Category Archives: Sea Control

Main podcast series of CIMSEC. Hosted by CIMSEC President, Matthew Hipple.

Sea Control 150: Former Secretary and First Lady of the Navy, John and Margaret Dalton, Pt. 2

By Travis Nicks

We were honored to speak with former Secretary of the Navy John Dalton and his wife, Margaret Dalton, about their service during the Clinton administration. Read or listen to Part One of this two-part interview here.

DOWNLOAD: Sea Control 150: Former Secretary and First Lady of the Navy, John and Margaret Dalton, Pt. 2

TN: You served as a leader for essentially your entire life. You started as a naval officer. We’ve talked about your business career, where you were a leader in every organization you worked for – from Goldman Sachs up to your post at the top of the banking industry in the government. And of course, you became Secretary of the Navy. I’m just wondering what your advice would be to Sailors and junior officers that want to serve their country in the same capacity that you have, or to the same degree that you have.                                             

JD: I got unsolicited – shortly after I became Secretary, I received “The Timeless Traits of Leadership” that this minister had sent me from California. And I never had heard of him or knew him. But he and his staff did a retreat, and they came up with these eight traits of leadership. And I tried my best to live by those. And they are: a leader is trusted, a leader takes the initiative, a leader uses good judgement, a leader speaks with authority, a leader strengthens others, a leader’s optimistic and enthusiastic, never compromises absolutes, and leads by example. And I think those traits of leadership were very helpful to me when I was in office.

In terms of my prior career, I think you can summarize those eight traits of leadership in another leadership program –basically, know your stuff, be a person of character, and take care of your people. And, you know, I think if you do either of those eight traits or following the summarized version that was very helpful to me. But I want to emphasize the fact, Travis, that I had some success in business and in government, and I had some failures in business and government. And so you know, everything’s not pretty and rosy. I mean, I’ve had a business one time where I thought I was going to face bankruptcy, I avoided it, but there are ups and downs in business and in government. And I tell midshipmen when I talk to them, and I tell interns when I talk to them, the three things that you have to rely on when things go badly (and they will go badly for all of us)… I talk about having a lot of balls in the air, but three of those balls are crystal and those are you family, your faith, and your friends. And I think relying on those kinds of things had been very helpful to me throughout my career – are things that should be emphasized in nurturing all of those things.

TN: So, Mrs. Dalton, if we could transition over to asking you some questions.

MD: You may do that.

TN: So, Mrs. Dalton, how did you find being the First Lady of the Navy?

MD: I loved every minute of it. It was a great, great experience. It opened my eyes so much. We had not been married when my husband was in the Navy – he was in graduate school when we married. So it was my first experience in any kind of Navy life. I just, I loved every minute of it. As you said, there were some tough times that he had that I was there for, but he loved every minute that he was in that position. Every day, it could be a hard day, but it was a good day. And he looked forward to going in every day. And that made happy. That made me really happy.

TN: So what kind of experiences do you feel like you had before you became the First Lady of the Navy that contributed to how well you were able to help the Navy after you became the First Lady of the Navy?

MD: Well, I’ll have to say that people all my life have told me that I was a good listener. And every time people had issues, you know, they would come and talk to me. Every now and then Johnny would say to me, “Your shingle. Did you have your shingle out today?” And so that was one thing that was helpful to me – that I was able to listen to what I was being told.

And when he first became Secretary, I was asked what kind of Secretary’s wife I wanted to be, whether I wanted to be active or whether I just wanted to go to social things. And I said, “No, I really wanted to be active.” And the quality of life issues and working with the wives and families became my bailiwick. And I have never had any trouble talking with people. All our married life we’d been in a lot of social situations, and I always felt comfortable, and so I was never uncomfortable with new groups and visiting with new groups. And I think that that prepared me – having had those experiences in the past, and just knowing that I have to be aware of what people are telling me and listening and being able to respond, or being able to pass them on as they need to be passed on.

TN: Alright. So what got your eye about quality of life issues in the first place that made you want to focus on quality of life issues?

MD: Well, the first time we ever took a trip alone, we went to Hawaii. One of our first travels was to Hawaii. And the women picked me off and Johnny went to meet with Sailors and there were ships. And I went to look at housing and schools and, you know, medical things. And the first thing they did was to drive me to look at housing. The first place we went was to see the Air Force housing, which was just lovely – and I thought this is a great, great way – I’ve never looked at how people in the Navy lived.

And then they said, “Now we want to show you the Navy housing.”

And I said, “Where?” And they were telling me where it was, and they said where it was. And I said, “Well, is it near that slum area that we saw?”

And they said, “That is the slum area.”

And I knew that right away – I said, “That can’t be.” We went to look at the houses and I was appalled. I said, “We can’t have anybody living like this. Why would anybody be in the Navy – why would anyone want to be married to someone in the Navy if this is how you live?” I mean there were terrible termite problems, there were holes in roofs. I’ll never forget this house – they had a sort of porch. It wasn’t necessarily some sort of porch or some additional thing. And there was a big space between the roof lines. And any time it rained, which was every day, rain came down between those two rooms. You can’t live like that. It was awful, it was just awful.

I was always interested in the medical things, and when they had issues with medical things and how could they get such and such when they were too far away. And the educational things were pretty well taken care of because the schools were good. But the housing was a real issue. That sort of kind of became my thing.

JD: If I could interrupt, on the housing thing. When she went to see that Navy housing in Pearl Harbor, she did her thing and I did mine. We came back and we were changing clothes for dinner, and I said, “How was your day?”

And she started telling me about it and how bad it was, and literally teared up talking about how bad Navy housing was. And she said, “You can’t let Sailors live like this.”

And I said, “Okay, Margaret, when I get back to Washington, we’ll ask for a briefing on the housing, and I want you to come.”

So, we had this briefing which was scheduled for 30 minutes, and it lasted about an hour and 20 minutes. And the civil servant who was leading the briefing said, “Mr. Secretary, thank you for asking for this briefing. I want you to know that I’ve never met a Secretary of the Navy before, and I’ve certainly never given a briefing, but I’m happy to tell you about Navy housing.” And so she went on to talk about Navy housing.

And I realized that we had a big problem, I mean, Margaret had already told me about it, but I could see that it was a bigger problem than I thought. And we did some more homework on it, and I asked for a meeting with Bill Perry, Secretary Perry, who was the Secretary of Defense at the time, and a very outstanding leader. And I asked for a meeting with him, and I went in to see him, and it was just the two of us. I guess somebody told me – our office not to bring any staff, and he didn’t have anybody there. And so I laid it out for him. I said, “Here’s what the Air Force spends per capita. This is what the army spends per capita. This is what the Navy spends per capita. And this is what the Marine Corps spends per capita.” I said, “Mr. Secretary, retention is going to be a major problem if we don’t correct this.”

He asked a few questions and we went back and forth. And I wasn’t there more than half an hour, you know, I finished and he got it. And he said, “Let me look at this and I’ll get back to you.”

Before the day ended, John Deutch called me. He was the Deputy Secretary of Defense at the time, and said, “You’ll have 100 million additional dollars to spend in the next two fiscal years – the remainder of what’s left this year and next year on Naval housing.” And he said, “Do you want it all to go for Navy Housing?”

TN: It really is just amazing how you can affect so much change by listening and noticing what are clear problems to the people experiencing them, but would otherwise never be recognized.

MD: The other thing, too, about that, is that these women… I don’t think their husbands would have liked it if they had gone and told the Secretary because of their careers. But they didn’t feel at all hesitant to tell me things. And I could tell my husband without giving any names. But I know that if they’d gone up person to person and said something, then that would have been an issue for the husband for sure. The husband would have perceived it as a big issue. But they could tell me things, and they told me a lot of things. I heard a lot in five and a half years.

TN: One question that I was curious about is that over the time that you all served as the Secretary and First Lady of the Navy, there was quite a few scandals and tragic periods – to include to tragedy from Tailhook, we talked a little about budgeting but it had some real dramatic implications for the fleet. And then I think it was 1995, CNO Admiral Borda took his own life tragically. And there was just a series of very public and sad experiences for the Navy family. And I’m curious how you felt, or how you responded to that, and how you were able to console and help recover the Navy in that time.

MD: Well I do think that the people were really affected by that, and I think – I didn’t hear as much as I thought I would have hear about that when we would travel about that. I heard more around here about it.

TN: Around here in D.C.

MD: Yes. And I think that probably, an awful lot of the people here knew Admiral Boorda – the wives and, of course, the officers enlisted. But the wives, many of them knew Admiral Boorda. And so it was a personal thing for an awful lot of the people around here. And I think that, you know, you deal that the way you deal with the death of any friend or any associate. I think probably, you had a lot more backlash.

JD: Well, I recommended to the Secretary of Defense, after interviewing four or five or six – I don’t remember how many people I interviewed to be the CNO, all three and four star admirals. I don’t think I interviewed anybody who was less than three star. But I interviewed a number of people and you know, recommended to the Secretary of Defense that Admiral Boorda be selected. And we talked about the morale problem. And Mike Boorda was a people person. And he was the first enlisted Sailor that made it to four stars and I thought with the morale problem that we had, that he would be good for the navy. You know, there were those who disagreed with that. I think he was a good CNO. He had his faults like we all do, but I remember being with him the day before he committed suicide. And he was as happy and as full of life and, you know, vintage Mike Boorda, the day before.

As a matter of fact, you know, I have a budget that includes the Navy and Marine Corps, and there’s always a tousle between the two services in terms of, well, how the pie’s going to be split. But, you know, I only have so many dollars for the Navy Department, and we have to fund two services. But, the CNO, Mike Boorda, and the Commandant of the Marine Corps, Chuck Krulak, asked for an appointment with me and they came in to see me the day before the budget was released, for me to send it down to Bill Perry. And he’s, the controller for the Department of Defense. And they came in and did a high five in front of my desk, and they said, “We got a recommendation for you that we think – we’re both happy with and we hope that you’ll support.” You know, for them to give, you know, a high five in my presence – I mean, they just wanted to show me…

TN: I don’t think a lot of Marines would believe that General Krulak was capable of giving high fives.

JD: But he did. He did that day, and the next day, I was in a meeting with three or four people. And typically, if the CNO needs to see me, or the Commandant, his aide will come in to see my aide and say, “I hate to interrupt the Secretary, but my boss needs to see me right away.” And that didn’t happen. Chuck Krulak came busting in. I mean, I can remember how the door opened. And he came in, he said, “Admiral Mike Boorda has been shot. And, he was at his home, and we have circumvented that the Navy Yard with Marines, and we are going to find the perpetrator.”

