Military to Allow Reporters to Accompany Combat Units Hardnosed Journalism Can Be the Highest Form of Patriotism, Roberts Says

January 28, 2003

The next war will have reporters living with armed forces units as the military returns to a media policy it felt burned by in Vietnam. Reporters, editors, commanders and lawyers hashed out the ramifications of having "embedded" reporters on the front lines as well as "pooled" at headquarters, along with other longstanding tensions between the press and the Pentagon at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., at a Jan. 16 conference jointly sponsored by the Law School's Center for National Security Law and the Thomas Jefferson Center for the Protection of Free Expression. Professors John Norton Moore and Robert O'Neil moderated panels that examined "The Media and the War for the 'Fourth Freedom': Covering the War on Terror."

Evan Thomas, Newsweek
Evan Thomas '77, assistant managing editor of Newsweek, said even with reporters embedded in military units, we'll see the "same old skits" between military briefers and reporters at press conferences if war breaks out.

The Pentagon is "planning to provide the media the greatest possible access to our troops," said Bryan Whitman, Deputy Assistant Secretary for Public Affairs for the Department of Defense. "This is the way the media tell us it wants to cover war."

"It's going to be quite different," acknowledged Evan Thomas, assistant managing editor of Newsweek. "The general perception in the Gulf War was that the press was kept away from the front line. The third largest tank battle in history took place and there are no images of it. The press wants people in the tanks. The military has now heard the clamor and whining of journalists. The perception in Vietnam was that the press got too close. The military felt stabbed in the back by the coverage, which they saw as sensationalistic. Now the pendulum is swinging the other way."

"The military has done a better job of training reporters to go along with the troops," added Doyle MacManus, Washington bureau chief for The Los Angeles Times. "But one concern I have is that we have not had a long enough dialogue on what the rules will be on the ground. I think we will have more collisions than we need to have."

Tom Bowman, Pentagon correspondent for The Baltimore Sun also approved of the embedding policy. "Reporters shouldn't just be hanging out at headquarters. The book on the media in the Gulf War was called Hotel Warriors. That says it all. The tragedy of the first four days of the Gulf War was that no reporters were with the troops. Those events are lost to history. It's important for the American people to know what their soldiers are doing in their name." He faulted media organizations for assigning too many reporters who normally cover non-military beats to war coverage, saying they "clogged up" the Pentagon's media services with ignorant questions and needs.

Whitman said special training for reporters last month at Quantico marine base in Virginia was designed to give them survival skills so they would not endanger themselves or their [host] units. Media organizations have given him positive responses to the programs and two more sessions are planned that will train a total of 240 reporters. Embedded reporters would not be given weapons training and will dress differently than soldiers so that they can be distinguished in case they are captured. Questions were raised about the likely impartiality of reporters covering men they are living with who are, in fact, protecting them.

"We worry about reporter casualties. Battlefields are very dangerous places," said Whitman, "even more so if you're out there looking for engagements." Embedding is an attempt to stop reporters from freelancing and becoming potential targets because they can't be properly identified soon enough. In Afghanistan, Whitman noted, American soldiers couldn't be sure if four-wheel-drive vehicles with armed men inside were al Qaeda or western news crews with local drivers and bodyguards.

Responding to Thomas' comment fearing delays in getting dispatches out from reporter pools, Whitman said the Pentagon knows that technology allows news organizations to transmit their "products" without assistance from the military. "The Pentagon will allow reporters to use the equipment they are used to. Some information can't be released until later because of it is potential value to the enemy. But I have never met a reporter who would jeopardize a mission."

"Especially if he is with the unit," chimed in Bowman, "I don't want to get killed."

Paul McMasters, First Amendment ombudsman for the Freedom Forum, said that he often meets military officers who care more about the First Amendment than do some reporters. Nonetheless, "in war, information can be as lethal as ordinance. A different culture therefore kicks in. Often before a war we make arrangements like these being discussed and then when we war starts things are different" and the military ignores the plans.

"Since 9/11, the White House and the Pentagon have learned a lot about controlling information." McMasters said. "The 10 principles were agreed to after the Persian Gulf War and were jettisoned with the beginning of war in Afghanistan." He noted that unit commanders can overrule the concept of embedding or impose their own restrictions, especially if the reporter has seen "problems."

"The Secretary of Defense's briefings have not been a very good source of information for the American public in the last 18 months," he said." In the Afghanistan campaign you saw [Rumsfeld] on the TV and not the war. The media has got to do a better job of covering citizen reactions and how leaders perform." He said the White House has tried to suppress information and the media have not covered anti-war protests sufficiently.

"We understand that we are going to be judged on our actions, not our words. People are human. Mistakes will happen," answered Whitman.

Things are different now because of the type of foe Saddam Hussein is, countered Bowman. "The government wants reporters there now to counter Saddam Hussein's lies and his savviness at manipulating information."

