Pentagon warns suppliers to watch what they say

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A letter sent by the Pentagon to defense contractors following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks advises them to be careful in their communications, including press releases and marketing information, as the U.S. shifts to a war stance.

The letter, distributed Oct. 2 and signed by Under Secretary of Defense E.C. "Pete" Aldridge Jr., stresses "during this national emergency the importance of the use of discretion in all public statements, press releases and communications made by your respective companies, and by your major suppliers."

The letter adds, "As we all know, even seemingly innocuous industrial information can reveal much about military activities and intentions to the trained intelligence collector. Statistical, production, contracting and delivery information can convey a tremendous amount of information that hostile intelligence organizations might find relevant."

A key question raised by the letter is what sort of information, product or otherwise, can be made public in the first place. Indeed, sources said the letter may usher in a return to the "operational security" that was the norm during the Cold War, when defense contractors were much more willing to keep most of their contracts secret lest they tip off the enemy.

Bob Vander Lugt, an attorney with the Washington law firm Vinson & Elkins L.L.C. who specializes in international and government contracts, said, "By and large they’ll still be able to put out robust information." Still, he added, "when [defense contractors] get a contract to fix or update a missile, it could indicate that something is wrong with the hardware. That kind of information has to be watched."

Vander Lugt, who is an officer in the Naval Reserve, said defense contractors are constantly concerned about their information leaking into the wrong hands. "Even if the [information] is not classified it could be of value to foreign intelligence officials who are trying to figure out the [allies’] next move."

Cheryl Irwin, a spokeswoman for the Pentagon, said the letter was an "exercise in discretion and who can be against that?" She said defense contractors have taken the letter to heart. "It’s not a clampdown but merely guidance," she said.

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John Dern, a spokesman for The Boeing Co., said: "The message was loud and clear and we heard it. When we look at communications on a day-to-day basis we will definitely be keeping it in mind."

Larry Hamilton, director-corporate communications in the Washington office of Northrop Grumman Corp., read a prepared statement to BtoB regarding the letter: "It’s a long-standing Northrop Grumman policy not to publicly release information concerning government contracts, products, services or deliveries without the coordination of the Department of Defense." He added that the company is "complying with the spirit of the memo."

Raytheon Co. is taking a similar approach, according to company spokesman Dave Shea, a former spokesman for the Defense Department. An internal memo from Raytheon Chairman-CEO Daniel P. Burnham, distributed soon after the Sept. 11 attacks, said media inquiries should be directed to the appropriate armed services customer.

"We were anticipating heightened interest in our weapons systems, and it’s prudent to remind our people of certain ground rules with regard to press inquiries," Shea said. He added that key members of Raytheon’s executive team have been told to be careful in their public comments.

Other observers said the letter, although distributed during extraordinary circumstances, was typical of the historical relationship between the Pentagon and defense contractors, particularly when the U.S. is at war. "It sounds pretty normal to me," said retired Army Major General William Nash, who is also a senior fellow with the Council on Foreign Relations. "It’s prudent for Defense to say to its contractors, ‘Hey, guys, let’s be careful.’ In the world of intelligence you never know what the enemy is looking for and companies have to be protective of their information."

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