|THE PENTAGON & THE PRESS|
April 6, 1999
The Pentagon's tight grip over information related to NATO air strikes in Yugoslavia has further strained the already contentious relationship between the media and the military. Terence Smith talks with Pentagon spokesman Ken Bacon and military correspondent George Wilson about the situation.
TERENCE SMITH: This is as close as the western press has come to the fighting over Kosovo - grainy footage of bombing runs provided by NATO, allied aircraft taking off and landing; Serbian television pictures of Belgrade bomb damage - and today aerial photographs of more bomb damage. Information that does find its way out is strictly controlled by the Pentagon and by NATO.
DEFENSE SECRETARY COHEN: Well, I'm not in a position to tell you at this point.
GENERAL WESLEY CLARK, NATO: I'm not going to be able to discuss any specifics.
KENNETH BACON, Assistant Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs: This is an unusual type of warfare.
TERENCE SMITH: One of the few examples of direct coverage of the military operation appeared last week on ABC's "Nightline." Producer LeRoy Sebris was aboard a B-52 during a bombing run over Yugoslavia. The push and pull between the Pentagon and the press has gone on for years. But the past correspondents have sometimes been able to cover the fighting from the front.
EDWARD MURROW: This is Edward Murrow speaking from London.
TERENCE SMITH: Edward R. Murrow filed radio dispatches from London during the blitz in 1940. Twenty-five years later, during Vietnam, reporters were free to accompany troops into the field. But the daily military briefings in Saigon, famous for their lack of information, were dismissed as the Five O'Clock Follies. Vietnam was a benchmark in military coverage. For the first time television brought the fighting into the nation's living room. In 1991, the Persian Gulf War became the first conflict covered in real time. CNN's correspondents reported live from Baghdad as the first air attacks were launched. But back at headquarters, military commanders kept a tight grip on hard information. The amphibious landing in Somalia in 1992 presented another spectacle: Bewildered Navy Seals landing at night met not with hostile fire but by a detachment of network reporters. But today the Pentagon and NATO seem to be observing the old War Department adage: "Loose lips sink ships."
TERENCE SMITH: Now, we get two perspectives on the frequently adversarial relationship between the Pentagon and the press. Kenneth Bacon, Assistant Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs is the Pentagon's chief spokesman; he was previously an editor and reporter for the Wall Street Journal. George Wilson, the chief military correspondent for the Washington Post for 20 years, is the author of several books on the military; he is currently the defense reporter for Legislate, a Washington Post online service. Gentlemen, welcome to you both. George, have you been getting the picture, full and accurate, that you and through you the public needs on this operation?
|Getting the full story?|
WILSON: The short answer is no. And the reason is that it's kind of a
stretch -sock rationale. The military objective has been stated by Ken
several times as degrading the Serbian military. Well, degrading could
mean breaking the window of a barracks. We don't have any specifics on
bomb tonnage. We have very vague numbers on sorties, and I think it's
much more restrictive than other wars I've covered.
TERENCE SMITH: And this makes it hard, in your view, to give an accurate picture?
GEORGE WILSON: Well, if the American public is to make a judgment as to whether it's a success or failure, whether we should be there or not be there, it seems to me there's no substitute for the facts. And the bad guys know whether the bombs have hit and where they've hit, so who are we hiding information from?
TERENCE SMITH: Well, Ken, is it more restrictive than in the past?
KENNETH BACON: Yes.
TERENCE SMITH: And, if so, why?
KENNETH BACON: Well, we have adopted a more restrictive policy than in the past. And I think I should be very clear about that. The reason is that this battle in particular and I think modern times in general have changed the dynamics of information released for warfare. Let me tell you why. First of all, this is an alliance war. It is not something that involves in the US alone, so we are trying to work as part of a 19-member alliance. It is led by an American general but still we want to be sensitive to the decision-making of the alliance and also to the fact that as information becomes widely dispersed throughout the alliance, of course, operational security becomes harder and harder to maintain. Second, technology is much different today than it was before. We now live in an era where information is made available instantly to the enemy. We know that they watch television. We know that they are on the Internet. We know that they have cell phones. They are watching planes take off from airports all across Europe, and they can calculate the time it takes them to get to their targets, and they can calibrate their air defenses.
So we want to give the enemy as little information as we can in order to help them with their own defenses against the attacks. Third, we live in an incredibly competitive media age. We now have three, twenty-four-hour-a-day cable networks all competing for scoops, all competing to get on the air as soon as possible with new details. And I think the fourth reason is that the press is much less restrained in the use of operational information today than they used to be. Let me give you an example. Last week, the Washington Post published on the front page two targets in downtown Belgrade. Both those targets were struck this week. But you can imagine that when this was read by the Serbs, they took various action to reduce the impact of those, those strikes.
TERENCE SMITH: The targets you speak of were the Interior Ministry and one other?
KENNETH BACON: And the Ministry of Defense.
TERENCE SMITH: Right. George, well, do those sound like reasonable and justifiable limits?
| GEORGE WILSON: I think it would be justifiable if we're
talking about information released in advance of an operation, but a post-audit
on what we did -- and the bad guys know where the bombs hit and where
they did not hit, and who was involved, and how many sorties were flown
-- this was after the fact-- I don't see how that compromises security.
TERENCE SMITH: Does the public deserve a post-audit, as George calls it?
