"Well, Defense Secretary Rumsfeld said he had imposed no press restrictions. In fact, he said he hadn't really even considered the issue of the press. But what Pentagon sources have been telling me [is] that as these secret war plans have been drawn up, they don't include any provision for taking reporters along, allowing them to cover any of the action. They plan to fight the war and then tell the press and the public how it turned out afterwards." -- CNN Correspondent Jamie McIntyre, September 18, 2001
With the United States on the brink of a new war, this time against terrorism, it is useful to recall the restrictions on the news media imposed during the last occasions the United States was on war footing. After the U.S. adventures in the Persian Gulf, Grenada and Panama in the 1980s and 1990s, the Center for Public Integrity examined the consequences of those government impositions in a 1991 report, “Under Fire: U.S. Military Restrictions on the Media from Grenada to the Persian Gulf.” In this edited summary, the report concludes that “information about Defense Department activities . . . [was] restricted or manipulated not for national security purposes, but for political purposes — to protect the image and priorities of the Defense Department and its civilian leaders, including the president.”
The recent war in the Persian Gulf has been perceived as a major triumph for U.S. military forces and foreign policy. Victory parades have made front-page news, General H. Norman Schwarzkopf has become a new national hero, and President George Bush has received some of the highest public opinion ratings in history. But one aspect of the conflict has received less attention.
The Gulf War included unprecedented restrictions on the press by the military, and an extensive campaign by the White House and the Pentagon to influence public opinion by presenting Americans with carefully controlled images and information concerning the conflict and the issues surrounding the Bush administration’s decision to use U.S. troops to resolve the crisis. The result was a defeat for the First Amendment guarantee of press freedom and the public’s right to independent information about the political decisions that can lead to U.S. military involvement abroad, and the ramifications of such involvement.
This study examines the controversies surrounding restrictions on the media during the Gulf War and two major U.S. offensive military operations in the 1980s: the invasions of Grenada and Panama.
“Disturbing pattern . . . of escalating control”
Extensive research about military restrictions on the press and the political factors that have contributed to these restrictions during the past 10 years reveals a disturbing pattern of escalating control over media access to information on and off the battlefield. The evidence shows that, increasingly, information about Defense Department activities is being restricted or manipulated not for national security purposes, but for political purposes — to protect the image and priorities of the Defense Department and its civilian leaders, including the president, who is the commander-in-chief of the armed forces.
This pattern is not simply a clash of mentalities between the military and the media. Many crucial decisions about information policies have been made by civilian leaders in the Pentagon and the White House over the objections of military officers who have fought hard to maintain journalists’ access to the field and armed forces personnel, and have worked around the clock during operations to assist reporters’ and photographers’ efforts to present independent information to the American people. The techniques used by the government to limit and shape news coverage — which have included prohibiting access to military operations and releasing misleading data about U.S. successes and casualties — bring up issues that go far beyond the obvious need to balance military secrecy requirements with the public’s right to know. This information-control program has distorted accounts of what occurred during the military operations in Grenada, Panama and the Persian Gulf, has led to false perceptions about the operations’ short- and long-term impact on these regions and on U.S. policy, and has threatened the historical record.
Gulf War aim: “To promote public support for predetermined agendas”
In the months following Operation Desert Storm, considerable evidence has emerged that the news-management strategy used by the Bush administration was designed not to enable the American people to make an objective evaluation of the events leading up to the conflict and the conduct of the war itself, but to promote public support for predetermined agendas, such as access to oil and support for controversial weapons systems.
Highlights of this evidence include:
- Congressional testimony by a former Pentagon official that the Defense Department “doctored” statistics about the success rates of weapons systems in the Gulf to increase public support for the war and congressional support for additional weapons funding.
- Congressional testimony by a former Pentagon adviser that the Patriot missiles were not as effective as the Defense Department claimed, and that they may have caused more damage than they prevented.
- Statements by Air Force Chief of Staff General Merrill A. McPeak which indicate that Pentagon videos depicting laser-guided bombs hitting their targets with surgical precision — which were shown repeatedly on the [broadcast] networks and Cable News Network — presented a distorted view of the air war. At a postwar briefing, McPeak released statistics showing that such bombs represented 8.8 percent of the ordnance dropped by U.S. forces on Iraq. The remaining 91.2 percent of the 84,200 tons of bombs dropped by the United States during the conflict were “dumb” bombs that had no precision guidance systems.
