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From AJR,   March 2002  issue

Blacked Out   

The Bush administration’s strict controls have made it very difficult for journalists to provide a full picture of the war in Afghanistan. The situation will get even tougher in the coming months, as covert U.S. military activity spreads to other countries.

By Nina J. Easton
Nina J. Easton is deputy bureau chief of the Boston Globe's Washington bureau.     

Like most of the nation's military correspondents, CBS veteran David Martin reported the critical first two months of America's war on terrorism from Washington, nearly 10 time zones away from Afghanistan. Finally, in January, he and five other reporters tapped by the Pentagon were permitted to travel with U.S. Special Forces. It was an opportunity jealously noted by many of his competitors, and it came with a price: He first had to agree not to disclose the location of the base or the names of soldiers or to film clear shots of their faces. But he uncovered one important nugget in this complex and ever-evolving war--a surprising absence of cave sites in Tora Bora, the region where the hunt for Osama bin Laden went cold. "We came in with a clear intention to go...from cave site to cave site and find a vast amount of information," an unidentified Army major told Martin, "and so far we've found that there's only a few."

Two weeks after Martin's trip, fellow correspondent David Wood of Newhouse News Service was still stuck in upstate New York, watching the snow fall outside a motel window as he awaited his own opportunity to travel into Afghanistan. His dogged efforts to secure an Army invitation had paid off a few weeks earlier, when his cell phone rang as he was standing in the frozen foods section in a Safeway supermarket and a military voice ordered him to pack and get himself to Fort Drum, New York, immediately. Now his helmet and flak jacket and MREs (meals ready to eat) were stashed inside his rucksack on base. He had his laptop, his satellite phone, his dog tags listing his blood type. He was ready to ship out.

Still, there was no word of the C-5 transport planes that would fly him into Afghanistan alongside troops from the Army's 10th Mountain Division. More than three months had passed since October 7, the date the first U.S. bombs fell – and the closest Wood had come to seeing military action was sitting in a movie theater with the young soldiers nervously watching the blood and trauma of "Black Hawk Down."

Welcome to the war on terrorism story, where journalists have faced two options: travel solo into a region so lawless and dangerous that eight journalists were killed over the course of 17 days in November (more fatalities than the U.S. military had suffered up to that point), or play by the rules of a Pentagon determined to delay and limit access to the conflict. Mostly, journalists must resort to filling in back details of a U.S. military venture that led to the fall of the Afghan Taliban regime--and the escape of bin Laden, leader of the deadly al Qaeda terrorist network and accused mastermind behind the September 11 terrorist attacks.

During the fall campaign, Americans received most of their war news via the halls of the Pentagon, where Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld, citing the covert nature of the war, imposed tight restrictions on the flow of information. As a result, the critical October-November period remains a black hole, with little public knowledge or understanding of U.S. military actions in Afghanistan. "We cheat history if we don't [permit reporters] upfront," says an Army public affairs officer who favors open access designed not to compromise American military operations.

"There's a lot we simply don't know," says Washington Post military reporter Thomas Ricks. Adds Wood: "The only way to do significant reporting was to be inside the military and as far forward as possible--walking a patrol in Kandahar or hanging with the Marines at the perimeter. You can't get that at a Pentagon briefing."

Moreover, reporting the war is only going to become more difficult in the coming months, as covert U.S. military activity spreads beyond Afghanistan. "The next phase of the war will be very much behind the scenes," says Bruce Hoffman, a terrorism expert at the Rand Corp. Says the Post's Ricks: "We don't know where to be geographically. We don't know where to be next."

Allied setbacks and advances during World War II, including the secret Normandy invasion, were captured by reporters who donned military uniforms and moved with troops. In the critical first months of the Afghan war, the Pentagon didn't permit reporters to travel with Special Forces troops in Afghanistan, the 10th Mountain Division stationed in Uzbekistan or on the aircraft carrier Kitty Hawk, from which commando raids were launched. When the Marines went into Afghanistan at the end of November, they were accompanied by a pool of reporters, who were subjected to stringent controls. Some reporters were permitted on Navy aircraft carriers used for bombing raids, and on humanitarian food drops. But combat ventures were off-limits.

Only as the calendar turned did reporters begin gaining access to the critical Special Forces units. "We have said that for those things that could be appropriately covered, we would make our best effort to facilitate that coverage," Pentagon spokeswoman Torie Clarke told a January 9 Brookings Institution forum on the media and the war. "But Special Forces are playing a part in this war, as everyone knows, unlike they have ever played before. [There is the] very unique nature of the things they do. Secrecy is a very big piece of it." She pointed out that reporters were brought along with the Marines, the first conventional forces brought into Afghanistan.

In the decades since Vietnam, when free-roaming journalists produced news reports challenging the Pentagon's official version of how the war was going, the military has tightened controls on press coverage. But the limits during the Afghan war have been even tighter. As longtime New York Times military reporter Michael Gordon noted in late October: "The media's access to American military operations is far more limited than in any recent conflict, including NATO's war against Yugoslavia, the American invasion of Haiti or the American intervention in Somalia." A 1992 agreement between the press and the Pentagon – spelling out principles of war coverage--was basically tabled because of the unique and secret nature of this war.

