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Deputy Assistant Secretary Whitman Interview with the Christian Science Monitor

Presenters: Bryan Whitman, DASD PA (Media Operations)
April 18, 2003

(Interview with Liz Marlantes, Christian Science Monitor)


Q:  What I am working on is essentially is a look back at how the embedding process went now that more and more reporters are kind of heading home and able to digest their experience a little bit.  I’m specifically sort of interested in both how it went and what impact this might have on this revolving relationship between the military and media in the future and so first of all I guess I just want to get your thoughts from the Department of Defense perspective.   How successful the program was, whether there is anything you would do differently in retrospect that sort of thing?


Whitman:  First, I guess you have to ask yourself what is the measurement that you want to use to determine success and I think there are a lot of different aspects of this that you can look at to make that kind of determination. One would be from a reporter’s perspective whether or not they had sufficient access to be able to cover the conflict and whether or not they felt that the ground rules were appropriate and not constraining their ability to report from the field.  And that one I think is best answered by the reporters that were out there. 


Another way to measure it would be whether or not from the military side, having the reporters out there in any way compromised their operations, jeopardized the success of any operation or endangered any of their personnel.  And I would say that the initial feedback is that was not a problem.  If you look at one of our objectives, the third one, if you look one of our objectives which was to really try to counter all the misinformation that might take place on the battlefield because Saddam Hussein was a practiced liar and one who used denial and deception to try deceive the international community as to what was really going on in his country, having trained objective observers, which I guess is a pretty good definition of reporters out there, being right alongside our forces in the field and being able to take first hand accounts of what was occurring, I think that objective was probably met and I think there are some examples that come to my mind right away. 


Let’s just look at the one where you had a Fox News crew, I think it Greg Killey that was rolling down the streets of Baghdad simultaneously with the Minister of Information saying that they had repelled U.S. forces and there were not U.S. forces in Baghdad, and so here you had a very aggressive misinformation, disinformation campaign going on by the Iraqi regime but you had reporters out there able to actually report  in real time, in there real time at least in some cases, what was actually occurring. 


So from that perspective, it was successful, from the perspective of probably the most important one is, was it a success for the American people that were able to see, hear and read about U.S. forces engaged in combat and were they getting the information that they needed.  I think that at least from our perspective, you saw a tremendous amount of stories that came out, talked about, or showed you just how well trained, how well equipped, and how well led U.S. forces are.  I think it is inescapable to be out there with our forces in the field and not see the professionalism and the dedication, in particularly, in this conflict, the care that they took to preserve innocent life, to minimize collateral damage.  I think that was an important message that needed to reach not only the domestic audience here but, also a more skeptical international audience, whether it be European or Arab audience out there.  And as you know we embedded reporters from across the globe and not just U.S. reporters.


Q:  I’m curious.  When you were sort of designing this program or planning it, did you go back at all and look at sort of how previous wars were covered?  Was there any sense of like, well, you know, we want this be not quite like Vietnam maybe more like World War II.  Was there any looking back at what worked and what hasn’t worked in past wars?


Whitman:  Well, it is always hard to make comparisons I think between conflicts for a number of reasons.  One is every conflict is unique in its own right and different in terms of its mission, in terms of its location, and so it its hard to compare conflicts to conflict.  It is also hard because the technology, the new media and the business of reporting the news changes so dramatically from conflict to conflict.  Just since 1991 until 2003 look at how many technological advances have occurred and the ability to report in a very austere field environment real time television.  You didn’t have that in 1991.  The ability to file reports and photographs in their instantaneous time because of the prevalence of INMARSAT or Thuraya or any of your other satellite type devices that allowed you to have contact back to your bureaus and to your news organizations.  So, I find it difficult to use the past as a good barometer for the future usually in these things. 


We pretty much started with a blank sheet and said although we have had the recent Afganistan experience, which again, people said, well did you learn from Afganistan.  But Afganistan was so very different than what we were about to engage in Iraq that again, was not very useful in making comparisons.  What was useful was the dialogue that took place between the news organizations and the department and their desire, if there was a conflict, to want to cover this from the position of our front line troops out there.  That was their desire. That coupled with our desire to combat the misinformation, the disinformation that we knew would occur our there was something that made embedding attractive.  It also, we had a lot of confidence in not only our commanders but, our troops out there in the field and we knew that reporters that they got to see our troops up close, it would give them a new appreciation again for the professionalism and the care in which they executed these very dangerous and potentially lethal operations out there.  So I guess, back to the original question, did you use past conflicts?  Perhaps some, but for the most part, we said what is it that we need to do, given the type of conflict that we are going to be engaged in, and the global information environment that we find ourselves in and given the state of the news media today and the way that news is reported and the way that we knew the war would be covered.


