Understand All the Guidelines for Release

Article 6 min
As your employer, the Department of Defense takes measures to also guard your privacy, along with all other service members and civilians. As a public affairs professional, there will be times when you are charged with releasing information to the public. You must know what information you can and can't talk about. Don't let yourself be a casualty in an information war. Release of Information (ROI) is about making sure you protect others' private information as ardently as you would protect your own.

Part of being a PA professional is ensuring accurate, timely and concise information is released. Final release authority usually rests with commanders, but a commander does not have the authority to release all information (ROI). Often a commander delegates ROI to the Public Affairs Officer. Understanding the regulations and the rules that govern and support ROI is critical to your job and the privacy and protection of others.

When to Release Information

Asking yourself three questions about ability, competence and authority will help you determine when to release information:

  1. Ability – Do you physically have the information to release?
  2. Competence – Are you the appropriate or best subject matter expert?
  3. Authority – Do you or your chain of command have the authority to release the information?

The Assistant Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs is the sole authority for releasing DoD information at the seat of government. DoD policy and service regulations outline specifically what information can be released about military matters and information about individual people.

Right to Know vs. Need to Know

One of the most critical points to consider is the right to know versus the need to know. Weighing the public’s right to know versus their need to know is a concept promoted by officials in all branches of the United States government as a best practice.

Most people believe a democratic government “of the people” should be open and without secrecy except in special circumstances. This is the public's right to know.

The public’s need to know, conversely, is the concept often used to protect certain information from potential enemies of the state. Some material must be kept confidential because that information is paramount to national security. For this reason, some information is released only when there is a “need to know.”

Rules & Regulations

The DoD Instruction 5230.09 Clearance of DoD Information for Public Release covers two major provisions:

  1. Accurate and timely information is made available to the public, the Congress and the news media to help the analysis and understanding of defense strategy and national security issues.
  2. The public release of official DoD information is limited only as necessary to safeguard national security.

This policy has been translated into the DoD Principles of Information, which can be summarized as a policy of “maximum disclosure, minimum delay.”

The DoD Instruction Security and Policy Review of DoD Information for Public Release assigns responsibilities, and prescribes procedures to carry out security and policy review of DoD information for public release.


The security review protects classified information, controlled unclassified information, or unclassified information that may individually or in aggregate lead to the compromise of classified information or disclosure of operations security. The policy review ensures that no conflict exists with established policies or programs of the DoD or the U.S. Government. Official DoD information that is prepared by or for DoD personnel and is proposed for public release will be submitted for review and clearance if the information:

  • Originates or is proposed for release in the National Capital Region by senior personnel (e.g., general or flag officers and Senior Executive Service) on sensitive political or military topics;
  • Is or has the potential to become an item of national or international interest;
  • Affects national security policy, foreign relations, or ongoing negotiations;
  • Concerns a subject of potential controversy among the DoD Components or with other federal agencies;
  • Is presented by a DoD employee who, by virtue of rank, position, or expertise, would be considered an official DoD spokesperson; or
  • Contains technical data, including data developed under contract or independently developed and subject to potential control in accordance with Reference (i), that may be militarily critical (as defined in the Glossary) and subject to limited distribution, but on which a distribution determination has not been made.”

The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA)  is a disclosure law that says within the executive branch of the government everything is releasable unless it falls in one of nine specific categories of information. The act does not  require exempted information be withheld, but permits it to be withheld.

Public affairs officers don't decide whether exempted information will be released. FOIA requests must be immediately passed to the FOIA Requester Service Center.

Nine exemptions for withholding information:

  1. National security – Documents classified top secret, secret, or confidential are not releasable
  2. Internal agency rules – Relieves the government of maintaining for public inspection routine material that's more or less trivial, such as employee parking rules or agency criteria regulations
  3. Exempt by other statute – Examples are the charter for the CIA or the Census Act, both of which protect information that is fundamental
  4. Trade secrets – Designed to protect trade secrets, like secret formulas
  5. Interagency or intra-agency memoranda or letters – Designed to protect working papers, studies and reports within an agency
  6. Personnel and medical files – Covers the same material as the Privacy Act
  7. Law enforcement information – Protects information that would jeopardize on-going investigations. Law enforcement information may be withheld for the following reasons:
    • If it could interfere with law enforcement proceedings
    • If it could deprive a person of a fair trial
    • If it constitutes an unwarranted invasion of privacy
    • If it discloses the identity of a confidential source
    • If it discloses investigative techniques
    • If it endangers the life or safety of a law enforcement official
  8. Bank reports – Reports prepared by federal agencies about the condition of banks and other federally regulated institutions may be withheld
  9. Oil and gas well data – Designed to prohibit speculators from obtaining information about the location of oil and gas wells of private companies”

The Privacy Act of 1974 Designed for citizens to review records kept about them by the government and to prevent government agencies from excessive disclosure of personal information. The Privacy Act and FOIA are complementary, but in cases where they conflict, FOIA takes precedence.

  • Age or date of birth: not normally releasable
  • Marital status and family members: not normally releasable
  • Gender: not normally releasable; where the fact of an individual’s gender is relevant in providing essential facts to the press, it may be released.
  • Decedents: privacy limitations usually do not apply to people who have died, but privacy of the next of kin must be considered
  • Home of record: generally releasable
  • Education, schooling and specialty: generally releasable
  • Awards, decorations and citations: releasable
  • Duty status: releasable
  • Home address and home telephone number: not releasable
  • Social security number: not releasable
  • Type of discharge: do not release if discharge is honorable, general, other than honorable, or entry level separation. The Department of Defense preserves this privacy. In the case of discharges resulting from court-martial, the proceedings and record are public. The approved sentence and subsequent clemency action are releasable.”

Weigh the right and need to know against these four limitations (SAPP) to ensure no violations to maximum disclosure are made:

  1. Security
    • The first and most important limitation
    • Refers to information that is formally classified or falls under operational security or essential elements of friendly information
    • Release of this type of information could cause harm to national security
  2. Accuracy
    • The most difficult
    • Ensure information accuracy before answering questions or releasing information
    • Sometimes the best answer is “I don’t know, but I’ll find out for you.”
  3. Propriety
    • Ensure all releases are in good taste
  4. Policy
    • Often specify release guidance
    • Examples of DoD policies that must be followed:
      • According to DoD Directive 5230.16 Nuclear Accident and Incident Public Affairs Guidance, it is DoD policy to respond to all public queries about the locations of nuclear weapons with one of the following statements, as appropriate:
        • “It is U.S. policy to neither confirm nor deny the presence or absence of nuclear weapons at any general or specific locations.”
        • “It is general U.S. policy not to deploy nuclear weapons aboard surface ships, tactical submarines and naval aircraft. However, we do not discuss the presence or absence of nuclear weapons aboard specific platforms.”
      • Policy guidance might not always be as a step-by-step process as a nuclear accident; it also might include innocent slips of the pen. Ignorance is no excuse. Accidents happen, but you can still be held liable.
      • In the end, it's your responsibility to guard against any SAPP violations when releasing information. This applies to writing, visual or audio stories or when releasing information to the media. When in doubt ask your leadership.”

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