Conversations with military spokespeople can be curt, even confrontational, but they are not supposed to go this way.
“Nick, we’re not going to respond to any of your questions” Lt. Cmdr. Anthony Falvo, the head of U.S. Africa Command’s Public Affairs Branch, told me by phone last October. “We just don’t feel that we need to.”
I asked if Falvo believed AFRICOM didn’t need to address questions from the press in general, or just me in particular.
“No, just you,” he replied. “We don’t consider you a legitimate journalist, really.”
Then he hung up on me.
For the previous two months — after The Intercept revealed that Cameroonian troops tortured prisoners at a remote military base also used by U.S. personnel and private contractors for drone surveillance and training missions — AFRICOM had ignored my emails and phone calls. Finally, about a week and a half before Falvo’s flare-up, spokesperson Robyn Mack answered a call of mine. I wanted to verify some public information and clarify a few points, and Mack asked for my questions. I had only just begun relaying the first of them when she interrupted me.
“Hello, hello, Nick are you there? Hello?” she said over the crystal-clear connection.
“Yes, I’m here,” I replied more than once.
Then she hung up on me.
I called back within seconds. No answer. I called again and again. Finally, someone picked up the phone and told me that Mack was out to lunch … along with everyone else in the entire office. I left a message and called back, not only for Mack but other spokespersons – Capt. Jennifer Dyrcz, Samantha Reho, and Falvo, too — every business day, during working hours, for the next week, around 200 calls, but they were answered only on rare occasions and then only to hang up on me. (I didn’t receive replies to my emails either.) I continued to call and the response was nothing if not consistent.
“Public affairs, this is Robyn, how can I help you?” said Mack on November 15, 2017.
“Hi Robyn, it’s Nick Turse from The Intercept,” I replied.
Since the combat deaths of four Special Forces soldiers in Niger in October, AFRICOM has been under greater media scrutiny than at any other time in its history. There have also been reports that Navy SEALs are being investigated in the strangulation death of another Green Beret in neighboring Mali (the site of previous shadowy deaths of special operators), and that U.S. personnel took part in a massacre in Somalia. The command has deflected questions about the killing in Mali, offered murky and shifting explanations of the attack in Niger, and cleared U.S. personnel of wrongdoing in Somalia before launching a new investigation into the killings. All of this comes as the Defense Department as a whole has become less transparent and accessible, according to numerous journalists who cover U.S. national security. At the same time, according to the Pentagon’s Inspector General, there has been a rise in complaints of misconduct by senior officials as well as reprisals against whistleblowers.
The stated mission of U.S. Africa Command’s public affairs branch is to help “strengthen national and international understanding of and confidence in USAFRICOM’s mission” as well as keep “the American people and the international community informed of its activities.” The command’s website notes that “transparency is achieved as we emphasize timely, relevant and professional news and information dispersal about AFRICOM and our African Partners.”
AFRICOM disperses lots of information through its own media arm – news releases that often make the command sound like a camo-clad Peace Corps with barely a presence on the African continent. Over the years, I’ve dispersed plenty of information that doesn’t hew to AFRICOM’s narrative. My articles have exposed a far heavier footprint of outposts and shined light on shadowy drone bases and assassination programs and special ops missions … but more on that later.
In numerous past instances, AFRICOM has responded to my queries, and the command regularly does the same for other reporters — even earning praise on occasion. AFRICOM also woos African journalists, hosting them at the command’s headquarters in Germany in an effort to “enhance” their “understanding of the command’s mission, operations, programs and engagements on the African continent.”
Members of the AFRICOM press office also advise, mentor and conduct “information exchanges” with public affairs officers and spokespeople from African militaries. “If it takes too long to answer their questions, they may have the impression that you’re hiding something. So it’s better to have something you can answer immediately,” the command’s Eric Elliott once advised members of the Mauritanian Army’s Directorate of Communications. (This isn’t to say Elliot practiced what he preached. He was one of a series of AFRICOM spokespeople who strung me along for six months, promising information about U.S. military outposts that never arrived. It still never has — and I made that request in 2012.)
Publicly, the command has emphasized that AFRICOM personnel learn as much from the exchanges as do their African counterparts. Behind the scenes, however, some in the AFRICOM press office appear to have a low opinion of certain African partners. In October, while attempting to hang up on me, public affairs personnel accidentally put me on speakerphone, allowing me to listen in on their closed-door conversations in their office for about an hour. At one point, Falvo asked if there was any “new intelligence” regarding Nigerien military operations in the wake of the ambush that killed the four U.S. soldiers. “You can’t put Nigeriens and intelligence in the same sentence,” replied someone in the office. Snickers followed.
This past summer, Falvo took part in a three-day event to “discuss public affairs best practices” with personnel from Malawi’s military, national police force, and Ministry of Immigration. “It’s important to hold meetings like this because as public affairs officers, we are all faced with the same issues whether in Malawi, or the United States,” he said. “Our field is one that forces PAOs to constantly be on top of their game and interpersonal exchanges like this help us to collectively stay sharp.”
When it comes to me, Falvo seemed to “stay sharp” by aborting my requests for information. I’ve regularly received return receipts that say my email to him “was deleted without being read.” This happened, for example, on July 22, 2016; July 28, 2016; July 29, 2016; August 1, 2016; August 4, 2016; August 8, 2016; August 9, 2016; August 10, 2016; August 16, 2016; August 19, 2016; August 30, 2016; September 6, 2016; September 7, 2016; September 9, 2016; September 12, 2016; October 30, 2017; November 6, 2017; November 17, 2017. You get the picture.