Q:   The assignments, the way that the process worked, it was random, am I correct?  That reporters weren’t allowed to pick which unit they wanted to go with.  And I had some people comment to me that as opposed to say, in past wars, where it’s all about what relationship you make ahead of time and reporters would end up with (Inaudible.) relationships with certain commanders who would say well, come on with me, whereas this time the whole thing was sort of one big lottery and you’d wind up with people that you might not know.  I’m just wondering how that worked out, whether you heard back from any commander saying, oh gosh you stuck me with a real dud of a reporter or not having a pre-established relationship, how that worked out.


Whitman:  Well, I think there was a lot more structure to it than might have met the eye.  I made a decision early on that we weren’t going to deal with individual reporters, we were going to deal with news organizations and we were going to invite in news managers, bureau chiefs, editors into the process to help us decide who it is that they want to put out there in the field.  So embedding assignments, embedding opportunities were developed and then offered to news organizations and it was the news organizations who quite frankly are in the best position to then decide who it is that they want to go into each one of these embed assignments, because they know better their personnel and they know how they want to cover the conflict and so, we wanted to be partners with them in making those determinations.  We wanted to get out of the business of playing to favorite reporters or anything like that, what we wanted to do is make sure that at the commencement of hostilities, if there were going to be hostilities, at the commencement of hostilities we wanted to make sure that the right news organizations were in the right locations and with the right units to be able to report as broadly as they could, given the very nature of embedded reporting.


Q:  And were there any instances of units feeling like the reporter was not a positive presence in their mist?


Whitman:  I don’t know of any specifics like that, there were a couple of cases that you are aware of that were unilateral reporters met up with forces out on the battlefield that probably because they were not aware of the ground rules, reported on some things that ultimately required them leaving those units because of violations, which we would consider operational security.  With that many reporters out there, I’m sure that the range of relationships was probably very broad, or varied I should say, from very good to okay probably but, I have heard of no instances myself where there was a problem with respect to that.


Q:  There were no cases where with an embedded reporter where a commander said, hey look you’ve got to get this guy out of here, he is annoying my troops?


Whitman:  Not on that basis, there were a couple of instances with embedded reporters where there were ground rule violations and we had to deal with those the same way we did with unilaterals that were out in the battle space and were potentially compromising our operations.


Q:  Were they pulled out?


Whitman:  Yes


Q:  How many instances like that were there?  Do you know?  We are talking like 2 or 10.


Whitman:  A handful is all.  I don’t want to get into to many specifics.  Because just like the ones that did become known, these I do believe were instances in which the reporter or the photographer didn’t willfully violate the ground rules, and that they were mistakes, inadvertent mistakes, but even so, intentional or not, they required us to take action.


Q:  Did all of those instances involve television?


Whitman:  No


Q:  Some were print?


Whitman:  Some were print and some were still photography.


Q:  Oh, interesting.  Because it did seem to me that you talked about how this war really had a new media (Inaudible.) in some ways then previous wars with all this real time reporting and that strikes me as much greater risks that a reporter could violate rules in terms of revealing positions because its real time reporting.


Whitman:  Well, that’s right.  And that is why we had to come up with the parameters, the guidelines, the ground rules that would allow reporters to do their job as well as the military to accomplish their mission successfully.  And in most cases, the ground rules were designed not to prevent reporting on something but, perhaps in many in these instances, to delay information so that it wouldn’t compromise what they were doing at that time.


Q:  Can you talk a little bit about what you see as the current state of relations between the military and media.  There has been a lot of talk after Vietnam it went into sort of a tailspin and the military became very distrustful of the media and felt that the media was to blame for the loosing of that war and some people think that in resent years its been sort of on the upswing, been more positive and I’m just curious to get your sort of thought of where those relations stand right now and whether there is some distrust or and with this impact of the embedding experience on the future of that relationship?


Whitman:  Well that is an interesting question and I guess time will tell to a large extent.  We in the department are always looking to try to improve the relationship but, at the same time, I think there will always be a tension, a healthy tension that is necessary as good reporters that are trying to gain as much access and information as they can about any particular event or story or issue, have to deal with the military or this department which is charged with making sure that we provide as much information as we can but that we safeguard that information that goes to protecting national security.  So, is there always going to be a tension?  I think so, and I think that tension is healthy. 


