By Donna Miles
American Forces Press Service
June 18, 2009 - As protestors in Iran demonstrate the power of social networking, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates today called the freedom of communication afforded by communications technologies "a huge strategic asset for the United States." Meanwhile, speaking to reporters at today's Pentagon news conference, Gates said he wants the Defense Department to take better advantage of these same technologies to reach out to the world, particularly to young people.
Asked by reporters about the Iranian government's crackdown on traditional media and communications, and the success of Twitter and other social media that protestors of last week's elections are using to defy it, Gates called the emergence of these technologies a major blow to authoritarian governments.
"It's a huge win for freedom, around the world, because this monopoly of information is no longer in the hands of the government," he said.
The result has had historic impact. "There is no question that the availability or the easy access to Western communications and media played a part in the collapse of the Soviet Union and the liberation of Eastern Europe," Gates said.
Governments may be able to squelch some information channels, but "they just can't draw the net tight enough to stop everything," Gates said. "If you can't text, then you Twitter.
"And you know, my guess is, in some of these countries, that the leadership is kind of like me," Gates continued. Then, he added with a chuckle, "They don't have a clue what it's about."
Navy Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said leaders need to develop awareness about the technologies that have become almost second nature to the servicemembers they lead.
"For leaders, ... it's really important to be connected to that and understand it," he said, conceding that he has his own Facebook page. "I think communicating that way and moving information around that way -- whether it's administrative information or information in warfare -- is absolutely critical."
Gates said he kept that factor in mind as he interviewed Price Floyd, the department's new principal deputy assistant secretary for public affairs.
The secretary charged Floyd with enhancing the department's outreach, particularly to 18-to-25-year olds -- in the military, in the United States and around the world.
"We have 2 million people, ... most of them around the age that Admiral Mullen described," Gates said. "And how do we communicate better with them? ...How do we get reactions from them to things that we're doing? How do we get better plugged in with what they're thinking?"
Gates said he wants to reach the same age group overseas, too. "How do we reach them in a way that they understand?" he wondered aloud.
"This department, I think, is way behind the power curve in this, and it's an area where I think we have a lot of room for improvement."