School of Media and Communication

Phil Taylor's papers


Military operations, the media, and the public's right to know by R S Pritchard

Military operations, the media, and the public's right to know. (Mass Media).
USA Today (Magazine), March, 2002, by Robert S. Pritchard

THE SEPT. 11 heinous attack on the U.S. has heightened the American public's--indeed, the world's--interest in tracking current events and critically analyzing what is being reported to a degree arguably not seen since World War II. Already ubiquitous, 24/7 news coverage gives us a never-ending stream of news from reporters and "military experts." Barraged by all this information, one of the most important questions people want an answer to is "How credible is the information I am receiving?"

Sen. Hiram Warren Johnson, in a speech to the U.S. Senate in 1917, said, "The first casualty when war comes is truth." In the wake of the Vietnam War and Watergate, more than a few in America might agree with him. Many Americans are conditioned to question the credibility of the information they receive from their government. While Johnson's statement makes a nice bumper sticker, nothing could be further from the truth with regard to how the military supplies information about its operations today.

It is true most journalists think the Department of Defense is too restrictive about what it releases, but it is, and has been for some time, guided by its "Principles of Information." A quick excerpt of the pertinent sections of the DoD's policy on the release of information, taken directly from its website, provides an important foundation for discussion:

"It is Department of Defense policy to make available timely and accurate information so that the public, the Congress, and the news media may assess and understand the facts about national security and defense strategy. Requests for information from organizations and private citizens shall be answered quickly."

In carrying out that DoD policy, the following principles of information shall apply:

"Information shall be made fully and readily available, consistent with statutory requirements, unless its release is precluded by national security constraints or valid statutory mandates or exceptions. The Freedom of Information Act will be supported in both letter and spirit.

"Information will not be classified or otherwise withheld to protect the Government from criticism or embarrassment.

"Information shall be withheld when disclosure would adversely affect national security, threaten the safety or privacy of U.S. Government personnel or their families, violate the privacy of the citizens of the United States, or be contrary to law."

Military practitioners use the shorthand "Maximum disclosure--minimum delay" to describe these principles. For instance, the Creel Committee, created by Pres. Woodrow Wilson during World War I, mounted an impressive effort to mobilize public opinion in support of the war effort. During World War II, the Office of War Information conveyed the message of the U.S. at home and abroad. Part of Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower's success and popularity following World War II derived from his dealings with the press. He and his staff routinely briefed reporters on highly confidential information about troop movements and battle strategies. It is a testament to his relations with and trust in those reporters and the high regard in which they obviously held him that neither U.S. interests nor American troops were compromised by news reports.

The rules changed in Vietnam, though. The Johnson Administration, and particularly the Nixon Administration, began to obfuscate routinely when providing information on military operations to the American public. As the nation became more deeply involved in that conflict and unrest grew at home, the White House issued press guidance intended to shield the president and his staff from "unfortunate developments that might occur in the field." They also restricted those who could provide detailed comments on the tactical situation to certain members of the Department of Defense and the Military Assistance Command. This political pressure on our military leaders led to more than a few occasions when the obfuscation crossed the line into downright lying.

Then Watergate came along to, as one newspaper editor stated in an editorial, "remind us that not only will some public officials lie, but they'll break the law if it suits their purposes." The cynicism of reporters and citizens alike toward the government during this period was absolute and would ultimately lead to many changes in the way information is provided to the public. First, relations between the military and the media would be strained to the breaking point.

Tensions between the military and the media reached a crescendo between 1983 and 1991, as both sides struggled to figure out how to report on operations in Grenada (1983), Panama (1989), and the Persian Gulf (1991). Adm. William P. Lawrence, U.S. Navy (ret.), and Milwaukee Journal reporter Frank Aukofer wrote about this relationship between the media and the military in a 1995 work entitled America's Team: The Odd Couple. In the introduction to this seminal research effort, they noted that each of these military actions "led to bitter complaints by the news media that the military had completely shut out news coverage (Grenada), needlessly delayed a press pool it had helped set up (Panama), or stifled journalists through censorship, delays and denial of access (Desert Storm)."

Leaders of both institutions recognized that the relationship was broken and they ended months of discussion on the subject with the Department of Defense publishing its Principles of Information and codifying nine principles for news media coverage together for the first time in a 1992 DoD Directive. That directive has been updated several times since, but not one letter of the original principles has ever changed. The directive carries the full weight of Title 10, United States Code, and is and has been strictly adhered to by both public affairs personnel and military leadership.

So, while mistakes have been made, they have also been corrected. Beyond the imagination of some conspiracy theorists, the military is bound by and committed to a standard of candor in its public dissemination of information that requires the maximum disclosure of information with a minimum of delay.

Post-Sept. 11

Since the world has so changed as a result of the events of Sept. 11, how can we be sure the DoD is still adhering to those principles? How do we know that they haven't backslid into the Nixon years?

A glimpse into the Navy's handling of its information policies in this new type of warfare is instructive on this point. Based on the author's extensive command experience, the military services differ very little in the execution of their information policies, especially when conducting joint or combined operations and when the basic information policy is driven from the top.

In a series of e-mails in the days and weeks following the attack on the Pentagon and the World Trade Center, the Navy's Chief of Information clearly identified what was different about this war than any previous conflict. Adjustments were being made in our nation's military public affairs policies because, as he said, "terrorists are different kinds of adversaries than the military forces of nations. Even small, poor dictatorships still maintain a significant intelligence apparatus. Terrorist networks rely heavily on 24-hour international news television and other open source information for situational awareness and feedback." Far from repudiating the DoD Principles of Information, these adjustments were clearly the direct action required to complicate the enemy's targeting picture and intelligence gathering efforts.

