It’s time to take a close look at the Defense Department’s plan for managing the press during the impending invasion of Iraq. Called “embedding,” it will position chosen reporters and photographers inside military units – not for a week but for the duration of the war.
“Embedding for life,” is how deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs, Bryan Whitman, sees the program – which appears to be viewed a bit differently by the military than by the media.
At a recent orientation meeting with Washington bureau chiefs, Whitman described the ideal “embed” as one who follows a unit (ground, air or sea) from load-out to deployment through combat (subject to field approval) to the “march on whatever capital we happen to march on” to the return trip home and the “victory parade.”
This could take “two weeks, two months, two years.” If reporters leave a unit there is no guarantee they can return or even join another unit. Probably they will be “pooled” in mobile media clusters that form and dissolve as the action dictates. “Itinerants” (reporters working independently) are not encouraged.
Nearly 300 reporters have already been inducted into the program at a half-dozen media boot camps along the East Coast, and more one-week sessions are foreseen. Participants are prepped on U.S. military policy and weapons capabilities, and taught rudimentary survival skills, including how to suit up in the event of chemical or biological weapons exposure.
Lt. Col. Gary Keck, who wrote the training program, stresses that enrollment doesn’t guarantee an “embed opportunity.” Nor must embeds take the course, although commanders are reassured when they have.
The media boot camps are overtures to a larger strategy in which the Pentagon, for the first time, has actively integrated reporters and photographers into its war machine. The significance of this audacious decision, whose sponsors are Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, General Tommy Franks, and Joint Chiefs Chairman Richard Myers, becomes clearer when it’s set beside the media policy that governed Gulf War I.
Under then Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney and Army Gen. Colin Powell, the press was confined to the National Media Pool, and ordered to submit all copy, photographs, and film to military censors. Most TV footage, usually bombers streaking across desert skies, was supplied by military crews. High-level briefings were orchestrated by Cheney and Powell themselves because, as Cheney later told an interviewer from Freedom Forum, “the information function was extraordinarily important. I did not have a lot of confidence I could leave that to the press.”
As a result, according to Patrick J. Sloyan, who won a Pulitzer for his coverage of Desert Storm in Newsday, not a single pool reporter produced an eyewitness account of the clash between allied and Iraqi troops. Nor did a single image of dead bodies find its way into the American media. By the time the press was taken to the scene of a battle, the Iraqi bodies were gone; buried, on one occasion, by giant plows mounted on Abrams battle tanks, followed by Armored Combat Earth movers that leveled the ground.
“The best covered war ever,” Cheney told the Forum interviewer. “The American people saw up close with their own eyes through the magic of television what the U.S. military was capable of doing.” But in the months to come, writes John R. MacArthur in Second Front, “it was difficult to find anyone [in the media] who didn’t … count Desert Storm as a devastating and immoral victory for military censorship and a crushing defeat for the press and the First Amendment.”
In Afghanistan, the reliance on special operations units and air power tipped the balance even further toward military control, until even the pools were abandoned. In one instance, journalists stationed at a Marine base were locked in a warehouse after U.S. forces were hit by “friendly” fire a hundred yards away. Later briefing officers distributed press releases from Central Command in Tampa.
But in Afghanistan the controls sprang leaks. Public Affairs officers (PAOs), who didn’t know a mullah from a Pashtun bandit, didn’t know how to manage the information flow, either. When Special Forces raided Taliban leader Mullah Omar’s compound, cutting reporters out of the action, the official version of the botched operation invited a scathing account in the New Yorker by Seymour Hersh. Exposes like this led the Pentagon to think that perhaps it could use the media in a more creative way. Instead of shutting it out of the battle for public opinion, why not enlist its vast resources?
When Bryan Whitman lays out the “very aggressive embed plan” – with reporters transmitting “products” from the Pentagon, foreign capitals, and “in theater,” via embedding, mobile pools, CPICs (combined information press centers) and sub-CPICs – he sounds like a general massing his troops. PAOs scan all the media, he says; print and electronic, domestic and international; calculating markets, circulations; blending 24-hour news channels, nightly news shows, and news-magazine formats with entertainment divisions who also want “to do some embedding.”
Does the planning, one wonders, include the 13-episode “reality” series on ABC that Maureen Dowd wrote about last February, the one that hopes to profile “our troops abroad?” What about the VHI show called the “Military Diaries Project,” in which soldiers are to star in their own war movies? “Moonwalking in the endzone,” CBS News executive Dan Rather called this stuff; and he found it “ridiculous” and “very awkward,” he told Dowd, that while the news side was pounding the Pentagon for “bare-bones access” to the war, the military had rolled out the carpet for ABC Entertainment.
Embedding, it seems, had not yet been extended to the news media. Now that it has, the question is will journalists be brought any closer to the facts of war?