- Statements indicating that Pentagon briefer Lieutentant General Thomas Kelly’s claims during the first week of the war that bombing missions had an 80 percent success rate were misleading. After repeated questioning by reporters, Defense Department officials clarified that “success” meant a plane had taken off, released its ordnance in the area of the target, and returned to its base. General McPeak admitted during his postwar briefing that during the first 10 days of the air war, the weather was so bad that coalition pilots could not even see 40 percent of their primary targets. Lieutentant General Kelly later said the problem resulted from a “policy change” about how the term “success rate” should be defined.
- Evidence that private video firms interested in producing Gulf War programs that would present the U.S. military effort in a positive light were allowed greater access to the field than journalists. Quantum Diversified, a Minneapolis firm that wanted to make a video featuring the National Guard, spent eight days photographing selected units in the Gulf in October 1990. At the time, reporters sometimes waited weeks to spend brief periods with specific military units. The itinerary for Quantum Diversified — which received technical assistance for the video from NFL Films — was set up with the consent of U.S. Central Command and the help of Pentagon officials, including the Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs. When Quantum Diversified wanted to shoot additional footage in March, Pentagon officials again arranged space on a military flight, and Central Command sent a message to Army, Air Force, Marine and Navy officials stating the crew had theater clearance. Maj. Robert Dunlap of the National Guard Bureau’s Public Affairs Office in the Pentagon said the Defense Department was happy to help because Quantum Diversified wasn’t a “fly-by-night” operation that would “put out a bunch of bad news stories.”
- Indications that the Pentagon was unwilling to disclose what it knew about the likelihood of civilian casualties caused by U.S. and allied bombing. During Pentagon briefings, officials repeatedly stressed that U.S. planes were avoiding civilian targets, but little was said or asked about the long-range effects that the bombing of Iraq’s infrastructure would have on the civilian population. A report prepared in May 1991 by a Harvard study team predicted that 170,000 Iraqi children would die within the next year as a result of the effects of the Gulf crisis. One principal reason was that coalition bombing destroyed health and sanitation facilities, and agricultural production. A United Nations report said that thousands of Iraqis would die because of the “near-apocalyptic” conditions created by the bombing, and indicated that children and the elderly were especially at risk.
- Evidence that while Defense Department personnel were complaining about the numbers of journalists from large media organizations who were sent to cover Operation Desert Shield, the Pentagon was providing transportation, escorts and special access to the battlefield for more than 150 reporters from smaller cities and towns so they could produce “Hi, Mom” stories about local troops stationed in Saudi Arabia. Most of the resulting coverage was highly supportive of the Defense Department’s actions.
- Evidence of a wider effort by the Bush administration to shape public opinion about the long-term effects of the Gulf War. A January 25, 1991, Department of Energy memo ordered DOE contractors and personnel working in DOE facilities to “immediately discontinue any further discussion of war related research and issues with the media until further notice.” [Emphasis is DOE’s.] The memo provided a script instructing personnel to tell reporters who wanted information on the environmental consequences of the war to state that “predictions remain speculative, and do not warrant any further comment at this time.”
- Evidence of a sophisticated public relations campaign by private organizations and foreign groups to build support for White House policies in the Gulf. In August 1990, Hill and Knowlton — a PR firm whose president and chief operating officer of public affairs, worldwide is Craig Fuller, Vice President Bush’s chief of staff from 1985 to 1989 — was hired by representatives of the Kuwaiti government to help sell the American people on the need for U.S. military intervention. Hill and Knowlton’s president and chief executive officer, USA, Robert Dilenschneider, said in a speech that the firm’s job was “to build support behind the President.” One way it did this, Dilenschneider said, was by providing the media, which were “controlled by the Department of Defense very effectively,” with “the kind of information that would enable them to get their job done.” Hill and Knowlton was paid more than $10 million for its efforts.
- Indications that Bush administration officials were acting from political motivations when they decided to bar the media from Dover (Del.) Air Force Base during the arrival of caskets carrying troops killed in the Gulf War. During the 1989 U.S. invasion of Panama, two networks and CNN showed split-screen live coverage of President Bush joking with reporters before a press conference as the bodies of U.S. soldiers killed in the fighting arrived simultaneously at Dover. The president said at a later press conference that the coverage made him look callous, and had prompted negative letters to the White House.
