Then-Defense Secretary Dick Cheney's stringent press restrictions and adroit spinning made accurate reporting on the invasion of Panama and the Persian Gulf War virtually impossible, eliciting cries of censorship from the outraged news media. But you'd never know it from coverage of Cheney the vice presidential candidate.
By Jacqueline E. Sharkey
Jacqueline E. Sharkey is head of the University of Arizona Department of Journalism and author of "Under Fire--U.S. Military Restrictions on the Media from Grenada to the Persian Gulf."
T HERE WAS NO SHORTAGE of upbeat coverage when Republican presidential candidate George W. Bush selected Dick Cheney as his running mate. Time magazine offered up one of the most glowing portrayals of the former defense secretary and Wyoming congressman, comparing Cheney to "a gray sheriff from some late-period Clint Eastwood western, riding out of retirement to drive off the rascals who'd plundered his town."
But less than a decade ago, the "rascals" that Cheney was driving off were journalists--among them Time photographer Wesley Bocxe. During the 1991 Persian Gulf War, when Cheney was running the Pentagon, Bocxe was detained for 30 hours and blindfolded by U.S. National Guard troops because he violated Defense Department press coverage restrictions.
The Pentagon rules were characterized in an April 1991 letter signed by many prominent journalists--including Time's Washington bureau chief at the time, Stan Cloud--as giving Pentagon personnel "virtual total control...over the American press" and enabling them to disregard "the role of independent journalism that is...vital for our democracy." Time's then-managing editor, Henry Muller, wrote Cheney in January 1991, shortly after the war started, charging that the restrictions were "unacceptable" and marked "the formal re-imposition of censorship for the first time since Korea in an actual wartime situation."
Time was not the only news organization suffering from amnesia about Cheney's tenure in the Defense Department. CNN's Bill Headline also signed the impassioned 1991 letter from media executives, complaining that Cheney's policies "blocked, impeded or diminished" the "flow of information to the public" during the gulf war.
But by July 2000, all seemed to have been forgotten or forgiven. Wolf Blitzer, anchor for CNN's "Late Edition," welcomed Cheney to the July 30 program, saying, "We're very happy to see you back in politics." Blitzer reminded viewers he had covered the Pentagon during the gulf war and told them Cheney is "a man who speaks forthrightly."
In the eight weeks after Cheney was nominated to be the GOP vice presidential candidate, almost no mainstream journalist--with the exception of Newsday's Patrick J. Sloyan--discussed Cheney's decision to instigate press rules that enabled the Pentagon to control information about the 1989 invasion of Panama and the 1991 gulf war. Nor did reporters explore what the press restrictions might indicate about Cheney's attitudes toward the public's right to know, a fundamental precept of democracy.
For example, Los Angeles Times reporter Melissa Healy--who covered the Pentagon for the newspaper during the gulf war--produced an in-depth look at Cheney's tenure as defense secretary that ran on August 27. Healy also used images from the American West to describe Cheney, depicting the former defense secretary as "a staff man in cowboy boots" who "rode the bucking bronco" with a "steely calm." The gulf war "was just one extraordinary moment in a wild four-year ride," she wrote.
Healy discussed several controversies, including the fact that some U.S. generals thought the Bush administration ended the gulf war too soon, allowing Iraqi troops to escape with their lives and weapons. But she did not write a word about the press restrictions, even though in January 1991 then-Los Angeles Times Editor Shelby Coffey III wrote to Cheney that the press rules marked a "disturbing set of decisions" that came "close to outright censorship."
Healy says one reason she didn't discuss the restrictions was that Cheney made "a very deliberate decision" to leave "management of the press part of the war to the generals."
"It would have been nice if Cheney himself had set the tone for openness with the press. Or if he had, in effect, overruled generals' natural conservatism by telling them, 'Goddamnit, you will make room for so-and-so,' " Healy says. "But he didn't."
But Newsday senior correspondent Sloyan, who won a Pulitzer Prize for his reporting about the gulf war, believes discussing such a decision is important. "The military is subject to civilian control. This is a constitutional issue," Sloyan says. He believes the restrictions during the Panama and the Persian Gulf operations reflect Cheney's "utter contempt" for the First Amendment and "deep hostility" toward the press, which have grave implications for the public's right to know.
Cheney has minced no words about the news media, saying in a 1995 interview that he used the gulf war restrictions to try to "manage that relationship" with the news media, "so the press didn't screw us." Cheney did not respond to a series of phone messages and e-mails over a two-week period requesting an interview for this article.
The gulf war restrictions included confining reporters to official Pentagon press pools led by military escorts, conducting security reviews of all pool reports and detaining journalists who tried to visit military units independently.
Cheney has said the restrictions were necessary because there had been "a change in the quality of the press" and "the nature of warfare." In the 1995 interview--taped for the Freedom Forum book "America's Team--The Odd Couple," which explores the media-military relationship--Cheney said: "This is a free society, and the free press is an important part of that. But if I rely as secretary on the press to be the filter through which all information goes...I can't be at all confident that my side of the story's going to get told or that the policy's going to be carefully explained and that people are going to understand what it's all about."
Cheney said he "felt it was important to manage the information flow--not to distort it, but to make certain that we got a lot of information out there so that people knew what we were doing."
But many journalists say the restrictions did indeed distort the information that the public and press received. Retired Army Col. David H. Hackworth, a highly decorated soldier who served in Korea and Vietnam and covered the gulf war for Newsweek, said in 1991 that the restrictions were a form of "thought control" designed to influence public opinion about the conflict.
"The American people did not get the truth" about the gulf war, said Hackworth, now a syndicated columnist, in a recent interview.
Some journalists may regard a story focusing on the press restrictions as too "inside baseball" to interest the public. But it is extremely important that people be made aware of how "political leaders will deal with the press and the public's right to know," says Jeffery A. Smith, author of the book "War and Press Freedom--The Problem of Prerogative Power."
"If we don't know how a person will deal with the press after that person is elected, then we're missing a big part of the picture," Smith says. If officials aren't willing to work with the press "to convey complete and accurate information to the public, then democracy is suffering in the process."