You know, he committed suicide. And so I went immediately to the hospital. I asked, we had a press conference and so on, and I just said, you know, “This is a terrible tragedy.” And they asked me a lot of questions, and I said, “I really don’t know any of the details at this point.”

At that point, it wasn’t even confirmed that it was a suicide. But, the next day, in asking questions, I talked to Admiral Pease, who was CHINFO. I said, “I know you had a meeting with Mike Boorda that morning. Tell me about it.”

Well he said, “We had finished this other meeting,” And then he said. “‘You know, you have this meeting this afternoon with a reporter from Newsweek,” he said. Admiral Boorda said, “What does he want to talk about?’” And he said, “He wants to talk about the medals.” And he said, “We’ll just tell him the truth.” And then, it was about lunchtime, and he said, “I’m going home to lunch.”

And he took the keys to the car – normally, the driver, you know, would – and he said, “No, I don’t want you to drive me. I’m going to drive my car home.” And so he drove his car home. And he’d said he was going to go have lunch with his wife. Well, he knew his wife was not there. She was on some social function, and so she was not there. And so he went home and wrote two suicide notes: one to the Navy personnel, and one to his family. And walked out in the side yard and killed himself.

It was a tragedy, and I’ll tell you, I know that President Clinton went to Mike Boorda’s home, I believe it was that evening, and met with his wife and his other – his children, and spent like an hour and a half visiting with them. And that was never reported. But I know that’s, you know, the family members have told me that’s what he did. And he really empathized with people and spent quality time with them, when things like this happened. It was a big blow to the Navy, you know, when this happened. It really was.

TN: How did you all, as a team, go about getting the Navy back on track, and making the leadership transition happen smoothly, and recover from the emotional toll of the situation as an institution?

JD: It was, you know, one step in front of the other. I mean, it was a tragedy, but you know, we had a job to do, and my job was to name a new or recommend a new CNO. And, you know, I talked to several people and recommended Jay Johnson. And the Navy, you know, had a job to do and had to move on. I mean, it was a tragedy, and there was a wonderful service at the National Cathedral, and the President spoke, and I spoke. But anyway, I talked about what a fine – I read the true gentlemen that was back in, and I said this depicts Mike Boorda, you know, he was a gentleman. A true gentleman. And I also told a story about what a great ship-handler he was. One time, we were at sea, and they did a man overboard drill. And, you know, Mike Boorda said, “I’ll take the con.” And so you know, the CNO is the officer of the death, the conning officer for this man overboard drill.

TN: I’m not sure if I’d be mortified or enthused.

JD: Well, you know, he pulled that ship around, and I mean, you know, you could look over the side, and there was the life preserver – the lifeline, floating…the man overboard. I mean, it was… And Admiral Boorda said, “Mr. Secretary, do you want to do one?”

I said, “No, thank you.” I mean, I knew where my skills were, and they weren’t – I mean, ship-handling to that level? I couldn’t compete with that.

TN: That would be fun to watch.

JD: But that was, that got a big laugh from the congregation when I said no thank you. But anyway, you know the Navy and Marine Corps are resilient. And they marched off and continued to march. They got the job done and they had a job to do, and it was an unfortunate incident, and it really was a terrible tragedy.

TN: Mrs. Dalton – did you see an emotional toll having an effect on leadership morale in D.C. at the time?

MD: I did not. Yeah, I mean, it was sad, and it was a shock, and people talked about it. But I really don’t remember it as – as he said, there was a job to be done. And I understood there was a lot of talk, but that was pretty much what it was. But we all, everybody tried to be supportive of Betty Boorda. I was just saying, one of the great things about Mike Boorda was the enlisted just loved him. I mean, he was so close to them.

JD: He was the Sailor’s Sailor. I mean, you know, he really was.

MD: Yes, he really – that was one of his great, great things. They – all over the Navy – they all thought he was wonderful. And they were so proud that somebody who had started out as an enlisted had risen to that rank.

TN: As the first person to be prior-enlisted and then become a four-star admiral – you alluded a little bit to controversy about that kind of ascension. I’m just curious how that played out, and how that was taken into account in his selection as CNO.

JD: Like I said, we, earlier, we had a morale problem, and you know, Mike Boorda was the Sailor’s Sailor, and you know, there wasn’t much pushback when he was named. I mean, he got confirmed easily. I mean, he had been Chief of Naval Personnel and been on the Hill a lot and had a lot of friends on the Hill, and they were very supportive of his nomination.

MD: He made friends very easily.

JD: Yeah.

MD: He was a real easy person to like.

JD: He really was.

TN: With three people in leadership – in Navy leadership – at the time that had people on the mind and had quality of life as a focus (the two of you and Admiral Boorda), I’m curious how you found the quality of life issues to be taken by the fleet if you found that Sailors and Sailors’ families were receptive to the kinds of changes that you were making with housing and with a restored focus on people, or if that was taken strangely.

MD: Oh no. They were thrilled. They were thrilled with the improvements that were being made. I mean, I have people to this day who come up and thank me. They really do.

JD: Well, I tell you what. I have an email from a three-star Army general, just in the last couple of days, and he said, “Please give my regards to Mrs. Dalton, the best First Lady of the Navy the Navy ever had.” I mean, you know, this is an Army three-star who said that about her.

MD: Well, I think it became apparent that morale and quality of life and the families were high on his mind, in addition to what their husbands were doing and that kind of thing. And they knew that I was there to speak up for them. And I’d pass on whatever I saw and whatever I heard. Like I said, it’s amazing that people will still say something, you know, all these years later. And they’re out, their husbands are out, and they’ll just say, “Oh, I remember X, Y, you know.”

JD: I mean, we left office in ’98, I mean, that’s been almost, 20 years ago.

MD: And I think it’s been a very long time since anybody’s paid attention to the family life. I mean, I could be wrong, but I think it had not been a priority.

JD: Particularly in the Navy Department. I think the Air Force and Army, they had emphasized those issues more than we have.

TN: Navy families are notoriously resilient and famously tough. I’m just curious if you found that in your listening to the families talk, if there was any resilience to bring up issues, or if…

MD: Not to me. Not to me. They tell me everything. I mean, I know if they told their husbands they had told me these things, they might not be happy, but they would tell me anything. I’d go in and we’d have these meetings, and every time we’d go someplace, I’d meet with a good sized group of ladies, and they never held back. They knew that I would pass it out, that I was genuinely concerned about it, because I really was. As I said earlier, I had no prior knowledge of Navy life at all. My father had been in the Army during the war, but he was long out before I was born. Or he was out shortly after I was born. And so I never knew anything at all about military life, and certainly not about family life in the Navy. This was my first experience with it, and it was a huge eye-opener.

TN: How so? How was it an eye-opener?

MD: Well, first of all, I thought that the deployments – I can’t imagine having my husband gone all the time. And I found that everybody just rolled with it. They knew that that was their life. And I found two – it was great how they all just sort of knew each other. They’d been stationed someplace with someone else – we were together in Iceland, or we were together wherever it was, you know. And the family feeling within the Navy is just phenomenal. It really is. There’s so much support, which I had no idea about. I mean, I didn’t have a reason to know. So I’d go, and anything I learned about any kind of Navy life or Marine Corps family life was new. And it was generally, for the most part, it was wonderful. And nobody seemed to complain. At that time, as you said, they had six month deployments and it was a pretty regular thing. You knew your husband was going to be gone for six months before he’d be home. The one thing I did here was that, when they were coming home, the wives that were used to being in charge of everything, and the husbands that would come in and decide that would be in charge – and that point was always a hard breaking in for them, but for the most part, they knew that.

But now, it’s very different. And with – as you were talking about with the drawdown a while ago, now it’s very different. The Navy is so small now, you know, spread so thin, you have to be all things to all people and be all places for anybody, anything – whether it’s a conflict, or whether a potential conflict, or it’s a tsunami, or an earthquake – whatever. We’re there. You know, the active duty person is gone – and a lot. And they come in, and just because they’re back home, it doesn’t mean they’re really home because they’re training for the next deployment, or they’re out doing something else that’s so they’re not necessarily home. And I applaud the recommendation to increase the size of the Navy and Marine Corps because I think it’s very difficult for families now.

TN: You really get it.

MD: Well, it’s what I did. I mean I just think it’s got to be. And I think that living conditions now – I’m so pleased that the living conditions are better now. That’s so great because I can’t imagine leaving even for the six month deployment and leaving your family in these terrible conditions if they were 25 years ago – in a lot of places – not every place, but a lot of places – and being gone, and knowing that your family was living like that. Now you know that they’re in good, substantial, nice housing, have access to whatever they need – good medical care, good, you know. I think that’s a good reason for having people stay in. I think there are a lot of enlisted people who now stay. They got good housing, affordable housing, a good situation for schools – I think that helps with retention a lot.

But the fact that we’re so small and we have to be everywhere all the time, and there’s just not enough of us to do that without being deployed an awful lot of the time. And that’s – that is a hindrance to retention.

TN: For the Navy families that you’ve conversed with since you’ve left the Department of the Navy, I’m curious if you hear the same discussion – I don’t want to say complaint, but criticism, that the quality of life issues are sort of streaming back up again, because of the length in deployments and the reduction in maintenance budgeting.

MD: Well I don’t have a reason to hear that now. The people that I’m normally with are people who are in that sponsors group that I told you about, and they are far enough removed from that. They’re all – their husbands have been out for a long time. And so I don’t hear that much anymore. But the one thing that I do know is that they’re not enough. We do need to build up the size of the Navy and the Marine Corps so that the active duty person is not gone, all the time.

I have something else too, on that. I was talking to somebody and she said, “You know, the veterans have been great in really working on wounded warriors and that sort of thing.” But the veterans are particularly the ones who have not been out that long and who are pretty close to the situation. They could also be really beating the drums for increasing the size of the Navy and the Marine Corps. Cause they’re right there, they just left there and they haven’t been away for that long.

TN: Might be the reason they left.

MD: Very well could be. Could be unhappy wives who never saw their husbands, or unhappy husbands who never saw their wives who were deployed.

TN: So on a little bit of a lighter note, will you tell us about the sponsor program you’re involved in?  

MD: Oh, I will, I will indeed. I have the privilege of being the sponsor of the Seawolf submarine. And women who hves that privilege of cruising a ship and being the sponsor, is invited to join the Society of the Sponsors. And what that means is that anyone who has christened a ship can join this, and we’re kind of a – it’s a very unique group of people. And a sponsor of a ship is, as just about anybody knows (anybody within the Navy), the one person who is with that ship forever. There’s lots of different crews and lots of different captains, but there’s only one sponsor. It’s really a special bond between not just the ship and the sponsor but between the other people who are sponsors and who’ve had that experience. And it’s a good group of ladies and it’s a good thing to be – to be a sponsor.