(Military reporters are divided over comparisons between this conflict and the Persian Gulf War, when reporters billeted with troops but were tightly controlled – restrictions that led to the 1992 agreement. Gordon pointed out that during the gulf war scores of reporters traveled with Army units during their sweep through western Iraq and with the Marines who pushed into Kuwait. But Charles J. Lewis, Washington bureau chief for Hearst Newspapers, contends "there was no independent reporting from the field. It was all pool reporters in the custody of the U.S. Army.")

In Afghanistan, during the height of the conflict, reporters typically accompanied the Northern Alliance, which did much of the fighting against the Taliban. "Ironically, we know more about what our allies were doing than what we were doing," says Washington Post Deputy National Editor Alan Cooperman. This arrangement also meant that reporters covering the fighting lacked the protection of the U.S. military.

Three journalists were killed by a rocket-propelled grenade during a Northern Alliance incursion into contested territory; five others were murdered by gunmen. With their expensive equipment and wads of cash, foreign journalists have become ripe targets for bandits. As senior writer Sherry Ricchiardi wrote in the January/February AJR, this was "the profession's heaviest death toll in such a short amount of time in recent memory." Before those deaths, reporters who snuck into Afghanistan independently were arrested by the Taliban.

Pentagon officials argue that the covert, information-sensitive nature of this war made it impossible for reporters to accompany the Special Forces who did much of the early fighting. As Rumsfeld said at a September 12 press briefing, "We are...seeing the definition of a new battlefield in the world, a 21st-century battlefield, and it is a different kind of conflict." (Eight days later, though, Rumsfeld suggested that his attitude toward releasing information was not a 21st-century phenomenon: "I guess I'm kind of old-fashioned. I'm inclined to think that if you're going to cock it, you throw it and you don't talk a lot about it," he told reporters.)

The U.S. is orchestrating its mission less like a war than a CIA campaign with military support, relying on indigenous ground forces and covert operations, as well as overt bombing attacks, says Patrick J. Sloyan, former senior correspondent for Newsday's Washington bureau and winner of a Pulitzer Prize for his gulf war coverage. And the Pentagon treats information with the same tight-lipped, need-to-know approach that characterizes covert missions.

In some cases, there were also political reasons for the silence. Uzbekistan's authoritarian government was nervous about the repercussions of disclosing that the Army's 10th Mountain Division was using its bases for support. Likewise, Pakistan and Oman were not keen on advertising their cooperation with the U.S. military.

Was there a way for the media to cover U.S. military actions in Afghanistan without compromising them? Most military reporters insist yes, citing agreements between the Pentagon and news organizations to abide by restrictions and a longtime understanding among war correspondents that no news is worth endangering U.S. troops. Reporters would need training in dressing and packing for maximum mobility ("no heels and white shorts," as Wood puts it). And they would have been required to play by military rules designed to avoid tipping off the enemy about the scope and nature of American covert operations.

"It would have meant a lot more work on our part and a little on yours," says one Pentagon source who deals with the press. "You would have had to agree on embargoes and keeping secrets about operations. I would have gone in saying, 'You're going to want to beat me up every day, but this is the only way we can do it.' It would have meant taking a risk on our part. But we weren't willing to take the risk.... We let journalists with no training jump out of planes in World War II. Why the heck couldn't we do something similar here?"

To be fair, most of the public isn't clamoring for more news about a war in which Special Operations forces--elite troops trained in foreign languages and operations such as commando raids – fight against an elusive and dangerous enemy that has demonstrated its willingness to attack Americans on American soil. "The public wants the enemy defeated...and they are really not concerned about press concerns or access," Washington Post Ombudsman Michael Getler told the Brookings forum. "They want the job done and you can't blame them.... I don't think there's any real constituency out there that cares much about the press' complaints in this area, and I think that's a problem."

But there are costs to this shroud, too. For one, this sanitized version of the country's first 21st-century war doesn't give the public and policymakers a realistic accounting of the difficulties, failures and setbacks of U.S. military ventures abroad. As Wood says: "Without that textual reporting, there is a tendency among policymakers to think things are as easy as they look. So they can say [during the next foreign policy crisis], 'Let's just send in the Marines.' But the military is a blunt instrument."

The other issue is whether the Bush administration – which still has not captured the perpetrators of September 11--is being subjected to sufficient scrutiny. "My feeling is that now the Defense Department, the White House can basically do whatever they want to do," says Getler. "There is no penalty. There's no real cost to pay with the public as far as the imposition of any kind of secrecy."

Just as problems are kept under wraps, so too are the heroic stories – and the soldiers behind them. Washington Post reporter Peter Finn's dramatic bedside interview with a hospitalized leader of the Army's 5th Special Forces, which crept into Taliban territory in October, suggested as much. "It's unfortunate, because the military would like to be more open," says the Post's Ricks. "The guys in the field know they are generally doing a good job, and if the American people don't understand what they're doing, recruiting becomes a problem."