T HE HISTORICAL RECORD OF the operations in Panama and the Persian Gulf shows clearly that news-management policies developed under Cheney prevented the public from receiving complete and accurate information about those conflicts.
The record reviewed for this story--including thousands of pages of Defense Department documents and briefings, and transcripts of more than 100 taped interviews I conducted in the 1990s and during six weeks this summer with military officers, media analysts and journalists--also raises serious issues about Cheney's commitment to the free flow of information, a crucial democratic principle.
Some journalists and media analysts interviewed for this story say the news media's inability--or unwillingness--to effectively challenge these restrictions 10 years ago and their silence about them now raise questions about the mainstream news media's own commitment to First Amendment principles.
Journalists can't "pretend that you fought this all along, that you were really out there defending the First Amendment, when what you were really doing was sending notes and letters of objection to the Pentagon and then going out and being nice little girls and boys and doing exactly what the Pentagon told you to do," says Sydney H. Schanberg, a former New York Times reporter who won the Pulitzer Prize in 1976 for his reporting on the war in Cambodia.
The news media's current silence about the press restrictions also seems to reflect an underlying attitude on the part of some journalists that only events in the recent past are important. Although there were many stories right after Cheney was selected about his conservative record in the House of Representatives--where he once voted against the Head Start program and a resolution supporting the release of South African leader Nelson Mandela from prison--those issues soon faded. By early August, Fort Worth Star-Telegram columnist Bill Thompson was saying Cheney's Head Start vote was "ancient history and mostly meaningless."
"We are an anti-historical culture," says Washington Post Associate Editor Robert G. Kaiser, who covered the Vietnam War. "We don't look back all that much."
Cheney seems happy to encourage this approach. He dismissed questions about his record in Congress, telling NBC's Tim Russert on July 30, "The American people want to hear about the future, not about the past."
But by looking into a candidate's past, voters can get a glimpse of the future. Examining the Pentagon press restrictions during the operations in Panama and the Persian Gulf, when Cheney personally designed some of the strategies to control information, "tells us something about how he would govern," says Tom Rosenstiel, director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism. "It tells us about whether we can trust him in telling the truth."
And truth has become an important theme in the Republican presidential campaign. Bush repeatedly has cited Cheney's integrity as one reason he chose the former defense secretary to be his second-in-command.
Cheney, too, has emphasized the importance of veracity. He promised in his acceptance speech at the GOP convention that he and Bush offered Americans "a better way" to govern, which included "a stiff dose of truth."
Cheney also has criticized the truth-telling record of the Clinton administration. He said Democratic presidential candidate Al Gore was either ignorant or untruthful about U.S. military readiness, which has become another major campaign issue. "The military is in decline," Cheney said on NBC's "Meet the Press" on August 27. Gore either "doesn't know what's going on in the U.S. military or chooses not to tell the truth about it."
Examining Cheney's news-management policies is especially important because the Republicans have pushed a number of military issues to the top of the campaign agenda. Bush has promised to support an antiballistic missile system, and Cheney has told the Armed Forces that "help is on the way" to correct problems with military readiness, recruitment and retention.
Moreover, Cheney would be expected to play an unusually strong role in military affairs and foreign policy, because the younger Bush has little experience with such issues. New York Times columnist Thomas L. Friedman wrote that Cheney would be Bush's "nanny" in these areas.
This means it is even more crucial to understand Cheney's attitudes about what types of information the press--and therefore the public--has a right to know. Although Cheney has held important posts in Washington, including White House Chief of Staff in the Ford administration, he is known as a quiet insider who is most comfortable working behind the scenes. He has left few footprints for people to examine. The major exception is his record as secretary of defense during the senior Bush's administration.
S OME FORMER MILITARY OFFICERS, Pentagon analysts and journalists say Cheney and other Defense Department officials boxed in the press to ensure that the public did not learn the full truth about the Panama invasion or Persian Gulf War.
One of Cheney's first efforts to control information involved delaying the deployment of the national Defense Department press pool so journalists would miss the opening hours of the 1989 invasion of Panama. This "secrecy-driven decision" was blasted by former Pentagon adviser Fred Hoffman, who was hired by the Defense Department after the conflict to critique the pool deployment.
Hoffman called on Cheney to reissue the Pentagon's Principles of Information, which state that the Defense Department will "make available timely and accurate information" to the press, the public and Congress, and that "propaganda has no place in Department of Defense public affairs programs."
Cheney did reissue and sign the principles, then appeared to violate them with the press restrictions he approved for the gulf war. These restrictions tried to make every press pool member "an unpaid employee of the Department of Defense," wrote New York Times reporter Malcolm W. Browne--who won a Pulitzer for his coverage of the Vietnam War--in a 1991 article.
Meanwhile, as hundreds of reporters sat in Saudi Arabian hotels because the number of pools was so limited, the Pentagon provided special access to the gulf for media organizations that could be expected to provide positive stories. National Guard spokesman Maj. Robert Dunlap said that the Defense Department was happy to help one Minneapolis video-production firm get to the battlefield because it was producing a patriotic video, not "a bunch of bad news stories."
Journalists, former military officers and members of Congress protested that some press restrictions were designed to protect political, not military, priorities. "When information is rationed to the press it gives the public the perception that the United States military is manipulating opinion," wrote Rep. Scott Klug (R-Wis.), a former journalist, in 1991. "Without independent verification of Pentagon claims, I have no way of separating fact from fancy, wishful thinking from hard evidence."
Some members of Congress became so concerned that the press rules were preventing lawmakers from getting objective information that the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee held hearings on the restrictions in February 1991. All the former military officers and high-ranking Pentagon public affairs advisers who testified said the restrictions went beyond what was required for operational security and troop safety.
Although news organizations expressed outrage about the restrictions, in the end they not only accepted them, but fought among themselves for scarce pool slots and plane seats on DOD aircraft taking journalists to the gulf.
Once there, some journalists became informers for the Pentagon, turning in colleagues trying to work outside the pool system.