TN: I had the privilege of going to the christening of the USS Tulsa is the first time I’ve ever had that opportunity. And seeing that whole ceremony, and the seriousness with which our sponsor, Kathy Taylor, took it was just a really cool experience.

MD: I’ll tell you… When I was president of the Society of Sponsors, and as president, I went to every ship that was – well, I was supposed to be. There were a couple I couldn’t go to. The christening and the commission of every ship that was, you know, in that group during the two years I was president of the organization. And it was great. It was just, they make you feel so special, and you just think, you know, you’re queen for a day. It’s a great experience.

TN: Well, Secretary Dalton, Mrs. Dalton, thank you so much for taking the time to have this conversation with CIMSEC. Are there any last things you wanted to convey to our listeners?

JD: I loved my service as Secretary of the Navy and wouldn’t take anything for the experience and you know, our Sailors and Marines are special people and they get the job done. I’m very proud of them and grateful to them for what they did and wearing the cloth of our nation. They’re great people.

MD: And I will say people ask me what the best thing about being the Secretary’s wife was. And there were lots. We had the privilege of doing an awful lot of very wonderful things. But the best thing were the women, the wives, the families that I had the opportunity to meet and associate with during that time from all over the world. They really are special, special women, and I applaud them for everything that they day.

TN: Well, Sir and Ma’am, thank you so much for your time, and this unique opportunity to get your perspective and your insight. Thank you so much.

MD and JD: You’re welcome.

JD: Thank you.

John Dalton served as the 70th Secretary of the Navy from 1993 to 1998. 

Mary Dalton is Secretary Dalton’s spouse.

Travis Nicks formerly served as the Vice President of CIMSEC. These questions and views are presented in a personal capacity.

Cris Lee is Senior Producer of the Sea Control podcast. 

Sea Control 147 – Former German Navy Chief Lutz Feldt on Defining Maritime Security, Pt. 2

By Cris Lee

Join us for the latest episode of Sea Control for a conversation with Vice Admiral Lutz Feldt (ret.), former Commander-in-Chief of the German Fleet and Commander-in-Chief of Naval Staff, about the challenges of defining and conceptualizing maritime security. 

Download Sea Control 147 – Former German Navy Chief Lutz Feldt on Defining Maritime Security, Pt. 2

A transcript of the interview between Admiral Lutz Feldt (LF) and Roger Hilton (RH) is below. The transcript has been edited for clarity.

RH: Admiral Feldt, in addition to the previous discussion, you have said to enhance maritime awareness it is essential to return to the basics of geography. According to renowned geopolitical author Robert Kaplan, a map is a spatial representation of humanity’s division, by which he means not just physical territory but topography. Let me ask: with so much advanced technology providing satellite imagery and real time data, why should we consider the influence of geography?

LF: To answer with a question, are we overestimating all of our technical development? Are we really reliant only on technical information, the internet, etc.? Are we able to take into consideration other important criteria as well? Geography is a big criteria, even today. If you look into geography, you are looking at the people living in that geography, to the culture which is their culture, the weather conditions, the climate, and how people live. This has great importance and great influence on everything which we have to decide in the maritime domain. Therefore I think if you are working together with people from the Southern parts of Europe region, or German authorities to ones in Spain, Italy, South France, Greece, or Turkey, or whatever country you may name, of course the way they are solving problems is different. And this has something to do with the areas in which they live, and the living conditions.

The living conditions are formed and created by geography, and directly and indirectly by the climate conditions in which they live. So I think it is important to look into the geography as well. As a seafarer, even if you believe in civilized navigation, even if you think a satellite is covering the whole globe, you must still learn that that is not the case. It will not happen in the next decade as well. So there will always be areas which are not covered. There will always be areas which are up to today, which have not a reliable a sea map, a sea shot. If you go into the big regions, the only thing you can rely on is the GPS. This makes it very clear that geography and the conditions created by geography are very important. Weather affects all operations. You can have a wonderful operation plan think you have thought through, if you have forgotten the geography of the weather, it is a risk you should not accept.

RH: Admiral Feldt, now that we have looked at a catalogue of issues that have impacted sea awareness, it is critical for our listeners to place these subjects in the role of global stakeholders. Obviously the headlines on this ticket are the NATO and the EU. You distinguish in your piece the remarkably different approaches to issues. Consequently, can you provide a quick snapshot of activities of global stakeholders in the maritime space?

LF: I think we have to talk about the international maritime organizations as well. I always think and call them the guardians of the sea, and they have developed a lot of very helpful legislation for the sea. They are responsible for all the agreements and they have developed a code of conduct for a limited number of countries. So I think yes it is a lot of administrations, a lot of paperwork. On the other hand you need these basic documentation, you need this framework in which you are doing your business as a commercial in which you have to follow the sovereign estate as well.

I think the International Maritime Organization is an important player. The weakness of the IMO that they cannot enforce their own laws. They have no enforcement capabilities and the only nation who is able to enforce the IMO’s laws and other laws is the United States and it will remain to be the United States. Maybe in competition with some other nations, China is trying very hard to become a very important global player in the maritime domain as well as the Russian Federation. I understand very well why they are doing that. I wouldn’t blame them about that, but we have to take into consideration they will in any case be in some sort of competition with the U.S. The U.S. needs a global strategy, maritime strategy, and a naval strategy, this is a comprehensive approach that works very fine.

And then of course we have the European Union. NATO is the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, it was focused on the North Atlantic. During the last years, NATO was much more involved in army and air force business than in the naval business. This is something that I do not appreciate because now we have a lack of maritime expertise which we have to overcome quite soon. The EU is becoming a much more important player, not just in civilian issues, but also in the economic side, from a common defense and security policy side as well. I think the EU will increase its military experience, and NATO will be much more open, civilian-military operations as well. The African Union has developed an all-maritime strategy for the African continent. They are a regional initiative. They have the potential to become a very important player as well. I think they should be interested in taking responsibility for their own territorial waters and increase their independence from others.

And then we have what we did call the BRICS, Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa. China will be a big player, and already is a big player, and will become an even bigger player in the maritime domain. Brazil has for the first time taken on international responsibility in supporting the European navies in the Mediterranean several times for example. Russia is looking for naval bases outsides its territories. Now they are in Syria, it has the occupation of Crimea, not only because they love the people there, but because of a very strategic impact in now having an important naval base in the black sea. So they are all playing to their national interests. The only ones who are trying to improve not only its own capabilities but of its neighbors as well is South Africa. They have a good navy as well. They can support the navies in developing their own coast guards and to a certain degree their naval functions as well.

RH: Anyone listening will get a perspective on how crowded the maritime domain is and how competitive it potentially is both from a bloc perspective or from an individual country perspective. Returning to the EU, its early security ambitions were defined by 2003 European Security Strategy: A Secure Europe in a Better World by the EU’s common representative for the common foreign and security policy, Mr. Javier Solana. It was more recently amended in 2008 and paid scant attention to the maritime situational awareness. This is particularly frustrating since this piece establishes how crisis can develop far from Europe and still affect continuity on the continent. Moving forward, has the EU addressed this phenomenon?

LF: Yes, it has. I think in 2003, the world, not just the maritime domain, looked very different from nowadays. Strategy: A Secure Europe in a Better World, updated in 2008, has been overtaken by events. The EU has developed a newer strategy in a very good way. Everyone was involved in that. It took us only three-quarters of a year. We have a new strategy which is a very good build up, taking an important part of security and defense issues in the strategy, which was not the case in the first.

Now I think it is a comprehensive approach. To deliver something of a comprehensive approach, where all the actors know their responsibilities, and knowing that they don’t have to do this on their own in one pillar, in isolation from the other, they are doing this together. Strategy is encouraging them to do that. Perhaps encouraging is not strong enough; it is forcing them to do that. And therefore I really appreciate this approach. You know, in the maritime world, 2014, the European Maritime Security Strategy has been published as well. We have now, not only a global strategy from the European Union side, but maritime strategy as well. We are now working on the implementation of the different subjects. I think that in a good way, a lot of things have been moved in the right direction and I am optimistic that they will carry on. And if I may say so, the commission, the parliament, and the council, they are doing very well. They are doing this in one line.

RH: Any conversation about EU maritime policy or maritime policy will be incomplete without mentioning Turkey and its role in facilitating EU’s maritime sphere. Recently president Erdogan called for a border review of the 1923 treaty of Rozanne in Athens in early December. What do you make of this comment, and how do you think Turkey and the EU can continue to work together on maritime domain issues?

LF: It’s a critical situation. Turkey is a member of NATO, and wants or once at least wanted to become a member of the European Union as well. Greece is a member of NATO and the EU. All these years, all these decades, there has been tension between both countries about sea borders and how the treaty is working. Even in the treaty there are disputes over islands and sea borders. This is a fact. I do not think that in the actual situation the border review will take place. I do not think so. The last signals were bit different. There is another convention we have to consider. This is the Montreux convention which is giving Turkey the responsibility to supervise or monitor the Montreux Strait. You have to look into this as well. Both are very close together.

The EU and Turkey are well-advised if they are accepting of the status quo, or improve the situation. To talk about improving, there is an ongoing operation between NATO and Turkey, as a NATO member, and Greece on the other hand, in the East part of the Mediterranean and the Aegean Sea. The part of the maritime civil operations where everyone is looking for migrants, not only to rescue them, but to prevent them from going illegally from one country to another. And the cooperation of the partners in these technical operations level is very good. I have heard from colleagues in this operation, the cooperation with the Turkish coast guard is good. They are doing their jobs professionally and well, and the same with Greece. It is good practical example of good practical cooperation. As often you can find on the practical, pragmatic level, you can find solutions for almost all problems.

RH: Hopefully based on all the encouraging news you’ve provided with us cooler heads will continue to prevail as there are a plethora of issues that the EU and Turkey need to work together on to solve in the future. Finally Admiral Feldt, for the foreseeable future, you reiterate, the complex picture of today’s maritime security issues, is a consequence of three factors: the transition from industrial to the information age, globalization, and climate change. And that the urgent need for maritime domain and situational awareness is a precondition to achieve good governance at sea. Having spoken about sea blindness already, would you count on those leading to take these issues into effect in policy?