Instead of on-site reporting, most of the nation's military correspondents were forced to rely on Pentagon briefings, which Ricks compares to "covering the game at Yankee Stadium while sitting in George Steinbrenner's office."

"I'd rather have access to a squad leader than the secretary of defense," says Ricks, who has covered conflicts in Haiti, Bosnia and Somalia. "Then I know I'm doing my job."

Two images best capture what Pentagon correspondents have been up against in covering this war: The first is the sight of Defense Department press aides blocking the exits to the briefing room once Rumsfeld finishes his appearances; the second is the October 20 showing--at one of these briefings--of grainy, nighttime footage of paratroopers dropping from the sky over an unnamed Central Asian airport.

The first is telling because, despite the emergence of the blunt-talking Rumsfeld as a beloved media star, the secretary doesn't give out information or access freely--either during the long-running "Rummy Show" (as the Washington Post dubbed his briefings) or in interviews. Aides are posted at the briefing room exit to prevent reporters from pursuing him down the hall to ask follow-up questions.

While his body language and his vocabulary suggest candor ("to kill" is a verb that readily trips off his tongue; unlike most military officials, he doesn't resort to bland metaphor), Rumsfeld is a disciplined holder of secrets. "Getting information out of Rumsfeld is virtually impossible," says Sloyan. "His teeth would break first." And the defense secretary has instructed his underlings to follow suit. Even reporters who for years have walked the five-sided U.S. military headquarters say longtime sources have clammed up. Pentagon officials respond that they haven't shut down access--just leaks of classified information.

In his daily press briefings, says Ricks, Rumsfeld's aggressive, in-your-face style intimidates many reporters. However, UPI Pentagon correspondent Pamela Hess says Rumsfeld briefings are good discipline for journalists. "I have a rule I have for myself: I try not to chase other people's stories," says Hess, who covered the Pentagon for years as a trade reporter before joining UPI. "Those are the people he eats for breakfast, demanding who their sources are." If you haven't checked a story out before asking the defense secretary about it, she adds, "it leaves you open for attack."

But, some argue, Rumsfeld's style, combined with the nation's rush of patriotism after a vicious terrorist attack on American soil, means less tough reporting. "Because the administration has taken a fairly aggressive stance toward releasing information on the war, the press has backed off from asking the tough questions they might otherwise raise," says Charles V. Peña, senior defense policy analyst at the Cato Institute, a Washington think tank. "There are a lot of softball questions in those press conferences."

The second image from the briefings--a video of paratroopers captured by a weapon-mounted camera--is important because it so vividly demonstrates how this Defense Department is determined to manage the news, not just release it. Independent camera crews weren't on the scene to record the combat venture. Instead, the Pentagon shot its own video and showed it within the confines of its Arlington, Virginia, briefing room; it was later replayed on television. Clarke says the Pentagon received much public criticism even for showing this much of the war.

Clarke's press operation is run much like a sophisticated political campaign, with a message of the day to drive home, whether it's humanitarian food drops to hungry Afghans or the targets of bombing raids. The reliance on indigenous forces to do most of the fighting--and little media coverage of wounded and killed Afghan civilians--minimized world criticism of the action.

On the other hand, a number of reporters give Clarke high marks, pointing out that she will confirm stories dug up by reporters, has convened background briefings and passes out her home phone number to the press corps. "She's done a good job of trying to [present] an institution without built-in media friendliness," says Hearst's Lewis. "She is available. She has acknowledged and corrected errors." After the Marines forcibly confined journalists trying to photograph and report on friendly fire casualties, Clarke sent letters of apology to the media institutions involved.

"There's a built-in tension with the media and military, and there always will be, no matter who is fulfilling each of the various roles," Lewis says. "I give the Pentagon a grade of B in making information available to the media during this war."

Despite the tight controls, reporters have broken news. To name just a few scoops: The Washington Post's Ricks and Vernon Loeb reported the presence of U.S. Special Forces in Afghanistan on October 19; the Post's Bob Woodward provided insights into the high-profile role of the CIA in the conflict; The New Yorker's Seymour M. Hersh raised the question of whether Pakistan, inadvertently aided by the U.S., permitted top al Qaeda forces to escape from Afghanistan along with that country's intelligence personnel. And reporters continue to provide vivid firsthand portrayals of the fighting.

But is a tightly controlled press capable of scrutinizing military decisions – decisions with huge stakes for the future security of this country? After all, while some of the media seem to suggest that America "won" the war in Afghanistan, bin Laden and his top lieutenants escaped. Sophisticated terrorists of global reach remain on the loose, and the nation's safety remains very much in the hands of the Bush administration's war planners.

"I believe one big spectacular terrorist attack is already in motion," Rand's Hoffman told a group of journalists recently gathered together by Washington's Ethics & Public Policy Center. "That's their modus operandi. And now bin Laden has an added motivation: revenge."

The question facing the nation's war correspondents is whether they can, and are willing to, break through the Pentagon's wall of silence, at least far enough to hold its decision makers accountable for the well-being of the country they are charged with protecting.