But some reporters, especially former military officers, did challenge the restrictions. Hackworth--whom soldiers in the gulf visited in the middle of the night to discuss problems in the field--said the restrictions gave the public a "distorted" view of the war.
He and other reporters warned that the Pentagon should not give the American people and policymakers a "sanitized" view of conflict that might lead them to believe that limited wars carried little human cost, and therefore were an acceptable alternative to diplomacy.
But Cheney reinforced the sanitized image of war through a system of briefings that he designed with then-Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Colin Powell. They started the briefings--which included videos of Pentagon weapons hitting their targets with unerring accuracy--because information about the gulf war was too important to leave to the press, Cheney told journalist Frank Aukofer and retired Navy Vice Adm. William Lawrence, authors of "America's Team--The Odd Couple."
When the American people watched the briefings and saw that "cruise missiles were going down the streets of Baghdad, and the precision-guided munitions were going down airshafts," their negative attitudes about the military--acquired after "25 years of normal, routine coverage of the Pentagon"--became more positive, Cheney said.
But years before Cheney gave that interview, scientists and former Pentagon personnel had revealed how misleading those videos were.
Eric H. Arnett, a cruise-missile expert with the American Association for the Advancement of Science, wrote in 1991 that the Tomahawk missile had performed so poorly in tests that troops were given the same targets to destroy. The initial success rate cited by some officials didn't mean the Tomahawks had hit their targets, only that the missiles hadn't gotten stuck in their launchers, Arnett explained.
Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Merrill McPeak told reporters after the war that only 8.8 percent of the bombs dropped by U.S. planes had precision guidance systems. McPeak also admitted that U.S. forces "made some mistakes about what we bombed," but declined to elaborate, saying his recommendation that errors be disclosed "got turned around, quite frankly."
The news media "were duped" into giving the public a misleading view of the war, says Paul E. Friedman, executive producer of ABC's "World News Tonight" during the gulf war.
Networks should keep "informing the audience about the source of their information. You know, 'the Pentagon says,' 'the Pentagon claims' and maybe even be more explicit and say, 'We have no way of confirming,' " says Friedman, now executive vice president and managing editor of ABC News. "And maybe in a future situation, God forbid, pointing out that 'postwar analysis indicates that these kinds of claims are not necessarily accurate.' "
Stories about the Pentagon's misinformation got much less play than the original coverage of the weapons systems' alleged successes. "Truth has a hard time catching up with the real-time falsehood," says retired Navy Rear Adm. Eugene Carroll, former director of U.S. military operations in Europe and the Middle East. Carroll, now vice president of the Center for Defense Information, a private research institute, spent much of the gulf war trying to correct the misleading information the Pentagon provided about the conflict.
Journalists and media analysts said another problem was that the briefings portrayed reporters as the enemy, asking foolish and unpatriotic questions. Some of this was purposeful and led some Pentagon personnel to refer to Cheney and Powell as the "lethal weapon" against the press, Rosenstiel says.
Former Assistant Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs Pete Williams, now an NBC Washington correspondent, disputes this. He says the briefings were designed to provide the press with the maximum amount of information that could be released without compromising military operations or personnel.
"It would just be terribly wrong" to think the Pentagon had "a single, neatly executed, perfectly oiled, terribly clever way of manipulating public opinion about the war," Williams says. "That's just not accurate, and it would be terribly unfair for anyone to say that."
Williams finds the idea of the "lethal weapon" nickname "preposterous," adding, "I cannot say more emphatically that I never heard any such language in the time I was at the Pentagon."
The profound effects of the Pentagon's efforts under Cheney to control the image of war became evident in Newsday reporter Sloyan's postwar coverage of the conflict. Sloyan spent months after the war--when he had more access to personnel and information--documenting casualties on both sides. The stories won a Pulitzer Prize and revolted readers. Several articles involved a U.S. mechanized infantry division using combat earthmovers and plows mounted on tanks to bury alive thousands of Iraqi troops in miles of trenches. U.S. pool reporters with this division had not witnessed this tactic, which was designed to protect U.S. personnel, Sloyan wrote.
One reader, Bill Stewart, said in a letter to the editor that his initial reaction had been disbelief, because "I have always been told that America does not engage in terrorism and torture."
This tactic was neither. It was designed to save the lives of U.S. troops, but Americans, the vast majority of whom have never served in the military, didn't understand this, partly because the Pentagon had decided to camouflage the true face of war.
Some military officers, media analysts and journalists believe one reason behind the Pentagon's use of press restrictions to control the image of war--and behind the media's hesitance to challenge the official story about the Panama and gulf conflicts--was ongoing bitterness about media coverage of the Vietnam War.
Many military personnel and journalists still believe that press coverage led to the loss of public support for that conflict, despite research by military analysts and academics that shows this is untrue.
"The shadow of Vietnam hung over everything," former CBS Washington Bureau Chief Barbara Cochran says of the gulf conflict.
But if the Vietnam War did influence the news-management policies supported by Cheney (who got military deferments during the Vietnam years and never served in the military), then he learned the wrong lessons. Military officers repeatedly have made the point that one of the most profound lessons of Vietnam is that suppression of the truth can greatly damage the country's democratic institutions.
Retired Army Col. Harry Summers Jr., who has worked as an NBC News commentator and a Los Angeles Times columnist, states in his highly regarded book about the Vietnam conflict that the Armed Forces should never mislead the public by inflating statistics or presenting information in a manner designed to hide the costs and mistakes made on the battlefield. "As Vietnam illustrated, this divergence between what we were doing and what we said we were doing led to such serious problems as the 'credibility gap' and the loss of public support," Summers wrote in his book, "On Strategy."
Under Cheney's leadership, the Pentagon's press restrictions ensured that the realities of war were once again hidden, journalists and former military officers say. And because "the American public still doesn't appreciate how much it was misled," a credibility gap could open between the public and the Pentagon if a future war has higher casualties, says Freedom Forum First Amendment Ombudsman Paul McMasters.
But the truth was not the only casualty of the gulf war. Former officers such as Hackworth say the press' absence from the battlefield hurt the military, which lacked independent accounts of the conflict that could have helped in assessment and planning.
