The Blog

The Pentagon and the Press

In an effort to counter Saddam Hussein's propaganda, the Pentagon is embedding reporters in military units for the Iraq campaign.

11:00 PM, Feb 19, 2003 • By CHRISTIAN LOWE
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AS 150,000 U.S. TROOPS prepare for a war with Iraq, the soldiers, sailors, Marines, and airmen of America's legions aren't the only ones packing bullet-proof vests and kevlar helmets into their backpacks. In newsrooms and editorial offices around the country an army of journalists is also gearing up for a possible war in the Middle East.

Reversing a post-Vietnam trend towards holding the press at arm's length, the Pentagon has begun to actively assist news organizations to get to the front and cover America's victories--and possible defeats--in its war against Saddam Hussein. The Defense Department has authorized nearly 500 journalists--including 100 from overseas news organizations--to link with U.S. forces and follow them into war.

The process, called embedding, pairs reporters, camera crews, and photographers with individual units where the scribes live, eat, and sleep among service men and women in the field. Wherever the unit goes, the reporters can go, and they can file stories with their satellite phones as events unfold.

There will be some censorship for sure--commanders will no doubt try to hold back information on pending operations and potential troop deployments. But the Pentagon promises cooperation and says units have been instructed to give journalists as much access as is practical and safe.

All this cooperation and camaraderie makes it sound as if the Pentagon and the press have turned over a new leaf--walking hand in hand onto the front pages of America's papers singing "Kumbaya."

Not quite. The Pentagon has adapted, but not because they have a newfound respect for the First Amendment. In fact, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld told lawmakers during testimony last week that he wanted to throw in jail the sources for a Washington Post report about the U.S. attack plans.

Instead, the DoD's newfound affection for the press has a strategic logic to it. No one could doubt Iraq has played a sophisticated public-relations game with the world press during the last 12 years. Moreover, during the war in Afghanistan, the Taliban aggressively courted selected journalists to report on America's alleged targeting of civilians.

A top Air Force general involved in executing the initial stages of Operation Enduring Freedom suggested in an internal memo that the Pentagon pursue a more offensive press strategy--taking the Taliban PR head-on:

"Reactive [public affairs] posture inhibited managing regional/global perceptions to U.S. advantage," he wrote. "Failure to articulate Taliban Law of Armed Conflict violations ceded sanctuary to the enemy."

The Pentagon has now all but admitted that it wants reporters in the field to reveal Iraqi deception and act as witnesses to their potential atrocities. The military wants positive stories about the grit and resolve of its troops.

The way the Pentagon figures it, the press, by accurately reporting the truth of U.S. military operations, will be playing an active role in defending the DoD from the salvos of negative PR launched by the Iraqi regime.

Which is all well and good until the military makes a mistake. In February 2002, a CIA-operated Predator drone shot Hellfire missiles at a target CIA analysts believed to include Osama bin Laden. Press reports that the targets were actually ordinary Afghans scavenging for metal scraps were later confirmed. In another instance, reporters were threatened by special-operations commandos near Shahikot when they attempted to confirm a Pentagon report of 700 al Qaeda casualties. Only three al Qaeda bodies were eventually found, prompting some unsettling questions.

WILL THE PENTAGON allow embedded media to stay with an artillery unit if the soldiers accidentally shell civilian apartments instead of the Iraqi intelligence headquarters in downtown Baghdad? How many restrictions will they slap on the media if the war starts going badly? The answers to these questions remain unclear.

But the idea that more access will lead to positive PR just might work. After all, no matter how bad things get, the truth is always better than the press releases put out by the Iraqi propaganda machine.

Christian Lowe is a staff writer for Army Times Publishing and a contributing writer to The Daily Standard.