The coverage issues are larger than just what the American military does or allows, said Doyle McManus. "One question for news organizations is whether to stay in Baghdad or get out. Last time only CNN stayed. There is the danger of being exposed to chemical or biological releases by the Iraqis." But with CNN and Al Jazeera, the Bahrainian-based Arabic news station, announcing a joint coverage agreement on the day of the conference, it was clear to the media that competition from international news sources would pressure them to be independent, aggressive and on the scene.

"I'm less worried about being manipulated by Saddam Hussein than by what happens if things go badly, such as friendly fire incidents by the U.S. military," said Thomas. "Unsurprisingly, the military leaders do not like to admit fault. The press wants to assign blame the next day."

"We struggle with speed and accuracy all the time," Whitman responded. "In the fog of war, things are not always reported accurately the first time. There are around-the-clock deadlines during a war. Somewhere around the world it's someone's deadline."

McMasters stuck to his skepticism. "The Pentagon bought up exclusive rights to commercial satellite imagery to shut down media access to them during the Afghan War," he contended.

"Some images can't be released while they still have intelligence value," Whitman answered. "The military routinely buys commercial satellite access to supplement its own resources."

"I think we'll be seeing the same old skits" between reporters and briefers at military press conferences, Thomas predicted.

"I think the paradox we're seeing is that we're having a hard time taking yes for an answer," added McManus. "They'll give us more access than we'll know what to do with." Critical coverage will still come down to the Pentagon briefings, he said. "Generals can't say all they know and reporters will always want more access," regardless of how much they have.

The goal should not simply be access, Whitman said. "A reporter's responsibility is to the truth," "It's not all about having both sides of the story, but about evaluating information and reporting the truth."

Steve Roberts
Syndicated columnist Steve Roberts said editors routinely check with well-informed sources to ensure national security isn't compromised.

"Is there a conflict between patriotism and professionalism [in journalism]?" asked syndicated columnist and lunch keynoter Steve Roberts, the Shapiro Professor of Media and Public Affairs at George Washington University, in a rhetorical opening on his main theme.

"No. I think the role we play, the kinds of questions we raise, even at a moment of national crisis, is the highest form of patriotism. We, as journalists, have to stick to this and not be intimidated.

"With the rights journalists claim come profound responsibilities. We can't simply wave the First Amendment and say, 'we're protected'. It is a balancing act. I'm not one who says publish anything and the consequences be damned. We should be immune from official restrictions … but we have to use that right responsibly."

The public relations problem for the media is that "the public doesn't know when we do act responsibly," Roberts said. "They don't know what we aren't reporting."

He credited Washington Post executive editor Leonard Downie, who was present, with articulating the test for determining when to withhold information: the information has to be "detrimental to national security and not instrumental to holding the government to account."

Editors routinely check with well-informed sources to "run the traps" on a story before it appears to see if printing it could cause damage to national security interests that the reporter couldn't have foreseen, Roberts said.

Based on its view of what happened in Vietnam, the military fears the media "will lose the war." Roberts pointed out that in Vietnam, daily press briefings by generals were called the "Five-O'Clock Follies" by reporters, who typically took the attitude that "'the bastards will always lie to you.'" Roberts said commanders want to protect their reputations, that the military still views the media as an enemy and that "there is still good reason to view the Pentagon skeptically," though things seem to be changing for the better.

"Behind closed doors democracy dies," Roberts said. "We need to shift the balance to a presumption of openness unless the government can prove that in a particular case there are serious risks. The press has to work for a balance of interests. It's hard to understand what to do when comparing competing values; how much good versus how much damage?"

Continuous pressure on the military from the media is essential, but the media shouldn't look at the military as an enemy. The values of democracy aren't safe unless the society that holds those values is protected," he said.

In answers to questions, Roberts said anti-war protests were not getting much press attention "because media elites, as well as other elites, have no personal risk of seeing family members or acquaintances killed in Iraq." He described the anti-war movement of the '60s as "linked to the draft and an antiauthoritarian culture of sex, drugs and Rock-and-Roll."

Right Against Right: National Security Versus the Right to Know

McNamara and DeFrank
Former CIA General Counsel Robert McNamara (left) and Air Force Col. Jay DeFrank.

The military means to win wars and the media means to show just how they do it, goals that need not be incompatible but that have often caused friction. Trust-building between the Pentagon and the press was the aim of the conference's concluding panel discussion on reconciling the need of national security agencies to protect sensitive information with the media's role in preserving civilian oversight of America's defense establishment.

For the military, the issues are not merely abstract, said U.S. Air Force Col. Jay DeFrank, Director of Press Operation Office for the Department of Defense. "Our policy is to provide the greatest [media] access we possibly can without compromising the safety of the people in harm's way. There will be times when media doesn't get the access they want. Put yourself in our shoes. We're the ones responsible for America's sons and daughters."

