In an administration notorious for its tight hold on information, it’s amazing that the Pentagon is allowing nearly 800 journalists to bring the war in Iraq to the public on a virtually unrestricted basis. [IMGCAP(1)]
Last week, even as the White House and the Pentagon were refusing to give the public and Congress a cost estimate on the war — only to produce a precise, $74.7 billion request on Monday — reporters “embedded” in U.S. fighting units were sending back graphic dispatches on unexpectedly heavy resistance from the enemy.
The “embedding” policy is the result of a remarkably enlightened decision at the Pentagon’s highest levels that the war effort is better served by flooding the airwaves with information rather than trying to keep it to a trickle, as was U.S. policy during the 1991 Persian Gulf War.
Journalists say the policy is largely the work of Assistant Secretary of Defense Victoria Clarke, who claims she had little trouble convincing top civilian and military officials that it was the best way to counter enemy propaganda.
Then, the top brass ordered subordinate commanders to adopt a “maximum access” policy.
Last October, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld told a gathering of 40 news organization bureau chiefs that “as a principle … generally it’s almost always helpful to have the press there and see things and be able to report and comment on what’s taking place.”
He added that “It’s also self-serving,” recalling that, in Afghanistan, the Taliban and al Qaeda located military activities in close proximity to hospitals and schools.
He said advance intelligence showed that Iraq was planning to do the same and blame civilian casualties on U.S. forces. “It’s helpful when you have journalists that are accurate and professional that can see those things on the ground when they happen.”
During the first Gulf War, with most reporters confined to command headquarters in Saudi Arabia, almost the only live-action reports were scenes of civilian casualties highlighted by Saddam Hussein’s government. [IMGCAP(2)]
Just yesterday, U.S. television stations carried scenes of civilian destruction in Baghdad caused when Tomahawk missiles missed their targets — but hours more coverage of coalition forces battling their way to Baghdad and reports on a civilian uprising against Hussein in Basra.
It’s also an advantage for the administration that reporters embedded with coalition units naturally identify with the troops they’re accompanying — and with whom they are getting shot at.
The results of “embedding” haven’t been all favorable for the Bush administration’s war policy. They contributed to a fever chart-like spurt of euphoria in the early days of the war and a deflation as Iraqi resistance stiffened and coalition forces took casualties.
The stock market reflected the mood swing — up 255 points Friday, down 307 Monday — and so did polling. The Pew Research Center’s five-day track showed that 50 percent of U.S. adults thought the war was “going well” last Thursday, 71 percent on Friday and Saturday, then 52 percent on Sunday and only 38 percent on Monday.
Pentagon information policy played a part in the shift. Last week’s effort to “decapitate” the Iraqi regime, followed by rapid movement by coalition ground forces and “shock and awe” bombing led Rumsfeld and others to overstate military results.
On Friday, Rumsfeld said, “The regime is starting to lose control of their country. … The confusion of Iraqi officials is growing. Their ability to see what is happening on the battlefield, to communicate with their forces and to control their country is slipping away.”
Rumsfeld evidently hoped to hasten the process of regime disintegration, but he also inflated expectations that the war might end in days.
When allied forces took casualties, encountered stiff enemy resistance and had to fight hard for places like the port city of Umm Qasr, previously reported as “secured,” analysts even began questioning the basic U.S. war plan of fighting with relatively light ground forces — half the size of those in the first Gulf War — and heavy reliance on precision-guided bombing.
Administration briefers tried — and largely succeeded — in restoring a sense of reason by asserting that military operations were “on plan” and that in only a matter of days coalition forces were nearing Baghdad.
Accurate assessments of war strategy obviously will have to wait on the results of an imminent showdown with Hussein’s elite Republican Guard near Baghdad.
Regardless of how long it takes to win the war, however, the “embedding” policy is a huge, historic departure — and ought to be a model for government information policy.
Fox News bureau chief Kim Hume commented, “In my opinion, they’ve changed the world in terms of war coverage. It is historic. The audiences in America and elsewhere have never before had the opportunity to see a war fought live.”
Clarke said the policy was the outgrowth of a philosophy that “in the 21st century, all things information play a huge role — good and bad. You’ve got 24-7 global television, with information rocketing around the world in huge volume and at huge speed.”
She continued: “The kind of opponents we face, whether it’s al Qaeda, the Taliban or the Iraqis are good at using the technology to spread lies, disinformation and deception.
“The answer is to flood the environment with massive amounts of the truth and be prepared to counter their disinformation rapidly.”
Realistically, deception and “spin” are far from gone in military affairs, but what a difference it would make if civilian officials and politicians — starting in the White House — decided to “flood the environment with massive amounts of the truth.”