“The supreme power then extends its arm over the whole community. It covers the surface of society with a network of small complicated rules, minute and uniform, through which the most original minds and the most energetic characters cannot penetrate, to rise above the crowd.” Alexis de Tocqueville
Innovation! That is how the U.S. Marine Corps is going to tackle the diverse and difficult security challenges of the 21st century. That sure sounds nice. The only problem is that the Marine Corps is duplicitous when it comes to innovation.
The “Commandant’s Message to the Force 2017” promotes innovation and encourages Marines to write as part of their professional development. Three days after that message, however, Intelligence Department, Headquarters Marine Corps, released a prepublication policy for any Marine who has access to sensitive compartmentalized information (SCI). It requires any prospective author to “submit [their] idea . . . to command for consent to proceed.” This policy goes well beyond the Intel Department’s remit to ensure against disclosure of classified information. It is how you kill innovative thought and remove incentives to writing.
The prepublication policy for SCI-cleared Marines is an example of de Tocqueville’s “network of small complicated rules.” No one can argue against the unauthorized disclosure of classified information; therefore, some sort of prepublication policy is prudent. As written, however, the current policy oversteps Intel Department’s authority.
The most objectionable part of the prepublication checklist is the first action: “Submit idea for manuscript/publication to command for consent to proceed.” What does this have to do with safeguarding classified material? It is shocking that the directive actually uses the word “idea.” Protecting against intelligence spillage has nothing to do with the approval of ideas. Innovation disrupts the status quo and brings uncertainty. What would be the incentive for a command to approve an innovative idea?
Another superfluous regulation in the prepublication policy is the requirement to submit a hard-copy package to Intel Department. The time frame given is “at least 30 days prior to the date of disclosure/release.” This approval process means it could take several months before a Marine is even allowed to submit an article for consideration. Why does Headquarters need a hard copy? Look at the submission guidelines for any professional journal, including Proceedings. None requires hard-copy manuscripts. All accept e-mail submissions. This is embarrassing for the Marine Corps and makes us look amateurish. The best-case explanation is that it shows just how behind the times we are. The worst case is that it is a purposeful obstacle to writing.
The rules for Marine Corps writers are insidious and will cause innovation to die on the vine. The current prepublication policy makes it difficult to break institutional inertia.
Incentives Drive Innovation
Although innovation is a topic du jour in the Marine Corps, the way the institution goes about innovating brings to mind a quip from The Princess Bride: “You keep using that word. I don’t think it means what you think it means.”
Innovation, by definition, involves challenging the status quo. This incurs risk for the innovator and so must be offset by incentives. In the Marine Corps, there are few incentives for innovative thought but numerous risks.
What is the incentive for SCI-cleared Marines to innovate under the current Intel Department prepublication regulations? The most influential SCI-cleared Marines tend to be older, higher ranking, and busy. These are the same individuals who potentially have the most relevant ideas for breaking institutional inertia. Are they going to take the time to undergo Intel Department’s onerous process, just to risk having their ideas suppressed?
I have no statistical evidence backing up my claim that the Marine Corps doesn’t incentivize writing, but I do have years of anecdotal evidence. Most Marines have heard these excuses throughout their careers:
• As soon as I get time, I’m going to write an article about this!
• I don’t want to rock the boat.
• I would write, but it’s not worth the hassle.
• Maybe I’ll write when I’m in sanctuary or when I’m retired.
As Marines, we are taught to conduct operational risk management (ORM) before any exercise. This is a risk versus reward assessment, and if the reward does not outweigh the risk, the event should not occur. Consider the ORM questions an SCI-cleared Marine might have when considering writing an article:
• Can I find the time?
• I have a controversial idea. How will it be received?
• Will this be a career killer for me? Now consider the main ORM question a Marine’s command must ask when approving an idea:
• If I approve this controversial idea, will I be held accountable for it?
Human nature and common sense show us that Intel Department’s prepublication policy is incompatible with innovation. Where are the incentives for boldness? Where is the decentralization we claim to espouse? How can innovation grow in this poisoned soil?
An embarrassing reality Marines have come to realize is that many of our core ideals have degraded into platitudes. Intellectual writing is an example of this. The Marine Corps claims to push decision making down to the small-unit leader as a way of enabling our maneuver warfare doctrine. If that small-unit leader wants to publish his ideas, however, he has to get permission from the highest command echelon in our organization. This doesn’t make sense. Does this mean Headquarters is okay with small-unit leaders making their own decisions but not having their own ideas?
The best way the Corps can push past the status quo and foster a marketplace of ideas is by instituting a policy of intellectual immunity for professional writing. Only two prepublication criteria should be necessary in this policy:
• There is no inadvertent release of classified information.
• No Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ) rules have been violated—for example, speaking disrespectfully about an elected official.
This fix is devastatingly simple; it essentially is deregulation of the marketplace of ideas. Instead of instituting new rules, all the Marine Corps has to do is take some away. Intellectual immunity for professional writers operationalizes the Commandant’s message. The new policy would mitigate risks to innovative thinkers and remove obstacles to the sharing of ideas. The ensuing marketplace of ideas would provide fertile soil for innovation to grow.
The current prepublication policy removes incentives to innovative thought. A prudent effort to protect classified information has been morphed into a regulation that can suppress ideas. Under the current construct, there are no incentives for either the innovator or the institution to have difficult discussions or change the status quo. This will leave the Marine Corps poorly postured to handle the security challenges of the 21st century.
Major Nappi, an intelligence officer and South Asia foreign area officer, is the South Asia Desk Officer, Marine Corps Forces Pacific, G-37. He holds a master’s degree in security studies from the Naval Postgraduate School.