LF: I think the first point, the transition from industrial to information age, I think this is a big challenge. This is nothing you can just do automatically. Switching from the industrial to the information age takes time. This issue is not just for the younger generation, it is an issue for my generation and even for those who are little bit younger than I am. A lot of people are still making the assessments and adjustments based on the procedures and experiences that were right and good in the industrial age but which is now overtaken in the information age. And the information age is more than the internet. The social networks are a very important part. The fact that in the information age a hack can be done by a hacker where nobody knows where he’s from, whether it’s his boss telling him now you have to hack the German parliament, or now you have to hack a big company in France or whatever, no one really knows that in the very beginning.

It’s not just the use of the internet and all the advantages which you can take out from networking. This is the second point. Networking is becoming more important. Networking happens all the time. But it’s not only the internet. It’s also the information age as a whole new environment. Think about new technologies and the impact of the industry, all that development and our naval units where you are reliant on the computer system. These all need new thinking. A new mindset. This is very difficult to achieve. It takes time to be aware that not everybody is able or willing to follow you, but this is the real thing. So it’s a big challenge. The challenge is not the technology, the challenge is to understand and to use the new technology to your advantage.

Globalization is an effect, it’s now under pressure again. I always think that there are no ideas without bad sides, and there are bad sides to globalization as well. Maybe the government has to look into that more carefully, but if we go back to nationalist thinking, then we of course are doing the wrong thing, a very dangerous thing. The clear historical experience that nationalism is in the direction of something we do not want. Certain kinds of own interests is always not only acceptable but necessary, and the real impact is that you have to look for your national interest on one hand, but on the other hand balance them with the international interests as well. If you are not able or willing to do that then you are a danger.

Climate change is something very much related to globalization and the change of information age as well. We do not know the final impact of climate change. We only can think about they will change the maritime domain. This will have an impact on everything. The issues and the outcome of climate change, there is only one solution, and this is to prioritize the protection of our maritime domains. Protection of the oceans and the protection of the maritime domain in relation to climate and everything belonging to that, from biodiversity to clean oceans and whatever you may name it, this has a high priority. And it is not a task done by the civilian authorities, the navy must be included as well. They have a responsibility to report and monitor climate protection as well. This is very new to the navy, other things as well, but there is an urgent need to do that. Climate change and the negative sides of climate change are a real challenge. They are a threat.

RH: Admiral Feldt, I want to thank you on behalf of the listeners for such a comprehensive analysis and sobering judgment of the current state of affairs. As we dawn on another sea control podcast, Admiral, do you have any quick operational takeaways for the listeners, or issues related to maritime domain we should keep tabs on?

LF: If you are interested, take some keywords and go into the internet, or even look into the publications. It’s not just Robert Kaplan who publishes a lot of things. There are a lot of authors and scientists who are publishing a lot about the maritime domain and the complexity and they are not only good for students, but for normal people as well. There are sometimes scientists who are able to write in a way everyone can understand it. The awareness is the first method for my side. The second side is that the cooperation and trust and confidence between the different maritime services must be supported as a citizen of my country. I cannot understand that for example how customs is not able to communicate with the navy without taking some risks due to data protection. Data protection is very important, but if data protection is hindering us in providing safety and security, than it has to be questioned.

A lot of people are talking about legal obstacles, who are talking about what we want to do but the law is against us, this is eight out of ten times not the case. They often use the law as shelter not to do something. This is something where citizens must be able to carefully be able to increase security internal and external security in a much more professional way; we are open to information exchange. The internal and external security issue is something which is very crucial thing as well, we have not touched upon that, but it is a very important. You cannot separate internal and external security any longer. And if you do so, you must accept the risk, and you must explain to your citizens why you are doing this, with all the consequences.

My third point is if you love the sea, if you are in favor of the sea, if you are really knowing about the sea, not only from the coast but from the ocean as well, it is much more easier to understand the complexity as well as overcome the challenges. It was a great pleasure for me, thank you very much.

RH: Admiral Feldt, I would say in conclusion, if our listeners want to follow up on the European or international maritime domain, the Routledge Handbook of Naval strategy and Security, edited by Sebastian Bruns and Joachim Krause and published in 2016 is an indispensable resource to have. In addition, please visit www.kielseapowerseries.com for more info on the book and other podcasts derived from the book.

With no shortage of maritime issues in the greater geopolitical landscape, I will be back to keep CIMSEC listeners informed and up to date. From the Institute of Security Policy and its adjunct center for strategy and security, I am Roger Hilton saying farewell and auf wiedersehen.

Vice Admiral Lutz Feldt (ret.) served in the German Navy for 38 years and served as Commander-in-Chief of the German Fleet and Commander-in-Chief of Naval Staff. Since retiring in 2006, Vice Admiral Feldt has taken over several different posts of honor: he was the President of the German Maritime Institute, Bonn, from 2007 to 2012 and is now a member of the Board of the German Maritime Institute, a member of the “Bonner Forum”of the German Atlantic Association; from 2005 until March 2010 he was a member of the advisary board of the “Evangelische  ilitärseelsorge”(evangelical miltary religious welfare) and he is still a member of the advisary board of the publication “Schiff und Hafen”, an International Publication for Shipping and Marine Technology. He is director of WEISS Penns International.

Roger Hilton is from Canada and a graduate of the Diplomatic Academy of Vienna where he holds a Master’s Degree in Advanced International Studies. He has previous experience at the Office of the State Minister of Georgia for European and Euro-Atlantic Integration as well as with the delegation of the Kingdom of Belgium at the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe. Since 2017 he is a Non-Resident Academic Fellow at the Center for Maritime Strategy & Security at the Institute for Security Policy at Kiel University in Germany. His research publications concentrate on transatlantic affairs and the post-Soviet sphere. 

Cris Lee is Senior Producer of the Sea Control podcast. 

Sea Control 146 – Former German Navy Chief Lutz Feldt on Defining Maritime Security, Pt. 1

By Cris Lee

Join us for the latest episode of Sea Control for a conversation with Vice Admiral Lutz Feldt (ret.), former Commander-in-Chief of the German Fleet and Commander-in-Chief of Naval Staff, about the challenges of defining and conceptualizing maritime security. 

Download Sea Control 146 – Former German Navy Chief Lutz Feldt on Defining Maritime Security, Pt. 1

A transcript of the interview between Admiral Lutz Feldt (LF) and Roger Hilton (RH) is below. The transcript has been edited for clarity.

RH: Hello and moin moin, Center for International Maritime Security listeners. I am Roger Hilton, a non-resident academic fellow for the Institute for Security Policy at Kiel University, welcoming you back for another listen of the Sea Control podcast.

It is hard to deny the spoils of globalization. Consumer access to a near-endless range of products is sometimes taken for granted. Although the current success of globalization emerged through the exploitation of airspace, outer space, and cyberspace, this feature has led many politicians and experts alike to suffer into complacency when assessing the significance of the maritime domain. Dr. Chris Perry, of Redding University, echoed this sentiment by stating “The sea is the physical manifestation of the world wide web. The absolute engine of globalization.”

Here with us today to provide a tonic to the endemic sea blindness is retired Vice Admiral Lutz Feldt, former Commander-in-Chief of the German Fleet and Commander-in-Chief of Naval Staff. Vice Admiral Feldt has had a distinguished career in the Navy. Since retiring, from 2007 to 2012, he was president of the German Maritime Institute, and has chaired Euro Defense Deutschland for four years, and now is a member of the steering board. As a director of WEISS Penns International, he is working with four retired admirals from France, Italy, Spain, and the UK, and an associate partner from Switzerland on almost all maritime security and defense topics. Admiral Feldt, welcome aboard today.

LF: Good afternoon and it’s a real pleasure to have this opportunity. And I think I very much like your tonic to see with more clarity. I will to create a better clarity for one or the other issues you mentioned and really looking forward to the questions.

RH: Admiral Feldt, you initially positioned your piece by arguing that the maritime domain is radically different today and no longer as well understood as it used to be. Specifically, you cite the introduction of a geographic-centric view of maritime affairs, like a euro-centric, or sino-centric view that is no longer promising or sustainable. To begin with, and to provide some historical context, how was the former maritime domain engaged and you in your professional opinion, what factors have led to changes in doctrine?

LF: Thank you very much. What we have to consider is the fact that for a long time, nobody was really aware of the complexity of the sea. Everything went right, and something went wrong nobody really got upset about that because it was so far away. But to look into the sea nowadays, I come back to your introduction where the sea is a manifestation of the web, I really believe that. That makes it really urgent to really look into these huge domains from a regional perspective. All maritime domains, we call them oceans but we can call them domains as well, they are very different. They have some things in common but most of the things are different. I think that if it’s somebody from Europe or from the West or China’s perspective they are thinking they’re doing something that is appropriate for their region that can be transferred to another region as a solution or an option, but I have my doubts that this will work. Regions are very different. The other point I want to make, is that every region has its own traditional ways to solve problems or to live with the problems. That does mean we have a global common on one hand, but we have multiple regions on the other hand. I am very much in favor of these principles developed to think globally but to act regionally and sometimes even locally.

RH: We touched on it a little bit. Returning to this Modus Operandi of the maritime domain in the 21st century, specifically on how it’s very hard to transfer, can you elaborate on the two major issues that arise within this concept?

LF: One major issue is that we have to solve problems between global perspective on one hand and regional and local perspectives on the other hand. There’s of course another point, which is very much related. The driver is not just the internet, and the networking activities, but the driver of different perspectives years and centuries ago, is of course the development of technology and it is not just the complication of technology, but it is old technology which is not only used in the shipping communities but the navies and the merchant navies as well. We have nowadays a lot of maritime infrastructures in the seas. In my experience, the maritime domain has changed a lot, but a lot of people are still looking into the maritime domain with a different, if I may say so, old-fashioned perspective.

RH: I think this idea of the maritime industry with an old perspective is expressed succinctly in your piece on how for a while it was an area that remained largely self-governing. And as you point out, in terms of the shipping industry, it was over-the-horizon, out of sight, and out of mind, which is no longer the case today, I think you would agree. What do you think is the ability to attract more attention and the catalyst for political policy makers who have been somewhat complacent on the sea and who have taken its importance for granted?

LF: I think there are different interests. I think we need more awareness in our society because we are totally depending on what happens on the sea and under the surface. We need a better knowledge of what is happening at sea, by our political leaders, some scientists who are looking into environmental protection. I think what we need is a better awareness, better understanding of what is happening. If something is happening in the North Sea, this has influences on other regions immediately. And we have some examples for that. If something is happening in the South China Sea, the impact is eight to ten days later in Europe as well. If we are knowing that, perhaps we can think about it, and perhaps we can create some kind of awareness, and we will not always be surprised with that. Therefore I think that to think globally but act regionally is of utmost importance again.

