Past Event

Coverage of the War on Terrorism: The Conflicting Needs of the Media and the Department of Defense

Washington bureau chiefs, reporters who cover the Pentagon and who have covered previous wars, and Department of Defense officials took part in this timely discussion. Participants attempted to reach conclusions about how their sometimes-conflicting needs can be met without unduly compromising either America’s traditions of a free press or the government’s ability to pursue a unique war on terrorism. The seminar was moderated by James B. Steinberg, vice president and director of the Foreign Policy Studies Program at Brookings and former Deputy National Security Adviser to President Clinton.

The Brookings Institution and the Department of Defense jointly hosted this seminar.


N.B.: [Joined in progress due to an unexpected technical problem.]

TORIE CLARKE: —confirmation hearings, which was pretty interesting. I just read reams and reams and reams. Lots of people, some of you in this room, sent me books, all of which was very useful—how the military covers the media, how the military works with—I’m sorry, how the media covers the military, how the military works with the media—and throughout all of this you would see, after a lot of major conflicts, there was a commission, there was a seminar, there were a series of investigations, and usually they all started out with a title, “What Went Wrong.” And in fact, instead of months, years from now, whenever it is, we’re doing the “what went wrong,” why don’t we try to get all of the relevant people together on a regular basis and surface up some of the ideas, some of the suggestions, some of the innovative thinking to have a very good working relationship. So that is why we thought this was a good idea.

Brookings, obviously, is a wonderful partner in this, and we really do appreciate your putting the time and energy into this. So I’m not here for any great presentation; I’m here as much to listen. I think the regular meetings we’ve been having with the bureau chiefs have been very, very useful and helpful. I know they to us. Some of you have indicated it has been helpful to you, as well, and I’d just like to say we are committed to making this work. We are never, ever, ever going to make people 100 percent happy. I’m absolutely guaranteed of that, but we are absolutely committed to working at it 100 percent of the time.

So with that, I will turn it back to Jim.

JAMES STEINBERG: think there are a couple of ways that we could begin here, but it might be—and I’d like to maybe put Torie just a little bit further on the spot and ask you talk a little bit about what you see are the particular challenges of this conflict. There has been a lot of discussion about the fact that, arguably, this is different than wars that we’ve fought before, that there are different kinds of challenges, given the nature of our objectives and the kind of conflict that we are engaged in, and just to begin the discussion a little bit on that level, and then we can—and sort of how much are the experiences from the past relevant to this, how much do we think we need to adapt to the changing nature of this kind of warfare.

Why don’t you just—if people can hear, what I’d like to do is just have us all sit, and then—otherwise we’ll—the taping is—

MS. CLARKE: —Sure And I have to say we all—we all say it is an unconventional war and we’re going to have to have an unconventional approach, all of which I firmly believe, but also nobody is reinventing the wheel here, and when you went back and looked at previous conflicts and these commissions and everything else—or I went back and looked at Pete Williams’ first major meeting with the bureau chiefs, in ’91, I think it was—the start of the Persian Gulf War—and he spent the first five, ten minutes opening up the meeting saying, “The first thing I want to do is talk about how different this war is, and it’s unlike anything we’ve all ever been through before,” so I guess we all say it and we believe it.

It’s not particular challenges, and I actually would push back a little bit and say I don’t foresee any big problems. I know some of you probably violently disagree, but as I was saying to the bureau chiefs yesterday when we went on our six-countries-in-three-days tour over the weekend, I took a ton of reading with me, and I pulled up as many articles as I could from newspapers, magazines over the last four or five weeks, I pulled up as many transcripts as I could from the television and radio coverage, and I read them all, and the content was amazing. More amazing was, to me, the amount of it, and I don’t know if there is a scientific way to quantify the coverage thus far to the coverage of previous conflicts, but I was struck by—since the very beginning, you continue to see coverage from media who are on the carriers, you continue to see coverage from people who have been up in the AWACS or with the CAPs, you continue to see coverage from interviews with pilots, those sorts of things. Steve Pietropaoli is here, and has been enormously helpful in making a lot of those things happen.

