TAMPA – The commander of U.S. Special Operations Command said he did not intend to advocate violence toward the media when he joked on Tuesday about the Tampa mayor pretending to shoot a machine gun at the press during the city’s semi-annual hostage rescue demonstrations.
“That certainly wasn’t my intent,” Gen. Tony Thomas said after Wednesday’s mock rescue show. “I’m just disappointed I offended anybody because certainly that would be the last thing I would want to do.”
Thomas spoke to Defense One in the café of the Tampa Convention Center amid the bustle of SOFIC, the special operations forces industry conference here.
In even-numbered years, when foreign teams of elite troops gather here for exercises, the command stages a mock hostage rescue in which they pretend to save Mayor Bob Buckhorn. In 2016, a riverine special operations crew returned Buckhorn to the docks where the press was assembled, whereupon the mayor fired the boat’s blank-loaded .50-caliber machine gun at the reporters. “I’ve never seen grown men cry like little girls, for when that gun goes off those media folks just hit the deck like no one’s business,” Buckhorn said in 2017. “It’s great payback. I love it.” Many reporters, some with combat experience, called the comments an outrage. Buckhorn responded by insisting that he defends the press, “but you can’t be so politically correct that you lose the humor of the situation.” One day later, the issue got a fresh airing when White House Chief of Staff John Kelly was filmed joking he should use a Coast Guard saber on the press.
These kinds of “threats” against journalists are a joke that has long ago gone flat, in an era when the U.S. president calls the press “the enemy” and strives to undermine public trust in the media. To their credit, many senior U.S. military commanders have gone out of their way to encourage public transparency and maintain healthy relationships with journalists.
So it came as a surprise to reporters on Tuesday when Thomas thanked Buckhorn for agreeing to “play our hostage,” one last time before leaving office. “I think he relishes this job a little too much,” the general said to laughter, “and you’ll see him take it out on the media, I think, as he comes back in armed with a .50-cal machine gun.”
News that Thomas had furthered the joke drew quick criticism. John Kirby, retired rear admiral and former Pentagon press secretary, said in a tweet, “Jokes like this aren’t jokes, especially now with a president who routinely threatens the press. I’m betting Gen. Thomas didn’t think about that context & probably regrets making the crack. Know him well. He respects the media in ways not everyone at his level does.”
“Glad I skipped it this year @USSOCOM,” said Kim Dozier, veteran military reporter who was injured in Iraq over Memorial Day in 2006. “Thought they learned when a city official did this last year? With @POTUS deriding the press, we don’t need military officials joining in & adding violence.”
“Inexcusable,” wrote Politico defense editor Bryan Bender.
“In the context of serious threats against #PressFreedom at home and abroad—and on a day when an @AP reporter was *shoved* out of an EPA event—this comment from the commander of @USSOCOM is decidedly unfunny,“ tweeted John Donnelly, senior writer at CQ/Roll Call.
On Wednesday, the general asked to clear the air.
“I’m, ironically, one of the bigger advocates for trying to figure out how we keep from our kids getting shot in all these schools in the United States, so I’m the last guy to advocate for violence in any sort of domestic situation,” Thomas told Defense One.
Thomas said he thought his comment normally would not have caused a stir outside of the room, but he understands the sensitivity to violence against reporters. “It was kind of a local, a local audience tonight, and understandably — it might rankle some people given the atmospherics but it’s certainly not my intent.”
The general indicated he was playing off of the mayor’s own inside-joke for the town. “He says it every year. He said the city council, I said journalists – he, he plays with the people here, locally. Again, I don’t condone that kind of violence in anything other than a — in this case a humorous or a hypothetical scenario.”
As this year’s demonstration drew to a close, Buckhorn did not fire the gun toward reporters. Instead, he fired it earlier, as his craft first came around the harbor’s bend, far from where onlookers were gathered along the banks.
Senior military leaders like Thomas are trained to work with the media and each general or admiral does so to suit their own personalities and responsibilities.
“I think you and I are Facebook friends,” Thomas said. “You can put that on your recording there, that might complicate your life a little bit.”
“I don’t have enough hands to count the number of journalists I consider to be confidants, teammates,” the general said. “I cultivate that because I want them to know about SOF and hit through all the mysticism that usually is out there. So, again, if I grappled with any of them I’m really disappointed because they know how much I appreciate the relationship.”
The job can be especially tricky for the commander of U.S. special operations forces, or SOF, whose work inherently shies from public view.
“We accept risk just by taking the chance to have those kinds of conversations or having that kind of exposure but it’s something we embrace.”
Still, Thomas said he wants as much transparency as possible.
“We try for it — protecting the important things, I mean, tactics, people, operations, that’s where we get debating whether, you know, what’s the need-to-know,” he said.
The U.S. military is struggling with that balance of public disclosure and protecting elite troops, especially as special operations forces’ counterterrorism missions continue to growing in numbers and frequency across larger geographic areas. Earlier this month, Pentagon officials were criticized for taking eight months to explain publicly the details of a firefight in Niger that resulted in four American commando deaths.
“I don’t like having to explain what we’re doing post facto,” Thomas said. “America should know. We should be that transparent, they should know where we have our most precious resources in harm’s way and what we’re trying to do. There’s nothing intended to be secretive about it. We’re trying to be discreet and help other countries, but again, that gets misconstrued sometimes.”
With that, Thomas returned to the conference, which wraps up Thursday.
“Thanks. Again, no offense intended.”