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Deputy Assistant Secretary Whitman Interview with NPR

Presenters: Bryan Whitman, DASD PA (Media Operations)
April 25, 2003
Q:  This is for a story we'll have on next week, kind of assessing the embedding experience in Iraq.  It seems to be assessed pretty positively.  We will have excerpts, cuts from this conversation in that story.  So unlike a lot of items on the program it's not to be an interview, per se. It won't appear as an interview.  But we've spoken with a couple of guys who were embedded and we'll talk with some retired military and media critics and whatever.

 

     The first thing I'd like to do, for notetaking purposes, really, is for you to describe for me accurately both your title and position and your relationship to the program of embedding reporters in Iraq.

 

     Whitman:  Sure.  I'm Bryan Whitman.  I'm the deputy assistant secretary for media operations. 

 

     I had the opportunity and the privilege to really execute this embedding program.  It was the product of a lot of different people that were working on it, but I am the person that's responsible for media operations here.

 

     Q:  In that case let's begin here.

 

     From the standpoint of the Department of Defense, what was the interest?  What was DoD's interest in the relationship with journalists in the war in Iraq?

 

     Whitman:  I think that there are a number of things that led us to conclude that embedding was something that we wanted to do and do it in a very aggressive way.

 

     I guess the first thing was that this is how reporters and their bosses, editors and bureau chiefs, had asked to be able to cover a conflict as it looked like we were leading up to one.  They wanted to cover it from alongside our troops in the field.

 

     We also knew, though, that our potential adversary at that time was a practiced liar, a person who used denial and deception and disinformation on a regular basis.  And we knew we would want to try to counter and mitigate some of the effects of that constant flow of disinformation. And what better way to do that than with trained observers, kind of the definition of a reporter, out there in the field, able to report in near real time everything that was occurring as opposed to giving any credibility or credence to what the Iraqi Defense Ministry might be putting out.

 

     Q:  So from your standpoint the situation you were trying to avoid was having either allegations of the wanton killing of civilians or massacres or striking at hospitals or schools, that coming from Iraq and not being answered credibly by Americans.

 

     Whitman:  Well we had a lot of confidence in our forces and the way in which they would execute their duties.  The care that they would take to avoid civilian casualties, to minimize collateral damage.  With that kind of confidence and wanting to demonstrate to the world that we were true to what we were saying with respect to that.  Having reporters out there with us was a good idea.

 

     Q:  The examples that I give are pretty good examples of what you would try to avoid.  Are there other instances that when you sat down and figured this out with journalists, or tried to get a system you could live with, were there other sorts of things you wanted to make sure there would be journalists there to debunk?

 

     Whitman:  I think it runs the full range.  Those that you mentioned certainly.  But it also gave us an opportunity to show the American people and the world really how well trained, how well equipped and how well led U.S. military forces were and are today.

 

     So while it offered certainly an opportunity to counter disinformation out there, it also gave the American people an opportunity to see what their military forces really were like out there.

 

     Q:  When this system was devised, did something in the past stand out to you as the example A, of the way it really should work if it works well?  Or B, the way you don't want it to work again when you looked at the previous history of embedding or not embedding?

 

     Whitman:  I think there is a limit to how useful comparing past conflicts and the way in which the media covered that conflict with anything that is current, and I'll tell you why.

 

     First, I think that each and every conflict is uniquely different.  The conflict in Afghanistan was nothing like the conflict in Iraq.  And if you try to compare it to the Gulf War of '91, you'll find that things were much different 12, 13 years ago.  In terms of your own business and the technology and the capability of being able to file from the field has changed so much in a decade.

 

     So I think that those comparisons sometimes are not very useful, although there are many that point to past conflicts.  And we try to, on a continual basis, we believe that we're a learning, growing institution and we'll try to learn lessons from each of those.  But I think that particularly in this operation it was uniquely different and required innovative, unique ways of working with the media to be able to accomplish the mission and allow what we cherish so much in a democracy, the ability for reporters to report freely from the battlefield what was going on.

