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Marines raise a caution flag over Embed system by C Cooper

Wall Street Journal

December 16, 2003

The Marines Raise a Caution Flag

Over Use of Embedded Journalists



WASHINGTON -- Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld is characteristically blunt when asked to assess the "embed" program, in which hundreds of reporters covered the Iraq war alongside U.S. troops: "I think of it as a home-run ball. I wish I'd thought of it."

But one service branch that favored the embed program from the beginning, the Marines, now raises a caution flag. In its "lessons learned" report reconstructing the Iraq campaign, the Marines First Division says the outcome might have been less positive if the U.S. had been fighting a competent enemy or bogging down in close combat. "What would have been the headlines if the coalition lost a battalion of infantrymen in a chemical attack?" the report asks. "What if there was more nationalistic spirit in the hearts of the people of Iraq and a majority of the population fought us block by block?

"Before we as a collective military society congratulate ourselves on the 'overwhelming success' of the embed program, we need to pause and remember that we were both good and lucky," the report says.

On balance, the Marines endorsed the embed program but qualified its enthusiasm. Noting the fickle nature of correspondents, the report says a "thorough risk-balance analysis" should be conducted before shipping off journalists to the next war. Embedded journalists produced a number of negative stories, the report says, and when things went badly, reporters were quick to focus on civilian deaths. While the Pentagon's overall reaction was positive, the Marines' reservations could lead to limits on press access in future wars.

The media and the military are often perceived as adversaries, and Mr. Rumsfeld's handlers had to talk him into the idea of bringing reporters along for the ride during the Iraq invasion. But his assessment echoes that of many Pentagon officials: Generally, reporters hewed to rules regarding secrecy, and they provided a counter to Saddam Hussein's propaganda machine.

"What they saw was true," Mr. Rumsfeld says of the embedded journalists. It was accurate, and they presented it."

Mr. Rumsfeld gets no argument from the Army's Third Infantry Division, which captured the lion's share of the embeds' ink as the lead invading force. In its assessment, the Army noted that its relationship with reporters had been strained over the years. In response, it decided to formally train reporters, putting most of those who embedded through a series of dry-run, "live-fire" exercise in the Kuwait desert during the months leading up to war.

As the day of invasion approached, Army commanders worried that embedding rules explicitly barred sharing of classified information but that if reporters weren't formally briefed on the secret war plan, they might pick up pieces of it and publish, perhaps helping the enemy. Ultimately, the Army hit on a compromise, deciding that "the idea of embedding requires trust as implied in the doctrinal definition." Two days before the war began, reporters got their briefing.

The Army noted three cases where newspapers reported injuries before next-of-kin was notified, a violation of embedding ground rules. Aside from that, it says, embedded media proved themselves more responsible and more knowledgeable than their counterparts at the Pentagon and the Command Center in Doha, Qatar.

That the Marine Corps expressed reservations about the program is striking, since it above other service branches is widely perceived as being the most media-savvy and press friendly. A small service with a relatively nimble bureaucracy, the Corps is viewed in the Pentagon as aggressive in getting its story told.

The Marines' reputation was borne out in its more casual approach to the embed program. While the Army report cites "regulation FM 46-1" -- the rules for embeds -- and says the units were "public affairs escort" for embedded reporters, the Marines eschew the idea of being a chaperone. Rather, the Marines declared that journalists were a "winnable constituency," who could be "adopted, and made members of the Division family."

In the main, the report says, the Marines were successful: after a few days of eating combat food and sleeping while sitting up, correspondents did become Marine-like, establishing bonds with infantry troops and displaying an admirable discipline when told about secret plans for battle.

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