KENNETH BACON: I think the thing the public deserves most is a set of conditions that allows its military, its men and women in uniform, to succeed at what they do, and as I said, we have different operational security restraints today than we used to have. I also think that a sophisticated government, such as the military in Yugoslavia, is very good at analyzing information -- at figuring out what sorts of weapons we use on what sorts of targets; whether we think the weapons performed well or badly - and they take that information and use it to recalibrate their defenses. We see that happening. So we've just decided to give them as little information as possible. That does mean being more tight with information we give to the press, but we've done this purely for operational reasons.
GEORGE WILSON: Well, how does the American public, who sees the country in a half-pregnant war, where we're using air power, but not ground forces, how do they make a judgment when the record of the briefings during the Persian Gulf War accused the Pentagon of being "overstated, misleading, inconsistent." In other words, if you restrict the information, if the press says nobody on the ground in Kosovo, how do you -- how do you counter? How do you make sure you're giving the truth out?
KENNETH BACON: Well, that's a good question. I think no one has accused us of being overstated.
GEORGE WILSON: We don't know.
KENNETH BACON: No one has accused us of being too -- of spinning the information about this operation. We have been very restrained. One of the reasons we've done that is that I don't think that the score keeping, the body counting, the percentage-of-success formulations that have been used in the past give a very accurate picture of what's going on. They frequently lead to, I believe, misleading proxies for what's really happening. So rather than get into that sort of misleading "we're 30 percent of the way there, we're 50 percent of the way there," when we don't know, we've decided just to describe what we're doing, describe our goals, and we do that every day.
TERENCE SMITH: But you know, you are asserting -- you, the administration, NATO -- is asserting that Milosevic is carrying on an offensive in Kosovo, an offensive that the western press can't see. Don't you need to document that?
KENNETH BACON: Well, we have -- we're beginning to document it. We have had bad weather for more than a week, which has very much interfered with our ability to collect pictorial information and to show it, but I don't think there's any doubt that this offensive is going on. The evidence is 300,000 refugees. Any reporter can go there and talk to those refugees, and every -- news organizations have reporters now in Kukas, Albania, or in Skopja, Macedonia, talking to refugees. There's no doubt about this ethnic cleansing.
TERENCE SMITH: George, when you listen to Ken talk about this, does that sound like a fundamental shift in Pentagon strategy to you, something different than past conflicts?
|A change of policy?|
GEORGE WILSON: I think it's a sea change, and I think the sea change started, in my experience, with the bombing last August of the alleged terrorist camps in Afghanistan and the pharmaceutical plant in Khartoum, and if you remember, I asked you about whether we had killed any innocent Pakistanis, and you said, flatly, "I refuse to discuss this." And Secretary Cohen has said that his biggest fear is the terrorist threat. Now, is your restrictive policy about military operations -- you're quoted as having said you're out to change the culture of the Pentagon. Is that connected to the terrorist threat? In other words, would you admit that you're much more restrictive about the bombing of Khartoum and the terrorist camps than any other previous secretary about any bombing raid?
KENNETH BACON: Well, first, I think what I was quoted as saying was that Secretary Cohen and General Shelton are out to change the culture of the Pentagon, and that's the culture -
TERENCE SMITH: What does that mean, to change the culture, information culture, I think you mean.
KENNETH BACON: Yes, I think that after the -- one of the reasons that the press is able to get information about prospective targets, for instance, is because people in the building are generally less concerned about secret or secure information today than they used to be. I think that generals are -
TERENCE SMITH: In the Pentagon building, you're referring to.
KENNETH BACON: I won't say generals, but I think people are more willing to discuss this than they used to be. The Cold War is over. They don't see a unilateral, a uniform threat as we used to when the Soviet Union faced us, and I think there's generally been a relaxation. I think General Shelton and Secretary Cohen are concerned about that, and they think that there ought to be less operational detail discussed in public and less operational detail printed in public, and they have set out to try to make that happen. This happens to be the biggest example of the new policy. Going back to what happened last August, the attacks against terrorist operations, I think that's separable from what we're going through today. That was a counterattack against terrorism in response to the killing of hundreds of Americans in Kenya and Tanzania.
TERENCE SMITH: In the bombing of the embassies.
KENNETH BACON: In the bombing of the embassies. We believe that terrorists will strike back at the troops who actually launch those attacks, if they have a chance to do it, as well as against other Americans. So purely for protective reasons, we decided to release as little about that as possible, and indeed, there was quite a lot of confusion in the days following the attacks as to exactly how we had, how we had launched those attacks. That's exactly what we want in a war against terrorism. We don't want them to know where we're coming from.
GEORGE WILSON: But the bad guys know if the bombs hit the targets or not, and I don't see why the American people can't share in that, and back to your earlier point that the Washington Post listed a prospective target-- well, as General Powell used to tell General Schwarzkoff, "Hey, the press has all kinds of targets on their laundry list, and don't get upset about it." Now, can you cite any reason that the -- was there more anti-aircraft defense? In other words, did that disclosure hurt anything operational?
KENNETH BACON: Well, I can cite one that did. Back in 1995, a television network reported that we were about to launch a cruise missile against a surface-to-air missile site in Banja Luka, Bosnia, and as a result of that disclosure, the surface-to-air missile was moved. That was one missile that we might have hit, but we did not hit because it was moved, and as a result, we couldn't find it, and couldn't attack it. It was one missile that was left to shoot at American planes that might not have shot at American planes if that disclosure might hadn't been made. Now, this is anecdotal, but I think it's important to realize that disclosures do have consequences.
TERENCE SMITH: All right, gentlemen, thank you both very much.
GEORGE WILSON: Thank you.
KENNETH BACON: Thank you.