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Inside View (on the embedding system) by Peter Baker
From AJR, May 2003 issue
Washington Post correspondent and AJR contributor Peter Baker covered the war in Iraq from the super-secret Combat Operations Center, the war room where Marine officers managed their troops and weapons. After initial skepticism, he came to see major plusses in the embedding program, and witnessed a profound change in the relationship between journalists and the military.
By Peter Baker
Peter Baker is a Washington Post foreign correspondent.
The high-ranking Marine officer took his helmet off, sat down in a folding chair with a thud and laid out the ground rules for the interview. It would all be off the record. And when he said off the record, he meant off the record.
"If I see any of this in the papers," he warned with a glare, "I'll find you and cut your fucking balls off." The four of us, all experienced journalists from major American news organizations, laughed a bit nervously. He didn't. "I'm serious as a heart attack," he cut in. "I'll find you and make you hurt."
Perhaps it should come as no surprise that the shotgun marriage between the military and the media called embedding started out with a bit of suspicion. Three decades of misunderstanding and mistrust had left both sides convinced of the other's ill will, exacerbating a natural cultural divide between an organization that inherently values saluting smartly and a profession that encourages questioning authority.
But five weeks of sleeping outside on the same hard ground, eating the same boneless pork chop MREs, suffering through the same blinding sandstorms and dodging the same RPGs in the Iraqi desert will transform any relationship. For all of its imperfections, the embedding program has permanently altered the association between media and armed forces, and surely for the better. We've both gotten into each other's decision process, to use a favorite military phrase, and come out of it with a more informed understanding of one another.
That was certainly true, at least, at the headquarters of the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force, the overall command of the 60,000 Marines and 26,000 British troops participating in the war. What started out as a somewhat awkward experience, where the Marine officers clearly did not trust us and showed little inclination to give us real access, eventually evolved into an extraordinary opportunity to watch the war unfold from inside the command tent.
Four of us were invited to spend the war at MEF headquarters, including David Lynch of USA Today, Mark Mazzetti of U.S. News & World Report and Juan Tamayo of the Miami Herald. None of us knew exactly what to expect, but we all arrived at Camp Commando in Kuwait with vague hopes of spending the campaign at the hip of the top Marine commander, Lt. Gen. James T. Conway, just as my Post colleague Molly Moore did with the senior Marine general in the Persian Gulf War.
That was not to be, as it quickly became clear. We went almost a week sitting at Camp Commando before the war simply waiting to be introduced to Conway. Once we were finally ushered in for an interview, he was forthcoming and friendly, but for the duration of our stay with his entourage he stayed judiciously away from us--not out of any apparent animosity or fear but what seemed to be genuine disinterest. We would not see him for any length of time again until the day Baghdad fell. It got to the point that we began to report Conway sightings to each other as if spotting a rare bird. An amused Marine officer compared him to Charlie from "Charlie's Angels," the disembodied off-screen presence pulling the strings.
If this had been as far as it went, our embedding experience would have been a disaster. Not only was Conway avoiding us, but we were getting little time with his top staff officers--and those we did see were intent on threatening our ability to father children. Indeed, it got to the point where we were so frustrated we were about to bail out. The morning the war started--just hours after we had been reassured the beginning of the conflict was still at least a day away--we felt misled. A nasty shouting match ensued with the chief public affairs officer, who offered to throw us out if we were so dissatisfied.
In his defense, it turned out that few people knew the war would start when it did because the schedule was accelerated at the last minute. And in a strange way, that blowup marked a turning point. Instead of canceling the embed, Lt. Col. Rick Long came through with an agreement to let us inside the super-secret Combat Operations Center, or COC, essentially the war room where the Marine officers managed their troops and tanks and aircraft. Because we would be privy to classified information about everything from troop locations to future missions, we signed a specially drafted contract of sorts, beyond the normal embed rules, subjecting our stories to security review.
With that, suddenly the gates were open. Every day for the next four weeks, we sat inside the COC--it moved into Iraq soon after the fighting began--witnesses to war in a way few if any reporters ever had been in modern times. It would be like sitting in on the White House Situation Room during a crisis or sneaking into the palace during an international summit meeting. We weren't being told what happened after the fact--we were watching it play out in front of us.
The first night of the war, we heard the same initial reports that the top commanders did from the first units crashing across the border--about the reconnaissance mission that had to be scrubbed because of poor visibility, about the first engagement with Iraqi tanks that left the enemy armor ablaze, about the crash of a helicopter ferrying troops involved in a strike on oil facilities along the Persian Gulf. We saw the satellite imagery of the burning oil wells and watched the computer displays as the blue symbols moved rapidly against the red ones even before the red ones knew what was happening. There were even blue symbols inside Baghdad from the start, representing Special Forces operations.