The American people are counting on us to make sure that we don’t discuss or divulge information that’s going to compromise our national security, and reporters wouldn’t be doing their job if they weren’t pressing us right up to that line in order to provide information to the American people on what their Defense Department is doing.


Q:  One of the other things that often come up, is that in recent years, the military have moved to an all volunteer force, that there has been fewer and fewer reporters assigned to military beat to actually have any kind of military experience themselves in a way this experience of being embedded is almost like a crash course in military service.  I wonder if you see that having an impact on future military reporters’ ability to understand what is going on in terms of what they are reporting on?


Whitman:  I don’t see how it can’t have an impact.  This is an experience that more than 600 reporters have gone through for an extended period of time.  It wasn’t that long, but many of these individuals went to training.  Before they went, we trained 232 journalists in our own programs and a lot of them went through some civilian courses to get them trained up and then they spent anywhere from 4 to 6 to 8 weeks with units out in the field, learning what it is that a military organization does and like I said, I think its inescapable that they aren’t exposed to just how dedicated and how professional the United States military is and it gives them real insight, I think for many years to come and I think so what of an appreciation for what our military does on a daily basis to be prepared to fight and win the nations wars.


Q:  And I would assume, in some ways, might work the opposite way as well but that soldiers perhaps saw the plus side of journalism, the heroic side of journalism.  Journalists who were willing to put themselves in risky positions to get the story right.


Whitman:  I’d like to hope so to because our commanders out in the field, I think, our commanders today in the 21st century really do understand the importance and role of a free press and a democratic society but, now we have a large number of commanders and soldiers, sailors, Marines and airmen out there that have had much more direct exposure to reporters that are out there in the field with them, in a position to be able to see that they are willing to accept a certain amount of danger with them to bring these important stories and information back to the American people, and that they are hard working professionals just like they are, that they both have job to do on the battlefield and that they can both do it in harmony with each other and both accomplish their given missions.


Q:  In terms of the relatively high rate of journalist who died in this conflict, was that a surprise to you?  Obviously, I’m sure you were expecting some casualties, but I was wondering if you were surprised by how many or whether was that just something you were prepared for?


Whitman:  I don’t think I had in my mind any specific number of journalists that may be killed or injured in this conflict, I certainly knew and we all knew that this was going to be a dangerous situation to put reporters out there on the battlefield.  Reporters were going to go to cover this war one way or another because it was an important news event.  It goes again, to the value of embedding reporters, because there is a certain amount of protection that’s afforded when you are traveling with a U.S. military unit.  It is still dangerous.  We had two international journalists that were killed as a result of an Iraqi rocket that killed several American soldiers at the same time, so it is not without risk but, there is probably greater risk to those journalists that were roaming the battlefield that were putting themselves in a position that got them caught up between forces or put themselves in positions where they could potentially be used by Iraqi’s as shields or to create incidences like perhaps the Palestine Hotel incident where there were journalists that were in a building where Iraqis fired from and U.S. forces were, of course, needed to take defensive measures and return fired, in right of self defense, but in that process, some journalists got killed there too.  Killed and injured I should say.


Q:  Did you think that each side sort of took the full advantage of the situation?  In other words, as you were reading the press coverage did you think that they were using the access they had in the embedded experience to their full capacity or the best possible way or were there some missed opportunities that you saw?


Whitman:  I though the coverage was pretty phenomenal whether it be on TV, radio, or in the newspaper.  Just the quantity of still photographs that are out there, it’s going to take me weeks to just absorb all of the coverage that is out there.  I think that the journalist did a phenomenal job in covering the conflict from their very unique perspective, with that particular unit that they were with.  Again, the news organizations deserve a lot of credit for sending their best and brightest forward on these dangerous missions though too.  These are people with a lot of experience for the most part, that were willing to go into harm’s way.  They didn’t run into a lot of technical problems, they were professionals and they were able to get their product out and so I think what we saw was pretty comprehensive coverage from an embedded standpoint.


Q:  Did the military take full advantage of the situation of having reporters there?  Were there missed opportunities that you saw at all on that side?


Whitman:  Nothing comes to mind.  We are going to take a look at this, and do our own lessons learned, do an extensive after action review, to make sure that we capture what went right and what went wrong and how we might improve things in the future, but it is hard with well over 600 reporters out there reporting from every major combat unit that there were missed opportunities from and embedded standpoint.


