The Pentagon and the Press
Several ‘principles’ of coverage became victims of the war against terrorism.
Since the end of the Vietnam War, whenever the U.S. military has swung into action, American war correspondents, with few exceptions, have found themselves hog-tied and blindfolded, utterly unable to provide their readers, viewers and listeners with adequate coverage of actual combat. As the “war on terrorism” unfolded following the attacks of September 11, the pattern seemed to be repeating.
Vast journalistic resources were committed to covering the war from a distance, often with impressive results. But in the early stages, at least, much of the fighting took place in secret, far beyond journalists’ eyes and ears. Once again, reporters from the freest country on earth were begging the Defense Department for permission to cover a war firsthand. Again, to a large extent they had to rely on “pools” and briefings for details, such as they were.
Military commanders, of course, have never been very enthusiastic about having journalists around during combat. (It’s a different matter afterward, when heroics and medals are under discussion.) The main objections haven’t really been that journalists are anti-military, or ignorant of military matters, or can’t be trusted to abide by reasonable ground rules that protect secrets and lives. Those are the arguments of spin-doctors and right-wing commentators. The military’s objections have been more basic: Reporters and photographers can get in the way, and when things don’t go well, they have a tendency to tell the whole world.
In Vietnam, the first and only modern U.S. war that was completely free of press censorship, the problem between journalists and the military had little or nothing to do with the accuracy of the reporting, let alone the military’s desire to maintain operational security. Mostly, it had to do with reporting that cast doubt on all the “light at the end of the tunnel” rhetoric emanating from the Pentagon and the White House. (On the question of who was right, by the way, most historians seem to be siding with the press.) Nevertheless, in certain military and civilian circles today, the myth prevails that an irresponsible press somehow “caused” a U.S. “defeat” in Vietnam. As a result, when fighting has broken out since then, a firewall has been built between the military and the journalists trying to cover it.
The wall first went up when the United States invaded Grenada in 1983. Before that, I doubt that anyone in the Pentagon or the press ever contemplated that the United States might invade another country and permit no press coverage of any kind. But that is exactly what happened in the bizarre Grenada episode. (A small group of enterprising journalists hired a boat to go to Grenada on their own, but the military promptly arrested them and held them incommunicado until the fighting, such as it was, ended.) The post-Grenada outcry from journalists led to an internal Defense Department “study” and to negotiations between an ad hoc group of Washington bureau chiefs and the Pentagon—negotiations that ended with the creation of what was officially dubbed “The Department of Defense National Media Pool.”
As originally envisioned, this ungainly, unnatural creature was intended to facilitate coverage of the initial stage of a military action. A representative pool of reporters and photographers would be permitted to accompany U.S. troops into battle in return for their agreement to play by whatever rules the Pentagon chose to set. At the time, there was a great deal of self-congratulatory enthusiasm among many Washington journalists that the so-called Pentagon Pool would go a long way toward preventing a repetition of the Grenada unpleasantness. Few voices were raised in opposition to the whole idea of institutionalized pool coverage. Indeed, at regular quarterly meetings in the Pentagon, the journalists and the brass would amiably discuss the kinds of restrictions to be imposed on the pool members.
As it turned out, the Pentagon Pool was a disaster not just for journalists but for anyone who believes that in a democracy the people should know what the military is doing in their name and with the lives of their sons and daughters. Several early tests of the system clearly indicated that the Pentagon saw the pool not as a way of enabling more and better combat coverage but, on the contrary, as a way of controlling, limiting and, if necessary, preventing such coverage. When the United States invaded Panama, for instance, the pool members were kept in a guarded military building and subjected to lectures on Panamanian history while U.S. troops tried to locate and arrest the country’s dictator, Manuel Noriega.
But the Panama experience was nothing compared to the Gulf War. In that one, the military succeeded in creating the most rigid control of combat coverage in American history. Using the Pentagon Pool concept as its starting point, the Defense Department decreed that the entire war—not just its initial stage—would be covered by a complex system of rotating pools. Participation required that journalists acquiesce to an onerous set of rules governing, among other things, their freedom of movement, their freedom to photograph, and their freedom to conduct interviews. Worse, they had to submit their copy for “security review.” Ostensibly this was to be a benign search for classified or sensitive information, but it became a fairly rigid system of censorship that resulted in the deletion of merely embarrassing facts or in the delay of their transmission until a report had lost virtually all news value.