And the news media suffered "grievous wounds from which they have yet to recover," McMasters says.
Some of those wounds can be seen in the mainstream news media's response at the time to the restrictions Cheney approved, and in the press' silence about the restrictions now. Other wounds are evident in the decline of public support for First Amendment principles. n 1989, Cheney moved to limit press access to Panama before Operation Just Cause began. First he rejected a suggestion by the Department of Defense Southern Command to organize a local pool of U.S. reporters living in Panama City to cover the invasion. Then, without consulting military leaders, Cheney delayed the departure of the Pentagon press pool to ensure that journalists missed the initial hours of combat.
Cheney made the decision after consulting with Williams, then the assistant secretary of defense for public affairs, who had been his press secretary when Cheney was a member of Congress.
Why did Cheney make these decisions? He said that he was concerned about operational security and that he didn't want to be criticized for not using the pool based at the Pentagon. These rationales were rejected by Hoffman, the former Pentagon staffer and Associated Press reporter who was hired by the Defense Department to prepare a report about the pool. Hoffman strongly criticized Cheney's and Williams' "excessive concern for secrecy."
Hoffman wrote that they should have allowed Southern Command to set up a local pool. SouthCom had worked with U.S. reporters based in Panama on previous operations, and no security breaches had occurred. "Such a pool could have been put in place before American forces attacked," Hoffman wrote. "It could have had a front-row view of the assault on [then-Panamanian leader Gen. Manuel] Noriega's main headquarters" and "could have been pre-positioned to cover attacks on other key objectives as well."
Instead, Cheney decided to send the national Defense Department pool from Washington. Williams didn't inform the SouthCom public affairs office about this decision until eight hours before the invasion began. As a result, there "was little time to fully prepare" for the Pentagon pool, Col. Ronald Sconyers, SouthCom director of public affairs, said in his after-action report.
Even after journalists reached the field, communications and transportation resources were so scarce that they couldn't cover the action adequately or transmit reports or pictures in a timely way. Angry pool members coined a phrase: "If it's news today, it's news to us."
The lack of substantive coverage provided by the Pentagon pool contributed to perceptions that Cheney's decisions had been based not on operational security considerations but on political considerations, and were part of an effort to control public and congressional opinion about the invasion.
Cheney denied this. In his tape-recorded interview with Aukofer and Lawrence he said, "The view I had when I arrived at the Pentagon [was] that the department lacked credibility," and "I felt very strongly about my own obligations and responsibilities as secretary never to get into that position, that credibility counted for everything."
However, Cheney also said, "I did not look on the press as an asset, in doing what I had to do" as defense secretary. "Frankly, I looked on it as a problem to be managed."
As the invasion of Panama moved forward, and the pool struggled to get access to the field, military briefers in Washington began presenting the public and the press with information that made it seem as if the operation had gone off with incredible precision. A more realistic picture came from CNN, which put up a telephone number that Panamanians could call to report what was happening in their neighborhoods. The network received hundreds of calls that presented a much different view of events, then-CNN executive Ed Turner told the Orange County Register in a December 1989 interview.
"The White House and Pentagon were on TV insisting that we'd won, that everything was under control, and we were just mopping up," Turner said. "But viewers in Panama would call to say that the fighting was going on in their front yard by the rose bushes."
Cheney and other Pentagon officials failed to present accurate information about several specific events during the invasion of Panama until the press dug up the truth months later. Journalists say these incidents presaged the information strategy the Pentagon used during the Persian Gulf War, when briefings minimized discussion of casualties and vastly overstated the success of some U.S. weapons systems.
For example, Pentagon briefers were not forthcoming about friendly fire casualties. The Defense Department said in the early hours of the invasion that no U.S. troops had been killed or wounded by their colleagues, and did not provide definitive friendly fire statistics after the conflict. Six months after the invasion--in the wake of a Newsweek report about friendly-fire casualties--Williams said at least two U.S. armed forces personnel had been killed by friendly fire, and dozens may have been wounded. One reporter implied strongly that the Defense Department had misled reporters, who had been asking for an account of such casualties and had received little response until the Newsweek report had appeared.
"Obviously six months is not--is--does seem a little long," Williams replied. When Williams acknowledged that Cheney had known about the friendly-fire casualties, a reporter asked, "How come we didn't?"
"That's a good question," Williams replied. "I'm not sure that I totally know the answer to that one, but obviously we need to do better."
The press reports correcting the record about Just Cause got much less play than the original stories. Miami Herald reporter Andres Oppenheimer, an experienced Latin American correspondent, told a journalism conference that he was embarrassed about having based stories on "sloppy, bad, erroneous and maybe intentionally wrong information" released by the Pentagon.
Retired Army Col. James Burkholder, who was on active duty through three wars and now is active in Veterans for Peace, says that Cheney and other Defense Department officials believed "it's not necessary to suppress the truth forever, only until it doesn't matter anymore."
But telling the truth as quickly as possible is the essence of the Pentagon Principles of Information. These guidelines had first been promulgated by Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger after the press outcry about the Pentagon's handling of the 1983 invasion of Grenada, when the Pentagon kept reporters from covering the first 48 hours of fighting.
After the Panama invasion, Cheney reissued the principles, which mandate that "information will not be classified or otherwise withheld to protect the government from criticism or embarrassment."
T HE FIRST MAJOR TEST of Cheney's commitment to these principles came eight months after Operation Just Cause. In August 1990, Iraq invaded Kuwait after a lengthy dispute about oil rights and revenues. President Bush sent Cheney to Saudi Arabia, Kuwait's western neighbor and a longtime U.S. ally, to consult with King Fahd. The monarch accepted Cheney's offer to send U.S. troops to his country as a deterrent to an Iraqi attack.
On August 7, when the first U.S. troops left for Saudi Arabia on Operation Desert Shield, not a single journalist accompanied them. The Pentagon pool was not activated, and individual reporters had been unable to get visas.
