Rumsfeld Speaks About Meeting the Press
By Jim Garamone
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Apr. 10, 2002 How does a major U.S. Cabinet official deal with the press and public while in the midst of a war?
That was the question at the heart of an April 10 interview Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld had with Marvin Kalb, reporter and executive director of Harvard's Shorenstein Center, in front of a roomful of newspaper editors.
The bottom line, according to the secretary, is that you don't lie. "I have never had any need to lie to the press or felt any desire to," he told Kalb. "What you have is your credibility, and that's the only thing that gives people and governments traction."
This is still true given the unprecedented war on terrorism the United States finds itself in. "There's no question that I don't answer things I don't want to answer," Rumsfeld said. He said he will not discuss future operations, intelligence matters or any kind of classified information.
These are prudent constraints, the secretary said. But he added he's never found it necessary "to actively tell something to the American people that's not true."
The war on terrorism cannot be fought without the help of nations around the world, and these nations often don't want their participation known. Rumsfeld said internal politics in some of those nations precludes any hint of cooperation with the United States.
"All we do is don't discuss it," he said. "We don't go out and say they are not there. We simply go about our business."
He said the United States needs the cooperation of these nations. It may come down to the fact that these nations have information or facilities the United States needs.
"(If) we've got a choice between accepting that arrangement and gaining the information we might need to catch terrorists and stop them from killing thousands more Americans, you bet your life we'd take it on that basis," he said. "But we won't go out and say something inaccurate. The reason is pretty simple: You lose so much more if, in fact, people cannot believe what you're saying."
Rumsfeld said the Defense Department has been open with the press. He said reporters have been "embedded" in Special Forces units, they've been placed aboard ships and planes and they've been given access to commanders and troops. He said reporters are restricted on how they identify service members and units, but they come away with "a clear understanding of what a wonderful job (the troops) are doing and what a difficult job they do."
Rumsfeld has briefed the Pentagon press more than 60 times since Sept. 11. He said the nature of press coverage has changed since he first came to Washington in 1957. He said the press corps is larger today and runs 24 hours a day, seven days a week. "Coping with their appetite (for news) is not an easy thing for government to do," he said.
He said the press has its job and the Defense Department has its. "Anything we can do to communicate through the press is probably useful," he said. The information helps Americans and those around the world understand what the United States is doing, why it's being done and what the goals of the government are, he said.
But, he said, there is tension between the press and government. "My impression of the press is that there's almost no level to which you can feed them that they will not want more," he said. "And, therefore, I expect a certain amount of unhappiness and unease, because, I mean, what's their goal? Their goal is to get into the paper and to get on the television and to see that that information out of the institution they happen to be covering gets out there. And some days it's a dry well, and some days I just smile and say, 'I don't know the answers,' or, 'we're not going to talk about that.'"
Rumsfeld spoke about countering terrorists' spin on events. Early in the war, Taliban spokesmen in Pakistan made all sorts of charges against the United States. The time difference between Pakistan and Washington was enough that the Taliban charges went unanswered for many hours. "What we do have to do is to see that we as an institution do an awful lot better job of dealing with the important kinds of information that are important to our success," he said.
"We can't just sit there and allow the press to report everything that Osama bin Laden is saying and everything the Taliban are saying and everything the terrorists are saying, and have it repeated and repeated and repeated, and not find a way to rebut it when it is not true," he said.