 

     Q:  I'm curious though, when you worked on this, was the example of Afghanistan, albeit it a very different kind of conflict, at the top of your mind given that reporters sort of ended up following in the wake of U.S. or Northern Alliance forces well after they'd been there doing stories about weapons that had gone awry rather than describing what was really a rather successful military operation on the ground.

 

     Whitman:  Again, there's a case where the situation was so different.  In the early days of Afghanistan on the ground we were operating with very few numbers of Special Forces units that had gone in under some pretty arduous conditions, and through infiltration means that require a significant amount of training and in very small groups.

 

     I will say, though, that even in the very first days in the conflict in Afghanistan we had reporters that were aboard ships, that were covering from the very beginning military actions.

 

     But there was certainly a limitation on the ground.

 

     Q:  Now that the war in Iraq has been won, what grades do you give your own system of embedding reporters?

 

     Whitman:  First I would say that we have a long ways to go and I wouldn't declare the war won just yet.  We still have fighting going on in parts of Iraq, and we still have a long way to go in accomplishing the objectives that we set out to do.

 

     But I would say that from the initial reports the embedding process has appeared to work pretty well.  I guess it depends on how you define it and what you look for in terms of measures of success.

 

     But I think you'll find from reporters that they had pretty good access.  That they weren't confined by overly restrictive ground rules.  The ground rules that were established were designed to protect operational security and to ensure that we didn't endanger the success of our operations or the people that were carrying them out.

 

     From the department standpoint and from the commanders on the field, the early indications are that reporters didn't do things that compromised their missions.  From the standpoint of the American people, I think it was successful because they got an opportunity to really see their military forces in action.  Again, the dedication, the professionalism, and the care in which they carried out these duties.

 

     Q:  Some reporters say they just wish they could have enjoyed more freedom of movement while still maintaining access to a military unit.  To be able to see whether what happened at that village that was the point of some encounter, to get there on their own and look at it.  Can you imagine such freedom of motion being a part of a system of embedding reporters?

 

     Whitman:  I think it's very difficult to do on a modern battlefield.  The battlefield is a very dangerous place.  It’s dangerous even when you're embedded with U.S. forces.  It's even more dangerous, though, when you're roaming the battlefield and getting in between friendly and enemy lines, or even as we saw covering from places like Baghdad.  There are a number of cases in which unilateral reporters that were not embedded were injured, killed, went missing, were detained, and just all the bad things that you can imagine that could happen to a reporter out there.

 

     So I think that given the nature of the modern battlefield, that the embedding system is probably the closest one can come to to providing the full range of access.  And if done across the breadth and depth of the battlefield, you stand a very good chance that no matter where activity occurs on the battlefield there will be somebody there, a member of the news media, that is able to report on it in an active, objective and balanced way.

 

     Q:  The phrase that seems to have entered the language with a vengeance in describing the perspective of the embedded reporter, is it the drinking straw view?  The very very small piece of the action that one sees from where one is.  Does the system of embedding really work best for very very large news organizations that are going to have 20-25 drinking straw views of the war rather than a news organization that might have say three or four?

 

     Whitman:  I think you've hit upon a key point there.  That is that embedding was never designed to be the sole means of coverage of any conflict, and this conflict in particular.  Because the embedded reporter sees just a very small slice of life and that is what's going on in his or her unit out there at that given time.  But it also provides for giving a richness and a human element to the conflict that you can't get when you're covering it from the Pentagon or from capitals around the world or from command centers out there.  So it has to be a part of a more comprehensive coverage and it's up to us here in the Pentagon and other places to be able to provide the context to what the embedded reporters are seeing out there.

 

     But given that you have over 700 reporters that were out there on the battlefield at any given time, with all those embedded reports coming back I think the many, many slices of life combined with the context that you would receive from Qatar or from the Pentagon or from London, that together, the full package, gives the viewer, the reader, the listener, the opportunity to see the conflict as a whole.