When angry journalists asked Cheney why the pool had not been activated, he joked, "It's Pete's fault." Williams said he wasn't sure the Pentagon should send the pool to Saudi Arabia because Operation Desert Shield didn't involve two "essential elements" for pool deployments: combat and the need to preserve secrecy.
Hoffman, author of the Defense Department report criticizing the Panama pool deployment, disagreed. "The national media pool should have been sent to Saudi Arabia with the first deploying U.S. troops," he told a Senate hearing in 1991. Cheney and Williams said the Saudi government's reluctance to accept journalists was another obstacle. Williams said he would try to get reporters aboard ships in the region "as soon as possible."
Some journalists thought this reflected a lack of commitment to resolve the transportation and communication problems that had prevented extensive coverage of the Panama operation. "I don't buy [Cheney's] rationale, just as I don't buy the rationale that they didn't mean to lock up our pool in Panama," then-Los Angeles Times Washington Bureau Chief Jack Nelson told the Washington Post shortly after Operation Desert Shield started. "They made a big thing after Panama saying they would correct it, and they haven't."
Evidence that Nelson was right emerged soon after the pool was deployed to Saudi Arabia on August 12, five days after Desert Shield began. Navy Capt. Mike Sherman, an experienced public affairs officer in charge of the pool, had so little equipment that when he set up the Joint Information Bureau in the Dhahran International Hotel, he had to borrow one computer from the hotel chef and another from its marketing manager.
Despite these problems, pool members praised Sherman and the officers who worked with him during the two weeks the pool operated in Saudi Arabia. But after the pool disbanded and journalists began working as "unilaterals," providing coverage only for their own news organizations, logistical problems at the Dhahran bureau became unmanageable. Although more than 300 journalists were in the gulf by the end of August, Sherman's requests to Central Command for more equipment, vehicles and personnel elicited little response.
During September and October 1990, journalists swamped the information bureau with thousands of requests for interviews and visits to units. Reporters had been asked not to seek out units on their own, because field commanders didn't want unidentified vehicles driving in the desert, or news organizations requesting that the military look for lost journalists. But when the bureau became overwhelmed, frustrated reporters and photographers felt they had no choice but to move out by themselves.
Journalists who tried to work within the bureau guidelines said some escorts told military personnel not to answer certain types of questions and stopped television interviews because "they did not like what was being portrayed," New York Times reporter James LeMoyne said in a 1991 interview and in a Times story.
Meanwhile, as public affairs officers struggled at the Dhahran information bureau, Williams' office started the Hometown Media Program, which provided free transportation to Saudi Arabia for small and medium-size news organizations so they could do stories about local units. The program brought more than 150 people to Saudi Arabia on military aircraft for two- to four-day visits between August 1990 and January 1991. After the hometown journalists arrived, they were provided with escorts and access to the field.
Williams' office directed public affairs officers to "arrange media events...such as visits to field hospitals, AWACS aircraft, etc. if deemed appropriate." Much of the resulting coverage was very supportive of the Pentagon.
The goal was "to get a diverse press corps there," Williams says. "Every time you accommodate somebody, other people aren't pleased."
Reporters trying to work with the Joint Information Bureau in Saudi Arabia were so displeased that during the fall 18 of them wrote a letter of complaint to Cheney, Powell and Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf, the commander of the allied forces in the gulf. LeMoyne said the letter had little effect, and he regretted "how polite we were."
"If every major media organization said, 'We won't accept these rules' and [had] made a stink about it in November, I really don't think the Pentagon would have done what it did," he said in the 1991 interview.
Cheney was quick to take action when military personnel ventured beyond his restrictive approach. When Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Michael Dugan spoke with reporters about U.S. military options concerning Iraq in September 1990, Cheney fired him. The defense secretary said at the time that Dugan had violated Pentagon rules by discussing possible military targets inside Iraq. But the Los Angeles Times said in an editorial that Dugan's crime had been "excessive candor."
T ENSIONS BETWEEN THE PRESS and the Pentagon increased after President Bush announced in November 1990 that he was sending additional troops to the gulf to prepare for a possible offensive option against Iraq. For the next two months, the military and the media fought over combat coverage rules.
It was the first skirmish in what some media analysts call the "communications war" in the gulf, the battle for the hearts and minds of the American people. It was a war that had a profound impact on relationships among the press, the Pentagon and the public that still is felt today.
When the White House and the Defense Department began to consider an offensive, news executives and journalists opened discussions with the Pentagon about how a pool system would work in combat.
As hostilities drew closer, representatives of major news organizations, in collaboration with Williams' office, awarded permanent pool slots to their own organizations. The remaining slots would be rotated among all other news media. The system infuriated hundreds of journalists from smaller news organizations, especially those who had experience covering military operations.
Meanwhile, in Washington, some news executives fought over the number of seats they had been allocated on the Defense Department aircraft that would fly additional journalists to the gulf in the event of hostilities.
The early versions of the rules were draconian. One required journalists to follow instructions from their escorts and stay with the escorts at all times. Another said all pool material would undergo a security review.
After the news media harshly criticized the rules, the Pentagon substantially modified the escort and security-review restrictions. But it refused to eliminate them, despite numerous letters to Cheney from news executives and press organizations.
Journalists tried to "argue and argue and argue," says Cochran, now president of the Radio-Television News Directors Association. "There comes a time when you just have to deal with the reality that's facing you."
Williams says his office developed the restrictions after Schwarzkopf rejected the initial public affairs plan, which would have "put journalists out with military units before the action started, so they would be in place, would know the units. And Gen. Schwarzkopf just felt that that was too much access and he said, 'No.' "
Williams says he went "back and forth with the services and with Central Command" until "we found something they would accept." Cheney then signed off on the coverage rules.
Some letters to the defense secretary argued against the restrictions on legal grounds. The Society of Professional Journalists stated that security reviews constituted "an unnecessary prior restraint." But when The Nation, Harper's and other alternative news media, along with individual journalists and writers, decided to fight the restrictions by filing a lawsuit against Cheney, Williams and the Defense Department, no mainstream U.S. news organization joined them. Some news organizations were worried that a loss would set a bad legal precedent, but others were concerned about losing access to the pools if they fought the Pentagon in court.