So I was struck by—despite the fact we all say how hard this is, how unconventional it is, there is a lot happening. I know there is one important piece that everybody cares deeply about, which is the special operations activity, which will be a challenge for quite some time. Most of the people in this room understand it better than I do, but there are different kinds of special operations activity: some highly secret—we don’t even acknowledge the people or the resources exist; some that is much more open. And what we’re looking hard at is how can we provide access to some of that activity, how can we provide access to some of those people. The secretary and General Franks have signed off on us granting interviews with at least one or two people who were involved in the last round of special ops activity, so we’re going to try to facilitate that in the near future here, and what we’re looking at now is as additional special ops activity unfolds, will we be able to preposition some media somewhere so they could interview them after the fact. And we don’t even know what the next round of special ops activity will be or when it will be, so we’re working somewhat here in the theoretical. But I think that’s the greatest challenge.

I think the more traditional aspects of this war—and there are some—we’ve done a pretty good job, and your people have done a really good job of covering it. I don’t—I haven’t looked at the Washington Post today, but I think day after day after day, Steve Vogel of the Washington Post was cranking out amazing stuff from the carriers and elsewhere—really, really amazing stuff, and that is a very, very important part of this war.

So in general, I actually think things have been going well. I know some people in this room violently disagree with me, but I think most of it is going pretty well. I think the particular challenges center mostly around the special ops activity.

MR. STEINBERG: Let me invite those who perhaps could avoid the violent, but the potential disagreement to get some comment from some of the people in the press about your general experience with this.

In the back?

CHUCK LEWIS, BUREAU CHIEF, HEARST NEWS: Hi, my name is Chuck Lewis, and I represent the Hearst Organization. I’ve been involved in this dialog for almost 20 years, and I want to start out by emphasizing some of the positive parts of the dialog that we’ve been having. And Secretary Clarke has certainly been an open, available spokesman for the department, and we appreciate her accessibility and the fact that we do have these ongoing meetings with her and her colleagues at the Pentagon. It means that small problems don’t become big problems, hopefully, and if there are big problems, we get to talk about them.

There are some downsides, though, and I guess the fire department is following us around (laughter)?. Anyway, this is the speech in the dark. (Laughter.) This is without video.

Let me just point out that we have a big problem other than special ops, and that is access to American ground units in Central Asia. And in my mind, that is more of a problem than the special ops issue is for the simple reason that I don’t know that anybody is stopping us from going into Afghanistan and trying to cover a special—

MS. CLARKE: There are a lot of people there.

MR. LEWIS: There you go right there. And the question is whether we would be able to transport with and bivouac with a special operations operation is a whole different question, but nobody is stopping us from going in and trying to cover a special operations operation when it is underway.

The question of ground troops—and for example, in Uzbekistan, reluctantly confirmed by the Pentagon and now that it is out there in the open, we are not allowed to have access to the 10th Mountain units in Uzbekistan, and the old story of host-country sensitivities is paraded, and that is an old story for those of us who went through Desert Storm, of course, because Desert Storm—the host—that is to say the royal family was so touchy, allegedly, about our presence that at one point American press in Saudi Arabia were urged not to cover Christian religious services underway for American GIs in Saudi Arabia. And I think we eventually got around that ban, but that kind of represents the high point of host-country sensitivities in my experience.

We’re seeing that same rationale used to keep us from American units in Uzbekistan, and I would put that at the top of the list of unsolved issues, ahead of the special operations issue, because when we walked down here from Brookings, we passed the Uzbek embassy, and I—(laughter)—and we should have invited them to join us here and asked them, you know, is it a secret that American troops are in Uzbekistan? Of course it’s not. Why can’t we go ahead and gain access to these units? And of course we run the risk here of the American handlers saying, well, we would like you to be able to cover them, but the Uzbeks don’t want you, and the Uzbeks telling us that, well, as far as we’re concerned, we’d love to have you have access, but it’s the American forces that enforce the perimeter here that keep you from covering them.

MS. CLARKE: Are they saying that to you?

MR. LEWIS: No, but I’m just saying that this is a theoretic, circular argument that may be just around the corner.