RH: I couldn’t agree with you more. And unfortunately it usually takes a massive natural disaster, or a human disaster, to really attract the attention of the political elite and policymakers. As you state, challenges become more pronounced when problems arise beyond the capabilities of a single nation which is extremely important to recognize. You cite specifically incidents like the Deep Water Horizon in the Gulf of Mexico as well as the Ominco Cadez off the coast of Brittany, France. Consequently you have deduced we are all suffering from sea blindness, potentially not just politicians. Can you elaborate on this powerful metaphor and what this blindness entails?

LF: Sea blindness explains in two words what is our challenge. When some manmade or natural disaster is happening everyone is looking to the sea and asking what have we done to allow this and why have we not done this or that but the sea blindness is going even further. It’s the fact that in our nations, the knowledge about the sea is very limited. Even when we are looking into the huge numbers of people enjoying sea cruises this is only a very small portion and I have my doubts that during their sea cruise they are really learning the importance of the sea as a global commons. I think sea blindness can only be changed and improved by a permanent discussion. I think what we are doing is important to overcome this sea blindness, to give some information. The real thing about that is, the people living ashore are so much depending on very secure sea lines or lines of communications, the highways of the sea as we call them, we are so heavily dependent that we cannot live on with the sea blindness.

I can tell you there is another aspect, of course this is something more political process, I can see in the global context that two or three big countries, for example such as the Russian Federation and China, they have recognized that if they want to live in a safe and secure environment, they have to overcome the sea blindness and they have taken a lot of steps to do that. Western nations are very reluctant to understand that, and this concerns me.

RH: Based on everything you said, I think for our listeners, the two major ways is that we need to educate people not just in maritime security but in the role the sea plays and it also seems important that we need to get individuals with maritime security more involved into civic and political duties. More often leaders and political chiefs are often landsman who lack any type of maritime experience.

LF:May I think when you talk about how to overcome sea blindness, we need what we call a comprehensive view. We need to not only focus on one specific topic like container traffic or the transport of oil and whatever, we have to look at the maritime domain as a whole. And everything that is tackled has an impact on other elements as well. We need a comprehensive plan too, and this makes it really challenging for everyone dealing with that.

RH: Now that we have gone from a broad idea, when dealing with something as global and complex as maritime security, which includes a lot of topics, what is implied by security? And moving forward, how can we define safety and defense in this context?

LF: I think we always trying to make it easy to understand even for ourselves. We have these: safety, security, and defense. It’s very clear. Defense is the responsibility of the navy, maritime and of the air force and naval air arms. Safety is clearly the responsibility of the international maritime organizations, and its well-handled there. I think we have a lot of legal systems which are dealing with them. I have no concerns about safety and some concerns about defense. In the middle of both of them is the issue of security. Security is a mixed issue. It is civilian and military together. On one hand it is where more civilian maritime service s are in the lead, and on specific situations, it is the military that leads with brilliant participation. We have located a definition, where there is no common understanding of what security means in the international community, so everyone is looking for their own understanding and definition, but in essence it is where both parts, civilian and the military community, have to coordinate and cooperate.

RH: Do you think the civilian aspect should take more of a role in governing security as opposed to the military?

LF: It is clear in a lot of operations, which are ongoing around the world, not only the cooperation but coordination is essential for success. Some military, some naval commanders, think they are the only ones who can fix the problem, which isn’t right, if I may say clearly. They need a civilian contribution and I imagine that for a lot of situations, for example if it is a civil-military operation, the civilian part, the coast guard or the law enforcement agency, is in the lead, and the military is in support of that.

RH: Some of your findings resulted in an interesting recasting of the subject matter, as maritime insecurity issues as opposed to maritime security issues. Would you like to defend this recasting to the audience?

LF: If we look into the actual maritime domains, we found more insecurity than security. We are not only talking about European oceans and seas, but we are talking about other areas as well, where the insecurity comes from the lack of willingness to cooperate and to coordinate. To be able to cooperate and coordinate you need a well-functioning information exchange system or mentality. This is something which takes a long time. We need a mindset change going from what we need to know to need to share, where need to share is something different from need to know. We can even go a step forward and say there is a responsibility to share critical information not only within your fellows in the navy or customs or fishery protection. We need a better information exchange that includes all maritime services. And of course it is the responsibility of every community.

RH: Well as we try to rectify this perceived maritime insecurity, your piece makes the argument that there is a perception that the concept of security is not so much a definable condition as it is but an essential feeling. Specifically, as a conditional state of something that may happen, rather than an existential danger. As we know, the term security, and its integration into the lexicon of international relations jargon and institutions like NATO and EU has to some degree been mischaracterized. With all of this apparent confusion, can you clarify how we should be using the word security?

LF: The word security is very popular. There is an inflation of who uses it .Security has everything to do, in the first role, as something to protect and secure the life and wellness of the people of your country. I think this is very important. The second one is of course, if you go further out, it is the well-being of your neighboring nations and of your partners in an alliance. In the third role you are talking about global security. Global security is founded in part on treaties, agreements, and conventions and in this case I think the International Maritime Organization is a good provider for the global part, and some regional organizations are good providers for the regional parts. But on the other hand I think the real important thing about that is, you are aware that there is a responsibility to secure the nation’s territory and citizens from all threats which are coming from the sea, which has a real impact on their well-being and their lives and on their security. For example piracy is something that had happened far away from the European countries but it had a direct impact on our lives, not only on the lives of the seafarers who have been captured and very badly treated by the pirates, but on the impact of our lives as a whole. The same for smuggling and human trafficking and now for the Europeans it is a challenge to find a way to save the big numbers of migrants who want to join Europe using Mediterranean as a sea which they want to overcome to go to Europe, to Italy, Spain, Turkey, and Greece.

RH: As we established consequently, security in the maritime encompasses elements of safety and defense that expand both into civilian and military domain. But, as we continue our deep dive into the issue, any discussion and analysis will be incomplete without acknowledging risk assessments. Can you describe the four criteria used to describe maritime risk, why should landlocked states care about these assessment factors?

LF: I think we are all connected in a global economy, on cultural issues as well. Of course economy is where it’s easy to understand. Landlocked countries of course need the global logistics chain, a port in which goods are coming by sea into the port and then following the railroad track or the truck track into the country. As we know, most goods, at least for a certain amount of time are transported by sea so I know that for example, one important port for landlocked countries is Hamburg, others in Poland. These landlocked countries have good relations with the ports and in history, even some ownership parts in these ports. This has now changed with the European Union with free access and they can do treaties and the logistics is working very well. So I think the landlocked countries are really benefiting from safe and secure maritime domain directly. For example, one very landlocked country like Luxembourg contributed to the anti-piracy operation by donating a plane for sea surveillance which we all appreciated very much because it is not just that they are benefiting from the sea but they have to contribute as well.

Yes, the risk assessment, it’s different from region to region. If you ask the people in Greenland what their greatest threat is, they will say oil spill. If you go to other regions, it is terrorism. Now for Europe, a big risk, and if we do not handle it the right way, is human trafficking and illegal immigration which is something that can endanger the stability of our nations as well. My point is we have to handle this in the right and appropriate way in line with all of our human rights and interests. Narcotics and arms trafficking is a real big deal and will continue to be. And I have to say, some years ago perhaps I wouldn’t have said, we have to look to the Navy-to-Navy engagements at small- to medium-sized fleets as well. That is something of a real concern. If you are talking about maritime interests, it is the importance of securing the exclusive economic zones, the different countries, and the huge amounts of dispute between countries, not just the South China Sea, but in other areas as well, something which can create a risk, which can become a threat. And as I’ve mentioned, environmental degradation and dumping of toxic waste, or illegal pumping of oil water into the sea and all these kinds affect maritime insecurity, collisions, and wreckings from bad navigation and bad training, those are all risks and some of the risks can become greater threats as well.

RH: Some important figures I wanted to share for our listeners specifically for those living in the EU. According to the European Atlas of the Sea and its examination of Europe’s eight sea basins, it found the following statistics which are very important to recognize. The EU has 70,000 kilometers of coastline. Almost half of the EU citizens or roughly 371 million people, including the United Kingdom, live within 50 kilometers of the sea. Almost 40 percent of Europe’s GDP is generated from its maritime regions. 90 percent of the EU’s foreign trade is conducted through sea. Against this backdrop and figures and our previous discussion on risk assessment, how do these criteria affect the current European theatre?

LF: I can tell you, it’s creating a big impact. What is good news in this case, it took some time for the European Union and member states to recognize the importance of the sea. I will come back to sea blindness, but of course they were focused on other internal issues. The financial reasons were very high on the topic. The first step taken by the commission, together with the parliament and the council, was the development of an integrated maritime policy. That was focusing on all aspects that we have already mentioned, not only the commercial ones but the environmental ones. This integrated maritime policy excluded the defense part of the whole maritime domain due to the fact that this has been changed with the Treaty of Lisbon, until then there was a clear division between the European common defense and security policy. But this has changed now and for good reasons. One reason for that is what you have mentioned. Therefore I think the geography of Europe is like a peninsula. If you look at a map you can see this. We have ports in the south, in the north, and in the middle. We have all we need, but it must function well; it must be secure. Therefore the combination of what I have mentioned before; a lot of civilian economic actions are important, but you must include in these commercial approach the coast guard on one hand, and the navy on the other hand as well. If somebody is thinking he can increase security only by civilian means and by diplomacy, I think that will not improve security, it will bring us back to insecurity.

RH: I couldn’t agree with you more. Just for the listeners: think about how access to the ports are easy, it also makes it easy to complicate global freedom of navigation and we’ve touched on this topic without discussing security threats, specifically how your piece recognizes that of A2/AD. Keeping with the EU theme, admiral, Brussels must coordinate with an extensive list of authorities in the maritime domain with the objective of protecting a maritime picture in the local, regional, and global level. Can you identify the six functions you’ve mentioned as they relate to maritime safety and security in the member states?

LF: I think we have a lot of maritime services, but I would like to mention the six of them which are the key players. This is of course customs, fisheries protection, border control, law enforcement, and also it is the marine environmental protection. I think these are the big players if they are establishing a good and trustful exchange of information. Even with a little bit of specific tasks, safety and security will increase. And of course, I didn’t mention the defense issue. Then of course, the defense will have only a preventive task. And if all the others are exchanging their information and doing their job together and not in a stovepiped manner, then of course it will be much more easier for the navies to participate and to act in accordance with their really core tasks to protect citizens and their national interests, and in this case, EU interest.

RH: As we’ve established how the EU is trying to create a picture on the local, regional, and global level, you stated in your piece how the sixteen maritime surveillance-related initiatives sadly work in isolation from one another. Consequently, what is the impact of this disjointed surveillance on the EU?