 

     Q:  One dramatic difference between the work of embedded reporters and what a lot of media had relied on without them which was the accounts of the briefings, in this case given by CentCom in Qatar, was simply a level of candor.  We got to hear reporters saying the guys in this Bradley were struck by how much more resistance there was than they'd expected, or this guy said something candidly about it being really nasty out there.  Things we just don't expect to hear from a briefer ever.

 

     Q:  I wonder whether since the country seems to have survived this quite well including accounts of people not always being brilliant, and things not always happening perfectly, whether it reflects back on the whole approach your briefings take.  Could they possibly be a little bit closer to the accounts we get from embedded reporters?

 

     Whitman:  Again, I think you need both.

 

     I think it's interesting that some of the reporters that were not embedded would often try to verify information that they were hearing from the field from a reporter that was reporting in real time or near real time, and it's one of the things that we knew that we would have to deal with from the very beginning and that we wouldn't be able to confirm bits and pieces of information as they were occurring on the ground.  And at the same time, the news media learned that they have often the same difficulties that we have with first reports, and that sometimes the first reports don't clearly or accurately reflect what actually occurred on the ground. Once those reports have some better perspective, it sometimes changes what actually is understood to have happened.

 

     So I think those briefings are always going to be important because those briefings are the only place where we can take a look at the operation from a whole and be able to provide, again, that context that's so necessary to go with what the embedded reporter is seeing and reporting out there.

 

     Q:  One thing one got from the embedded reporter is an account of the war that hasn't been translated into the language of the briefing. It's a less sanitized account.  It's a bloodier account, frankly, of the war.  Do you feel comfortable with that, and that this wasn't terribly disturbing to the country?

 

     Whitman:  I think you have to go into this with your eyes wide open.  As I say, we expected both the good, the bad and the ugly to be reported from the field.

 

     The good I've talked about.  How well trained, equipped and led our forces are.  The dedication, the professionalism.  All that's inescapable when you're out there with our forces.  We saw a lot of reporting on that.

 

     We also saw the bad, because when bad things happened, and bad things will always happen on the battlefield.  People are human, soldiers, sailors, Marines, airmen are human and mistakes will happen. We had several incidents in which tragic things happened and civilians were killed inadvertently on the battlefield.  And those things got reported by embedded reporters.

 

     I think also the ugliness of war was reported by our embedded reporters out there too and that's an important part of any conflict.  We should never forget that war is always a last resort, and that we don't go into these endeavors lightly, and only when all other options have been exhausted.

 

     Q:  Do you remember any specific instances of the bad over the past couple of weeks?  And was there ever any discussion with any of your colleagues about saying why exactly does there have to be a reporter traveling with a unit to describe that?

 

     Whitman:  It's all part of conflict I think.  There was an incident that comes to mind in which a vehicle didn't stop at a checkpoint and there were troops that fired on that vehicle because it was presenting a danger, a perceived danger.  When the firing had stopped and ceased, it was realized that the vehicle had civilians in it.  Innocent civilians, unfortunately.

 

     There was a print reporter that was with that unit.  That print reporter gave a full accounting in the next day's newspaper, but gave a full accounting.  Not only what happened and how tragic it was and how bad it was, but also exactly how the individuals that had to engage that vehicle felt afterwards.  So you got the full context of the incident as it happened.

 

     Q:  Did you feel at all that sway that particular incident and the fact that it was reported by an independent journalist to some degree unburdened, say, Brigadier General Brooks in terms of what he would have to say about it since the facts had been set out by an independent observer who had seen it?

 

     Whitman:  Well, I can't speak for him but I guess that I would say that there's no better account than probably a first-hand account, and from somebody that is trained to be independent and objective and I think the news organizations that participated in this embedding program really did send their best and brightest forward for these very difficult assignments.  And I think that people got to see that in their stories, in their television reports and radio reports as they came back.

 

     Q:  I'm going to let you go in a couple of minutes, but I want to ask you about the future first, which is if you were to try to fix this or perfect it for a conflict -- I realize all conflicts are different -- but a conflict somewhat like this one, one that would involve forces both operating in the air, from the sea at least, and on the land, what would you differently?

