By Waller, J. Michael
(Nation: The Press)
November 26, 2001
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Major news organizations apparently expected to cover Operation Enduring Freedom as they covered Desert Storm a decade ago — still fighting the last war — with camera crews and klieg lights in the faces of bewildered Marines and their own star reporters competing to be used as transmission belts for enemy propaganda. Never mind that the nature of the war in Afghanistan and of the broader war on terrorism is radically different from wars of the past.
Some in the big media still view the U.S. military as they did during the Vietnam War: with undue suspicion or even hostility. At a recent Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism forum, ABC News President David Weston spoke sadly of the thousands of innocent civilians who died in the Sept. 11 World Trade Center attacks but conspicuously failed even to mention those who were killed that day in the Pentagon. A student challenged Weston, "Do you believe the Pentagon was a legitimate military target?" The ABC News chief seemed surprised: "The Pentagon as a legitimate target? I actually don't have an opinion on that and it's important I not have an opinion on that as I sit here in my capacity right now." He since has issued a national apology for such unfeeling remarks.
Yet Weston's gut response echoes what others have said in the past. On a 1989 PBS program on "Ethics in America," a Harvard University professor asked Peter Jennings of ABC's World News Tonight and Mike Wallace of CBS's 60 Minutes what they would do if they were covering a war and traveling with enemy forces who were about to attack and kill American troops. Wallace firmly stated that he would make no attempt to save American lives and "would regard it simply as another story that they are there to cover." The host asked, "Don't you have a higher duty as an American citizen to do all you can to save the lives of soldiers rather than this journalistic ethic of reporting fact?" Wallace didn't flinch, responding, "No, you have a higher duty … you're a reporter." That convinced news reader Peter Jennings, who conceded, "I think he's right, too." Getting sensational video footage of the killings of American troops would be more important than trying to save their lives.
According to a Media Research Center account, Wallace seemed mystified at the idea of being "Americans first" and "journalists second." He countered, "What in the world is wrong with photographing this attack … on American soldiers?"
National Public Radio (NPR), which has sniped at Operation Enduring Freedom from the beginning, has 13 reporters in and around Afghanistan and the Middle East. They are under standing orders from their editors to find and expose any U.S. military presence. "The game of reporting is to smoke 'em out," NPR Senior Foreign Editor Loren Jenkins said in a recent interview. What would he expect his correspondents to do if they found a secret special-operations team about to strike at the terrorists? "You report it," says Jenkins. "I don't represent the government."
Not all journalists covering the war take the cynical view of Jennings, Wallace and Jenkins. "Overall, the war coverage has been much better than I thought it would be," says Brent Baker of the Media Research Center, who has been monitoring press coverage of the war. "Most reporters have been very restrained and respected rules and not endangered the military."
When Clark Hoyt, Washington bureau chief of the 32-newspaper Knight Ridder chain, learned of the first supersecret commando operations into Afghanistanin September, he called the Pentagon for comment. An official there told him that publication of the story "would endanger the lives of the servicemen involved and compromise any chances of success." For Hoyt, it was a no-brainer. He sat on the story.
Forty other journalists from 17 news organizations — including the New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, CNN and, yes, even ABC — knew that an early-October U.S. attack on the Taliban was imminent when the Pentagon summoned them aboard aircraft carriers to cover the story from the Arabian Sea. "There was an implicit understanding that the journalists would keep quiet," wrote Washington Post media critic Howard Kurtz, "and no one spilled the beans."
Even some of the mainstream media's harshest critics were impressed. Commented the Media Research Center, "It's heartening to learn that many members of the media have acted responsibly in the past few weeks and withheld military operational news of which they had learned."
But did they? USA Today ended up scooping Hoyt's Knight Ridder story about the special-operations forces going into Afghanistan in September. And in October Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld angrily attacked leaks about a specific clandestine commando operation into the mountain fortress of Taliban chief Muhammad Omar in Kandahar. But Rumsfeld didn't criticize the press. He laid blame on government officials for violating their pledges of secrecy.