Now I’d like to just point out one other problem, and then I’m going to sit down—the problem of the relationship between what we decide with Secretary Clarke and her colleagues, on the one hand, and how it is translated into the field. This is a serious problem from Desert Storm where the assistant secretary for Public Affairs invariably would help give a friendly hearing to our problems, would promise that steps would be taken to rectify whatever was going on in Desert Storm, and invariably nothing ever got done because Central Command ran the show.

Now we find that indeed that is official policy; that Torie Clarke and her colleagues have confirmed to us that whatever we decide in this room or in any meeting that we have at the Pentagon, that that is kind of a theoretic underpinning that can be completely disregarded by Central Command, and I think that that difference needs to bridged, and it needs to be bridged officially, in paper, with General Franks. I’m sorry that he’s not here today.

Thank you.

MS. CLARKE: I’m going to ask Admiral Quigley if he wants to jump in on this, but let me just say a couple of things: one, thanks for your comments about our working hard on this. I don’t mind not succeeding as much as I mind people not knowing we’re trying hard. Two, at a recent bureau chiefs meeting, when we were talking about the 10th Mountain and bureau chiefs said, well, if you can’t get us physically to them, could we at least do interviews with some of them over the phone, and we did that. And I don’t know how many people who showed up in the briefing who covered that, but—small things, but let’s keep track of the progress that we are making.

You talked about—that they’re parading out the old story again, the old saw about host-nation sensitivities. Maybe it is old, but it’s new to me, and I just got back from Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, India, Pakistan and Russia, and Italy, and it is a sensitivity. I’m not going to name particular countries or particular people, but on their own, unilaterally, it was raised to us again and again—we want to do whatever we can, as much as we can in the war on terrorism, we’ll do this, we’ll do that. You just need to understand how sensitive this is for us. We’re trying to work through it, we’re continuing to push on different people in different countries, but it’s there, it’s real, and as you all have heard the secretary say many times, he understands how difficult participation can be for countries. We are very welcome and appreciative of the support we can get. We want to leave it up to them to characterize what they’re doing. There is not an inclination to cram too much else down their throats, to be perfectly honest. We continue to ask, we continue to seek ways

Some people—I don’t think—I haven’t seen Bill Gertz here, but Bill Gertz has been giving us some ideas to think about working around the issue of where people might file, for instance. So we’re continuing to look at creative ways.

But Admiral Quigley, you were just with General Franks, and you might want to talk a little bit about what you heard from—on the host-nation sensitivity front, and also this idea—which I don’t completely disagree with you—that decisions are made at the highest levels, and it’s not just me, it’s the secretary, and it doesn’t always get translated as well as it should all the way down the line.

I think we’ve had a fair amount of success with a lot of the guidance; for instance, as soon as we would get approval for somebody to be on an AWAC, that was happening. As soon as we got approval for people to begin to embed on the carriers, that began to happen. So some things translate faster than others, but I agree with you. It is a challenge.

ADM. CRAIG R. QUIGLEY: I think of it as a math equation analogy, and you have both operational—you have two variables. You have a variable of operational security, and you have a variable of host-nation sensitivity. And to solve your equation, you must have both variables solved for, and if you don’t, you haven’t solved your equation. So if we do not have an operational security issue, but the host nation has its own—for its own internal political reasons does not feel that it can support access, you have not solved your equation; or if the opposite is true—if a host nation says, sure, no problem, but we feel that the operational security cannot be—that obstacle cannot be overcome, you still haven’t solved the equation.

We did—I traveled with General Franks. We were gone ten days, hit nine countries, and we heard it again and again—that’s right, lightweight, not even nearly as many per day—but we heard it again and again. And on the one hand, you have the example of the British or the Australians who, in the form of their prime ministers, have been very open and overt in a public way saying this is what we’re going to contribute in the form of political support, in the form of military forces, what have you; and on the other hand, you have a lot of nations who, for their own reasons, just do not feel they can do that but want to help. And that—if that’s the price of poker, then that’s what we’ll pay in order to get their cooperation and continue the war on terrorism in their part of the world.

Who knows where this is going to go in the years ahead—other nations, other parts of the world, other sensitivities? I doubt it will ever be replicated exactly, and every circumstance is unique, and I really mean it in that term of that word.

