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Pentagon and the Press

October 10, 2001 at 12:00 AM EDT


TERENCE SMITH: As the Pentagon manages a complex assault abroad, it is waging a public relations battle here at home.

TORIE CLARKE, Pentagon spokesperson: We’re not talking about the direction, and we’re not talking about the configuration.

TERENCE SMITH: The national media is pressing the Bush administration to be more open about military action.

DONALD RUMSFELD, Secretary of Defense: We do not discuss operations.

TERENCE SMITH: The Pentagon and the news organizations that cover it have had their difficult moments in the past. The experiences in Grenada, Panama, and the Gulf War left neither side satisfied with either the flow of information or the way those actions were covered. But now, in this different kind of war, both the Pentagon and the press recognize that they are moving into uncharted waters likely to be more difficult than anything they have encountered in the past.

JOHN McWETHY, ABC News: There will be bombs dropping from time to time, but a lot of what happens is going to be absolutely and totally invisible.

TERENCE SMITH: John McWethy, chief national security correspondent for ABC News, wonders what the American public will know about what its forces are doing on the ground.

JOHN McWETHY: We will never know when they are pulling the trigger. We will never know when they die. It’s going to be a very difficult to cover operation for the American press.

GENERAL RICHARD NEAL (Ret.): There will be friction, there’s no doubt.

TERENCE SMITH: Retired General Richard Neal, who was a command spokesman during the Gulf War, now teaches senior military personnel. He says Americans and the international community will be satisfied with what information they get about military actions, even if they only learn about them substantially after they occur.

GENERAL RICHARD NEAL: I think they agree with the military knowing when that “right to know” takes place. I don’t think they’ll feel shortchanged or left out of the know, so to speak, if in fact they have to wait three or four days before they find out about what transpired. They’re willing to wait a little bit to make sure we don’t put those kids at risk.

TERENCE SMITH: So is it only the media that are concerned about this?

GENERAL RICHARD NEAL: If you want my candid opinion, yes.

MAN: That’s good. We can use that.

TERENCE SMITH: But in an age of instant communication…

JOHN McWETHY: McWethy for the slot, please.

TERENCE SMITH: …Like the videophones that are being used from northern Afghanistan…

REPORTER: We’ve seen significantly more explosions over the capital.

TERENCE SMITH: …And expanding international sources for news and pictures…

REPORTER: Russian TV is reporting…

TERENCE SMITH: …The Pentagon will not be the only source of information. George Wilson, National Journal’s defense correspondent, says a war against terrorism is also a war for hearts and minds.

GEORGE WILSON: If the military doesn’t tell its story through the media by letting them go out and see what they are doing, then the bad guys will make up their story for them, because, you know, news abhors a vacuum, and somebody is going to be talking about what we are doing. And if the U.S. government just stiff arms us, I think they’re going to be ill served.

TERENCE SMITH: The Pentagon has organized press pools to cover the current military action. But journalists remember the Gulf War. Similar pools were kept far from the front line. There were also media complaints that military censors were engaged not in security control, but image control. Wilson says the Pentagon’s restrictive press rules then have strengthened the media’s resolve to find outside sources this time.

GEORGE WILSON: The Persian Gulf experience, where a lot of major papers spent an awful lot of money sending reporters to the scene and couldn’t get them anywhere near the action, I think that has increased their skepticism and also accelerated their preparations to get people in positions here, there, and everywhere.

TERENCE SMITH: Secretary Rumsfeld is on the record as saying he will not lie to the press.

DONALD RUMSFELD: I am 69 years old, and I don’t believe it’s ever happened that I’ve lied to the press, and I don’t intend to start now.

TERENCE SMITH: But some reporters say members of this administration, and Defense Secretary Rumsfeld in particular, have an almost obsessive interest in secrecy.

JAMIE McINTYRE, CNN: Pentagon, McIntyre.

TERENCE SMITH: CNN military affairs correspondent, Jamie McIntyre:

JAMIE McINTYRE: Secretary Rumsfeld has issued an edict essentially telling everybody not to talk about anything. So even the flow of routine information has been shut down, to the point where some things that are even obvious aren’t acknowledged by people in the Pentagon.

TERENCE SMITH: Of particular concern to reporters is the Pentagon’s refusal to comment on false stories when they circulate.

JAMIE McINTYRE: If their first instinct is not to talk at all about things, then disinformation from the other side can gain more currency than it would normally. So it’s up to us, with less information, to try to figure out whether what we are reporting is, of course, a, accurate, and b, whether it could have any effect on the ongoing operation.


TERENCE SMITH: Pentagon Spokesperson Torie Clarke says that if the Pentagon confirms and denies parts of reports, it could give the enemy valuable information about military operations.

TORIE CLARKE: You could clean up a story to such a regard that you paint a very clear picture about what we may or may not be doing operationally. That could get on the side of “boy, we just gave them a road map.”

TERENCE SMITH: But she insists the Pentagon is making efforts to accommodate the press in creating its rules of the road.

TERENCE SMITH: Is it a fair assumption that those rules, as you speak of them, will be more restrictive than they have been in the past?

TORIE CLARKE: No, it’s not a fair assumption at all.

TERENCE SMITH: The military has learned from past operations, such as the one in Kosovo, that unpleasant truths of war, such as the killing of civilians, will be quickly publicized. In fact, four United Nations workers were among the early casualties of the U.S. bombing of Kabul. General Neal says this sort of news can be exploited by adversaries.

GENERAL NEAL: The terrorists, I mean, they have almost as good technology, in many respects, as we do, as far as communications. It’s to their advantage to show those collateral damage events that may and probably will unfortunately occur.

TERENCE SMITH: Meanwhile, ongoing negotiations between the Pentagon and Washington bureau chiefs have already stumbled over a decision to allow the commanders in the field to dictate the rules of coverage. Nonetheless, Pentagon reporters still believe that the Pentagon is the only place from which to glean a complete picture of U.S. operations.

JOHN McWETHY: We will still learn bits and pieces. This is the place to cover the war, to at least get a global view. To understand the broad fabric of the war, the seat of government, Washington, DC, the Pentagon is the place to be.