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Pentagon, media try to come up with 'rules of the road'

Secrecy vs. access: How to cover an unconventional war against terrorism?


By RICHARD WHITTLE / The Dallas Morning News

WASHINGTON As it goes to war against terrorism, the Pentagon is grappling with how to keep the media informed but in check. And media executives are grappling with how to cover a war unlike any the nation has waged.

"We are in a whole new world here," said Victoria Clarke, assistant secretary of defense for public affairs. "We're trying to figure out the rules of the road."

Newspaper editors and broadcast executives face their own challenge: deciding where to place reporters and cameras in a war that lacks front lines and much of which could be conducted in secret operations.

"The field of view is going to be restricted because of the nature of the warfare our country's entering into," said former CNN anchor Bernard Shaw. "This is guerrilla warfare. There will be no box seats to operations by Delta Force, Special Forces, Navy SEALs or any of our elite military units."

Persian Gulf coverage

During the Persian Gulf War, the military severely restricted coverage of the 100-hour ground campaign, even censoring some stories.

But during the Gulf War air campaign and the 1999 NATO air war in Kosovo, the military gave daily, televised briefings. Officers discussed strategy, gave details of deployments and showed video of "smart bombs" striking targets.

Don't expect to tune in to such daily progress reports in this war. "I don't see that happening," said Rear Adm. Craig Quigley, Ms. Clarke's deputy.

The daily briefings during the air campaigns in the Gulf War and Kosovo were possible because the enemy had nowhere to run and little ability to hide, Adm. Quigley said. This enemy lurks in caves and shadows and has infiltrated American society itself.

"The provision of details is going to be problematic," Adm. Quigley said. "Our ability to move quickly, with a high degree of operational security and exquisitely timed intelligence are going to be keys to success. Demand for secrecy, demand for speed, does not lend itself to easy news coverage."

Close to the action

Editors and news directors are doing their best to get reporters close to the expected action. Many, including The Dallas Morning News, have dispatched correspondents to Pakistan, Uzbekistan, or Tajikistan, all of which border Afghanistan. Some have sent reporters into Afghanistan with rebels who want to overthrow the Taliban regime protecting Osama bin Laden.

"What we're trying to do is set ourselves up to have some access in the region," said Gilbert Bailon, vice president and executive editor of The News. "There's not going to be a lot of access wherever this action is and it could be in several countries at once."

So far, the military is offering little help.

The Pentagon is still pondering how to use "pools" of reporters, a system developed after the military left the media behind during the 1983 invasion of Grenada. Under the system, a small group of reporters from newspapers, television, and radio is secretly called up to accompany U.S. troops into action, and the pool's reporting is shared with the media at large.

At a Sept. 28 meeting with Washington bureau chiefs, Ms. Clarke said the military also was mulling over how to "embed" reporters let them go along with individual units. The only thing clear, she said, is that none will be invited to join special operations troops. "What happens on the military front will be very unconventional, so we have to think of new ways to work with you all," Ms. Clarke said.

For the moment, that isn't much help for news executives, said former CBS and NBC-TV correspondent Marvin Kalb, executive director of the Washington office of Harvard University's Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics, and Public Policy.

"The Pentagon is making every effort to be nice and kind and accommodating and understanding in the language that is used in discussing this matter with bureau chiefs," Mr. Kalb said. The problem, however, is that the military already has deployed ships, aircraft and personnel to the Persian Gulf region and Central Asia, he said.

"They [journalists] know that the barn door opened weeks ago and the horses are already en route. And it's very difficult for them to 'cover' the story when they are not being brought along," Mr. Kalb said.

Beyond that, the conflict is one in which readers and viewers can become casualties and the enemy has infiltrated American society. Those facts give new meaning to "national security" and make information an even more sensitive and valuable commodity than normal.

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld promises not to lie to the press. But he has also imposed tight restrictions on what Pentagon spokesmen can reveal. In the days following the Sept. 11 attacks on New York and Washington, the lid was so tight that even some military officers were fuming.

The services wanted to let the public know that the military was on guard against further attacks. Yet they weren't even allowed to confirm that Navy ships were sailing off the East Coast and that Air Force jets were flying "combat air patrols" over New York, Washington and other major cities.

"I was frustrated that I couldn't acknowledge the obvious," said one senior officer, speaking on condition of anonymity. But in the age of satellite phones and the Internet, keeping the lid on military movements is almost impossible in some cases, so the clamps have been eased somewhat in recent days.

Last week, Ms. Clarke confirmed that about 350 combat aircraft and two aircraft carrier battle groups had been deployed to the Persian Gulf region. The deployments had been widely reported more than a week earlier, however. "I'm going to acknowledge the obvious, and I'm not going to provide much more," said Adm. Quigley.

Confirming reports that a given country has agreed to let U.S. troops operate from its territory or provide other aid, for example, could cause diplomatic problems and even lead such a nation to back off a pledge to help, he said.

Touchy relations

Against that high-tension backdrop, relations between the military and the media, often rocky, could head toward the shoals, some experts predict. "I think we're going to see a lot of friction between the media and the military in this conflict because it's going to be an amorphous, frustrating campaign," said Loren Thompson, who taught a course on the military and the media at Georgetown University for 10 years.

"In many ways, the two institutions have opposite goals in life," Mr. Thompson said. "The media wants full disclosure and unfettered freedom. The military wants operational security and discipline. "This is not a happy marriage."

In the end, said a senior military officer who insisted on anonymity, "I think the operators will default to the policy of, 'Don't tell 'em anything till it's over and then tell 'em we've won.' "


-- Swissrose (, October 07, 2001

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