The second issue is the operational security part. I’ve just been to a lot of the places that have been discussed here this morning so far, and I went with an eye toward saying how can we do this. That was my motivation when I was accompanying General Franks. And on a couple of occasions, for the life of me, I can’t figure out a way to get there from here. There is nothing you could shoot, there is no question you could ask, there’s no description you could provide in your text that does not run smack-dab into operational security considerations from the first paragraph or the first image, and I don’t know how to do it.

You can put ground rules in place that cover a lot of things, and you see that today, but I don’t know how to do it. I haven’t figured it out in our travels in the last couple of weeks.

MARVIN KALB: Did you ever bring a journalist with you who might be able to help?

ADM. QUIGLEY: No. No, we did not. We did not have any journalists traveling with us, Marvin.

MR. KALB: Would that—would that possibly be a helpful suggestion? In other words, you may not be able to see it, but perhaps a journalist –

ADM. QUIGLEY: I have discussed—I have discussed it with a couple of journalists that cover the Pentagon since we got back earlier this week. They don’t have any ideas, either. We have—we collectively haven’t been able to figure that one out.

MR. STEINBERG: Admiral, I wonder if you could unpack that last bit a little bit and talk to us—because there are lots of different aspects of operational security. There’s the aspects of surprise, there’s the aspects of technique. Maybe it would be useful just to try to explore what the dimensions are as we try to think about, you know, how you deal with this dilemma that you –

ADM. QUIGLEY: Sure. Let me give you the easy example, I guess, to start with, Jim, and that’s if I have—if I have a large number of news organizations on board an aircraft carrier like we do today and have had for weeks, I don’t have very many ground rules that I need to put in place there. It’s very overt, the world knows we have aircraft carriers, and if it’s Enterprise or Carl Vinson or something else, the only thing I’m really looking for in the sensitivity area and ground rules there is the exact reporting—or the exact timing of the reporting from the carrier itself. While I have launched strikes, I don’t want to have a radio beeper coming back that says, well, the strike has just been launched. Pretty obvious—that’s a pretty simplistic—that’s never a problem, it’s just never an issue. I’ve never run into the news organization yet who is looking to put American forces at risk, so that’s easy.

But if you go to some of the—particularly the special ops thing, like Secretary Clarke was saying, you just—I can’t get to first base mentally with how you cover some of these forces, either visually or descriptively in words.

OTTO KREISHER, COPLEY NEWS: Otto KreIsher with Copley News Service. One question, or observation on what we’ve just discussed: Torie mentions the Australians and the Brits being very cooperative. Well, we’re staging aircraft out of Diego Garcia, which the Brits run, and no reporters have been allowed there. Why can’t we do the same thing we’ve done with the carriers, talking to the carriers when they come back?

The other thing I’d like to raise is a particularly sensitive issue of casualties. You know, there’s been this evolving story on the casualties on the Kandahar Ranger and Special Ops mission. It went from nobody got hurt, to bumps and bruises on the parachute drop, to the secretary seeming to say that we had at least five frag wounds, which they now are attributing to guys hurting themselves trying to pop a door. And I find it hard to believe that special ops guys, who practice it on a regular basis, hurt themselves with their own door charges.

I think the one thing that we can—will get in trouble the fastest is if there is any suspicion that we are hiding casualties counts, and whether it is—I mean, I don’t think that anybody is going to try to hide somebody who is killed, but if we’ve got people who are being injured in combat, you know, and it is not being told, that’s going to raise sensitivity very quickly.

MS. CLARKE: I agree completely. I was just talking to a group of—some members of Congress this morning, and I said, “I feel very good about the support of the American people. I think they understand this is long, it will be hard, it is going to be very unusual in many ways. I think the only way we lose them if we’re not completely straight with them.” And I can tell you, Otto, we’ve tried to be very, very straight about everything. We have stood up at the podium and acknowledged errant bombs when nobody asked. When General Myers briefed Saturday morning after the first round of special ops activity, he said, “Two people were hurt. One was a broken leg. The other, I think, was a leg injury, I’m not sure, that resulted from jumping out of the plane and a hard landing. Those were the most serious injuries.” So, we were very forthcoming with exactly what happened to a pretty extraordinary level of detail.

