- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 1, 2012

President Obama’s trip to Afghanistan on Tuesday was kept secret, sort of, by White House officials and media organizations traveling with him.

Mr. Obama departed Andrews Air Force base in Maryland on Air Force One just after midnight Monday, but U.S. media organizations got no official word from the White House about the trip until 3:03 p.m. Tuesday, when the first “pool report” from journalists traveling with the president was emailed to the media.

The White House insisted that the news be embargoed until the president’s plane landed due to security concerns.

Some journalism professionals question the need for such caution, as well as the media’s complicity.

“I think it’s overreacting and being overly secretive,” said Stephen Ward, director of the Center for Journalism Ethics at the University of Wisconsin. “You [journalists] shouldn’t be following the wishes of the White House unless there is a clear, present danger to the president in reporting it. I’m not a security expert, but I’d have to be persuaded that simply you reporting that he’s on his way, or even has landed, would jeopardize his safety.”

For roughly 15 hours, most news organizations weren’t reporting on the president’s whereabouts. But some did.

Xinhua, the Chinese state-run news agency, reported Tuesday morning that Mr. Obama was traveling to Afghanistan. The New York Post, citing a report by Afghanistan’s TOLOnews at 9:19 a.m., posted a report online Tuesday morning that Mr. Obama was already in that country for a meeting with Afghan President Hamid Karzai. That turned out to be premature by about six hours, and White House officials issued denials that the president was “in” Afghanistan. The Post eventually took the report off its website.

White House officials told The Washington Times after 11 a.m. Tuesday that Mr. Obama was not in Afghanistan, but they would not answer questions about whether he was en route.

The Drudge Report began linking to stories about the president’s trip hours before the White House announced it.

The White House press secretary’s office put out a schedule for the president that was misleading, telling the media that Mr. Obama would be holding closed meetings in the Oval Office all day Tuesday.

All of the presidential trips to Iraq and Afghanistan over the last decade were conducted under a similar veil of secrecy, although this one seemed to stretch on longer into the arrival day, said Richard Benedetto, a former White House reporter for USA Today and journalism professor at American University.

More interesting than the secrecy is the timing of the trip, which was clearly designed to focus attention on the president’s role in approving the raid that killed Osama bin Laden exactly one year ago rather than the recent spate of violence and setbacks in the war in Afghanistan, he said.

“The Obama administration does nothing by accident,” Mr. Benedetto said. “The timing of the anniversary of Osama bin Laden’s death is designed to put an exclamation point on this … ” Mr. Benedetto said. “Had he gone at any other time than this there would be a lot more reporting on the progress in Afghanistan. There is going to be reporting on the progress in Afghanistan, but it will also be watered down because of [the anniversary].”

In the digital age, with so many news outlets and so many methods of reporting the news, observers say the embargo system should be revisited.

“It’s going to get out anyway, and then what you’ve got is a bunch of rumor and sort of unreliable information,” Mr. Ward said. “At the same time, the U.S. media are behind the story, which is very odd. I think in this Internet age, this type of embargo only plays against certain members of the media. And others get to play free ball.”