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Wednesday, 26 September, 2001, 00:52 GMT 01:52 UK
The Pentagon and the press
George W Bush and Donald Rumsfeld
Bush and Rumsfeld plan tight control of information
By BBC News Online's Kevin Anderson in Washington

While the US prepares for a war on terrorism, the media is preparing for a battle for information.

US cruise missile launch
When the firing starts, the information may cease
US military commanders in the Gulf War tightly controlled access to information during the Gulf War, restricting most journalists to escorted pools.

And the media is concerned that President George W Bush's administration will have similar policies with respect to the control of information, especially owing the role key members of the present administration played in the Gulf War.

Vice President Dick Cheney was then Secretary of Defence, and Secretary of State Colin Powell was chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

But with special operations troops expected to take a lead role in the conflict, this might be a war fought mostly in secret.

Tight control continues

George W Bush has signalled that, like his father's administration during the Gulf War, he wants to keep tight control of the flow of information.

"Let me condition the press this way: Any sources and methods of intelligence will remain guarded in secret," he said two days after the attacks.

"My administration will not talk about how we gather intelligence, if we gather intelligence and what the intelligence says. That's for the protection of the American people."

The first casualty of war may be the truth, but Secretary of Defence Donald Rumsfeld said that he hasn't lied to the press in all of his 69 years and does not intend to start now.

Mr Rumsfeld said that military officials will not comment on anything that will endanger troops or operations, but he also said that there would not be a campaign to misinform the media.

Lessons from Vietnam

Tight control of the media by the US Defence Department began in the wake of Vietnam.

Journalists say they'll accept "sensible rules of censorship"
Retired Army Colonel Daniel Smith served as an intelligence advisor with the US Army in Vietnam, and he said that there were effectively no controls over the press. Press were allowed anywhere they could get to on their own.

The press ridiculed the military's official line at briefings that reporters dubbed the "Five O'clock Follies."

For the first time, television brought war to the living room of average Americans, and the military found it difficult to win the war on the home front.

After watching a commentary by CBS newsman Walter Cronkite calling on the US to negotiate an end to the war, President Lyndon Johnson is said to have told aides, "If I've lost Cronkite, I've lost middle America."

Many military leaders began to believe that the press played a role in the US defeat in Vietnam and vowed to exercise tighter control of information.

Media shut out

When the US invaded the tiny island of Grenada in 1983, the press was shut out.

US helicopters in Vietnam
In Vietnam, the press could go anywhere they wanted
The policy of tight press control continued through the 1989 invasion of Panama and through the Gulf War.

The media felt the control was so tight during the Gulf War that the Washington bureau chiefs of some of the largest media organisations in the US wrote to then Secretary of Defence Dick Cheney to complain.

They said, "The combination of security review and the use of the pool system as a form of censorship made the Gulf War the most under covered major conflict in modern American history."

A different kind of war

But the war of terrorism will not be like the Gulf War, retired Army Colonel Daniel Smith said, adding with the Gulf War, "you have a visible build up of forces, ammunition and fuel."

Referring to the campaign against terrorism, he said: "This is going to be completely different. There will be logistical build up."

Most of the actions will be carried out by special operations forces, and "this is the most secretive of all commands in the US military," said Mr Smith, who now serves as the chief of research for the Centre for Defence Information.

They have to be secretive, he said, adding, because "quite often their whole survival depends on secrecy until well after an operation is over."

And the press is getting ready to fight for access. Michael Getler, ombudsman for the Washington Post, says that there has always been a natural tension between the press and the military in time of war.

He says that the press "will abide by sensible rules of censorship - not reporting certain kinds of military information that could endanger lives or compromise operations, for example."

But he said that new controls in place since Vietnam that have kept reporters from witnessing key opening operations and generally restricted access.

"So as the nation prepares for war, the press is probably about to face the most severe and confounding test of its mission in a free society," he adds.


Political uncertainty






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