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Pentagon and press can both do their jobs by John Hughes

From the Christian Science Monitor, November 14, 2001 edition

Pentagon and press can both do their jobs

By John Hughes

SALT LAKE CITY - When I was State Department spokesman in the Reagan administration, Bernie Kalb, then diplomatic correspondent for one of the three major television networks, came to me to confirm what could have been a major scoop for him.

He'd been tipped that an American seized in the Middle East, and being held by the Hizbullah, was actually a CIA agent. I told Bernie that I could only continue our discussion off the record. We fenced, and finally Bernie went back to his network and got its agreement that we could talk off the record.

Then I told Bernie that the American was in fact the CIA station chief in the country where he'd been captured, but we didn't know if his captors knew that yet. If Bernie's network went with that story, the CIA man would certainly be killed. Bernie and his network kept silent. Ultimately, after torturing him terribly, the Hizbullah did find out the CIA officer's identity, and they killed him. But he did not die because of any leak or indiscretion on the part of the press. Bernie and his network behaved honorably. Of course, it helped that Kalb and I had been friends for years, racketing around Southeast Asia as foreign correspondents together. It helped that I trusted him. I knew him as a patriot as well as a professional.

I tell this story to illustrate that over the years responsible journalists and news organizations have kept many secrets that, if published, might have put heroes at risk, or run counter to the national interest. For instance, when Iranian radicals seized the American Embassy in Iran, some Embassy officers who were outside the Embassy, sought refuge in the homes of friendly diplomats from other countries, and stayed safely there throughout the long months of the embassy siege. A number of journalists knew that and never reported it.

As a lifelong journalist who spent a few years in government, I'm familiar with both sides of the press-versus-government tension that currently afflicts Washington. More specifically, it's a press-versus-Pentagon tension, as reporters bridle at their inability to get to the war front to find out for themselves what's going on, and at home a distrustful military clamps down on information that it says could endanger lives and security if published.

For now, public opinion seems to be favoring the Pentagon. But that could change, and in any major foreign adventure - and especially in time of war - better that government should engage the press as friend, not foe.

Though the press and military have jousted through history, the current distrust between them took root in the Vietnam War. Reporters in Vietnam were allowed widespread travel and access to combat, but found their firsthand observations often at odds with the optimistic views advanced by military briefers at the "Five O'clock Follies" in Saigon.

With the lessons of Vietnam in mind, the military in the Gulf War discouraged reporters from wandering under their own steam, but produced frequent briefings at headquarters by the charismatic commander, Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf, who paid special attention to the press. In the Afghan campaign, the press has so far been denied access to troops and pilots involved, but has been briefed directly by Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld, who clearly is in command of wartime information but who has not been forthcoming enough to satisfy the Pentagon press corps.

Not all military briefings need be mass ones, on camera. Small background briefings for trusted reporters, columnists and editorial writers, and TV anchors and editors, in which strategy is confidentially explained, can be mutually beneficial.

Clearly, the press cannot expect to trot alongside every clandestine special operations unit in Afghanistan. But after the Gulf War, formulas for coverage were worked out between news organizations and the military that included access to "all major military units." They should be implemented as time and place permit.

The mission of the military is to spearhead the war and ultimately achieve victory. The role of the press is to report the campaign and inform the public how the government is doing. Neither side will always agree with the way the other is doing its job. There are complications, because the war against terrorism requires new, nontraditional, and sometimes secretive measures.

But it is not heretical to suggest that journalistic professionalism and patriotism can coexist for the common good.

John Hughes, a former editor of the Monitor, served as assistant secretary of State for public affairs from 1982 to 1985.

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