Saturday, October 27, 2001 - 6:30 p.m.
(Interview with Howard Kurtz, CNN)
Kurtz: Welcome to Reliable Sources, where we turn a critical lens on the media. I'm Howard Kurtz. The press and the Pentagon are increasingly at odds as U.S. air strikes over Afghanistan continue. And the person caught in the middle is the Pentagon spokeswoman, Torie Clarke. We'll talk with Clarke in her first television interview since September 11, and we'll get the media perspective from two veteran defense correspondents. We spoke with Torie Clarke earlier about her role and whether the Defense Department is providing enough information to reporters about this new kind of war.
Kurtz: Torie Clarke, welcome.
Clarke: Thank you very much.
Kurtz: Journalists are writing over and over again that this is the most secretive military campaign in U.S. history and that getting information from you and your colleagues is like pulling teeth. What's your take?
Clarke: My take is, and I just brought a little evidence of it here, is that to the extent possible, we're putting out as much news and information as we possibly can about what is a very unconventional war. As Secretary Rumsfeld and the President have said repeatedly, there will be things in this war, from the military standpoint, that you'll see, there'll be things that you won't see, there'll be a fair amount of special operations activity, which by its very nature, you don't see. So it's very hard to cover.
But just before I came down today, I wanted to take a look at what we've done thus far since, say, September 11. And we really consider the first day of this war was September 11, when the World Trade Center and the Pentagon were attacked. And this is not a complete tally, but it's just a brief list of the number of news briefings that Secretary Rumsfeld and Chairman Myers have had at the Pentagon for everybody and anybody from the Press Corps. It's now close to about two dozen -- dozens of others who have come down to brief almost every single day for the last three or four weeks.
We have put out images, both maps that give a lot of definition about where the strikes are occurring, what kind of strikes, where the humanitarian relief is. We also put out, on a pretty regular basis, just about daily, images of what is actually happening over there on the ground, what is the result of the strikes -
Kurtz: But through all those briefings -- and you've certainly been on camera -- why the steady drumbeat of media dissatisfaction about the level information? Are reporters being whiny?
Clarke: One, I'd push back on you. I don't think there has been quite such a steady drumbeat. If you talk to reporters, the regular Pentagon Press Corps who cover the place day in and day out, the regulars -
Kurtz: They're not happy campers.
Clarke: Well, I think some of them are pretty happy campers; at least they come and tell me that. I think we're all getting used to the fact that this is a very, very unconventional war. What I'm struck by is that we have the same goals. We at the Pentagon, at the administration, want to put out as much news and information as we can, because we want the American people informed. The more informed they are, the more educated they are about what's going on, the more they'll be engaged and they'll support what is a very important effort. That's our goal.
The goal of the media, obviously, is to put out news and information. That's the business. So we have very similar goals. How we get there is the challenge.
Kurtz: Well, part of the goal of the media is to have more reporters out with the troops and not just on the aircraft carriers. Why has that not been possible?
Clarke: Well, as a matter of fact, we've had several dozen reporters and media outlets on aircraft carriers, we've had them in bombers, we've had them in strike aircraft, we have had them in countless places. And since October 7 -- and I continue to see reports every single day, in newspapers, on TV, reports from those very aircraft carriers. So they are getting a fair amount of access.
What's really hard to show, and that's where some of the frustration comes in, is the special operations activity. By its very nature, you don't get to see a lot of that. And we aren't going to do anything that is going to in any way compromise operational security. We're not going to do anything that is going to put some service member's life at risk.
Kurtz: And on that point, you came under fire, media fire that is, at a briefing this week after the Taliban had claimed that they had shot down a U.S. helicopter, denied by the Pentagon, and then you eventually revealed that the helicopter had not been shot down, but had been damaged. Let's take a look at that exchange.
Reporter: Why did it take so long for them to get this information? What does that say about the flow of information to the defense secretary and the chairman of the joint chiefs?
Clarke: It says that the people in the helicopter were focused on what's important, which was getting out of there. Secondly, what we're really focused on right now is the military operations, to go after the Taliban, to go after the terrorists, and this was not information that came forward until recently.
Kurtz: Could you have, should you have put out that information sooner about the damaged helicopter?
Clarke: Oh, in many instances, you want to try to get out the information faster. We can always communicate, probably, in a better, more efficient fashion. It's one of the common expressions around the Pentagon: ground truth is hard to come by. In that case, the operation was last Friday, it was the first night of the special operations, and a helicopter coming out of Afghanistan hit a barrier, lost some of the landing gear in the wheels, it got back safely to where it was going, which is what is important.
It wasn't until the following week, I think, Monday or Tuesday, that we all saw some images. We were talking to the folks at central command, trying to get the information. It wasn't the absolute priority. We knew our helicopters were back, we knew our people were safe, we know it was not the number one priority to find out exactly what that was.
Kurtz: But it feeds a perception that you're quick to put out good news, video of successful raids, and not so quick on the bad news.