Victor Navasky, publisher and editorial director of The Nation, says the plaintiffs "didn't make a great effort to recruit" major news organizations. "The mainstream media didn't need a lawsuit to challenge the pool rules," he says. "They could have said, 'These are unfair...and we don't want to be part of it.' And they didn't do that. So why should they challenge in law what they were not interested in challenging in fact?"
B UT SOME JOURNALISTS did challenge the rules after the Persian Gulf War started in January 1991. One was Hackworth, the Newsweek correspondent. When he realized the pools would never offer "the freedom of movement to make an independent assessment" of Operation Desert Storm, he scrounged a uniform, painted his vehicle desert colors and set out on his own with a Newsweek photographer. He found soldiers eager to tell their stories. The troops also hid him from unfriendly officers looking for journalists, who were considered "unauthorized personnel."
Then-Chicago Tribune military correspondent David Evans--who spent 20 years in the Marine Corps, including three at the Pentagon--said in a 1991 interview the restrictions "clearly went beyond the bounds of military secrecy and operational security" and "clearly had a chilling effect on frank discourse with the troops."
U.S. news executives who had cooperated with the Defense Department on pool arrangements complained that the Pentagon was using the system for de facto censorship. The pools had to go where the public affairs officers sent them, not where journalists wanted to go.
In addition--despite Williams' prewar assurances that "we learned our lesson from Panama. We're going to sit down and make the media pool plan match the operational plan"--pool reporters were severely hampered by a lack of communication and transportation resources, as their colleagues had been during Just Cause and Desert Shield.
Col. Bill Mulvey, head of the Dhahran information bureau during Operation Desert Storm, said in a 1991 interview that the bureau suffered "horrible" problems resulting from equipment shortages. Public affairs officers were so desperate that Lt. Col. Larry Icenogle, deputy director for combat media pool operations for the bureau, suggested putting bureau personnel on MREs (Meals Ready to Eat) for the duration of the war and using the savings to pay for a tactical phone line.
Requests that helicopters and other aircraft be dedicated to the public affairs operation were not granted. So pool products from land-based units were transported by a courier system dubbed the "Pony Express." Many reports and images arrived late or not at all.
Williams acknowledges the communications and transportation problems were "a real disappointment for everybody," but adds, "in the final analysis, I mean, I don't actually have any helicopters of my own. They don't give the assistant secretary of defense any jets. You know, you rely on the military to do that."
Hackworth thinks the system "was intentionally screwed up." He believes "it was designed to have so much bureaucracy and so much red tape that nothing got in or got out."
The military escorts also created problems for journalists. Although the escorts were not supposed to interfere with newsgathering, some carried what reporters called the "Miranda warning," a written advisory that was read to military personnel before journalists were allowed to talk with them.
Some escorts deleted words or passages that might have proved embarrassing to the U.S. military during security reviews, or allowed military officers to do so. Mulvey acknowledged there were "some horror stories" but said the problems resulted from individual errors, not from the rules themselves.
News executives and journalists disagreed, and again appealed to Cheney and Williams, who declined to make substantial changes in the restrictions. The news media then turned to Congress for support. Journalists argued that the restrictions should be eased so the press could provide lawmakers with objective, independent information.
Several lawmakers wrote to Cheney and introduced resolutions calling for restrictions to be eased and the pools expanded. In February 1991, the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee held a hearing on the restrictions. Witnesses included top former Armed Forces public affairs officers, who agreed that the media restrictions went beyond what was needed to protect the operation or U.S. troops. Summers, who had served in Korea and Vietnam, called the restrictions "dumb."
The congressional initiatives had little effect on Cheney. Two reasons may have been that the war was very brief and public opinion strongly supported the press rules.
A poll by the Times Mirror Center for the People & the Press in January 1991 found that 78 percent of Americans believed the military was telling the public as much as it could about the conflict, and was not hiding bad news.
T HERE WAS ALSO A second front in the Pentagon's communications war, this one located in the nation's capital. The Defense Department's chief strategy on this front involved using daily military briefings--which were carried live from Washington and Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, on U.S. networks--to bring information about the conflict directly to the public.
Cheney said in his 1995 tape-recorded interview for the book "America's Team--The Odd Couple" that he and Powell established the briefings because "the information function was extraordinarily important. I did not have a lot of confidence that I could leave that to the press."
The briefings often featured gun-camera videos--along with charts showing how many Iraqi tanks, bridges and planes had been destroyed--that presented the gulf war as a surgically precise operation in which U.S. weapons performed spectacularly. Reporters only learned after the war how misleading this information had been.
"Without any way to independently confirm the veracity of the stuff that's being handed out, there's just no way to sit there and say anything but 'OK,' " says Lane Venardos, who was responsible for live coverage of the gulf war at CBS News. "People with big stars on their shoulder will tell you what's going on, and who's not going to believe Norman Schwarzkopf?"
Williams thinks it's "fair" to question how representative the gun-camera videos were. He thinks Central Command obtained the videos from units in the field, which "are going to send you what they think makes them look best."
But Williams adds, "where you get in trouble is if you say, 'And therefore, by gosh, they must have been trying to mislead us.' Because I honestly think that that would be unfair. I don't know of any case where a military officer said, you know, 'This thing really isn't accurate. But let's go out and say it was.' "
Hackworth disagrees, calling the briefing system "a very carefully orchestrated snow job" that was "exactly a duplicate of the 'Five O'Clock Follies' that we saw coming out of Saigon."
Healy of the Los Angeles Times says Pentagon sources provided reporters with an incredible amount of information, "not all of it true. Not all of it completely accurate. Some of it, you know, at the very least was misleading. Some of it outright lies. But a lot of it true."
Healy "couldn't always sift through" the "extraordinary output of information," but says trying to confirm what was true, false or misleading was just part of the "daily challenge" of covering the Defense Department.
She says press rules at the Pentagon, and "to some extent" in Riyadh--where she and other reporters traveled with Cheney--didn't seem "overwhelmingly restrictive," which is another reason she didn't focus on them in her story about his tenure as defense secretary.