Now clearly, not enough level of detail. And I’m the one—I’ll take the rap on this one. We started hearing about this Sy Hersh article. And I honestly—somebody—a couple of people walked in the office and said, “Sy Hersh says there were 12 casualties in the special ops activity.” I said, “Crazy, but I’ll ask.” I went and asked a few people, and I said, “Other than the two guys we talked about who got hurt jumping out of the plane, was anybody injured?” “No.” “Okay.” And I asked a few more people. And after five or six days of people continuing to pop their heads in—I was actually on the trip over the weekend, and I was with a couple of people on the plane from Central Command, and I said, “Help me out, why is this persisting?” And they said, “Oh.” And they make a couple of calls and they said, “Some of the guys got some scratches and they got some bumps in the course of it.” I don’t understand what happens when you blow out a door, but I wouldn’t be surprised that you would get some splinters and something else that might flash back at you in some fashion. In their mind, those injuries—they didn’t even think of them as injuries—were so inconsequential. Injuries to these guys, from what I know, is it keeps you from working. They were not kept from working—completely inconsequential. So, I think we were pretty forthcoming.

The other point I’d make is where the Sy Hersh article was completely, flatly wrong is he was trying to lead people to believe that they were injured as a result of Taliban fire. Nothing could be further from the truth. So there were a lot of things wrong with that story—separate issue.

But to your point, Otto, we will be as forthcoming as possible. As I said, we stand up there and talk about errant bombs, even when we haven’t been asked; we stand up there and talk about casualties, even when we haven’t been asked. And I agree with you completely, the American people will stick with us as long as we’re straight with them, and if we’re not, they won’t, and shame on us.

MR. LEWIS: What about Diego Garcia?

MS. CLARKE: I’m sorry, Diego Garcia. Alistair Campbell, who is Tony Blair’s communications person, was in our office yesterday, and we’ve had a few days of conversations. He is actively working it with their policy people. I think we’re making some progress there.

MR. STEINBERG: Go as far as you want, but what kinds of considerations there would be at issue (inaudible).

MS. CLARKE: What are the U.K.’s considerations? I honestly don’t know. There’s some history to what they have been doing on that island. I honestly don’t know, but they have been very forthcoming. And Alistair, I know, is—he’s spending a lot of time over here. He’s eager to make sure we are all working well. So, we’re pushing hard. He was in my office yesterday talking about it.

MR. RICHARD McGRAW: They had, in fact, agreed on one pool camera and that’s all, and we’re trying to push for a little more. And we’ll have it in a couple of days, I believe. It is moving in the right direction.

MR. STEINBERG: Maybe you could also say a little bit more, generally, about how you try to coordinate—and whether you try to develop common practices as you’re beginning to have more different countries participate in these operations and what –

MS. CLARKE: I’m sorry, what kind of practices?

MR. STEINBERG: Common practices; what are your—what kinds of efforts are you trying—in terms of ground rules and coverage, is each country doing their own or are you trying to develop a common standard? Are there different approaches for the national press corps as with the national contingents, and those kinds of things?

MS. CLARKE: In terms of characterizing what individual countries are doing, we really do leave it up to them. Those of you who cover us have heard the secretary say it repeatedly. We will let other countries define what it is they’re doing and when they’re doing it. In terms of working with the media, we are just having many, many conversations with our counterparts, with the policy people in these countries, trying to facilitate access. And I’ll be very honest with you; we are primarily interested in providing access for the people who work for those of you in this room, and some of you who cover the Defense Department on a regular basis. To the extent that will benefit others from other countries, that’s great.

I don’t think there is a standard practice. I think some of us are committed to the same fundamental principles—some are more committed than others—but I don’t think there are standard practices, so you just deal with that reality, that it will be different from case to case and, I’m sure, from time to time. I am absolutely confident—if you’ve heard the secretary talk about the coalitions of this war—and he always makes a point. It’s not a coalition, it is evolving and changing coalitions. Different countries will do different things at different times. I’m sure that is going to be true about the ability for you all to have as much access as you want about this war.