After the raid had been completed and the Army Rangers were out of harm's way, the defense secretary talked about the issue to reporters. "The fact that some members of the press knew enough about these operations to ask the questions and to print the stories was clearly because someone in the Pentagon had provided them that information. And clearly, it put at risk the individuals involved in the operation," he said. "To the extent that the Taliban and the al-Qaeda know the goals and purposes of our operations, they will be in a better position to frustrate those goals and those purposes. It is not in our country's interest to let them know when, how or even why we're conducting certain operations."
Did the USA Today story about the September commando insertions or the October reports about the operation in Kandahar really betray U.S. operations to the enemy? Not in these particular cases. The USA Today correspondent reported his story from Peshawar, Pakistan, which was little more than a recycling of accounts from stories that had appeared in the Pakistani English- and Urdu-language press that Taliban agents also read. Being based in Washington, Knight Ridder's Hoyt had no way of knowing about the earlier Pakistani reports.
The October stories that steamed Rumsfeld appear to have been based on a combination of leaks, hunches, foreign reports and simple knowledge of how the U.S. military works. Insight has reconstructed how the story broke — and the information came from Afghanistan eyewitnesses, not Pentagon leaks.
The first clue that a commando operation was under way came on Oct. 15, when the first AC-130 gunships were sighted on their way to Afghanistan. The AC-130, a large, heavily armed, slow-moving aircraft, is designed to rain bullets and cannon-fire on ground targets in support of special-operations teams. On the 16th, an Associated Press correspondent in Kabul reported another AC-130 sighting; in Washington that day, the Pentagon acknowledged that such aircraft were operating in Afghanistan but would not comment about commando operations. The AC-130s were a dead giveaway. "If you know the structure of the special forces, you know how the operation can go, and that it cannot go any other way," says H. Joachim Maitre, director of the Center for Defense Journalism at Boston University.
Then, on Oct. 17, Iranian state radio reported, "U.S. helicopters from the Pakistani-Afghan border have entered Afghan territory and deployed troops around Kandahar." Iranian television later cited witnesses who said they saw "exchanges of fire between Taliban forces and American soldiers near Kandahar." The reports were accurate. Agence France-Presse, the French wire service, filed a story for its world syndicate that appeared in the Times of India on Oct. 18. At that point, the U.S. news media picked it up — along with details about troop strengths, apparently from Pentagon leaks.
The most damaging leaks appear to have taken place long before Sept. 11. One was a 2000 report that U.S. intelligence was intercepting al-Qaeda terrorist chief Osama bin Laden's satellite-telephone conversations and keeping track of his whereabouts within a 30-meter range by tracing the signals. The leak, intelligence officials tell Insight, had devastating effects in the hunt for bin Laden.
First, it warned the terrorist mastermind that his communications were compromised, prompting him to switch to encrypted computer messages that code breakers at the National Security Agency (NSA) found difficult to crack. Second, it afforded bin Laden the ability to disinform U.S. and allied intelligence services by planting false information into the communications he knew would be intercepted.
Intelligence experts tell Insight they believe pre-Sept. 11 communications contained disinformation to camouflage the suicide attack on the USS Cole in Yemen in 2000 and the anticipated hijackings and attacks on New York City and Washington. According to Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.), vice chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, the press leak about the telephone monitoring cost American lives.
The worst operational leak after Sept. 11, sources say, came not from the Pentagon but from a senator who just had received a classified briefing, prompting President George W. Bush to restrict full intelligence access on fighting terrorism to only a few leaders in Congress.
For Rumsfeld, spilling secrets to the press is operationally the same as providing them to the terrorists. "The idea of someone in this building providing information to the public and to the al-Qaeda and to the Taliban when U.S. special forces are engaged in an operation is not a good idea, besides being … a violation of federal criminal law." He steamed on in fury at "anyone who decides [to reveal operations information] for whatever reason — maybe they want to seem important, maybe they want to seem knowledgeable. They totally disregard the fact that people's lives could be put in jeopardy by giving notice to the al-Qaeda and the Taliban that U.S. forces were planning to make an entry into their country. That does not seem complicated to me, and it seems so self-evident that it just floors me that people are willing to do that."
