The Blog

Birth of the Embed

How the Pentagon's embedded journalist program came to be.

6:00 AM, Mar 28, 2003 • By KIM HUME
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

"WELL SHEP, that noise you hear is the turret turning. We've engaged the enemy." That was embedded journalist Rick Leventhal reporting live on Fox News with the Marines known as the Wolf Pack somewhere in the Iraqi desert. Welcome to the Second Gulf War which, oddly enough, began with a truce between two very old enemies, the media and the military.

On October 30, 2002 Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld wandered unexpectedly into a Pentagon meeting of Washington bureau chiefs of the major media outlets. This motley group had been meeting on and off since the war in Afghanistan. As journalists always do, we spent most of the sessions complaining. Our favorite complaint: lack of access.

Secretary Rumsfeld, charming, impish, and in command had something to tell us: He was on board with the public relations strategy of embedding media with warriors. He wasn't kidding around. If there was a war with Iraq, journalists would be with the troops.

"Mr. Secretary, you talked about the desirability of having journalists embedded should there be any action in Iraq . . . Is that a core principle for you?" asked one of the chiefs. Rumsfeld replied, "Is it a core principle? Sure. It is something more than that. It's also self-serving." In Afghanistan, he said, the Taliban and al Qaeda showed great skill in news management. The best way to combat that was to have accurate, professional journalists on the ground to see the truth of what was going on. He said he already had intelligence from Iraq that they were arranging things to mislead the press. "Having people who are honest and professional see these things and be aware of that is useful. So I consider it not just the right thing to do but also a helpful thing."

Thus began the stunning cooperation between the military and the media that led to this war being fought live on the television sets of America.

VICTORIA CLARKE, the veteran political public relations diva, had no idea where the roller coaster was taking her when she signed on to be the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Public Relations under Rumsfeld. September 11 changed her world and she was suddenly thrust on the stage with the U.S. military response in Afghanistan. Things did not go so well between the media and the military and the bureau chiefs really did have something to complain about.

But out of that experience Clarke did what she knew best--she went on a campaign. Her goal was to bridge the old gap between the generals and the journalists. She held forums at think tanks, she had bi-monthly meetings with the bureau chiefs, she yessed us to death. Yes, we would have dialogue. Yes, we would consult. Yes, we would get access.

Right, we all said skeptically. We knew the game; the military would never let us in. And even if it did, we wouldn't be allowed near the fighting and would either be censored or not allowed to file stories until it was over.

We were wrong.

Clarke's brilliant idea was to have the embedding project sanctioned from the top down. Get Rumsfeld and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs General Richard Myers on board. "They are very involved in making sure that everybody on our side of the fence understands the intent, understands what the mission is," Clarke said in January, "and that's been a distinct difference from the past." The idea was to push the policy decision down the ranks and not to let concerns about operational security hang it up.

The military used to claim that the media couldn't be trusted; that they would broadcast operational details and men and women in uniform would die. Clarke's answer: If the journalists' lives are on the line too, they'll keep their mouths shut when they're supposed to.

Clarke turned over details of the embed project to a veteran of the Office of Public Affairs, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Public Affairs Bryan Whitman. Whitman's military experience commanding Special Forces in Somalia would serve him well.

The first thing he needed was commitment. Would media organizations be willing to train their journalists in military basics? If we were willing to ship people off to Quantico or McGuire Air Force base or Fort Benning for a week, Whitman considered us serious. We got on the list and sent our journalists through very basic basic training. Simultaneously he tackled the hurdle of getting the department to allow those journalists to get the anthrax and smallpox vaccines unavailable to the general public.

Then came the really bad news for bureau chiefs, what the military called "embedded for life." Commitment. If we really wanted this unprecedented access, we had to go all the way. Go from the start and stay. We were not going to be allowed to move people in or out. If we chose to leave a unit, we would not get back in. For weeks, or even months, we would lose control of some of our best people.