 

     Whitman:  We're going to do a very extensive after-action review, lessons learned, and we're going to try to capture all the good aspects of what occurred out there, how we might be able to improve the system, whether or not the ground rules were appropriate and whether they need to be modified in any way.  But I think going forward we'll find a couple of things that will prevail.

 

     First of all, there are over 700 journalists out there that now have some pretty intense military experience and an understanding of how the military operates.  We have hundreds of commanders that now have a newfound respect for the job of a journalist out there and for the commitment and dedication of those individuals out there doing what they did to report back to the people of the United States.

 

     So I think that it's hard to go backwards from here.  We'll be looking forward and seeing how we can improve upon this as we go into the future.

 

     Q:  Let me see if certain lay observations check out.  It would seem, for example, that having embedded reporters with some of the Special Operations Forces would have been the most drastic concession that you would have made.  Did that work, for example?

 

     Whitman:  All indications are that we put embedded reporters with all our forces, our Special Operating Forces also.  We had done that in Afghanistan a little later in the conflict there, and we did it to a large degree during this conflict.  Under the proper framework, with the appropriate ground rules I think we have found that we can fashion a system which allows reporters to be able to do their job and allows us to accomplish our mission without compromise.

 

     Q:  What is the official scorecard on how many people violated the ground rules, or at least so egregiously that they were bounced from the system?

 

     Whitman:  It's just a handful.  Many of the difficulties that were encountered came from reporters that were actually not embedded, that were out there on the battlefield and had come up against coalition forces out there, and because they weren't knowledgeable about the ground rules and what could possibly compromise a mission or endanger personnel out there, their reports were revealing to the nature or revealing to the extent that we needed to take action and remove them from the battlespace.

 

     Q:  They were essentially revealing position, would be the major violation?

 

     Whitman:  Mission, location in relationship to other units, that type of information.  Those things that go to the heart of what a unit is doing.

 

     Q:  And was it considered -- At the end, a lot of guys just jumped when they got to Baghdad.  They got there sooner than they expected and a lot of them said I'm going to go meet my colleagues at the Palestine Hotel right now, or find a better hotel than that.  Was that a breakdown as you saw it?  Or have you gotten over it?  How do you regard the ending of so many embedded relationships?

 

     Whitman:  No, I don't see it that way at all.  I think our commitment to the news organizations was that we would permit them to stay embedded with that unit of assignment for as long as they wanted to, and that when they felt that their job was done or when they wanted to leave that unit we would make arrangements for their transportation back to Kuwait, or in this case many of them elected to stay in Baghdad and to leave their units at that point in time.

 

     So I think we still have nearly 200 reporters today that are embedded in units out there and will continue to be so probably for many weeks to come.

 

     Q:  And in sum here, you mentioned the number of commanders who have now worked with journalists and the umber of journalists who have now covered the military up close during war.  What's the net gain?  Is it a diminution of mutual mistrust or cynicism?  What do you think is the residue of that experience?

 

     Whitman:  I think it's a positive for both the military and for the media here.  I think, like I indicated, it's inescapable for a reporter out with our units not to observe and report on the high quality of the men and women that we have in uniform.  I think that having so many reporters out there in amongst our troops and our commanders afforded them the opportunity to see how professional the press corps was out there.  And their dedication.  And their willingness to accept risk for what they believe is a very important mission of informing the public.

 

     So I think going forward there is a newfound respect going both ways that I sincerely hope will carry us well into the future should we have to engage in another conflict down the road.

 

     Q:  And the willingness to accept risk is central to that, I assume.  I mean that I think was very surprising to a lot of people not in the military about reporters and the reporters got to see our people in the service experiencing risk daily during that time.  That's a vital point here.

 

     Whitman:  It is.  And it's risk on both sides.  It's a calculated risk to have that many reporters out there in the field with you, and it's the risk that the individual reporter takes to go into combat with our troops.

 

     Q:  Mr. Whitman, thank you very much for talking with us today.

 

     Whitman:  Thank you.