Healy believes that too many inexperienced reporters didn't know how to obtain or evaluate military information, and "wrongly expected it to be served up to them on a silver platter."
Rosenstiel says the Pentagon used the briefings to focus attention on such inexperienced reporters and present an unflattering picture of the press. He says sources told him the briefers rehearsed ways to deflect difficult inquiries and to focus on reporters who asked more foolish questions.
The goal was to make the Pentagon look more credible than the press. The extent of the Defense Department's success could be seen in a "Saturday Night Live" skit during the war that portrayed the briefers as intelligent and incisive and the journalists as stupid and self-serving, says Rosenstiel, a media writer for the Los Angeles Times during that conflict.
Williams disagrees. "If that happened it was news to me. I never heard of any such thing," he says.
McMasters, who was chairman of the Society of Professional Journalists' Freedom of Information Committee at the time of the gulf war, says Cheney and top military officers "actually managed to turn the public against the press, as if the press were the enemy." He adds that such a strategy endangers democracy. "The moment the American public believes that it can get the truth from just one source, especially when it comes to the complex policies of government, then democracy is dead," he says.
The late Lt. Gen. Thomas Kelly--a briefer during Just Cause and Desert Storm--said the briefings enabled the Defense Department to achieve its goal of ensuring that "the American people were getting their information from the government, not from the press."
Kelly--who was popular among journalists and was hired by NBC News as a military analyst after the gulf war--said in a 1991 interview that the briefings were "the most significant part of the whole operation," because "for the first time ever, the administration--the Department of Defense--was talking directly to the American people, using the vehicle of a press briefing."
This "was a major advantage for the government. The press, wittingly or unwittingly...was giving us an hour-and-a-half a day to tell our story to the American people," Kelly said.
However, the story the Pentagon presented didn't always provide a true picture of the war. For example, Kelly told reporters during the first week of Desert Storm that U.S. Air Force missions had an 80 percent success rate. When bad weather persisted in the gulf and the Pentagon acknowledged that pilots couldn't see well, reporters asked Kelly what the 80 percent figure referred to.
He replied it meant that planes had taken off and dropped their ordnance in the area of the target. The term "success rate" did not mean the ordnance had hit a target. Kelly denied in a 1991 interview that he had misled reporters.
After the conflict, journalists learned that the smart bombs that played such a major role in the videos used in the briefings actually played a minor role in the U.S. arsenal. Pentagon analyst Pierre Sprey told the House Armed Services Committee in April 1991 that "for every missile that blew up a bridge, there were maybe 70 or 75 misses that nobody was showing." That "is a success rate, not of 85 percent...but under 1.5 percent," Sprey said. This shows "just how shameless the censoring of the results for the guided weapons was during the war."
The Defense Department also exaggerated the success of the Tomahawk missile. Kelly said on January 25, 1991, that more than 200 Tomahawks "have been fired to date very successfully," and a preliminary Defense Department report to Congress about Desert Storm said the Tomahawks had "a 98 percent launch success rate."
After the war, journalists learned that these terms did not mean that the missiles had hit their targets. In its final report to Congress more than a year after the gulf war, the Pentagon acknowledged it was having a difficult time verifying how many Tomahawks had hit the mark.
Discussions of the success of the Patriot--shown night after night shooting down Iraqi Scuds--also were misleading. What the public wasn't told was that the Patriot didn't always destroy the warhead, which then hit the ground with full explosive force. Meanwhile, debris from the rest of the Scud and the Patriot scattered over a wide area, causing further damage.
Theodore Postol, an engineer and physicist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who had worked on Defense Department projects, told the House Armed Services Committee about the Patriot problems. Postol said in a 1991 interview that he was concerned that the Defense Department press restrictions, coupled with the fact that most reporters were "impressively ignorant" about technology, meant that the government had been both "the disseminator and assessor of the effectiveness of the various weapons systems" in the gulf.
The full truth about the weapons systems didn't come out until the war was over. During the conflict, the news media's acceptance of the inflated statistics and videos--and some correspondents' cheerleading reports about the weapons' alleged successes--helped shape public and congressional support for Desert Storm.
Cheney said in his 1995 interview with Aukofer and Lawrence that one reason for the "overwhelming level of support" for Desert Storm was that "the American people saw up close with their own eyes through the magic of television what the U.S. military was capable of doing."
Past press coverage, Cheney said, had led people to believe the Pentagon was "a place that doesn't work very well, costs too damn much, and we're not at all sure they can perform their mission. And then, all of a sudden, bang. There the guys were, and they were doing it."
At one point during the gulf war, coverage was so overwhelmingly positive that Cheney and other Pentagon officials began to worry about how the American people and Congress might react to setbacks, especially during a ground war. They embarked on what Williams later called "euphoria control." At a January 23, 1991, briefing, Cheney chided the news media for raising expectations about how the conflict would progress. He neglected to mention that his department had provided the bombing videos, weapons statistics and other information the journalists had used.
A FTER THE CONFLICT, the news media assessed the damage that the gulf war had inflicted on the press. Journalists regretted that so many news organizations had accepted the Pentagon's restrictions and its version of the war.
The defense secretary and his spokesman brushed aside the criticism. Williams wrote at the time that "the press gave the American people the best war coverage they ever had," and said it was a "myth" that the media restrictions prevented reporters from doing their jobs properly. He now says "best-covered" means "in terms of the information that the military released," and that there were problems with reporters getting "front row seats to the operation."
Cheney said after the war that the press rules had not negatively affected coverage. He acknowledged that the press "didn't get to cover the war the way they wanted to cover it," but told USA Today, "As I get out around the country, I do not find any sense of unhappiness or outrage on the part of the American people that somehow the press was mistreated."
Cheney was correct about the public reaction. A March 1991 poll by the Times Mirror Center for the People & the Press showed that 68 percent of respondents thought "military censorship was about right" during the gulf war, and 17 percent thought there should have been "more censorship."
And the lawsuit by The Nation and other plaintiffs challenging the restrictions was dismissed. Federal District Court Judge Leonard Sand ruled the case was moot, but said the plaintiffs had raised important and troubling questions about the Pentagon's control of information.
