- The Washington Times - Monday, October 22, 2001

Sept. 11 and the campaign against terrorism has raised once again the question of relations between the military and the media in regard to access and the provision of information on military activities. Pentagon officials met recently with Washington news bureau chiefs to begin discussing basic policies and ground rules.
The change in circumstances since our last major consideration of these issues Vietnam and the Persian Gulf war are on a substantial order of magnitude. In contrast to the relatively limited territory and numbers of participant nations then, more than 100 nations across all six continents are committed to the anti-terrorist coalition. Presumably the military will be active in several dozen of these where al Qaeda is reported to have cells.
Furthermore, the media has grown by several fold not just in the United States but in these coalition countries and has substantially improved technical capabilities, including the internet and practical real time satellite transmission.
Despite these changes internationalization, media growth and technical capabilities the standards for governing military-media relations can be found in our Vietnam-Gulf experience if we bear in mind two basic principles: The ultimate goal for the provision of information is the public, not the media; the purpose of security is to deny vital information to hostile forces, not the public. These basics tend to be forgotten in the heat of contention between the two and in the pressures that arise when there is any breach of security.
Vietnam was the ultimate open war correspondents were free to travel at will and communicate without formal censorship. The results were heavily criticized at times though the complaints, when analyzed, were not about the coverage of tactical military operations. In fact, when it came to actual combat, the media with remarkably few violations, observed a set of voluntary guidelines based on the long accepted American principle of not publishing information which might jeopardize either the outcome of an operation or the lives of combat troops.
With the Vietnam experience in mind, the military imposed much greater control on correspondents in the Gulf war through the use of mandatory pools, escort officers and pretransmission review of media materials. It was able to do so because it controlled access to the theater, transportation and communications.
In an agreement reached with the media after the Gulf war, the military promised fewer controls in future operations and said recently that this agreement will be observed in the anti-terrorism campaign. However, the nature of the anti-terrorist campaign presents issues that go far beyond the terms of that agreement.
Large unit combat operations are not really the problem. Correspondents accept the need for protecting tactical information and will abide voluntarily by ground rules worked out with the military. The real challenge to the military and the media will come in areas outside conventional military operations. In this protracted campaign, the overall situation will be much closer to the open war of Vietnam than the controlled war of the Gulf albeit on a much broader and more complicated scale.
The military is understandably reluctant to provide information on troop deployment and exercises, ship movements, air operations. Yet in the countries where these military elements are likely to be stationed, al Qaeda reportedly has cells and supporters. Those cells have eyes and ears and means of communication. It would be a grievous error to underestimate their ability to gather and evaluate information.
And there are other potential questions. What about host governments with different standards for security or different considerations in communicating an American troop presence to their own people; foreign media sometimes hostile with no responsibility for safeguarding American security; activities or revelations or leaks from other federal agencies that affect military operations? Does the U.S. media refrain from publication or broadcast when information has been made public by foreign officials or foreign media? Does our continued denial or lack of confirmation deny the information to the terrorists or simply deprive the American public?
The military and the media are going to have to work out the policies on these and many similar grey areas. Even here, when the responsible American media agree to abide by ground rules, what about the fringe media the internet purveyors, the sensationalists seeking to establish themselves. al Qaeda certainly will not be particular as to the source of its information.
Given these complications, some guidelines seem in order:
(1) The military will have to reduce security to a realistic minimum and then work to preserve it from within. The only firm protection for secure information is at the source. As for reports on troop, ship and air movements and commando operations overseas that can be seen or heard by al Qaeda or the foreign media, the only avenue available would seem to be the "no confirmation" route and that used only sparingly.
(2) To the extent possible, arrangements must be made with the appropriate officials in other countries to develop a consistent policy on provision of information. An information network may be necessary for continuing coordination.
(3) Despite any temptation, the military must avoid deception or dissembling because such efforts inevitably are uncovered and affect credibility. Credibility is critical in maintaining public support. Once lost, it is difficult to recover. Let other agencies handle the department of dirty tricks.
(4) The media also have responsibilities in this situation. The first is to assign qualified personnel to the task of covering the military. The second responsibility is to ensure that the competitive aspect of the media does not lead to violation of legitimate security concerns. And the third responsibility is to show restraint in solving the practical problems created by the numbers, the volume and the capabilities of the media today.
(5) In a situation this extensive and complicated, there are going to be periodic violations and perhaps a serious breach or two. Despite the pressures that these will create from both within and outside the government for tightening control of information, neither the military nor the media should succumb to such pressures. The reason is simple: It will not work.
Like it or not, unless the situation changes drastically and operations are reduced to a limited patch of land controlled by the military, this is going to be an open war. And that is what the military and the media should be ready to handle.

Barry Zortian is a partner in the government-relations firm of Alcalde & Fay and was in charge of media relations for the U.S. Mission in Saigon from 1964 to mid-1968.>

Copyright © 2018 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

The Washington Times Comment Policy

The Washington Times is switching its third-party commenting system from Disqus to Spot.IM. You will need to either create an account with Spot.im or if you wish to use your Disqus account look under the Conversation for the link "Have a Disqus Account?". Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.

 

Click to Read More

Click to Hide