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Press hesitates to denounce war ‘most restricted’ as access opens From the Winter 2002 issue of The News Media &…

Press hesitates to denounce war ‘most restricted’ as access opens

From the Winter 2002 issue of The News Media & The Law, page 11.

By Phillip Taylor

Five months into the war in Afghanistan, journalists’ complaints about wartime restrictions could fill a considerable laundry list.

  • Marines locking up journalists in a warehouse to stifle coverage of friendly fire.

  • American troops encouraging Afghan fighters to intimidate photographers and seize their pictures.

  • Pentagon officials relegating reporters to sideline coverage, leaving the front lines barren of reporters.

  • The Bush administration locking down Osama bin Laden videotapes.

Frustrations aside, Washington bureau chiefs — often the commanders dictating how their organization’s journalists abroad cover the war — hesitate to answer definitively whether the war in Afghanistan has been a poorly covered war and whether it stands among the most restricted ones for the press.

“I don’t know what it will look like in retrospect,” said Sandy Johnson, Washington bureau chief for the Associated Press, about coverage of the war. “There are not many wars fought by the United States where the front was so ill-covered. It put us, by and large, at the mercy of source reporting at the Pentagon, Kabul and Kandahar.”

Leonard Downie Jr., executive editor of The Washington Post, echoed some of those concerns in a recent online chat with Post readers.

“My impression is that the media have had less access to the facts about activities in Afghanistan than to the facts in any prior American military engagement since World War II,” Downie said. “Time will tell whether important information has been hidden from the American people by the administration.”

But Pentagon officials seem pleased, overall, with the coverage.

“I think we’ve done very well,” Assistant Defense Secretary Victoria Clarke said during a Brookings Institution forum on Jan. 9. “As we said more than three months ago, this is a very unconventional war. We’re going against people who don’t have armies and navies and air forces. We’re going against people who hide in caves and tunnel complexes. So the military aspect of the war would also be very unconventional, as it has been.”

And for the most part, it’s been unconventional, and not just for reasons spelled out by Clarke. The buildup of American and alliance forces along the Afghanistan border following the Sept. 11 attacks generally occurred without a media presence. And when America unleashed its first wave of attacks on Oct. 7, journalists watched mostly from afar, with only a handful of them with a vantage point within Afghanistan itself.

For the most part, newspapers and broadcasters scraped out their coverage through meetings with Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, Clarke and other Pentagon staff. Unable to talk directly with troops or secure vantage points on American ships, they persuaded the Pentagon to up its briefing schedule to at least five a week, sometimes as many as two a day.

Although at times exasperated, the mainstream press avoided taking their battle to another theater, the U.S. courtroom.

During the Persian Gulf War, a handful of magazine publishers from The Nation, Harper’s, the Village Voice and other publications sued the Pentagon over press restrictions. A federal judge dismissed the suit at war’s end in April 1991 but said the magazines raised some important issues about war coverage.

The mainstream press didn’t join that lawsuit nor did they support Hustler publisher Larry Flynt in his recent challenge to Pentagon press restrictions. Flynt alone sought an affirmation from a judge that journalists have a First Amendment right to document war first-hand and an injunction barring the Pentagon from denying reporters access.

U.S. District Judge Paul Friedman on Jan. 8 denied Flynt’s request, saying the publisher failed to show he had been denied access or that he pursued access to the full extent possible. Friedman, too, said coverage appeared to increase since Flynt first filed his lawsuit on Nov. 16.

But Friedman hinted that a different case might bring different conclusions.

“The court is persuaded that in an appropriate case there could be a substantial likelihood of demonstrating that under the First Amendment the press is guaranteed a right to gather and report news involving United States military operations on foreign soil subject to reasonable regulations,” he wrote.

Chuck Lewis, Washington bureau chief for Hearst Newspapers, acknowledged that the Pentagon placed considerable restrictions on journalists’ access to U.S. troops. But he declined to say that the Pentagon prevented the American press from going into Afghanistan.

“The press has always been free to go into Afghanistan,” Lewis said. “Now they may have been captured or killed by the Taliban, but the Americans weren’t stopping us from doing that.”

But Lewis and other bureau chiefs note that the Pentagon didn’t improve reporting conditions much during the opening months of the war, discouraging news media efforts to get into the country, delaying activation of pool coverage of combat operations and often forcing many organizations to rely on briefings.

And they faulted the Pentagon for ignoring a 1992 agreement struck between the military and the media after the Persian Gulf War. That nine-point agreement, in part, stated that “open and independent reporting will be the principal means of coverage of U.S. military operations.”

In an Oct. 17 letter to Rumsfeld signed by a variety of journalism organizations, including the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, journalists urged him to activate pool coverage, place reporters among troops and pressure allies to grant visas to American journalists covering the war.

The Pentagon continued to promise that military officials and the nation’s press corps would strike an accord on wartime coverage. But bureau chiefs expressed disappointment with defense officials, saying they cast a sort of “velvet fog” over press briefings and media-military meetings, never really allowing coverage but never quite refusing it either.

And so for the early part of the war, most reporters resorted to culling information from Pentagon briefings, a rare interview on a U.S. aircraft carrier or on humanitarian aid airlifts or from carefully selected military videos.

And from leaks.

Those leaks from military sources particularly irked Rumsfeld, who not only denounced them but promised punishment for any Pentagon source caught spilling classified information.

One operation in particular spurred Rumsfeld to speak — a late-night raid on Oct. 19 involving U.S. Army Rangers and other special forces near Kandahar.