Clarke: Oh, I can find you plenty of reporters who actually came to us a couple times and said, we're going to commend you. Because we'd been out there at the podium on several occasions, myself included, not only talking about things that have gone wrong, but showing images of things that have gone wrong. We've been quite forthcoming about that.
Kurtz: Your boss, Don Rumsfeld, was pretty outraged, or so he seemed, when word leaked about the first U.S. ground forces in Afghanistan. Now, the Washington Post reported the presence of U.S. ground forces a week ago Friday, but not the specifics of those first raids. And the Post says the Pentagon never asked them not to publish the story. Is that true?
Clarke: Well, what I'll tell you is we got lots of questions and inquiries days leading up to last Friday. What Secretary Rumsfeld was trying to do was underscore a message he's delivered before, that he considers the leaking, the trafficking in of classified information a very, very serious offense. He wasn't focused on any particular outlet, he wasn't focused on any particular story. He's had this concern, as he should, for some time, well before September 11. He just found an opportunity to underscore it again.
Kurtz: I'm told that CBS's David Martin held that story for some hours. So was there any unhappiness with CBS or NBC, or The Washington Post?
Clarke: You know, we were so busy on Friday. A bunch of us, with the secretary, were out at Whiteman Airforce Base, and then all night Friday night, we were spending a good bit of time preparing footage from the special operations activity that night to be shown in the Pentagon briefing room on Saturday morning. Which again, if you want to talk about access to this war, I have asked repeatedly, and most people come back to me and say, we have never before in history seen footage of special operations activity. We brought it back for the world to see, so we were focused on that. I honestly don't know what the sequence of stories was.
Kurtz: I raise the question about leaks because a lot of people have the impression that journalists are much more interested in scoops than they are about national security. There have been instances, I believe, this year, when the Pentagon has asked news organizations to hold back details that could jeopardize -- Is there any instance where a news organization has refused to do that?
Clarke: Not on my watch. I actually am one of the ones who goes out and repeatedly says, the overwhelming majority of the time, the media, especially the media we deal with, which is the Pentagon Press Corps, is extraordinarily responsible. And I have had reporters come to me on several occasions and say, I've gotten hold of this information, and here's what I'm thinking about doing: would this in any way compromise an operation; would this in any way put somebody's life at risk. And this has happened before September 11 as well.
And if we said yes, that would be of concern, they don't go with it. The overwhelming majority of the media, I believe, are extraordinarily responsible about this. And Secretary Rumsfeld's comments are always very carefully crafted to say he's talking about the men and women in government, for whom leaking classified information is a very, very serious offense. He always makes a point of specifying to whom he's speaking when he says that.
Kurtz: Understood. You're relatively new to the Pentagon culture, you've been in corporate-public relations, you've been in political campaigns. Have you found that there is among the military people you deal with a lingering distrust of the press, perhaps because of Vietnam?
Clarke: I wouldn't generalize that much. I think there are different people, both civilians and military. It's not just -- you know, we have the civilian and the military working there. I find that sometimes some of the civilians are the least eager, if you will, about working with the media. But what's really important is that the senior leadership, from Secretary Rumsfeld to Chairman Myers and the other senior leaders, with whom I work, understand how important it is. They understand that the main means -- that's why I go back to our conversion goals -- the main means of communicating with the American people is the media.
That's why we want to do it, that's why we do do it, that's why I lose sleep every night trying to figure out, how do I work with your colleagues in the media so we can get this news and information out without ever compromising an operation or ever putting somebody's life at risk.
Kurtz: Do you find at these briefings that you're involved in just about every day that there's an awful lot of journalistic impatience now about, why haven't we captured Osama bin Laden, why haven't we won this war yet; let's see some progress? Does that bother you at all?
Clarke: Actually, I think most people -- and again, I can talk primarily about the Pentagon press corps, I can talk primarily about what we sense, and feel, and hear from the American public that checks in with us pretty regularly. I think most of them understand this is a very unconventional war. It is going to be long, it is going to be sustained; it's not just about military operations. It's economic, it's diplomatic; it's financial. They understand it will be very hard. They understand that there will be casualties. They understand it's not like things we've seen, some of us have seen in the last 10, 20, 30 years. You're not going to see thousands of troops coursing across deserts, you're not going to see night after night of missiles in the air.
Kurtz: But journalists have been impatient.
Clarke: Well, maybe some of them. Again, I just talk about the ones that I deal with on a regular basis. I think they understand just how different this is. We're all getting used to that. I fully admit, we're all getting used to the fact that we're on new turf here, and we're trying to find the new rules of the road.
Kurtz: We've got about 20 seconds. You're caught between the two sides, the Pentagon and the press. What exactly is it that you like about this job?
Clarke: Oh, you're involved in something that is so important. I think this is one of the greatest challenges in the last 50, 60 years, and probably for the next 50, 60. And being involved in that, it's just a terrific honor.
Kurtz: Torie Clarke, thanks very much for joining us.
Clarke: Thank you.