From the point of view of the National Security Agency and the CIA, added Robert McNamara, former general counsel for the Central Intelligence Agency, reporters often don't understand how information fits into a mosaic. "Pieces of information can be 'single-threaded' where the enemy would know where, specifically, the information came from. Assets can be put in serious danger. This difficulty is the responsibility of the reporter. They often don't know that the collection platform is fragile and irreplaceable. To lose them would mean more body bags coming home. Who pays for losing these sources and getting their families out of danger?"

Scott Armstrong, the founder of the National Security Archive, countered that "most of daily journalism is people talking about stuff they shouldn't be talking about. Ninety percent of it doesn't matter. Nobody cares about it. [When they do,] the damage can be mitigated by timing of release of the information and by concealing facts about how it was collected. Instances of damage caused by the press are very rare. It is our job to check with the government so they understand what we want to publish."

Leonard Downie, executive editor of The Washington Post, contended that sifting through information is an editorial responsibility that the media takes earnestly. "We have dialogues with government officials to sort out details that are possibly damaging. Usually it means we leave out a word; that is, such things as the location for America's [emergency] alternative government."

But what information comes into editors' hands? "How close are you to the information you need?" O'Neil asked Time magazine's national security correspondent Mark Thompson.

"It's important to pay attention to what the Pentagon thinks, not what they say," he answered. "They say 'axis of evil,' but what they think is access is evil. The prearranged pool of reporters was never called in during the Afghanistan war. The pool should have gone to Central Asia, where 'host nation sensitivities' were used as the excuse. There were also 'host nation sensitivities' on the USS Kitty Hawk," a carrier used for Special Forces operations.

Thompson said he has asked for total numbers of troops deployed to the Middle East and the total amount spent so far and has been regularly rebuffed over what he considers general facts.

"What won't they tell us next? [When he was in Congress,] Don Rumsfeld was one of the sponsors of the Freedom of Information Act. But he seems to have forgotten it."

Peter Copeland, Editor and General Manager for the Scripps Howard News Service, said "the way censorship happens now is by controlling access, not by censoring stories. In World War II, copy had sentences razored out. Now it's not, 'You can't broadcast that or print it.' It's, 'You can't go find out.'"

He described being an "embedded" reporter in Somalia, as "looking at the world through a straw.

"The problem with embedding is you can get inside or you can stay outside." The commander of an artillery unit that he followed told him to pick which way he would go. "He said he would tell me everything and I could see it all, but I couldn't leave until it was over. I went in. I had incredible access but the stories I wrote were essentially historical.

"All this discussion is good, but there is a fundamental thing no one wants to talk about," Copeland said: "They call it 'intelligence'; we call it 'a story.'"

The Pentagon no longer refers to a battlefield anymore, he said, but to the battlespace. "That includes the entire environment of the war, including the information." He said the military should accept that the "news media is like the weather, an unavoidable factor in the battlespace."

The military fails to appreciate the competition that foreign media with cell phones and cameras in Baghdad put on American press organizations to have equally comprehensive coverage, he added. "Whose patriotism do you appeal to with an Al Jazeera reporter?" he asked.

"The issue is access and who makes the call," DeFrank said. "Access is always a tradeoff. On some missions, exposure to classified information is unavoidable. We have to err on the side of caution," he said.

"We are facing a faceless unconventional enemy with long-term 'embedded' cells in the U.S.," McNamara said. "We don't know what it is that we don't want you to say. It's only in hindsight that we will know what is truly significant and what more could have been safely said. Reporters often don't know what the negative unintended consequences of stories could be."

Wars are not all that secret or mysterious, contended Downie, nor is access to covering them absolutely under the Pentagon's control. "Everything you know about Afghanistan," he said to the audience directly, "is from independent American reporters risking their lives in the face of hostility and even death threats from the U.S. military. None of it comes from embedded reporters. One of the most important facts of the war is how did Bin Laden escape from Tora Bora? We don't know. [Washington Post reporters] were prevented from going up the mountain by American troops. Our reporters were under fire too. What we would have seen is what mistakes were made." Downie expressed gratitude to the military for helping reporters working on their own who found themselves in danger in Afghanistan.

"What the military focuses on is the negative consequences of coverage, not the positive ones," said Scott Armstrong, Founder of the National Security Archive.

During debate on the official secrets act, the media wanted to know what damage it was being accused of causing, said Armstrong. "It turned out to be very narrow things that that taking out a word or two would have fixed. The media needs more information and clarification about what is sensitive exactly about the information," he said. It is sometimes the case that the leaks national security agencies are concerned about originate in foreign governments, he added.

Armstrong said the Pentagon's strategy for controlling coverage also relies somewhat on press attrition. "There is a finite amount of resources that can go into reporting. The military realizes that using up and frustrating that amount of energy means that information is going to end up concealed. The reason we get so many leaks is because the people at the top realize that they are going to have to explain what they are doing."

"I agree that it's about the importance of trust and being able to run things by people," Copeland concluded. 

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