Lessons were being learned and relearned on a myriad of subjects, including embarking media in a war zone, addressing ship movements, and the safety and security of service members and their families. Finding a way to get journalists out on frontline ships and providing tangible facts about what they were doing without giving away critical operational details called for "out-of-the-box" thinking by the military and journalists alike. The same was true for detailing force deployments. Moreover, the longtime practice of identifying service members by name and hometown suddenly made them and their families potential targets for terrorists.

With the enemy's attack on our homeland, even telling the Navy's story in the local community received scrutiny. As its Deputy Chief of Information pointed out in another series of e-mails to the Navy public affairs community, "we must balance force protection concerns with the continued (and perhaps increased) need to demonstrate to the American public the professionalism and readiness of our people and forces."

To some extent, the Department of Defense's umbrella information policy drove this evolution of the Navy's information policy. Designed to "define lanes" (i.e., who can say or speak to what), the DoD's public affairs policy in this war reserves exclusively for the Defense Department the release of all photographs and news concerning casualties, reserve call-ups, and troop deployments.

While protecting operational and intelligence information, the DoD nonetheless understood the importance of providing as much information as possible. The DoD's policy provides commanders great latitude to discuss certain nonthreatening aspects of the conflict, such as humanitarian operations, family and civil support operations, and unit preparedness. Commanders are also permitted to embed media if the units deployed are involved in strictly humanitarian support operations.

This innovation and search for ways to accommodate the media's desire for information started early in this conflict and continues apace. Both the Secretary of Defense and the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs have held meetings with the Pentagon Press Corps. Their discussions have been lively at times, and both sides have attempted to think out of the box.

Future guidelines

The government is doing all it can to be forthcoming with its information, while dealing at the same time with the specter of a new enemy--one which uses the technology and competition of 24/7 reporting as a primary intelligence resource. However, what about the future of the public's "right to know"?

We will see a continued reference to sources by first name or nickname only. The debate over this actually began during the Gulf War as pilots reported their families were being harassed because the fliers' names appeared in public. The current use of first name or call sign/nickname will continue, unless the individual quoted is a commanding officer or battle group commander. Even then, we may still only see a source referred to as "the Admiral" or by initials. Does this change the credibility of the information offered? In this author's book, the answer is no!

There will be a reduced flow of information on troop movements. From the anecdotal evidence of the e-mail series briefly described above and the DoD guidance, it is apparent we will know when forces are moving, but not their destination or intent. Because our adversary uses international news sources as an intelligence-gathering network, this would seem prudent. We must make it harder on our enemies to gather information if we are going to be successful in this war. Does it really matter to us whether we know exactly where a unit is bound, or simply that it is going where it can take part in this war against terrorism?

We will see fewer operational details about bomb damage assessment. Everybody wants to know whether our actions against the enemy have been effective or not. However, providing exquisitely clear evidence of the effectiveness of our weapons furnishes the enemy with the means of protecting themselves or lessening the effectiveness of our weapons. We have seen some pictures assessing bomb damage on terrorist camps in Afghanistan, but that will be the exception rather than the rule.

When the enemy claims we have hit innocent women and children, our responses will be generic, but truthful. Unless the claims represent such a substantial threat that the coalition is likely to collapse, the government will not provide specific information to rebut any such claims and thus provide substantial bomb damage assessment to the enemy. If the threat to the coalition is severe, the military will be exceptionally forthcoming and the evidence will be compelling. As with the experience during Operation Northern Watch, should American leaders mess up, they will rapidly and completely admit to the mistake. The nation's international credibility will demand no less of a response.

The media will continue to be held to an even higher standard of accountability by the American public. The public will not accept slipshod journalism, nor will it tolerate compromises of national security. That is not likely to change in the foreseeable future. Most recent opinion polls show the public is satisfied with the level of detail our government is providing. This will be the conflict the media needs to regain its credibility with the American public. With their understanding of the new nature of the enemy and their powerful contribution, the media can rapidly regain ground lost by critically analyzing information given it by sources outside the U.S. government. Since the Vietnam War, the media has reacted cynically to information provided by its own government, sometimes with good reason, but has tended to confer greater credibility on information received from the opposition. This is a new era, though, and it will not be enough for the media to be appearing to come off as simply "fair and unbiased." The media must use all its analytical skills--and they are considerable--to put things into context for the public. U.S. media, in particular, will need to label propaganda espoused by the enemy as such or risk losing its credibility altogether. Finally, the media needs to continue to devise ways of covering this conflict while protecting operational and intelligence information. Innovation should not be the sole province of the Department of Defense.

This is a critical time for America. How we respond will define us for generations to come. With regard to the public's "right to know," it is important to remember two things, First, military public affairs efforts are guided by the strict Principles of Information, which are the result of decades of attempts at meeting the media's--and hence the public's--need for information, balanced against the government's ability to protect its people and operational plans. Second, while we are rethinking our conventional wisdom on the military and information fronts, military public affairs professionals are still focused on providing accurate and factual information to the American public via the press. The war on terrorism has changed the face of some of the information provided, but has not changed the goals of the military personnel charged with informing the American public.

Robert S. Pritchard, assistant professor of journalism, Ball State University, Muncie, Ind., served as Director of Public Affairs for the U.S. European Command and spent 23 years as a U.S. Navy public affairs specialist.

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