San Diego Union-Tribune

October 14, 2001

U.S. media struggle with information restrictions

Bush keeping tight control on war news


WASHINGTON -- As U.S. forces wage an increasingly intense war against terrorism in Afghanistan, the Bush administration is locked in a battle at home over how much information the American public and Congress will get about that fight.

Armed conflict inevitably brings a clash between U.S. media's advocacy of the public's right to know and the military's desire to protect operational details, but the shadowy nature of this war -- and the Bush administration's tendency to tightly manage news -- has intensified that conflict.

"It's much tighter than during the (Persian) Gulf War," said Charles Aldinger, a Reuters correspondent and dean of the Pentagon press corps. "People who
used to talk, even obliquely, aren't talking."

That tight-lipped attitude follows Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's blunt statement that the Pentagon will not say anything that would compromise
intelligence or "in any way endanger anyone's life by discussing operations."

"And anyone that does talk to any of you about that is breaking federal criminal law and should be in jail," Rumsfeld said.

The information restrictions have spread throughout the military and into cyberspace. Deployed Navy warships have stopped posting their positions on their Web sites and are restricting crew members' e-mails. Many military commands have shut down their Web sites, even ones that contained basic information long in the public domain.

The Air Force ordered its officials not to talk to reporters about weapons and has so restricted aircrews' discussions of their missions that the interviews it arranges provide little information.

The Pentagon is reflecting the closed-mouth policy the White House has followed since Bush took office.

"This administration is known for not leaking as much as others. . . . That's good," said John Douglas, who has watched a several administrations as an
Air Force general, Pentagon official and now as president of the Aerospace Industry Association.

That tight control of information got even tighter after Sept. 11.

Asked soon after the attacks for proof that Osama bin Laden was involved, White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said: "You have the right to ask those
questions. I have the responsibility not to answer them."

The British put the proof, at least a summary of it, on the prime minister's Web site.

The White House's attempt to cut off information went far beyond the U.S. media.

Last week, the administration tried to restrict classified briefings to a handful of members of Congress because of alleged leaks of information about the threat of future terrorist attacks. That policy was relaxed after congressional protests that it breached the constitutional obligation to keep Congress informed.

"The administration's scapegoating of the U.S. Congress for supposedly leaking information is a good example of how extreme the administration's
secrecy policy is," said Christopher Simpson, a communications professor at American University in Washington.

Simpson said the administration was trying to "dismantle 25 years of constitutional law" requiring disclosure of public records.

The administration also tried to get Qatar to restrict the Al-Jazeera television network, which has been the direct outlet for videotaped statements from bin
Laden and his spokesmen. When that failed, the White House got U.S. television networks to agree to review any statements by bin Laden before broadcasting them.

This fight over information is renewing the bitterness that followed the military's limitations on news coverage during the 1991 Persian Gulf War. So
far in this conflict, the administration is keeping to the Persian Gulf War pattern: high-level briefings far removed from direct battlefield coverage.

Jacqueline Sharkey, a University of Arizona journalism professor, said the Pentagon's control of the news in the Gulf War "was a defeat for the First Amendment guarantee of press freedom and the public's right to independent information."

Although the media and all recent defense secretaries have agreed to a nine-point statement of principles on how to ensure adequate coverage of combat, Rumsfeld so far has refused to endorse the document, raising
concern among journalists already skeptical about its application to this very different war.

"Anything we see in future operations will be so different, in terms of multiple fronts, multiple enemies . . . it will provide the rationale for the military to say
we have to start over again," said Paul McMaster, director of the Freedom Forum's First Amendment Center.

Journalists are particularly worried because many of the officials who ran the Gulf War are in charge of this one. Secretary of State Colin Powell was chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff during that war and Vice President Dick Cheney was defense secretary.

Rumsfeld was not in office during the Gulf War but in his previous stint as defense secretary in 1975-77, Pentagon reporters voted him "the worst" defense secretary for relations with the press.

Although Rumsfeld and his top press aide, Torie Clarke, have promised to work out arrangements for coverage of this war, access to the U.S. forces in the combat zone remain limited. The Pentagon has not agreed to hold daily briefings on the conduct of the war.

"We're trying to figure out how to work with you, how to make sure you get what you need . . . while protecting the national security and the safety of the
men and women in uniform," Clarke told Washington bureau chiefs recently. "We'll never be able to give you everything you want."