Organizers of the recent 17th annual Space and Missile Defense (SMD) Symposium in Huntsville, Alabama, were appropriately embarrassed and apologetic after reporters there were, according to numerous accounts, treated more like intruders than guests by overzealous security personnel.

During the conference, at least one reporter was physically blocked when attempting to approach U.S. Navy Vice Adm. James Syring, the Missile Defense Agency’s director, following a keynote address. Other reporters were asked to delete photos they had taken of slide presentations — they refused — and security personnel later parked themselves among media. Even a Washington-based consultant who had paid to attend the conference was hassled by the guards.

Ironies abound, beginning with the fact that freedom of the press is one of the supposedly cherished constitutional principles that the U.S. military, and by extension its contractors, is sworn to protect.

On a more practical level, the SMD conference is one of the few opportunities for media to interact directly with missile defense officials both in government and industry. That in itself is a problem — the sensitive nature of its mission notwithstanding, the MDA spends billions of taxpayer dollars annually and needs more public accountability. Even Congress, which funds missile defense activities, frequently complains about the lack of insight it has into MDA programs. But these related issues only serve to elevate the importance of the SMD conference, making it a must-attend for media organizations covering missile defense.

Similarly, the missile defense establishment would be wise to view the conference as an opportunity to get its story out and to build stronger ties with media organizations that are too often regarded with suspicion — and vice versa. In terms of the former, the SMD conference was truly a blown opportunity: MDA officials had a rare chance to bask in the recent successful test of the troubled Ground-based Midcourse Defense system, which failed in its three previous intercept tests, but security’s follies stole the show.

Following the widely reported — this is what reporters do, after all — episode, the National Defense Industrial Association (NDIA), one of the conference’s organizers, wrote a sincere letter of apology to members of the media. The letter, signed by NDIA Chairman Arnold Punaro, characterized the incident as unacceptable and said the organization would take measures to ensure that it doesn’t happen again.

“NDIA understands the important role of the news media, particularly the role of the expert journalistic community, in reporting what is going on in the defense industry to its members and to the larger public,” the letter said.

The letter is an encouraging indication that the NDIA fully recognizes the benefit and importance of constructive interaction between the missile defense community and the news media and is committed to providing the proper venue for that to happen. 

Here’s looking forward to next year’s conference.