In September 1991, the secretary of defense agreed to talk with six top-level news executives about the press restrictions. At the meeting, Cheney described Desert Storm as "the best-covered war ever," Burl Osborne, publisher of the Dallas Morning News and former president of the American Society of Newspaper Editors, told the Associated Press. "We described it as the worst coverage ever," from the viewpoint of independent reporting. Cheney told the executives that news-media representatives could meet with Williams about revising combat-coverage rules. Six months later, the press had a draft agreement that did not resolve disagreements about security reviews, did not provide ground rules and included no requirement that the Pentagon consult with journalists before writing such rules.
One of many journalists unhappy with the agreement was Newsday's Sloyan, who called the draft agreement "total bullshit."
Barry Zorthian, one of the Pentagon's chief public affairs officers during the Vietnam War, had a different take. The war over the Persian Gulf had ended, Zorthian said, and "the press lost."
B UT THE PRESS WAS NOT the only casualty of the Cheney Pentagon's news-management policies during that war, Armed Forces officers, media analysts and journalists say. The military, the public and democratic principles also were hurt. ###
Burkholder of Veterans for Peace thinks one factor that has kept some military personnel and members of the public from believing that gulf war illness exists is that the Pentagon's "sanitized" videos and statistics helped ensure that "the curtain is drawn" over the reality of the conflict.
Hackworth says the restrictions and the briefings presented the U.S. military as having an "enormous, overexaggerated strength capability," which gave the Armed Forces "a false sense of their total effectiveness."
Carroll of the Center for Defense Information says the Pentagon's control of information under Cheney undermined a basic democratic ideal: "that you will have good government if it operates in accordance with the will of informed citizens....
"If the citizen is informed--as he was night after night--[that] the Patriot missiles were shooting down Scud missiles right and left and that our planes were destroying the missile launchers and that our bombs were all precisely on target and so on, you're misinforming the public and giving them a glorious, rosy view of combat," Carroll says.
Some media analysts believe that studying Cheney's news-management policies in Panama and the gulf will give voters insight into how much Cheney would want the public to participate in debates about important military matters if he became vice president. Constitutional scholar Jeffery Smith believes the press should ask candidates about their philosophies concerning freedom of information, because if officials "think that they don't have to tell the public about the public's business, then we really don't have a democracy anymore. We just have an autocracy."
Los Angeles Times Washington Bureau Chief Doyle McManus thinks that "except in wartime," press restrictions are "a pretty peripheral issue." During the current presidential campaign, "Procurement issues and conflict-of-interest issues and defense policy issues and nuclear strategies, use- of-force issues, you know, these are sort of the first ones that come to mind," he says.
ABC's Friedman also believes Cheney's news-management policies are not "enormously important." He says "it becomes relevant again if he and George Bush are elected and there is some sort of military conflict."
But it is the likelihood that Cheney would "resort to the same measures" that leads Al Ortiz--who was CBS News' foreign editor during the gulf war--to think "there should be much more discussion" during the campaign about the Pentagon's press restrictions under Cheney.
One recent incident involving Cheney illustrates why studying his relationship with the press might provide insight into his attitude toward the public's right to know. On September 1, the Washington Post reported that Cheney had become so irritated by press coverage of problems concerning Bush campaign statements about military readiness and other issues that he enforced a one-question-only rule for reporters, and rebuked someone who tried to ask a follow-up question.
In the eight weeks after Cheney's nomination, most reports about Cheney referred to his Defense Department record in passing and positive terms. For example, a story in the Houston Chronicle said, "Cheney can be seen as the steady hand" who helped "guide the nation through the Persian Gulf War."
Rosenstiel says that in light of Cheney's record, there was a "certain irony to the notion--to the celebration by journalists--of Cheney as such an able communicator" in the early weeks of the coverage.
McMasters says one reason that the campaign press corps hasn't examined Cheney's news-management policies is that it often is "reactive, not proactive." Because neither the Democrats nor the Republicans plan to explore public-information issues during the campaign, political correspondents aren't planning to, either.
Some media analysts and journalists see deeper causes. Former New York Times and Newsday journalist Schanberg thinks the news media's "complicity" in allowing Cheney and other officials to dictate what the American people could know about the operations in Panama and the Persian Gulf is one reason journalists aren't covering this issue. Because the press behaved like a "tabby cat" during the gulf conflict, "it's pretty hard to become a raging lion now," Schanberg says.
Cochran disagrees. She says news organizations tried "to get the best possible access" during the war, and some of them, including CBS, had correspondents working outside the pool system. She says some journalists may be concerned that questioning Cheney about the Pentagon's information-management policies would call into question their objectivity and impartiality.
What's more, withholding information is "an institutional matter rather than a partisan matter," Cochran says, pointing out that Democratic officials "were behaving in a similar way" during the Kosovo conflict. Cochran also believes that journalists might think questions about wartime press restrictions could be seen as "special pleading" by the news media.
Jeffery Smith hopes news organizations will reconsider this idea. "The press isn't just indulging in special pleading when it puts pressure on politicians" to discuss how they deal with the news media. "Sometimes the journalists are the only ones in a given situation who are going to have the knowledge and the opportunity to ask the right questions," so the way a government official works with them affects the public's right to know.
Some media analysts believe the public's declining support for the press is another factor that may have contributed to the news media's reluctance to explore issues about Cheney's press policies. The American people's overwhelming support for the Pentagon's media restrictions during the gulf war shocked many journalists, and polls in the years since have shown that public trust in the press has fallen.
A Freedom Forum First Amendment Center poll released in June, which showed 51 percent of respondents thought the press had "too much freedom," might have had an additional chilling effect on the news media's willingness to question Cheney about his support for press restrictions.
Smith says it is crucial for the news media to examine such issues. "The press needs to tell the public many things the public may not want to hear," the constitutional scholar says. "The Founders did all the balancing they thought was necessary between national security and the right to know. They decided that the ultimate choice was going to be made by the press, and that government officials were not the people to trust with the control of information."