This was the ultimate fly-on-the-wall access journalists always seek and so rarely obtain. We weren't sitting in a briefing room begging for scraps; we were in the war room overwhelmed by a tidal wave of information. One night we watched live video from a Hunter reconnaissance plane showing a convoy of Iraqi artillery pieces advancing out of Baghdad under cover of darkness. Lt. Col. David Pere, the senior watch officer and a particularly quotable, exuberant Tom Cruise look-alike, called out grid coordinates every time he saw a target on the screen. Another officer passed them along by telephone or even via the Internet. Within minutes, the truck on the screen would disappear in a giant white flash that momentarily blinded the Hunter's night-vision camera, and cheers would erupt in the COC. "Burn, baby, burn!" one officer called out.
On another afternoon, we watched as Marine commanders at their camp in the Iraqi desert were confronted with reports that a missile armed with chemicals was aimed at their rear base in Kuwait and could launch at any minute. The Marines scrambled planes to bomb the missile launcher before it could take off. But suddenly the chemical weapons experts in the COC spoke up--they had analyzed the wind patterns and concluded that bombing the missile would cause up to 4,000 civilian casualties. Grim-faced, the Marine commanders had no choice but to scrub the airstrike; their friends back in Kuwait, decked out in their chemical protection suits, would have to ride out an attack if it came. Fortunately, it proved to be a false alarm; the missile was not loaded with chemicals after all.
That actually represented a strange downside, one rarely experienced by journalists--too much information. Because we were there as reports came in raw and unprocessed, we went through a roller coaster of false alarms. The military commanders who always used to tell us that initial reports are nearly always wrong turn out to be right. Day after day, we watched as the Marines received tips that their troops had found anthrax or a major chemical weapons stash or Saddam Hussein's body, all later proven false. On maybe a half-dozen occasions, we watched them kill one of Hussein's cousins, the notorious Ali Hassan Majeed, better known as "Chemical Ali" for his role in gassing the Kurds, only to discover new reports of him alive somewhere else. "I thought we killed that bad boy. I killed that one on Day One," Pere said one night when told there was an opportunity to strike Majeed. Told Majeed had survived, Pere sighed. "Okay, let's kill him again."
With access to all this classified information, we were leery of the security review. Submitting stories to a military censor goes against every journalistic grain, and rightly so. And yet for once it worked out surprisingly well. Most nights around midnight, Lt. Col. George Smith, one of the top war planners for the Marines in Iraq, would read our stories. If he wasn't available, Long would. They might ask that we take out a particular location of a unit or delete a radio call sign that they wanted to keep secret, but they were incredibly professional and made no substantive changes to the files we sent in.
Just once did we get into a debate about something they would not let us report yet, at the very end when Marines were heading to Tikrit to wipe out the last vestiges of Hussein's loyalists. Even though it was being reported by CNN, the Web sites of the New York Times and the Washington Post, and the Associated Press--all quoting on the record a U.S. Central Command spokesman and the general actually leading the force--a top Marine commander at our camp deemed that attack a future operation and ordered Long not to let us report it based on our interviews in the COC. It was patently ridiculous, and to his credit Long fought for us. But in the end there was nothing we could do, so we all sent in stories quoting the Centcom spokesman and the general instead of the Marines we had interviewed.
That incident illustrates the pitfalls of the embedding process. In the end, it comes down to the goodwill of people on both sides. While our experience, thanks to Long, Smith, Pere and the others, turned out to be fruitful for our publications and readers, other reporters were frustrated at being assigned to units that either did not have much of a role in the war or were led by commanders who disliked the media. Although officers on the scene generally tried to be flexible in allowing reporters some room to move around, the system set up by the Pentagon was still too rigid in keeping reporters pinned to a single unit for the duration of the war. The Pentagon also tried too hard to keep control of the process, dictating from their cushy desks in Washington how it should work to the military officers in the field who had other ideas based on practical experience.
Still, when the inevitable panel discussions begin examining whether embedding was good or not, count me in the positive column. To be sure, our experience with the Marines showed that embedding can work, not necessarily that it will, and there are plenty of wrinkles to iron out. But the arguments against embedding seem to ignore reality. The choice is not between embedding and complete freedom to do what we want on the battlefield as we did in Vietnam. The choice is between embedding and having no real access, as was the case in Grenada, Kuwait and Afghanistan.