ADM. QUIGLEY: Different people in different countries are in different positions to make—I mean, just a —

MS. CLARKE: Right. Admiral Quigley is just piling on. Different people make the decisions at different times. So we just remain committed to the fundamental principle, which is we’re trying to facilitate access, and we make it happen however we can.

MARIA MANN: Maria Mann from Agence France Presse in Washington.

Regarding the embedded pools, I understand—it’s been our experience and the experience of other wire services, that unfortunately the rotations are not really equal and that—I understand, because of the chaos and everybody wanting to jump on, especially on the carriers, that sometimes the person that screams the loudest is the one that gets on. There’s also, I think, a problem in, if one wire service gets on that they are not accepting their responsibility to be a pool. Your thoughts on that?

MS. CLARKE: Actually, I was going to ask—Steve Pietroaopli—Admiral Pietroapli with the Navy might address that. I’m sure he can address it better that I can. He’s very familiar with how they’re doing the arrangements on the carriers.

ADM. STEPHEN PIETROAPLI: I wish that were true. It’s 10,000 miles from here. But here’s what happened, actually. When we initially put nearly 40 journalists on two carriers before the start of the strikes, we originally intended—Craig Quigley and I originally intended for that to be a pool because we weren’t sure how many people we could round up in Bahrain on short notice and get them out to the carriers. So we wanted to make sure that this was widely shared, so we originally intended a pool.

It turned out that there was such broad representation already in Bahrain that we had virtually—certainly every U.S. network and international networks’ wires. And they allowed them to go unilateral because of coverage, and then they did pools of opportunity—or pools of convenience, really—with the electronic product, TV and still photography, just so that if one was on a Tomahawk shooter, not all cameras had to go there, and they shared that material. Since then it’s been unilateral; it has not been pool.

What happened is, predictably, after about a week, you had six TV cameras aimed at the same person loading a bomb, and 12 still shooters, and six pencils. And they all decided that, frankly, they didn’t need to all be there and there were other stories out there to cover, and allowed the wires, Reuters and AP—not AFP; I don’t know whether AFP volunteered or not. I know Reuters and AP stepped up and said, we’ll be happy to stay out here 24/7 and provide product. We’re happy to have AP and Reuters out there. Frankly, I think we’d be happy to have AFP out there 24/7 too. We do not have—until we get up in to the dozens of reporters, we’re not going to get limited on space. We’ll let people sleep on drop tanks, if that’s what it comes to, on the hangar deck. So, if AFP wants to be out there 24/7, I think you can get them out. I’ll check with Commander Alderson out there to make sure that there’s not a problem with that, but there should not be.

MS. MANN: We’ve already expressed that.

ADM. PIETROPAOLI: Okay. And since then, we’ve gotten everybody through from hometown TV stations in Norfolk, Virginia, through magazine writers through freelance photographers. I mean, basically, it’s not logistically easy, but it is certainly possible. So if there’s a problem with AFP, I’ll unblock that as soon as I get back.

MR. STEINBERG: Maybe I can come back a little on one of the first questions that got raised, which was how you interact with other countries. And obviously this is a delicate situation. I have a lot of familiarity with it myself. And my question, in your own discussions, is how do you think about this in terms of the public diplomacy as well as the military dimension of this? There’s been a lot of discussion about the importance of being seen as having allies, particularly from the very countries who do have these sensitivities, and how do you balance that, both in terms of your advocacy with these countries, to try to have a more public profile, and in terms of your overall strategy, to combine that public diplomacy with the military?

MS. CLARKE: The short answer is we deal with it recently. I’m the first one to admit, we’ve been at the war for five weeks, a month, and the public diplomacy issue really has just surfaced in the last couple of weeks. It should have surfaced a long time ago. It should have surfaced well before September 11th, but it has really surfaced in a big way since October 7th. And we’ve realized we all—and I’m speaking for the entire administration here—need to do a much better job of communicating around the world, particularly in Arab countries, what we’re doing, h


Coverage of the War on Terrorism: The Conflicting Needs of the Media and the Department of Defense

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