Rumsfeld and Bush have won praise from many journalists for placing responsibility on the leakers and not on the press. "The discipline for leaks has to be established by the defense secretary," Maitre tells Insight. "If his people leak, they should be punished. The press has obligations that are not identical with those of Pentagon bureaucrats." But enforcement of existing laws against leaking is very rare. Even Rumsfeld admitted, "I am too busy … to run around trying to find who said that."
Rumsfeld may be the first defense secretary who agrees with the media about the role both of government officials contractually bound to protect classified information and that of journalists who receive it. Leaking is an old practice among Washington officialdom and it comes in many forms. Government officials leak secrets to help explain an issue, promote a policy, filter a desired message out to the public, float trial balloons, discredit political opponents and foreign enemies, fight bureaucratic turf battles and expose assorted wrongdoing.
Some forms of leaks now are authorized by law to protect whistle-blowers. Frequently, the leaks are cleared by senior officials and almost always vetted to ensure that the information does no harm to national security. Several recent, highly accurate, high-level dumps to veteran journalist Seymour Hersch of the New Yorker have provided valuable knowledge about the intelligence and military problems the United States has been suffering and about the conduct of the war. They appear to have had senior-level approval.
So the national-security or defense correspondent frequently finds himself in a tough dilemma: to report, or not to report. For the writer and his editor, the choice can be difficult, especially when a cover-up of wrongdoing or incompetence is suspected but the country's vital interests are at stake. Often, the editor will solicit advice from the press office of the Pentagon or other relevant agency. Insight has done this on a few occasions, both since Sept. 11 and before, and has deleted information or delayed stories where publication would have put soldiers' or agents' lives at risk."It's a difficult case-by-case review," says Insight Managing Editor Paul M. Rodriguez. "But it's ours to make, not the government's, and we expect officials to deal honestly with us to allow for sound judgment." Pentagon spokeswoman Victoria Clarke says that her office on several occasions has suggested to journalists that some of their information would jeopardize an operation and that in every case the news organizations withheld the sensitive material.
"Because the nature of this conflict is so different from previous ones," Rumsfeld told reporters in one of his new daily briefings, "I suspect that old models won't work and that what we'll have to do is work together to find ways that make sense as we go forward."
While pressed to meet deadlines, scoop the competition and maintain circulation levels and ratings with fresh material, most journalists covering the war seem to understand that everyone must change their way of thinking and functioning. Technology has changed the news industry since the Persian Gulf War, with more 24-hour TV news programming and constant Internet reporting that require steady updates in an intensely competitive environment. Some argue that journalistic standards, particularly on the Web, have declined, with gossip and unverified information more readily reported than before.
The loudest complaining is not coming from mainline military correspondents but from those new to national-security issues. "During one briefing, a reporter asked Rumsfeld, 'Why isn't the U.S. dropping leaflets two or three days before we bomb an area, so all the people there can leave?'" the Media Research Center's Brent Baker tells Insight. "The question was bizarre. Rumsfeld was stunned."
One Pentagon reporter asked Rumsfeld why journalists simply couldn't be parachuted into combat zones with the Rangers. "I'm amazed at the question," the secretary said. "I would think that the world would fully understand that it does not make sense, when a handful of American soldiers are parachuting into a hostile place and are going to be fully occupied in dealing with the opposition forces and shooting them, to the extent it's necessary, collecting intelligence, photographing things so that they know what's going on, and then being extracted — the idea of embedding a press pool into that group seems to me to be outside the realm of reasonableness."
Other reporters frustrated with being at the Pentagon's mercy for news have gone to Afghanistan to report from the field — and under Taliban control. Notes Baker, "Generally the worst people have been on ABC, in a league of their own, relaying Taliban claims about killings of civilians that probably cannot be independently reported."
J. Michael Waller is a senior writer for Insight magazine.