Q:  What do you see as the future of this program?  One of the things that I have been wondering is whether this experience has set a new precedent where the press may be expecting this from now on, for future conflicts, that this may be offered to them and whether you have thought of this ahead of time as to what precedents this would set?  Then also for the families, one of the things that I’ve really noticed in talking to reporters who are embedded is that, they’ve all have just been flooded with emails the whole time they were over there, from families who were tracking their loved ones through the reporter.  I can image for military families not having this in the future would be a noticeable loss.


Whitman:  Well, I think that regardless of how we pursue it in the future, this experience will have its impact and I would like to think that from the initial success that I see in it that, we may have a good model for going forward but, again just like I commented on past conflicts not being terribly useful when we were preparing for this one.  I think every conflict is unique in its nature, in its mission and its purpose and each environment is potentially very different and so regardless of the lessons that we learned here, they’ll still have to be applied over whatever a future situation might be, to determine whether or not, or to what extent what we did in this conflict will be able to be repeated.


Q:  And you are not worried that you will have sort of set an expectation among journalists and or the public, that you might be disappointed if you didn’t offer that again?


Whitman:  I don’t know, that’s a tough one to answer because, I was so close to this that I certainly believed that this will have an extraordinary impact not only for the media but also for the military into the future but, before we really do the detailed lessons learned, I think I should be optimistically cautious with the way that I characterize it but, I think that by all accounts, at least, initially this have been very successful not only for the media, not only for the military but, also for the American that got to see their forces engaged in combat in a very up close and personal way.


Q:  Were you happy with the way it sort of ended?  There were some news reports recently that have suggested that a lot of reporters began jumping ship before the Pentagon was really ready for them to.  I’m just curious to get your take on how all this kind of ended or is ending?


Whitman:  I think that our concerns lie in again, making sure that there is a secure and safe environment and to some extent, those reporters that started to leave their units, that’s the primary concern is that we don’t create an environment where we put people in unnecessary danger.  And I think you have seen some examples where reporters did go off on their own and did kind of find themselves in some trouble.  Our contract with the news organizations was that once you embedded a reporter, you could keep that reporter in there for as long as you wanted to and when you felt that you no longer wanted to have your reporter embedded that we would try to get them back to an area where they could receive commercial transportation out as soon as it was tactically and logistically feasible.


Q:  There were reports that the whole thing kind of unraveled at the end in sort of a messy way.


Whitman:  I don’t see it that way, I think that there are still a large number of reporters that are out there with their units and as time goes on and the environment becomes more secure and freedom of movement becomes greater for civilians out there, that you’ll see other reporters coming in.  A lot of reporters are coming home because they have accomplished the mission that their news organization sent them over to do and so a lot of them returning, and I am seeing a lot of them come back to Washington actually too.


Q:  Thank you very much for taking the time to speak to me.  I really appreciated it and kudos to you.  It strikes me that it must have been an incredible bureaucratic challenge.


Whitman:  It was very ambitious, there is no doubt about that and it took the efforts of a lot of people not the least of which was the strong support of Secretary Rumsfeld and Chairman Myers for which if they did not get behind this program, there was no way that it would be anywhere near as successful as it was and for the innovation and insight of somebody like Victoria Clarke, my boss.  I was actually given the real privilege and opportunity to execute this program and I had a lot people from the press office here and the Pentagon to the people at the pointy end of the spear, like the Colonel Thomases and the Colonel Guy Shields that were out there in the fields that were getting reporters to their units as they would arrive into Kuwait.  It took a tremendous amount of effort on the part of a lot people, all the way from the top of the department to all the way to the public affairs officer at the division and field level that was getting them out to platoons and companies and battalions out there.


Q:  Was it originally your idea or Torie Clarke’s idea?


Whitman:  People ask that a lot.  This was something that developed over time, it evolved, it was in our discussions with news organizations and their desire to cover any potential conflict from the front lines.  It was a result of a series of discussions with reporters, bureau chiefs, the leadership here in the department.  It evolved over time but, I give credit to my boss Torie Clarke for having the insight and the persistence to continue to pursue it with the senior leadership here and I’m just very privileged to have had the opportunity to execute this.


Q:  Well, most reporters I’ve talked to felt it was very successful, so sounds like a very good job.


Whitman:  Well good.


Q:  Thank you very much.

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