LF: This is something where I can say we have reached a lot of progress. The fact that it really worked in isolation, and the fact that this was no longer acceptable and the fact that the Commission was developing this integrated maritime policy, that all started a process for better information exchange, better surveillance in the European Union. Therefore, for example, the fisheries protection, border control, and customs already reached a much higher level of information exchange then it was two or three years ago. That is a really big improvement. I am in this case very optimistic, that the current situation in the Mediterranean, and other maritime domains, will help to even improve it further on. We have reached more than I expected in a limited time. We all have to accept that the still 28 and possible future 27 members of the European Union are sovereign states with their own decisions. It takes some time to bring them together and convince the participants to change their minds from the need-to-know to the responsibility to share mentality, but this needs time. And if someone is pressing too much, too high, then the outcome will not be better. It has achieved a lot and I am optimistic that this progress will continue. There is room for improvement. It is still on the way of the right direction.

RH: Just for the record, as we spoke about earlier, as in this case again, it has taken a disastrous migration crisis for the EU and other areas to coordinate and better implement maritime policy. With so much dysfunction though, what has been the response from the European Commission to rectify this?

LF: You’re right. This is something where it’s not a functional problem. It is a problem of, if I may say so, a problem of political will, to do something before the crisis arrives. The EU has a very far developed crisis management system. But if the member states are not providing the essence, the political will to participate, then of course, it would be very difficult to get the crisis management process working. The loss of so many lives in the Mediterranean, and in certain degrees in other areas as well, is what brought the commission and the parliament and the council together to these initiatives with the Operation Sofia in the Mediterranean in the one hand and Operation Sea Guardian by NATO on the other hand. And the frontline operations in the Italian coasts as well. But the dysfunction, if I may say so, I wouldn’t call it a dysfunction. This has been taken over by events, and the cooperation as I mentioned, there is room for improvement, but the actual situation and the actual operations are as good as they could be. But there is a lack of units, a lack of aircraft to survey and to identify the people who are distressed, and this is a decision, a sovereign decision by the member states, what they contribute and if they contribute. This is something at the moment where all the navies are very short on capacity, the boats and the aircraft, and this is something that is a real concern. So what we need is not only better coordination and collaboration, we need more assets to do our business. We have missed the turnaround point, and now we need some time before we get the capacity.

RH: Keeping on the issue of burden-sharing and improving performance, recently the European parliament proposed the formation of a European Coast Guard. It was met with mixed reaction from the member states as you said earlier, in terms of the sovereignty being guaranteed. What is your take on the initiative, and will its creation serve to help manage the maritime domain with more efficiency based on our previous discussion?

LF: I think the coast guard is an important player in all the issues which we have mentioned. They are acting already as a link between the navies and the civilian authorities and they are doing great work not just in the Mediterranean but in other parts of the world as well. But in Europe with 27 member states, we have different solutions for coast guard functions. If you go for a European Coast Guard, you have to consider that all of the European nations have different constructs. For some nations, the coast guard is part of the defense ministry, in others its part of the ministry of the interior, in some it’s on their own. So it is very difficult in such a federated situation to have the idea of a coast guard as one. If I look at my country, in Germany, we do not have a coast guard. We have the combination of different issues, you can call them a coast guard but from an organizational and responsibility view, it is not a coast guard like the U.S. for example. And there is another point which you can make. The coast guard function, which is the approach taken by the EU, I appreciate that, some countries are using their maritime assets, navy assets, law enforcement, they use them and task them to do coast guard functions. In France for example, this is a very successful thing, but France as a country is differently organized, not federally organized, centrally organized, and then things are different. And so, I think it is a good idea for a European Coast Guard, but in this case, the devil lies in the details.

RH: Well from hearing about most EU projects, I think there is a disconnect between theory and what will happen in implementation. But still an interesting thing for listeners to keep at the top of their head. Finally, can you just comment really quickly on the informal meetings between the European navies, Chiefs of the European Navies (CHENS), and how they’ve evolved since its original meeting in 2003?

LF: I have learned that informal meetings are sometimes producing more outcomes than formal meetings. I appreciate these chance meetings. I was part of that for some time and I can tell you that these discussions which we have inside the heads of the European navies, and always having invited the U.S., Canada, and for a certain time Russia as well, which is now not the case. That was a very good exchange. The big thing about this: it is informal, and you can really achieve trust and confidence building, and you can create a network at the highest level. And this is something which cannot be overestimated. The value of informal meetings is much higher than a lot of people realize as many are in favor of formal meetings.

It’s not just the heads of the European navies, there are several coast guards, as well as in other regions, we have the North Atlantic Coast Guard forums, Arctic Coast Guard forum, the Mediterranean coast guard forum, so during these meetings of the coast guard forum, the navies are always invited. Today, even other maritime services are invited. They are executing this comprehensiveness, and the outcomes are studies, sometimes documentation, which do not have a formal character, but which influence the processes to achieve better cooperation and therefore I am very much in favor of these informal meetings.

Stay tuned for Part 2!

Vice Admiral Lutz Feldt (ret.) served in the German Navy for 38 years and served as Commander-in-Chief of the German Fleet and Commander-in-Chief of Naval Staff. Since retiring in 2006, Vice Admiral Feldt has taken over several different posts of honor: he was the President of the German Maritime Institute, Bonn, from 2007 to 2012 and is now a member of the Board of the German Maritime Institute, a member of the “Bonner Forum”of the German Atlantic Association; from 2005 until March 2010 he was a member of the advisary board of the “Evangelische  ilitärseelsorge”(evangelical miltary religious welfare) and he is still a member of the advisary board of the publication “Schiff und Hafen”, an International Publication for Shipping and Marine Technology. He is director of WEISS Penns International.

Roger Hilton is from Canada and a graduate of the Diplomatic Academy of Vienna where he holds a Master’s Degree in Advanced International Studies. He has previous experience at the Office of the State Minister of Georgia for European and Euro-Atlantic Integration as well as with the delegation of the Kingdom of Belgium at the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe. Since 2017 he is a Non-Resident Academic Fellow at the Center for Maritime Strategy & Security at the Institute for Security Policy at Kiel University in Germany. His research publications concentrate on transatlantic affairs and the post-Soviet sphere. 

Cris Lee is Senior Producer of the Sea Control podcast. 

Sea Control 145 – Strategic Communications with Bill Harlow

By Matthew Merighi

Join us for the latest episode of Sea Control for a conversation with Bill Harlow, an author and former intelligence community spokesman, about his work in strategic communications in the armed forces. He talks about the public affairs career track in the military, his experience at all levels of government, and how that experience informs the civilian work he does today. 

Download Sea Control 145 – Strategic Communications with Bill Harlow

A transcript of the interview between Bill Harlow (BH) and Matthew Merighi (MM) is below. The transcript has been edited for clarity. Special thanks to Associate Producer Cris Lee for producing this episode and writing the transcription.

MM: Now, as is Sea Control tradition, please introduce yourself. Tell us a little bit about your professional background, what you’re up to now, and how you got from where you started in your career to where you are at the moment.

BH: Well, I like to think of myself as a communications professional. I started out in the Navy, got a commission through ROTC from Villanova. And spent 25 fascinating years in the Navy, most of that as a public affairs professional. I had a number of very interesting tours while on active duty, including four years at the White House Press Office, and duty at the Pentagon many times in various spokesman positions. This included Chief Spokesman for the secretary of the Navy and retired as a Navy Captain in 1997, and went to work as chief spokesman for a secret organization. Sounds like it should be a pretty easy job.

Then I was the spokesman for the CIA for 7 years, from 1997 to 2004. I left that job and did a couple things, one was writing and helping various people, mostly former CIA officials, write their memoirs or books. I do that under my Bill Harlow communications hat. Then I also started a company called 15 Seconds, 15-seconds.com, with Fred Francis, a former NBC news correspondent. We do crisis communications and media training, and tell clients how to approach dealing with the media from the dual perspective of Fred who spent 40 years in network news and my perspective of spending almost that much time as a government spokesman, so it provides a unique perspective to people about how to deal with the media in the current environment.

MM: Well, that’s a very broad and diverse set of career experiences so what we’ll do is start from the beginning. As you can imagine, as our listeners already know, most of the people we have come through military backgrounds on Sea Control end up talking about more kinetic topics and have line officer backgrounds but you ended up in public affairs. What made you want to go down the public affairs route and how did you end up getting involved in that world?

BH: Well, I always had an interest in communications and media relations and those kind of things, but I owed the Navy four years of service for my ROTC scholarship and fortunately after a couple quicks and takes I ended up aboard USS Midway as the collateral duty public affairs officer. I got on board in Alameda and about three days later the ship got underway for Japan for a cruise that lasted a couple generations, but I was fortunate enough to be on board when the Midway went to Yokosuka for the first time. And while on board I was able to run the ship’s newspaper, the closed-circuit radio TV. It also involved dealing with crises that we had on board, things like that, while also standing bridge watches from time to time.

And although I eventually qualified as an Officer of the Deck underway on the Midway, I was having more fun doing the communicating part of it than driving the ship. So, at the end of my tour there I applied for conversion to the public affairs designator within the Navy. It’s a very small community within the Navy, Public Affairs specialists who do that solely for the rest of their careers, and I was fortunate enough to be selected. When I went ashore from the Midway, I was able to build on what I learned in the fleet to help the story of the Navy for the next twenty-plus years.

MM: I want to ask a more general question in terms of what then is the traditional glide path and the traditional trajectory for a person that is doing public affairs in either the Navy or the military services? What kind of assignments do you normally end up getting, what are the standard kind of cycles that you go through to get into those positions, and how exactly does a public affairs career end up unfolding?

BH: It varies widely and it certainly varies more widely when you talk about the different services. The Navy I think has the best track record of training and deploying their spokespeople. They give them a lot of responsibility early on, which is typical of the Navy in general as you know. And they tend to put their spokespeople in areas of fleet concentration, whether its Norfolk or San Diego or whatever. Or places where there’s lots of communications opportunities like the Pentagon and again there’s only a small number of people. When I was in less than two hundred, total. The seniormost person was usually a one star, and then on down to the junior-most person, they might be a JG or a LT. And so they’re spread pretty thinly but you get an opportunity to deal with both media relations and with the press, along with internal relations communicating within the Navy whether it’s through closed-circuit TV or through other broadcasts or internet platforms now. It also includes community relations and dealing with the public, trying to get the public to understand what the Navy does and why it does it and try to build support that can be anything from working with the bands or with the Blue Angels, to all manner of things. So those are the kind of jobs that you end up getting within the public affairs community.

