WASHINGTON, D.C. — In preparation for an invasion in Haiti, the government and the media activated a national press pool that was larger than in past military operations and seemed to follow mutually acceptable guidelines laid out in a secret press pool meeting.
Officials from both the news media and the government agreed to guidelines and restrictions designed to expand media access to military operations yet maintain security for the troops and the element of surprise necessary for an invasion.
The Haiti press pool, formed in secret early on September 17 and disbanded later the next night when the invasion was called off, was “formed literally to go in with the invasion – something which the press has been clamoring to do since the Gulf War but the Pentagon has not allowed before,” said Jon Wolman, Associated Press Washington bureau chief and member of the pool. Wolman was present at the meeting that formulated the pool guidelines.
Lt. Col. Michael Wood, public affairs official for the Pentagon, said the military created a larger pool than in past exercises because it was to be a multi-faceted invasion. He said there were 23 journalists and five military escorts in the pool who were deployed with the military in planes, helicopters, on ships, and on the ground in Cap Hatien and Port au Prince in preparation for the invasion.
Wood said journalists were on the planes with the servicemen who left Fort Bragg, N.C., for the first strike of the invasion, only to be turned back mid-air when President Clinton halted the invasion at the last minute. Wood added that many other reporters had been station at the U.S. base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, in preparation for coverage of the invasion, and many of them brought their own transmitter equipment for relay of reports back to the states.
Wood said in the event of an invasion, NBC, CBS, ABC, and CNN had agreed to delay dispatch of scenes that could be identified by the Haitian military for one hour after the invasion. The U.S. military wanted to keep the strike secret as long as possible from the Haitian Lt. Gen. Raoul Cedras, Wood said. Reporters agreed that later dispatches would not include specific locations of troop landings.
Wood added that the Clinton administration had originally asked for a news blackout of six hours, and that network executives agreed to a short-term blackout in order to maintain the security of the operation. The two sides compromised on one hour.
“The bad guys watch CNN, too, as we learned from the Gulf War,” he said.
Wood and Wolman said that the press pool agreed to most of the seven guidelines for coverage of the invasion suggested by the military at the initial meeting September 17 because they were based on common sense. For example, the press agreed not to use camera lights at night without a military escort and to refrain from approaching military officials otherwise occupied with running military affairs in exchange for promises of reasonable protection from the Haitian military and maximum access to operations.
The media did not agree to stay in their hotels or at the U.S. Embassy until the military declared the streets safe and they did not agree to stay off Haitian rooftops if there was an invasion.
Wood said the reason for these suggestions was to protect the lives of journalists from snipers and others who might mistake them for enemies at night.
Although he agreed it was not a true test because there was no invasion, Wolman said two positive actions came out of the preparation for Haiti: the military made arrangements for journalists to have access to land, air, and sea operations, and they arranged to allow journalists to go in with the military’s first wave. He expressed hope for future cooperation between the press and the Pentagon during U.S. military action.
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