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Covering an Unconventional War

By Jim Garamone
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, Nov. 9, 2001 – An unconventional war requires unconventional methods of covering it.

Since those hijacked airliners slammed into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon Sept. 11, the United States has been fighting a foe far different from any it has confronted before. The old way of fighting will not be effective against this foe. Nor will the old way of covering wars be effective for the press either.

This was the conclusion Pentagon officials and news chiefs reached at "Coverage of the War on Terrorism," a Brookings Institution seminar here Nov. 8.

Getting the news to the American people is important to the Pentagon. "The support of the American people (for this war) is crucial," said Pentagon spokeswoman Torie Clarke. "We'll lose it if we're not straight with them."

Clarke, assistant secretary of defense for public affairs, asked the Brookings Institution to sponsor the event. She said she wanted the advice so the military and the media can work together to get out the facts of the conflict.

Chuck Lewis, of the Hearst organization, said it was important to have these discussions "before small problems turn into big ones." He started the ball rolling in the seminar by saying access to U.S. ground units in the theater has been limited. He said the excuse -- host-nation sensibilities -- is reminiscent of Desert Storm and suggested there must be a way to cover American troops in Central Asia.

Rear Adm. Craig Quigley, Clarke's deputy, said he looks on the coverage situation as a math equation with two variables: operational security and host-nation sensitivities.

In some cases, the United States may not have an operational security problem, he said, but the host nation may have concerns. Coverage is difficult under such circumstances.

In other cases, he continued, the host nation may be fine with coverage, but U.S. commanders have security concerns. Again, coverage is difficult.

"We generally do not have an operational security issue," Quigley said. The American press would not knowingly print or broadcast information that could endanger U.S. troops, he said.

But host-nation sensitivities are a factor. Clarke said her recent trip through Central Asia pointed out these problems. She said all the countries of the region agree that terrorism needs to be addressed, but all the countries have problems with minorities that sympathize with the Taliban.

While they will cooperate with the United States in the war, they would rather not have their contributions flashed around the world. Clarke said the Pentagon is consulting with coalition partners to try to expand the scope of coverage.

This unconventional war features unconventional warriors. U.S. special operations forces are carrying much of the battle. They are also secret organizations. Army Col. Bill Darley, public affairs officer at U.S. Special Operations Command, said there are two types of operations: white and black. The raid in Afghanistan was an example of a "white" operation. He said press coverage of operations like that are possible though difficult. However, he said, coverage right now is impossible.

Finally, a press representative argued the basic reason for limiting coverage is that the military simply doesn't want the press cluttering up the battlefield. He said there is no benefit to a military officer cooperating with the press.

"If the assistant secretary of defense back in Washington tells (an officer) to cooperate with the press and a three- star says don't, (the officer) is going to listen to the person filling out his fitness report," the man said.

Read Adm. Steve Pietropaoli, Navy chief of information, said most senior military officers today are used to interacting with the press. He said they understand the necessity of working with the media and the benefits that accrue from that interaction in increased public support.

Clarke ended the conference by saying Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld also believes communicating to the American people through the press is important.

"The secretary devotes a lot of time to press relations," she said. "He understands the support of the American people for a conflict that will be long and sustained and difficult is critical."

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