November 1, 1999
hen it comes to media relations, no federal organization has a bigger challenge than the Pentagon. Even in peacetime, the Defense Department is a huge, secretive, enormously complicated organization. And when America goes to war, the military's decisions about how much and what type of information to release to reporters can literally be matters of life and death.
But as defense reporter (and Government Executive contributing editor) James Kitfield noted in a recent issue of National Journal, the NATO military action in Kosovo and Yugoslavia earlier this year exposed a gaping rift between the Pentagon and the people assigned to cover it.
"If, as has been said, the first casualty of any war is truth, the first casualty of war in the Information Age may prove to be the trust that sustains the relationship between those who fight America's wars and those who report on wars," Kitfield wrote.
From the beginning of the allied effort in the Balkans, reporters complained that the military was clamping down on information. "Two weeks into the allied air campaign against Serb forces, U.S. and NATO military officials have not presented a complete picture of the damage inflicted nor how much more will be required to make Belgrade agree to allied demands," reported Andrea Stone in USA Today on April 8. "The lack of specifics has frustrated military analysts and journalists, who argue that the public needs such information to judge whether the operation was succeeding."
Pentagon officials were unapologetic about holding back critical information. "We have adopted a more restrictive policy than in the past," said Pentagon spokesman Kenneth Bacon in early April. "We now live in an era where information is made instantly available to the enemy. We know that they watch television. We know that they are on the Internet. We know that they have cell phones. They are watching planes take off from airports all across Europe, and they can calculate the time it takes them to get to their targets, and they can calibrate their air defenses. So we want to give the enemy as little information as we can in order to help them with their own defenses against the attacks."
The result is that DoD officials took a much more cautious approach to releasing information than in past conflicts, even those as recent as the Persian Gulf War. During that effort, Government Executive, for example, received a great deal of assistance from the Pentagon in putting together a special issue on the logistics challenge of preparing for the conflict. Everyone from front-line troops to employees of the Defense Personnel Support Center in Philadelphia who worked overtime to sew desert fatigues were made available for interviews.
By contrast, very few stories of war heroes surfaced during the Balkans conflict. Part of the reason was a Pentagon policy on withholding the names of pilots flying missions in the region, implemented in the wake of reports that pilots' families had received threatening e-mail messages. The "no-name policy" really hampered reporters, USA Today defense reporter Steve Komarow told Kitfield. He contrasted the situation with the coverage of downed pilot Scott O'Grady during the Bosnian conflict, when reporters turned both O'Grady and his rescuers into heroes.
Still, it wasn't as though the United States and its NATO allies put the clamps on all information during the war. In a transcript of a postwar speech obtained by Kitfield, chief NATO spokesman Jamie Shea boasts of the alliance's efforts to "occupy the media space" by blanketing reporters with the kind of information military leaders wanted covered.
"We created a situation in which nobody in the world who was a regular TV-watcher could escape the NATO message," Shea said. "It was essential to keep the media permanently occupied and supplied with fresh information to report on. That way, they are less inclined to go in search of critical stories."
Indeed, some military analysts argued early in the war that NATO was giving out far too much information. In a March 30 story, Boston Globe correspondent Colum Lynch quoted several analysts warning that the United States and NATO had allowed reporters to publish and broadcast critical military information, imperiling the war effort. Lynch cited a Reuters news service report on March 29 noting that "32 fully armed F-16s, F-15s and F-18s soared into the sky" from Aviano air base in Italy toward the Balkans.
The truth is, though, that very little information leaked out that the military didn't want reported. In the age of the 24-hour news cycle created by the explosion of cable news channels and Internet sites, the Pentagon and NATO were able to take advantage of the fact that news organizations needed new headlines constantly, and had little time for analysis, interpretation or investigation.
The problem for the Pentagon now is that the media has caught on to the game. As Kitfield notes, defense reporters are aware, for example, that news organizations badly misrepresented the size and scope of the initial allied air assault on Serbian forces. In the next war, media manipulation may not be so easy.
Tom Shoop is executive editor of Government Executive.
November 1, 1999