Reminding government employees that they are employees of the government is suddenly controversial.
Weekly Standard‘s Daniel Halper has the story (“Army Spokesman Reminds Employees and Civilians Not to Criticize Commander in Chief“):
Stephen D. Abney, the chief public affairs official for the Army’s Joint Munitions Command, recently sent a message to all 6,000 employees he speaks for: Don’t criticize President Barack Obama or any political party to members of the press. The message was received by civilian contractors as well.
“It’s not meant for contractors… It wasn’t intended for contractors,” said Abney of the email, which details how folks should deal with the press because of sequestration (mandatory spending cuts).
The message was “intended to remind our employees that they are not spokespersons for the government,” said Abney on the phone today.
Abney says he was just reminding employees that the commander in chief—President Barack Obama—is their boss.
Which, it turns out, in the case of uniformed military personnel and civilian employees of the DoD, he is. The full text of the letter doesn’t add any spark; indeed, it defuses the story even further:
Subject: Sequestration – Media Tips
To JMC employees,
Because of media interest in sequestration and furlough, you may be approached or contacted by a reporter at some point and asked to comment.
If you don’t wish to speak with a reporter, politely decline.
If you agree to be interviewed, remember that you’re expressing your personal opinion, not that of anyone else – and certainly not the opinion of JMC or the Army.
Avoid giving an answer that might be perceived as criticism of the Commander in Chief or any political party.
If you’re asked to provide an official statement, refer the reporter to JMC PAO, the official spokesperson for the command. Their number is [REDACTED].
No, this isn’t, as some commenters seem to think, tantamount to fascism or some sort of cult of personality. Rather clearly, Abney is worried that employees none too happy with the prospect of taking unpaid leave because the ninnies in Washington can’t get their act together are going to spout off in the press, with the most unprofessional quotes likeliest to see print or airtime.
Notice, too, the caveat “Avoid giving an answer that might be perceived as criticism of the Commander in Chief or any political party.” Given the voting behavior of federal employees, Abney is likely as worried that employees are going to go public with complaints about Congressional Republicans being responsible for the whole mess as with gripes about the president. Both of which are healthy signs of a democracy. Neither of which, however, are permissible conduct by government employees, especially military personnel.
UPDATE: While the uniformed military face all manner of restrictions on their speech, all federal employees—and many state government employees whose positions are funded by the federal government—are covered under the Hatch Act. Most of them, including most DoD civilians, are Less Restricted Employees and given wide berth in their political expression so long as it’s done on their own time and there’s no reasonable basis to conclude that they’re speaking in their official capacity. Others, including employees of most intelligence and law enforcement agencies and all Senior Executive Service employees, are Further Restricted Employees who face quite onerous restrictions on their activity and can’t donate to campaigns or parties, wear bumper stickers, comment on a blog, or even forward emails or social media postings that advocate for a party or candidate.