This is all to say that “news and information dispersal” has not always, in my experience, been AFRICOM’s strong suit. From screening phone calls to deleting emails to unfulfilled promises of information, the command has long taken steps that seem designed to frustrate my reporting. (And I haven’t been alone.) Even Mack’s phone-went-dead gambit wasn’t original: I went through the same thing with AFRICOM’s then-chief of media engagement, Benjamin Benson in 2014 when I called him 32 times on a single business day.
I know, it sounds excessive, but I made those calls to prove a point. I was sure Benson was there. I was sure Benson was ducking my calls. So I decided to test my theory. I placed those 32 calls from a phone line that identified me by name. He never answered. Then I placed a call from a different number so that my identity would be concealed. Benson answered on the second ring. Once I identified myself, he claimed that the connection was poor and the line went dead.
The Navy, Lt. Cmdr. Falvo’s service branch, defines “news media representatives” as those “employed by a civilian radio or television station, newspaper, newsmagazine, periodical, or news agency to gather and report on a newsworthy event.” The classification also includes “bloggers and other Internet-based media.” I certainly meet the criteria. So I’m left to wonder: Am I considered illegitimate for focusing on accountability journalism; for shedding light on subjects AFRICOM would rather stay hidden? After all, Africa Command’s most recent round of intransigence arose after I reported on torture by Cameroonian forces at a shadowy drone base used by Americans.
In October, as I listened to the behind-the-scenes conversations at AFRICOM’s headquarters, I noticed that while press office personnel were ignoring my phone calls and hanging up on me (while I was on the speakerphone, I was simultaneously making calls from a separate line), the command was entering into embargo agreements with other reporters — providing information on background to journalists who would withhold reporting about Sgt. La David Johnson, one of the Special Forces soldiers killed in the Niger ambush. Such arrangements are not uncommon in some news circles and are sensible in cases where releasing information may endanger lives. Still, my treatment compared to reporters who agreed to play ball with the Africa Command press office was striking.
AFRICOM and I have been at odds since I published my first article on the command back in 2012, when they took issue with my characterization of their activities. What was going to be a one-off piece on U.S. military activities in Africa instead became a beat I’ve covered over the last five years for The Intercept, TomDispatch, and Vice News. Over that time, AFRICOM’s media shop has consistently produced stories that portray it as something more akin to a humanitarian organization than the combatant command it actually is. From their coverage. you might think that AFRICOM almost exclusively trains chaplains and drills water wells, provides Africans with medical and dental care, carries out “disease prevention assistance,” teaches “basic hand washing methods,” hosts, sponsors, or takes part in an almost endless number of innocuous conferences, colloquia, symposia, summits, ceremonies, meetings, fora, and panels, while also teaching “local children oral hygiene,” providing school supplies to children, improving “education opportunities for children,” playing music to “entertain children,” and giving shoes to, you guessed it, children.
For the last five years, I’ve endeavored to tell the stories that AFRICOM doesn’t. I’ve used secret documents to shed light on a network of African drone bases integral to U.S. assassination programs, and I’ve used formerly secret documents to reveal an even larger network of outposts across the continent; I’ve exposed murder and torture by local forces on a drone base in Cameroon that was built-up and frequented by U.S. forces; the expansion of a shadowy drone base in the Horn of Africa and its role in lethal strikes against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria; the construction of a $100 million drone base in Niger; a previously unreported outpost in Mali that was apparently overrun by militants after a 2012 coup by a U.S.-trained officer; the hushed investigation by the Defense Department’s Inspector General into failures in planning, executing, tracking, and documenting humanitarian projects; untoward behavior, sexual assaults, drug use, and other criminal acts by members of the command; the skyrocketing number of special ops missions in Africa; and the even larger increase in the number of U.S. military activities overall; a surge in the number of special ops personnel on the continent; the proliferating number of African terror groups; a list of the African countries where American commandos deployed in 2017; the existence of a network of National Security Agency eavesdropping outposts in Ethiopia; as well as details about U.S. missions in Niger, including the October 2017 ambush that killed four American soldiers.
The Department of Defense says that discriminating against reporters for writing unfavorable stories is, itself, not legitimate behavior. “Information will not be classified or otherwise withheld to protect the U.S. Government from criticism or embarrassment,” according to the Defense Department’s 2017 “Principles of Information.” And being a member of the press, legitimate or not, seemingly has no bearing on the question of the department’s responsibility to offer answers. “It is the policy of the Department of Defense to make available timely and accurate information so that the public, the Congress, and the news media may assess and understand the facts about national security and defense strategy,” the Principles of Information add. “Requests for information from organizations and private citizens shall be answered in a timely manner.”
As this article was nearing publication, things changed a bit for me. AFRICOM spokesperson Samantha Reho replied to an email from me, promising answers to questions for an upcoming story. Reho also passed along word that Lt. Cmdr. Falvo is no longer with the command. But she did not reply to multiple questions about why AFRICOM deemed me to be an illegitimate reporter, if I was now considered legitimate, why the command finally decided to respond to me, and whether AFRICOM would regularly take my calls and answer my questions in the future. She also did not comment on why Falvo left the command and where he has gone.
There is no policy or regulation regarding the classification of a journalist as illegitimate, according to Defense Department spokeswoman Maj. Audricia Harris. She said that, in her experience, a reasonable cause for a reporter being shunned would be publishing information that was provided off the record which ended up “getting someone killed” — something I’ve never done nor been accused of. Maj. Harris also spoke in general terms about the proper behavior of public affairs personnel. “Any time our service members act in an unprofessional way, it is not considered acceptable. And we do encourage professional behavior from all of our service members,” she said.
Harris added, “You’re always welcome to file a grievance against the government.”