The Pentagon’s goal is clear: Embedding is designed to focus public attention on the troops. As field commanders told CNN chief executive Walter Isaacson during his recent tour of the Gulf, “the best representatives to convey America’s intentions and capabilities are the soldiers and sailors in the field.” American intentions and capabilities, of course, are in hot dispute, and no doubt will be as long as the U.S. pursues its Middle East interests by military means. So it’s not hard to follow Pentagon thinking.
Embedded reporters will develop the relationships, trust, and understanding of unit customs which are likely to produce savvy human interest stories. Embeds are more likely to play up acts of heroism than embarrass their units with negative stories, and risk losing access. This is not to suggest they won’t try to be objective; or that their minders don’t respect journalistic “objectivity.”
“It’s the reporter’s job to report objectively,” insists Lt. Keck. “If we took some casualties, he’d report it … But an embed is more sensitive to things that can’t be said,” Keck adds, recalling a reporter from “a previous war” who decided to quote an officer “when it was the worse thing he could have done, and hurt his career.”
Whitman’s boss, Victoria Clarke, offers the official answer: “The fundamental principles on which we will say no, you can’t transmit … [are] operational security, success of the mission, and safety of the people involved.” Like Keck, she notes, “Somebody who is embedded with a unit … has a full appreciation for that.”
These are the principles that were invoked to silence the press during the first Gulf war, and are nearly always summoned in times of stress between public and military interests. It’s when and by whom and how they’re applied that makes a difference.
Some reporters were based in forward units during that war, too, but their dispatches and film often took so long to get back to the hotel in Dahran that they were too dated to use. “Censorship by delay,” the problem came to be called. Today’s press will be loaded down with its own tansmission devices, and this alone marks a significant departure from the pool system. But how often will reporters be asked to “turn off their electronic devices,” as they say on commercial aircraft?
When the question was asked by Cissy Baker, bureau chief for Tribune Broadcasting, at the Pentagon meeting, Rear Adm. Steve Pietropaoli described the occasions and circumstances when sat phones or cells going live from the decks of a carrier would be silenced. “You guys would like to be able to go live 24-7,” he said, “and we would like to be able to control your timing.” Clarke, who wants “to raise the comfort level” for reporters, added: “We’re not going to go to all that trouble [with embeds] and not try to make every effort to help you get your product back.” Military spokesman are more plainspoken about such matters than their civilian counterparts.
The cautious optimism toward embedding that is currently expressed by the media may be misplaced. “There’s a kind of strange naivete on the part of journalists, especially in a war situation when it comes to accepting official explanations,” says Richard Rubenstein, professor of Conflict Resolution at George Mason University. “One gets the feeling that the press is being played.”
Isaacson’s claim that embedding is “quite old-fashioned [because it’s] letting reporters actually cover the fighting,” overlooks the military’s propaganda interest. CNN’s military analyst, Gen. Wesley Clark, comes closer when he says: “We made a huge mistake trying to restrict press coverage in the first Gulf War because of our Vietnam mentality. We had a First Armored Division tank battle that was just incredible, perhaps the biggest armored battle ever, but not a single image was reported or documented for history by the press.”
A murkier interest is raised by Dave Moniz of USA Today when he suggests that “what is driving this [plan] is a fear that Iraq will win the propaganda war if reporters are not on the ground with troops.” Iraq win the propaganda war? Isaacson offers some clarification. “The U.S. military feels that there is a possibility, perhaps even a probability, that Saddam Hussein will perpetuate atrocities against Shiite civilians and try to make it look as if they were committed by coalition forces.” Others have suggested that “human assets” will be deliberately positioned near military targets.
This is reminiscent of what the Pentagon said about the widespread destruction of schools, churches, hospitals and market towns by the air war over North Vietnam; namely, that SAM missiles and the like were deliberately hidden in such places, a claim that “itinerants” such as the New York Times’ Harrison Salisbury were able to refute on the ground.
It’s the better part of wisdom to recognize that the last thing the government wants is to let a free press cover war. In Vietnam, many journalists understood that; and disdained the “5 o’clock follies” (the official briefings) and the military escorts, and found their own units to ride with. Or like David Halberstam, no enemy of the army, they attached themselves to their own officers, as Halberstam famously did with John Paul Vann.
Nothing like this is very likely to happen again, but just to make sure, the Pentagon has insisted that the media centralize the process of selection so that a single point of contact (POC) for each news organization, preferably a bureau chief, works with a POC at the Pentagon. This is to avoid “people cutting deals,” which reporters have already attempted, Clarke complains, and adds: “The only deals that will be made on the embeds … will be the deals that are made here.”
Carol Brightman is working on her upcoming book titled, “Total Insecurity: The Myth of American Omnipotence.”