Operation Enduring Freedom has been described as a conflict unlike any fought by the U.S. armed forces in recent history, but wartime news coverage has been remarkable for its continuity with the past.
Journalists involved in covering the military say their efforts have involved the same basics of sourcing and data collection familiar to their predecessors who wrote and broadcast about the Balkans, Operation Desert Storm or even Vietnam. To reporters, the main adversary has not been a Pentagon information blackout, but rather the “fog of war” that has occasionally bedeviled the White House, senior Pentagon officials and intelligence specialists – as well as reporters themselves.
The U.S. military campaign in Afghanistan has shown a unique combination of traditional and advanced warfighting capabilities intermingled on the battlefield. Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld, in a speech to the National Defense University on Jan. 31, cited the role played by Special Operations commandos on horseback aiding Afghan Northern Alliance fighters in the attack against Maraz e-Sharif in late October 2001:
Now, what won the battle for Mazar e-Sharif and set in motion the Taliban’s fall from power was a combination of ingenuity of the Special Forces, the most advanced precision-guided munitions in the U.S. arsenal delivered by U.S. Navy, Air Force and Marine crews, and the courage of the Afghan fighters, some with one leg. That day on the plains of Afghanistan, the 19th century met the 21st century, and they defeated a dangerous and determined adversary, a remarkable achievement. Here we are in the year 2002, fighting the first war of the 21st century, and the horse cavalry was back and being used, but being used in previously unimaginable ways….
Nevertheless, a number of experienced Pentagon reporters say covering combat operations in Afghanistan has not been that much different from the peacetime issues of military transformation, defense spending and weapons procurement that topped the Pentagon agenda prior to the terrorist attacks last Sept. 11: Taking the Pentagon spin with a grain of salt, data mining unclassified information archives and working a network of trusted sources within and outside of the military establishment to discern what is really happening.
“In my personal dealings with the military, it hasn’t been different at all,” said NBC Pentagon Correspondent Jim Miklashewski, who is in his seventh year of military reporting for the network. “We continue to work the same sources in Washington and overseas.”
Bill Gertz, a national security correspondent for The Washington Times since 1985 and renowned by journalists and reviled by presidents for his ability to penetrate the tight-lipped U.S. intelligence community and military, goes a step further: “The president in the beginning kept saying this was a different kind of war, but it wasn’t a different kind of war to the extent that you have U.S. military units in combat operations.”
BALANCING COVERAGE AND SECURITY
One issue has come to the forefront in wartime coverage that did not occupy front and center stage during the major military operations of the Clinton era (Somalia, Bosnia, Haiti or Kosovo): The potential that over-aggressive news coverage might compromise ongoing military operations and endanger the lives of U.S. and allied military personnel.
“We are very concerned about disclosing anything that might jeopardize any lives,” said Owen Ullman, who as Washington Editor for USA Today supervises the military coverage of about a dozen reporters covering the war at the Pentagon and overseas. “When we think we have a story or information that might fall in that category, we try very hard to contact the Pentagon and tell them.” As with other experienced military reporters, Ullman’s staff relies on a carefully assembled network of officials trusted to inform them if a particular disclosure might or might not pose a genuine threat to operational security.
Given the massive intelligence failure that preceded the terrorist hijackings last Sept. 11, and the horrific deaths of more than 3,000 American civilians at the World Trade Center and Pentagon, journalists working the military beat today say they are handling information from their sources with extreme caution.
“My approach is that if I get information, and it fits within our definition of news it is my inclination to publish it,” Gertz said. “But we are willing to listen [to Pentagon officials] and we have withheld stories since [the beginning of U.S. military operations on] Oct. 7 at the request of the government.”
Rowan Scarborough, a 13-year Pentagon press corps veteran and military reporting colleague of Gertz’s at The Washington Times, said most issues of publication-vs.-holding-back center around timing rather than substance.
Sources told Scarborough three days before Army Rangers and Delta Force commandos made a night attack against two sites in Afghanistan (given worldwide publicity several days afterward when the Pentagon released a videotape of the Ranger parachute assault). But by mutual understanding, he held back reporting on any details that may have led to the mission being compromised.
“I kept it [his pre-attack story] general enough that I don’t think it ruined operational security,” Scarborough explained. “Nobody was killed in the raid, and the president said it was successful.”
While there are no formal rules governing relations between military reporters and their sources, successful coverage hinges on mutual trust and sufficient knowledge on the journalist’s part as to the genuine needs for military operational security.
“It’s a longstanding trust that has built up between Pentagon officials and their sources,” Miklashewski explained. “This [advance knowledge] allows us to put things in context and preparing for things that are about to happen instead of trying to guess at it.”
SOME UNIQUE CONDITIONS
Experienced Pentagon reporters say that the war against terrorism – particularly the monthlong combat operation that led to the fall of the Taliban regime in November 2001 – did contain a number of unusual aspects that defined their strategies for coverage. They included:
Unconventional war: By dispatching small units from the secretive U.S. Special Operations Command to join anti-Taliban forces in the initial ground effort to dislodge the regime from power, the Pentagon set the stage for a degree of operational security far tougher than normally imposed with conventional military forces. Simply put, the U.S. Army Special Forces (Green Berets), Rangers, Delta Force and Navy SEALs have long operated outside the spotlight, and in the war against terrorism continue to do so under a virtual news blackout.
A dispersed military force: With the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps units deployed to the Indian Ocean and north Arabian Sea, with U.S. Air Force warplanes staging from the continental United States, Diego Garcia and a number of Southwest Asia bases inaccessible to reporters, and with the Army using Central Asian republics as launch pads for operations inside Afghanistan, it has been impossible for reporters to obtain more than a limited snapshot view of the overall force mobilized to fight the war.