MM: You had some pretty high profile and high visibility positions. So, let’s talk a little bit about your time at the White House. I’m looking at your bio and seeing the years. You were there right during the transition between President Reagan and President Herbert Walker Bush, which was obviously an interesting time for national politics and international affairs with the collapse of the Soviet Union, the establishment of the new world order, complete redefinition of the world as we knew it. Which means that as things are changing quickly, I’m sure it was very, to put it mildly, interesting to say nothing of difficult to keep abreast of those changes and communicate what the White House was doing and what the world was becoming. So, tell us a little bit about what your time was like in the White House, particularly the transitions between the two presidencies and the transition in world order.

BH: Yeah, it was a fascinating time to be there. I guess it’s probably any time that the White House is fascinating, but it certainly seemed to be that I was fortunate at that particular time and it wasn’t meant to be as long as it turned out to be. At the end of the Reagan administration there was a vacancy at the White House press office in the part that handled national security. They reorganized several times back and forth, but that particular spot would be assigned to the National Security Council staff, but at the time we were considered White House staff. And there was a vacancy at the end of the Reagan administration and there weren’t any civilians beating down the door to take the job because there were only a few months left in the administration. So people didn’t want to leave a paying job to go there. So, people at the White House thought well maybe we can get a military guy to fill in for the final nine months of the Reagan administration. And they called over to the senior spokesman for the Pentagon and they asked if he knew anybody that would fit the bill, and at the time I was the senior military assistant to the assistant secretary of defense for public affairs and he asked me for a recommendation and I said, “How about me?” And he kindly said, “Sure go over and interview,” and I went over and interviewed. I was fortunate enough to be selected for what I thought was going to be a nine-month job. But then when President George Herbert Walker Bush won election, he asked the Presidential Press Secretary Marlin Fitzwater under President Reagan to stick around and keep that same job in the new administration and Marlin was kind enough to ask me if I would like to stay for a little bit longer. And I said, “heck yes.” So I took what was a nine-month temporary assignment and milked it for about four years.

It was a remarkable time to be there. President Reagan was a fascinating, wonderful guy to be around. You knew you were in the presence of somebody who was really powerful but also like your favorite uncle. You couldn’t help but like the guy if you were around him a little bit. He was truly a great communicator and he spent a lot of time working on his communications. And so, for a public affairs guy, that was a wonderful thing to observe and to play a small part in. I was there. And toward the end of his administration when he went to Moscow, for the summit meeting and things like that, I traveled with the president a little bit. It just was was a fascinating time.

Then the Vice President George Herbert Walker Bush becomes president, and it was a remarkable period in history. The fall of the Berlin Wall, the first Gulf War, the Soviet Union coming apart. And again, I was privileged to have been able to travel with him around the world, to a number of events and to be there taking part in figuring out how do we deal with these crises and how do you respond to a situation like the Berlin Wall coming down.

I think President Bush doesn’t get nearly enough credit for the way he handled all those things masterfully. He could’ve said or done things that would’ve triggered a negative response from the Soviet Union, but he handled it just perfectly and in a way which allowed the Soviet Union to take itself apart without taking down large portions of the West with them. So, it was a wonderful opportunity, working at the White House is of course a privilege.

One thing I would say is different about working in the White House and working in the military is that almost everyone at the White House understood the importance of communications. And so, you never had a problem getting the attention of some senior official to get them to give you information that you could use to respond to the media, to talk to them and think through the implications of how the reactions would play out in the media. Sometimes in the military, you run into senior officials who think “my job is to be a warfighter and that’s all I care about,” and that “The public doesn’t have to know anything about what we’re doing and therefore you press guys stay out of the way.” That was not the situation in the White House for they understood by the very nature of their jobs that they had to communicate effectively in order to do a good job for the administration and for the country.

MM: And so… when you’re within the White House versus in the military there’s a difference between how the senior leaders view the need for communications. What about the battle rhythm, sort of the day-to-day work. Was it fundamentally the same between those two organizations even though the leadership put a different emphasis on strategic communications, or is the nature of doing public affairs the same regardless of whether you’re on the civilian White House side or the more military DoD side?

BH: I think it’s close to the same, I brought with me sort of a military ethic when I got to the White House. I made a point of getting in an hour ahead of my boss, which is a typical military thing when you’re an aide or a military assistant or something like that. And  just immersing myself with the information to try to stay ahead of the game because there was so much information coming in since there are so many things you need to anticipate and deal with. And like in any organization, you just never know what’s going to come at you, there’s so many possibilities that you need to stay on top of things. The last thing you want at the White House or at any senior military command is to be surprised by actions that there’s any way to know of. You want to stay ahead of the curve but it was challenging, and it’s even more so today given the plethora of media outlets that are there to deal with so it must be even harder to stay ahead of the game.

MM: So that what it’s like on the civilian or the government civilian side and on the military side. So let’s talk about the third leg of that stool which is secret organizations. So, you went to work for the CIA in 1997?

BH: That’s correct, yes.

MM: So, in 1997, you joined the CIA as a communications person, as chief spokesman. You held that position for a number of years. So, tell us then what was the difference working on the intelligence side, as you mentioned what is it like to be in charge of the responsible for the communications or the organization whose primary cultural aspect is to try to give away as little as information as possible

BH: Yeah, it was certainly challenging. And I thought going into it I would have a little bit of a leg up on it because I had worked with the military and from time to time worked with the Navy submarine community, for example, which is notably tight-lipped and with the special warfare communities and things like that. CIA takes it obviously to a completely different level. And there are a large number of people within the organization who will forever think that the only response to any question should be “no comment.” And then they would be just as happy if the press job didn’t exist. But my argument and the argument which my boss Director George Tenet fully endorsed was that the agency has a responsibility to talk about what it can so that in those occasions when it must be secret, it has some credibility. When you say everything in the world is classified, everything is to be responded with “no comment,” but then you have no standing if the media come to you and they haven’t learned something secretive and you ask them “please don’t report that” because it would do damage to national security. You have no standing if you have been telling the same thing all along for every simple question that they might ask.

It’s also an opportunity, because of the nature of the organization, there are things that the intelligence community does that can be talked about. There’s analysis they do that is quite valuable to the public and the private sector, there are actions taken that can be spoken about and if you put some deposits in the credibility bag, they will be able to describe a few of the success against the inevitable stories that get out there about the failures the intelligence community or about the other difficult enemies you run into. You’ve got more ability to offset that if you play the game. If you totally stiff the media, totally refuse to respond to any question, when stuff goes badly, and it will, inevitably you’ve got little leg to stand on when they try to put it in perspective.

MM: So, let’s talk then about some of the specific events that happened while you were at the CIA because you were there for a number of years and I’d say the two that sort of pop up are 9/11 and the prosecution of the Iraq War. So, I was wondering if you could walk through then some of the specifics that you actually can talk about in your role. What it was like to be there during that tumultuous time and that very difficult time for our country?

BH: Yeah, again it was a fascinating time to be where I happened to be. The CIA was the one part of the government that was most alarmed about the potential threat from al-Qaida for a number of years. When I first got there in 1997, it was very worried about it, working aggressively against that target, but it was a very difficult one to get attention to. If you go back and look at the public testimony that the Director of Central Intelligence George Tenet made in 1998-99-2000 even early 2001, he was saying things along the lines of, “al-Qaida could attack any moment without further notice.” So, we were trying to get the word out that this was a serious situation of extraordinary concern to the agency and to the nation, but again you run into the difficulties of not being able to talk about many of the things you are doing, and also there’s so much that’s unknown about it. But we were definitely feeling the potential pressure of that situation as the 9/11 commission quotes that Director Tenet was saying that at the time the system was blinking red and we knew that something big was coming. We didn’t know precisely where, we didn’t know precisely when, we didn’t know how it would happen. We were trying to raise the alarm within government but there’s always only so much you can do there, because if you can’t tell them precisely what’s going to happen or where, they say to you, “aren’t you guys just crying wolf again?”

So, there was a tremendous feeling of pressure at the time and then when 9/11 happened. I was at the CIA headquarters that morning and we were in a senior staff meeting and one of the watch officers came in to the director’s conference room and said a plane has just hit the World Trade Center. And while many people will say their initial reaction was “it’s probably a small plane that got lost or something,” I think our reaction was generally was it could well be al-Qaida and I went back to my office and saw the second plane and then certainly knew instantly that it was. Then there was the tremendous outpouring and support where the entire country came together to try to band together against this fight. And the wonderful work that was done by the agency and special warfare community in going into Afghanistan after a couple weeks of 9/11 and essentially routing the Taliban and putting al-Qaida on the run was a very dramatic period in the country’s history.

And then what inevitably happens after a crisis like that, the first reaction is that people pull together and work together and the second reaction is that people start pointing fingers. “Why didn’t somebody tell us? Why didn’t you stop this? Why didn’t you do whatever it is in retrospect what should’ve been done?” And after the crisis whether it’s that one or whether its any other one you could name, it’s very easy to go back and look at things that might have been done, should have been done. You now have the complete picture and you go back and find the pieces of the puzzles that were missing. At the time when you’re in the run-up to a crisis, the cliché is that it’s like having a jigsaw puzzle without the box top, or worse than that is a jigsaw puzzle without the box top and thousands of pieces of other jigsaw puzzles mixed in among them that look like they would it but really don’t fit. So, after the fact, you know precisely what to look for and you can find a dozen pieces you can put them together and understand what may have happened and what might have been missed. In the lead up, it’s a different picture. So that was 9/11 and the aftermath to it involved a tremendous work of effort and focus at the agency. And I was privileged to be in there and help tell as much of that story as we could at the time and help try to explain the things that we couldn’t answer, and trying to explain why we couldn’t answer the question. 

That whole atmosphere played into the next one that you mentioned, the run up to the Iraq War. You can’t overstate how much impact of 9/11 had on the thinking within the administration about dealing with the potential threat of Iraq. And there were a couple mainstream ideas that touched on things that I was able to deal with at the time, one was the terrorism threat and there were a lot people who were connecting Iraq to al-Qaida, inappropriately we thought. They were over-stressing, this is outside the intelligence community, over-stressing the potential connection between Saddam Hussein and al-Qaida. And I spent a lot of my time, to the extent that I could, factually dealing with that, trying to knock down the notion that there was some direct link between Saddam Hussein and Al-Qaida. Things like that. And then there was the WMD portion and as Paul Wolfowitz famously said at one point, “That was the one thing that everyone could agree on.” This includes every intelligence service around the country, even Saddam’s, I would bet you. Every pundit for the most part was pretty well convinced that Saddam had some fashion of weapons of mass destruction. Turned out that it was nowhere near as far along as feared. And you can write books, and I’ve help write a couple, thinking in to a great detail about how did it happen, how it could’ve happened. But it was a tremendously complex period in the country’s life. And there was a feeling of “we don’t want to get this one wrong. If we get this one wrong and we underestimated it, the results could be catastrophic.” You could argue though we got it wrong in the other direction, and we certainly did, but it was a difficult period and the life of the intelligence community in the country’s history.