“The fact that some members of the press knew enough about those operations to ask the questions and to print the stories was clearly because someone in the Pentagon had provided them that information,” Rumsfeld said. “And clearly, it put at risk the individuals involved in the operation.”

Rumsfeld declined to answer questions about the raid, although on Oct. 22 he said the news reports didn’t jeopardize the mission and that all of the troops returned safely.

The Pentagon has commented little about the mission, although some reports, most notably from Seymour Hersh for the New Yorker, characterized the mission as unsuccessful.

During the briefing, Rumsfeld reiterated a promise that he would not lie about U.S. military operations.

“You will receive only honest, direct answers from me, and they’ll either be that I know and I’ll answer you, or I don’t know, or I know and I won’t answer you,” he said. “And that’ll be it.”

Bureau chiefs said communications and access to military information, and eventually troops, improved gradually after Rumsfeld’s briefing. Journalists got their first big break from restricted coverage on Nov. 27 when reporters from the Associated Press, Reuters and the Gannett newspaper chain became the first to accompany U.S. troops in the war. The reporters followed a Marine unit to a military airstrip in Southern Afghanistan.

But some restrictions and problems continued.

  • The Bush administration discouraged news media outlets from airing videotapes of Osama bin Laden. And for the most part, the networks and the newspapers complied with the requests.

  • Some bureau chiefs expressed concern in December that Pentagon officials tried to deceive them into believing that a series of Marine deployments near Kandahar was not part of a manhunt for Taliban fighters.

    Several news organizations reported seeing Marines in combat gear leaving an air base near the city and quoted an Afghan leader who said the effort was under way to capture Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar. Rear Adm. Craig Quigley said there was no such mission. Pentagon officials later admitted that there had been confusion but that there was not a concerted effort to deceive.

  • The Pentagon ordered troops to not allow photographers to transmit images of masked and chained prisoners in Afghanistan taken on Jan. 10. CBS News planned to air its footage, relented but then showed some grainy clips less than 10 seconds long on its evening news program. Pentagon officials said they were complying with concerns from the International Red Cross, although the group said they had not complained about the photographs.

  • The New York Times reported that Afghan troops often seized digital images from the cameras of American photographers often at the behest of U.S. troops.

  • Journalists clashed over access to troops and to Rumsfeld himself after the Associated Press, the world’s largest wire service, was not selected to travel with the defense secretary on a November trip to Southeast Asia. Six seats available for the trip went to TV outlets and four to newspapers.

    The American Society of Newspaper Editors sent a letter to Clarke, describing the AP’s omission as “baffling, disappointing.” The letter further stated that “no organization is more important to the flow of information to the people of the United States than the Associated Press” and called it essential that the AP always be included. The military and the press eventually reached a compromise.

But perhaps the most egregious affront to the press came on Dec. 6 when Marines locked reporters and photographers in a warehouse to prevent them from covering American troops killed or injured by a stray bomb north of Kandahar.

“We owe you an apology,” Clarke wrote in a letter to the bureau chiefs. “The last several days have revealed severe shortcomings in our preparedness to support news organizations in their efforts to cover U.S. military operations in Afghanistan.”

Lewis of Hearst Newspapers said the apology was unprecedented, a sign of improving media-military relationships during the war.

“Torie Clark, to her credit, quickly apologized for that and said it should never have happened and that they will take steps so that it would never happen again,” Lewis said. “That’s not bad. If you look at the history of Pentagon flacks stonewalling, denying there’s a problem and not being accessible and not making any efforts to accommodate, this is an improvement.”

Only a week later, Clarke met with the bureau chiefs and unveiled a plan called “The Way Ahead in Afghanistan” that briefly outlined the Pentagon’s effort to open three Coalition Press Information Centers in Mazar-e-Sharif, Bagram and Kandahar Airport.

Each center was to have between five and 10 staff members charged with helping journalists get interviews, photographs and other information concerning the war. The centers would also have some communication technology available, such as computers, e-mail service and cellular phones. Clarke told journalists that she hoped to secure the use of a C-130 cargo plane to provide reporters shuttle service from Bahrain to various parts of Afghanistan.

“My sense is that when we can get a better flow of transportation going then that’s the time to break out of the pool status,” Clarke said. “The intent is to keep moving toward that because we don’t like pools any more than you all do.”The plane has yet to launch.

But Clarke declared the end of pool coverage on Dec. 27.

“Consider it disbanded,” Clarke told bureau chiefs. “Go crazy.”

But for some that was too little and too late.

Some said they weren’t sure if the plan to create press information centers and disband the pools was effective particularly when the Pentagon opened coverage in areas where the military is not. Of the three press information centers, only one is in an area that has any military, some contend.

“There is limited access to the U.S. military in Afghanistan,” said Johnson of the Associated Press. “To my knowledge, only the U.S. military in Kandahar has an active relationship with the press corps. There are communications in Bagram and Mazar-e-Sharif, but there are no reporters there anymore, so there’s no need for communication.”

Johnson said the military maintains positions in Uzbekistan and Pakistan, two areas that have stayed at the top of the press’ wish list since the beginning of the war. But Pentagon officials have not improved coverage there because of “host country sensibilities.”

Johnson responds: “Our argument is that if the U.S. government could convince Saudi Arabia, the most closed nation in the world, to allow literally hundreds of reporters to the Gulf War, they should be able to convince those other nations that it won’t hurt to allow reporters in.”