In covering the war in Afghanistan, for instance, I went six months without ever speaking to an American soldier. We were shut out, leaving readers with only part of the story and, in my view, leaving journalists at greater risk as they roamed around the war zone without any military cooperation. In Iraq this time, journalists died as they did in Afghanistan, but few of the casualties had been embedded. And the military was far more willing to help those independent journalists in dangerous situations than they were in Afghanistan.
One night in Gardez, south of Kabul, during Operation Anaconda, U.S. soldiers refused to let a few of us into their base even though we had been shelled moments earlier trying to leave (see "On Their Own," May 2002). During the early days of the Iraq war, I got a call saying that a friend from that Afghan quartet, Scott Johnson of Newsweek, had gotten in trouble again. He was traveling with three other journalists on their own when they were ambushed by Iraqis; Johnson's car flipped over and he was presumed dead, while the others were literally running from Iraqi gunmen as they used their Thuraya satellite phones to call for help. I ran to find Capt. David Romley in the COC, and he and others there went out of their way to get hold of Army troops in the area to search for the journalists. In the end, they found all four, miraculously all alive, including Johnson, who had survived the crash and kicked out the broken windshield to escape.
Does that mean we should not have journalists traveling on their own in war zones? Of course not. The embed-versus-unilateral debate is a false construct. It presumes that one is better than the other. In fact, each has its strengths and weaknesses, and the reader is best served by having both. The coverage was richer because embedded reporters were able to go places with the military and see things with their own eyes, and because unilateral reporters were able to talk to Iraqis and search out stories their colleagues tied to fast-moving military units invariably would miss.
The biggest danger is that some of our unilateral compatriots go too far, particularly television correspondents trying to compete with the vivid footage coming from their embedded colleagues and therefore taking ridiculous chances for the bragging rights of, say, entering Tikrit before U.S. forces. This adds little of journalistic value and creates peer pressure on other journalists to do similarly reckless things for no good reason.
Some may argue that to embed is to get in bed with the military, but experience did not bear that out. True, too often some journalists referred to "we" and "us" as if they were the ones advancing on Baghdad. Yet every journalist spends as much time as possible with sources, whether it's a campaign correspondent drinking with political consultants in the hotel bar in Manchester, New Hampshire, or a crime reporter hanging out at the precinct house with the cops. When it comes to writing their copy, they learn to screen out the personal relations that develop, or they are not successful. Embedding represents a more intense variation of that phenomenon, obviously, as soldiers and journalists share the same foxholes under fire.
Stories from the field, though, showed that embedded reporters were not pulling punches: The Post's William Branigin was on the scene when Army soldiers opened fire on a van and killed 10 civilians, even quoting an officer shouting at his men seemingly in vain to get them to fire warning shots more quickly. Mark Franchetti of the Sunday Times of London wrote a horrific account of Marines shooting up civilians trying to flee Nasiriya out of the fear that some of them might have been Saddam's Fedayeen paramilitary fighters. "One man's body was still in flames," Franchetti wrote. "It gave out a hissing sound. Tucked away in his breast pocket, thick wads of banknotes were turning to ashes. His savings, perhaps. Down the road, a little girl, no older than five and dressed in a pretty orange and gold dress, lay dead in a ditch next to the body of a man who may have been her father. Half his head was missing."
Even at our command camp, far more removed from the frontline action, the military was not thrilled with the stories we wrote quoting injured Marines brought back for medical treatment describing Nasiriya as a "turkey shoot" in which they were the sacrificial birds. Nor were the higher-ups happy that two of us managed to talk our way onto the transport plane evacuating seven prisoners of war from Iraq to Kuwait.
But the change in relationship has been a healthy one. Instead of automatic mistrust, now perhaps we understand each other just a bit better. Instead of assuming the worst, now perhaps we'll give each other a chance. A generation of reporters and soldiers who grew up deeply cynical about each other after Vietnam has built a more normal dynamic. After weeks of becoming accustomed to our presence in the COC, Pere looked up one day and realized we were there during a particularly sensitive classified discussion. "When did we become friends?" he asked in astonishment.
If not friends, at least associates with some respect for each other's job. Even our prickly introduction to the senior officer who threatened to excise part of our anatomy if we ever used his information in print eventually gave way to a remarkably normal source-journalist interaction. By the end of our time there, he was stopping by to see us every day or two and chatting casually. One day he wanted to know if sometime we might quote him by name.