MM: And then not too long after that, you ended up retiring from your role and then taking that experience to the ventures that you are working on now. So, the PR firm, Bill Harlow Communications, and also 15 Seconds that you mentioned earlier that you co-founded with Fred Francis from NBC. So, what was that transition like, to go from what must have been the most difficult part of your career dealing with 9/11 and the lead up to the Iraq War and the immediate aftermath, into the private sector just all of a sudden. Was it a difficult transition, was it hard to learn the new tricks and tips and things that you have to figure out? Or was the transition relatively smooth? What kind of things did you learn what things in your previous career helped you find a new one?

BH: Yeah, well backing up a little bit, I had actually retired from the Navy before I took the job at the CIA. So, I had been out of the Navy for a while, and although I left the Navy on a Friday and started on Monday at the CIA, the only difference was showing up in civilian clothes. But there wasn’t much difference between those 25 years in the Navy and seven years at the CIA. Then all of a sudden, I left the CIA. Frankly after 33 years of fairly intense service, I was kind of exhausted, so I welcomed the opportunity to not show up at work at 5:30 or 6 in the morning every day, and stay until 7 or 8 at night.

Initially, one of the things I was able to pursue shorty after leaving the agency was to help George Tenet with his memoirs, which were published in 2007, in a book called At the Center of the Storm. And that too was a fairly intense process, a very difficult one to figure out what could be said, help him get it written and get it through the CIA clearance process which is challenging. So that kept me busy, and at the same time, I was setting up this other company 15 Seconds with Fred Francis where we were trying to pitch ourselves to both the private sector and we had a few governmental clients as well where we helped train people to deal with the media. So, all that kept me busy and it was an interesting change of pace. So, it wasn’t as difficult a transition as I might have feared

MM: And so with all of those things that ended up happening to you, how much of that did you say did you build intentionally? How much happened by luck?

BH: I think about 90 percent of life is luck. You just keep showing up to the work and doing the best you can and networking at the extent that you can. I never planned to spokesman for the CIA. In fact, when I retired from the Navy, the one thing I didn’t want to do was go back to work for the government. At the time you had to give up most of your retired pay if you went back to work as a civil servant and that made no sense for me to do that at all so when the guy who was spokesman for CIA was leaving at the time I was shopping around for a job, and I knew him from the Pentagon in the past, he asked me if I wanted to go over for an interview for his job. And I had no intention of getting that job, I thought it might be good practice to interview over there and then when I went out to the private sector I’d have more practice with job interviews.

Because usually in the military you don’t do job interviews, that’s not really the way you get assignments. So, I went over there thinking I would work my way up the bureaucracy with people and I’d practice my interview skills. Well, the first guy in the interview was George Tenet. And I just hit it off with the guy, just was totally impressed with him, and I thought, “you know it might be fun to work with him for a year or two and then go off and into the private sector.” Well, a year or two turned into seven years and I never planned it that way, but it turned out to be a wonderful thing. I didn’t anticipate that so many historic things would happen when they did and I helped convince him that he ought to tell his story, and then he asked me to help me do it and then one thing led to another. I think that if he tried to plan it then that never would have happened. When I went to the White House and I was only going there for nine months, it was a temporary job and I had no way of knowing that President Bush would be elected or that he would ask Marlin Fitzwater to stick around or that Marlin would ask me to stick around. So, it was just the luck of the draw and I’ve been very lucky.

MM: So then let’s talk a little bit more about the crisis communication aspect, since you’ve lived through crises. I imagine your firm 15 Seconds has something to do with crisis communications so if you could walk us through why did you founded that particular organization company and what is it like to handle crisis communications, how do you do it, and how is it different from non-crisis public relations.

BH: We call the company 15 Seconds, it’s sort of a play on Andy Warhol’s in the future everybody will be famous for 15 minutes. He said that 40 years ago and things have sped up so much that you only get 15 seconds. And our theory is that in a crisis situation you’ve got to respond enormously fast in order to get ahead of the curve and in order to establish what you’ll want to say because everybody else is going to be out there: all your competitors, all of the people who are your opponents, all your pundits, all the people who are just looking to get some notoriety will be out there talking about your issue whether you want to be or not. So, the difference between crisis communications and normal public relations, is that you don’t really get a vote on whether you play or not. If you’re at Equifax and you’ve just been hacked and lost the details of 143 million people, you got to get out there and talk about it whether you like it or not because otherwise your company’s going to be decimated. In normal situations, people in organizations can pick and choose, “Do I want to engage, do I not want to engage, do I want to put out a spokesman, do I want to just respond in a written response, can I just let this go and keep your head down and maybe we’ll do fine?” But in a crisis situation, you’ve got to play, because otherwise you’re just going to get your head handed to you because everybody else is going to be damning you, putting out information which may or may not be true, and redefining your organization. So, it’s a challenge and we think that organizations who only think about crisis communications after the crisis hits have put themselves in a very difficult position. Because if they haven’t thought through how you would respond to a crisis, if you haven’t thought through who would be your spokesman on it, if you haven’t thought through mechanisms on how we get information out, “do I put out a press release, do I put out a press conference, do I know how to hold a press conference, do I know where to hold it?” If you haven’t thought through it in advance, the chances of it coming out perfectly well aren’t so good.

MM: Let’s talk also then about the part of your career that you alluded to when you were talking about helping write At the Center of the Storm with George Tenet, his memoirs. You’ve written a number of other books too, one with Michael Morell and a number of others, primarily about al-Qaida and the war on terrorism. How did you end up deciding to pursue that business model of helping others write their stories and how is that different from other kinds of writing that you have to do either in your private sector or in your public-sector PR roles?

BH: Well, the first book I wrote was actually a novel that I wrote towards the end of my time in the navy, called Circle William. And it was about two brothers, one who was a White House press secretary, obviously based on my experience, and the other was a captain of an Arleigh Burke destroyer, and that was actually based on a friend of mine and yours, Jim Stavridis. I had worked with him within the secretary of the navy staff, and when he was a young commander. So using those two worlds of the Navy and the White House press operation, I worked on this novel which was well-received. I wasn’t able to promote it that much because by the time it came out I was at the CIA and I had a full-time job but it was an interesting experience as simply getting published is both rewarding and challenging. So, I had been through the process.

Then at the end of my time at sea, I had been published once at least and I knew the mechanics of doing it. I had this belief that George Tenet had a terrific story to tell and I wanted to help him tell it and it came out very well. His book opened number one in the New York best seller list, you can’t complain about that. But I didn’t intend to get into that line of work, but having done that successfully with Tenet, other book opportunities presented themselves to me. Fortunately for every book that I have coauthored, the people I worked with were first friends before coauthors, so Michael Morell and then Jose Rodriguez, and Jim Mitchell is the most recent one.

So, these are people I certainly knew of and in most cases, knew well and were friendly with. And that made the process a lot easier to help them tell their stories. Of course, this is their story, it’s not my story, but they’re also all very busy people and the extent that I could help them convey what they want to convey, about their lessons learned from their time and any government, it’s been a worthwhile and rewarding experience.

MM: Since you’ve done this a number of times already, do you have any writing advice for our people out in our audience, who I imagine most are more used to say, writing articles for CIMSEC or doing background papers in their government jobs? Any writing advice that you gleaned from both your time in uniform, and as a government civilian, and as a writer?

BH: One bit of advice would be to keep writing, it’s something that gets better, and it gets easier the more you do it. And to the extent that if you let that skill atrophy, it takes a while to get back in the saddle. And don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good. Just keep writing and writing. The other bit of advice is, to paraphrase Elmore Leonard, when you’re writing, leave out the parts that people are going to skip anyway. I see a lot of people writing things and it is way too long. I get a lot of former CIA and military people who want to write novels or non-fiction books who come to me and ask for some advice, and what I tend to see is that they write too much. People who write books which if they ever got published would kill thousands of trees. It’s much better to leave people wanting more than to have them wanting less. So, to the extent that you write stuff, if you could keep it punchy, memorable, short, it’s to your advantage. Other times, where you need to write long, the Tenet book, At the Center of the Storm, was a pretty hefty sized book, but he had so much material to cover and so many historical things that justified it. But for most of us, writing material to keep it punchy and short is much better. 

MM: Excellent. Now since we’ve reached the end of our episode, let’s conclude the same way we conclude every episode. Especially since you’ve worked in communications, you likely know this question well, what kind of things are you reading nowadays, and for the people out in the audience who are either interested more in the public relations and public affairs world or just interested in what’s on your mind, what things would you recommend that they pick up?

BH: I don’t read a whole lot about the public affairs world, so I may let down your readers on that regard. I tend to find myself reading more nonfiction historical stuff, that’s what interests me and that, when I break away from my daily routine, is what I tend to focus on. One book I’m reading right now is Churchill and Orwell, by Tom Ricks, terrific book, I’m only about halfway through it but I would never have thought to have combine those two people in a single book, but Tom is doing a great job, has done a great job telling two stories of two quite remarkable men during a critical period in the world’s history. Tom is somebody I knew, he was a correspondent from the Wall Street Journal and he’s someone who has given me writing advice early on, so I certainly respect everything that he does. I also read stuff that is sort of on the periphery of things that I have done or there’s a number of books by former CIA officials or people who are interested in CIA things. There’s one coming out from the Naval Institute Press called Operation Blackmail about Betty Macintosh, who was a woman in the OSS in World War II in the Pacific, who led a remarkable career. And that’s a book I read in galley form. It’s well worth a read by people who read your blog and who are interested in World War II history and espionage. It’s quite a remarkable book.

MM: I’ll definitely have to pick it up I’m sure. Thank you again Bill for taking the time today. Really appreciate you appearing on Sea Control and best of luck in all of your ventures, writing, and communications and otherwise.

BH: Thank you very much, it’s been my pleasure.

Bill Harlow is the President of Bill Harlow Communications and Co-Founder of 15-Seconds.com. He is the author of Circle William and has co-authored a number of books, including At the Center of the Storm with George Tenet and The Great War of Our Time with Michael Morell. 

Matthew Merighi is Senior Producer for Sea Control, CEO of Blue Water Metrics, and Assistant Director for Maritime Studies at Tufts University’s Fletcher School.