A dangerous environment: In Afghanistan itself, the harshness of the terrain and the inherent dangers of the countryside (more reporters have been killed there than U.S. military personnel), has made it nearly impossible for reporters – even those aided by satellite videophones and other high-tech gear – to mount effective real-time news coverage at any key location. The kidnapping and murder of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl in Pakistan further indicated the level of personal danger journalists must confront in any attempt to provide on-scene coverage.
The lack of “ground truth:” One benefit to journalists from the revolution in global communications and the maturing of the Internet has been the ability to thread together disparate strands of a news story from sources around the world. For example, in the 1999 Kosovo campaign, the absence of Western reporters from the scene was mitigated significantly by the presence of the state-run Serbian news media. The Serbian media, if not trusted to present news in a balanced or objective fashion, nevertheless provided raw video and still photographic information that U.S. news outlets could use to pry information loose from the Pentagon or NATO. That element has been missing from the Afghanistan campaign (with the exception of several al Jazeera TV network stories), forcing American journalists to rely more heavily on sources here in the United States who themselves might not have a clear picture of events.
The ongoing controversy over alleged U.S. “friendly fire” incidents involving Afghan civilians has lingered in great part because of the difficulty in obtaining independent corroboration from the field, Ullman said. “The evidence of that is the real controversy between the version of events picked up from [native] eyewitnesses in Afghan and the Pentagon as to whether targets were Taliban or innocent civilians,” he said.
THE VULNERABILITY OF SOURCES
The combination of military secrecy, dispersed forces and physical danger in Afghanistan has forced American military reporters to rely almost exclusively on their sources within the U.S. military and intelligence community for coverage of the war, and as a result, the possibility of inaccuracy and error has increased, veterans of Pentagon coverage admit. The reason is simple and by no means indicative of any conspiracy theory: Many officials themselves have been hostage to incomplete and inaccurate information dribbling out of a confusing battlefield environment halfway around the world.
Ullman said if there was one story he’d like to have back, it was a front-page article in USA Today by veteran reporters Jonathan Weisman and Andrea Stone that appeared last Oct. 29 under the headline, “U.S. Expects Longer War.”
WASHINGTON – A wave of military setbacks in the past week has put the Bush administration on the defensive and forced Pentagon planners to move more aggressively toward the establishment of a forward base in Afghanistan. On the Sunday talk shows, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and White House chief of staff Andy Card were peppered with questions about the pace of the war and refused to say whether the administration would commit large numbers of ground troops to Afghanistan, as members of Congress have suggested. “Let’s not go there yet,” Card said on NBC News’ Meet the Press.
Based on a pastiche of cautionary statements by their Pentagon and administration sources, bolstered by on-the-record comments from several administration officials appearing on the Sunday talk shows, the article raised the distinct possibility that the ground war in Afghanistan was bogging down. “Two weeks ago, senior administration officials worried that their Taliban foes could fold before an alternative Afghan leadership was found,” Weisman and Stone wrote. “Now they are confronting a more fundamental question: Can the war on the Taliban and Osama bin Laden’s Al Qaeda terrorist network be won without a protracted, bloody struggle?”
Warning of the Taliban’s “dogged” resistance to the Northern Alliance, USA Today noted that Pentagon officials were advising that the ground campaign had “ground to a standstill” north of Mazar e-Sharif.
“That very day the story appeared, Mazar e-Sharif fell, and the rout of the Taliban was on,” Ullman chuckled ruefully.
Unknown to the reporters – and presumably to the inside sources they had cultivated – the ongoing use of American commandos to call in precision-guided air strikes against the Taliban forces north of Kabul was precipitating a stunning and total collapse of the regime. Just two weeks later, the Taliban fled Kabul and a majority of Afghanistan was in the hands of the U.S.-supported alliance.
This was no isolated error by one newspaper. Accounts in both the Los Angeles Times and The Washington Post that same week had conveyed the same inaccurate message – raised on the record by Pentagon spokesman Rear Adm. John Stufflebeem – that the United States was facing a military quagmire in Afghanistan. This position was based, no doubt, on the sincere but erroneous belief held by Pentagon officials themselves.
“The Pentagon acknowledged for the first time yesterday that Afghanistan’s ruling Taliban militia is proving to be a tenacious opponent and is hunkering down for a long fight that could drag on for months through the harsh Afghan winter,” wrote Vernon Loeb and Thomas E. Ricks in The Washington Post.
Paul Richter and Peter Pae, writing in The Los Angeles Times, conveyed the administration’s pessimism: “In a surprisingly downbeat assessment, a senior Pentagon official said Wednesday that the Taliban has proved to be a tough foe and warned that U.S. forces face a difficult struggle to dislodge the regime’s troops from the crowded cities of Afghanistan.”
JOURNALISTIC LESSONS OF WARReporters who cover the U.S. military in peacetime and war say there are several unalterable requirements for everyone who attempts to document an unfolding military campaign such as the war on terrorism: (1) Know your subject material in full, including basic military structure, weapons and strategy; (2) Keep abreast of the torrent of breaking news stories and announcements as best you can; (3) Have a healthy awareness of military operations so that you can make an informed judgment over what is safe to publish or broadcast, and what is truly dangerous for the safety of military people, and (4) Have your source network in place before the shooting starts.
To NBC’s Jim Miklashewski, the last point is crucial.
“Reporters who parachute in [to Pentagon press conferences] expect the briefers to give them every detail about the conflict, and that is not how it works,” Miklashewski said. “You have to have sources, you have to trust them and they have to trust you.”
And even in the 21st century, be prepared for the fog of war.
Ed Offley, Editor of DefenseWatch at sftt.org, is the author of Pen & Sword: A Journalist’s Guide to Covering the Military (Marion Street Press).