In the midst of all this, the Pentagon’s chief spokesman, Pete Williams (now an NBC correspondent), wrote in The Washington Post that the Gulf War was the best-covered war in U.S. history. In fact, by any objective standard, it was the worst, and had the war gone badly for the United States, the American people would have been among the last to know.
In the aftermath, another series of negotiations between the press and the Pentagon brass was conducted. I was one of five journalists appointed by the ad hoc Washington bureau chiefs’ organization to represent them in the negotiations. With me on the committee were Michael Getler, foreign editor of The Washington Post; Clark Hoyt, Washington bureau chief of the Knight Ridder newspaper chain; Jonathan Wolman, Washington bureau chief of The Associated Press, and George Watson, Washington bureau chief of ABC News. Our task was to try to undo as much as possible of the damage done by the creation of the Pentagon Pool and its application during the Gulf War.
The negotiations with Pentagon officials dragged on for eight months. In that time, it became clear on our side of the table that our interests were not always identical. Wire services and television news, for example, with their fierce competition and short deadlines, tended to be much more dependent on pools for early stories and pictures than, say, newsmagazines. They were thus much less inclined to disband the Pentagon Pool altogether and simply tell the brass, as Getler put it at one point, “that we’ll see you at the next war.” Bridging the differences among ourselves and still accomplishing our goal was a major challenge.
In the end, we and the Pentagon representatives managed to agree on nine general principles “to be followed in any future combat situation involving American troops.” The first of these—“open and independent reporting will be the principal means of coverage of U.S. military operations”—was by far the most important. It reestablished the idea that the Pentagon Pool was to be used primarily, if at all, in the early stages of combat.
We failed, however, to resolve the question pertaining to “security review.” After long negotiations, we simply agreed to disagree and attached to the list of principles two statements. Ours said: “…[We] strongly believe that journalists will abide by clear operational security ground rules. Prior security review is unwarranted and unnecessary…. We will challenge prior security review in the event that the Pentagon attempts to impose it in some future military operation.” The Pentagon’s statement said: “The military believes it must retain the option to review news material, to avoid inadvertent inclusion…of information that could endanger troop safety or the success of a mission….”
Two of the nine agreed-upon principles—numbers three and five—are especially important now. Number three reads: “Even under conditions of open coverage, pools may be appropriate for specific events, such as those at extremely remote locations or where space is limited.” Number five reads: “Journalists will be provided access to all military units. Special Operations restrictions may limit access in some cases.” After the “war on terrorism” was declared by President Bush, the assistant secretary of defense for public affairs, Victoria Clarke, said the Pentagon would abide by the nine principles, but there was precious little “open and independent” coverage or “access to all military units.” Moreover, like their predecessors in the Gulf War, pool reporters on certain of the Navy ships involved in the initial cruise missile attacks complained of being isolated and unable to file timely reports.
Doubtless the military, which had the public—and, for that matter, a too often flag-waving press—on its side in this war, has good geopolitical and military reasons for imposing the limitations. Certainly the type of combat seen in the early phase of the war did not appear to lend itself to open coverage. And the instant communication technologies that journalists can carry into battle today—digital cameras, videophones, e-mail, Internet connections—create entirely new challenges. Coming up with guidelines to deal with them will require perseverance and understanding on both sides. Moreover, it needs to be said that coverage of actual combat, important as it can be, is a supplement to, not a substitute for, serious analytical reporting that military correspondents can do—and are doing—far from the battlefield.
Still, the broad constitutional issues remain. No government can be depended upon to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth—especially not when that government makes mistakes or misjudgments in wartime. The natural inclination then is to cover up, to hide, and the press’s role, in war even more than in peace, is to act as watchdog and truth-seeker. To do that effectively, it must rely as little as possible on the good wishes, good graces, and good offices of the government.
Stanley W. Cloud is a former Washington and Saigon bureau chief for Time. He is co-author of “The Murrow Boys: Pioneers on the Front Lines of Broadcast Journalism” (Houghton Mifflin, 1996), about Edward R. Murrow and the correspondents he hired during World War II to help create CBS News.