Falklands War provided model of press control
The current system of media restrictions and information control is the latest refinement in a Pentagon and White House policy that has been evolving for more than 25 years. The Vietnam War provided the impetus for the system’s development. Many military officers believed that the United States lost the war because negative media coverage turned the American people against the conflict. In the late 1970s, Pentagon officials began searching for a new model for dealing with the press. They found one in Great Britain, where the Thatcher government had strictly controlled the media during the 1982 war with Argentina over the Falkland Islands. The fact that the Pentagon was interested in this model of press control had chilling overtones, because Great Britain still retains some of the press restrictions that led the Founding Fathers to adopt the First Amendment guarantee of press freedom. One article written for a U.S. Naval War College publication outlined the lessons that the Pentagon could learn from the Falklands model. To maintain public support for a war, the article said, a government should sanitize the visual images of war; control media access to military theaters; censor information that could upset readers or viewers; and exclude journalists who would not write favorable stories. The Pentagon used all these techniques to one extent or another during subsequent wars.
Grenada provided first opportunity
The 1983 invasion of Grenada gave the Pentagon its first opportunity to try these news-management techniques. Pentagon personnel, with the knowledge and approval of the White House, barred journalists during the first two days of fighting. Reporters who tried to reach the island by boat were detained by U.S. forces and held incommunicado. Journalists who tried to fly in were “buzzed” by a Navy jet and turned back for fear of being shot down. Nearly all the news that the American people received during the first two days was from U.S. government sources. White House and Pentagon personnel reported that the conflict had been enormously successful and, in the words of Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger, “extremely skillfully done.” In fact, the operation had been planned in great haste, and the first day’s fighting had been a near-disaster for U.S. troops and a potential embarrassment for Pentagon leaders. For example, military officers did not know the location of many of the U.S. medical students they supposedly had come to save; U.S. troops were confused about the actual identity of the enemy and were supplied with tourist maps instead of strategic military maps; and more than a dozen innocent people were killed when U.S. forces accidentally bombed a mental hospital after mistaking it for a military installation.
In Panama, too, many restrictions politically based
Evidence indicates that many media restrictions in Panama were politically based. For example, Defense Secretary Richard B. Cheney decided to make sure the DoD media pool would arrive too late to cover the early hours of Operation Just Cause after President Bush twice questioned pool members’ abilities to maintain operational security. After the journalists arrived they were restricted to a U.S. base for several hours, listening to a lecture on Panamanian history and watching CNN television reports from the Pentagon to keep up on the progress of the war. During the first several days, pool reporters were plagued by transportation and equipment shortages. Battlefield logistics were so confused that one plane carrying journalists was in danger of being shot down by U.S. forces. During White House and Pentagon briefings about the invasion, officials misled reporters about U.S. casualties from friendly fire and low-altitude parachute jumps. Military officers deliberately concealed the fact that the controversial Stealth aircraft, which Cheney had praised for its “pinpoint accuracy” during the invasion, actually had missed both its targets by about 100 yards.
News media bear some responsibility
The media bear some of the responsibility for the increased restrictions on wartime coverage. Although journalists have complained for years about the restrictions, they have presented no effective opposition, and have frequently allowed themselves to be co-opted by the Pentagon and the White House. For example, [although] the press complained about being confined to pools during the Gulf War, journalists fought among themselves for pool slots and turned in colleagues who tried to work outside the pool system. They presented no alternative that provided comprehensive answers for military officers’ concerns about operational security and troop safety. The media also failed to contribute sufficiently to public debate about the foreign policy issues that led to U.S. military involvement abroad. For example, before Operation Desert Shield began, [in August 1990,] few media reported regularly on the political, economic and historical factors that were influencing U.S. policy toward Iraq and Kuwait. Such stories, if run in a timely manner, might have had an important effect on public opinion and sparked a sharper congressional debate over U.S. military intervention. Instead of developing a respectful but adversarial relationship with the Pentagon, many members of the press have become dependent on the military for visuals and information. For example, although reporters were physically prevented from watching and filming much of the fighting during the invasions of Grenada and Panama, the television networks showed hours of dramatic — and sometimes misleading Defense Department footage. A similar situation developed in the Gulf, where the most exciting visuals during the air war were the Pentagon’s carefully selected videos of precision-guided bombs demolishing their targets. Some journalists believe that the lack of initiative displayed by many reporters covering the Gulf War was the media’s single greatest failure, and will hurt future efforts to redefine the relationship between the Pentagon and the press. The sad truth is that while reporters and editors complained about media restrictions, in the end many of them presented precisely the data and images that the White House and the Defense Department wanted the press to pass along to the American people.