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Iraq: Pentagon Starts Embedding Reporters With Troops In Effort To 'Tell Army Story'

  • Ron Synovitz

The Pentagon is allowing journalists access to the U.S. troops that would be expected to fight in a war against Iraq. In a process called "embedding," reporters accredited by the U.S. Department of Defense are being sent to live and work beside American soldiers poised in the desert of Kuwait.

Kuwait City, 11 March 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Reporters who covered the last Gulf War often complain that press controls under the Pentagon's 1991 "pool reporting" system were overly restrictive.

Under that pool system, small teams of journalists were escorted by U.S. military officials on short trips to witness specific military operations. Usually, the teams consisted of one television camera crew, a single newspaper reporter, a radio reporter, and a photographer.

When the team finished their escorted trip, they would return to the other journalists in the pool and were required to share their work with those who remained behind.

Bill Gasperini, a correspondent now working in Kuwait for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, was a pool reporter in 1991 for CBS radio. He says he appreciated being allowed to watch some operations by the U.S. Navy and the Marines Corps. But he says many pool reporters found the experience to be a frustrating one:

"That was a way for the military both to cut down the number of journalists that would go to a particular place, as well as to be able censor, basically, or to moderate, what we were saying for military [secrecy] reasons," Gasperini said. "A lot of people found that system extremely frustrating because they just couldn't get out -- especially a lot of the writers who were not with the U.S. or the British [press] or the other lead countries [in the 1991 Gulf War coalition.]"

Today in Kuwait, the Pentagon is launching a new experiment in relations between media and the military. The process is called "embedding." Instead of being sequestered from the battlefield in a pool, reporters are being assigned to specific military units where they will live and work beside the same soldiers for the duration of any war against Iraq -- or until they choose to pull out of the program.

Major General Buford Blount III, the commander of the U.S. Army's Third Infantry Division, has met with the journalists who are embedding with his soldiers starting today -- including RFE/RL's correspondent in Kuwait.

Blount welcomed journalists into the program: "This is going to be new for us -- and I think new for you, too. The embedding process has got top priority of the army to make it work." The general says the embedding process is an attempt to get reporters to "tell the army story" more accurately by allowing them to share the experience of rank-and-file soldiers in the field. He says his main request from reporters is that they simply tell the truth about what they see: "You were not happy with coverage in the past, and we were not happy either. Over the years, I guess stemming from Vietnam, there has been a gradual mistrust that had developed between the media and the army. And we're trying to stamp that out. We've got a younger generation of officers who don't have that stigma with them. And so, we're going to try to embed and open up. And we're going to make it work. You know, we'll have some bumps, but we'll work through it."

Colonel Rick Thomas, the chief U.S. public affairs officer in Kuwait, told RFE/RL that the journalists who are being allowed to link up with U.S. troops include reporters from many countries -- including Germany, France, Russia, China, and even some Arab journalists from the Qatar-based Al-Jazeera satellite television network.

Thomas says that with more than 500 embedded journalists spread across the battlefields and rear echelons of a possible war against Iraq, he does not think it is logistically possible for military censors to review reporters' material before they send it to their editors: "There will be no public affairs officer out there who is going to review or censor anything. And there is no potential book author out there who is going to be able to say that Colonel Rick Thomas or any of my staff slowed down the process of transmitting [news stories]."

Instead, Thomas says embedding will rely upon an honor system -- with journalists promising not to report certain categories of information that could help Iraqi forces understand how, when, and where U.S. forces plan to attack: "You will sign ground rules before going out there saying you understand that you will not transmit this type of information. And by signing those ground rules, I'm going to take you at your word that you will abide by it. If I find out that you did not abide by your word, then I'll bring you back to Kuwait City and send some other news organization in your stead."

In those ground rules, reporters must agree to honor news embargoes that may be imposed to protect operational security. An embargo means that no reports can be filed about a specific military operation before it occurs, or while it is under way. The embargoes will remain in effect until U.S. military officials determine that the threat of compromising operational security has passed.

Only approximate figures will be allowed to be reported about the strength of U.S. troops and their allies, as well as casualties. Information that cannot be reported -- on grounds that it would jeopardize operations and endanger the lives of troops -- include specific troop deployments or numbers of aircraft, tanks, artillery, landing craft, radar units, and trucks.

The names of military installations or specific geographic locations of military units in the Gulf region also cannot be reported unless specifically released by the U.S. Department of Defense. News and images that identify or include identifiable features of troop locations also are not authorized for release.

Also, reporters are not allowed to disclose information about the effectiveness of enemy attacks, camouflage, deception, targeting, intelligence collection, or security.

Photographers and television cameramen also will only be allowed to record images of dead U.S. soldiers if the images do not show their faces or name tags.

In compliance with the Geneva Convention, no photographs, video footage, or interviews of Iraqi prisoners of war is allowed.

The U.S. military is asking all embedded reporters to only take what equipment they can carry with them. The only equipment being issued to a reporter by the Pentagon is a gas mask and a so-called "NBC suit," which is designed to give protection from nuclear fallout or from chemical and biological attacks.

Thomas says reporters will have to conduct their work in a way that doesn't hamper the efforts of U.S. troops: "We're telling you to bring a satellite dish to the battlefield. Bring a video phone to the battlefield. Bring your laptop computer with an ability to transmit back to the rear. And when we pull over to the side, transmit your product."

Despite the unprecedented opportunity for news coverage that the embedding process could allow, former Gulf War pool reporter Gasperini says he and many other journalists are not going to take up the Pentagon's offer to live and work beside the U.S. soldiers: "This time, I'm not quite sure how this embed system will work. For large [news] organizations that have many different people, they can have someone who is with different individual units. But you always have to have someone who is looking at the big picture. And in our case, my company decided not to embed because they thought, well, you can end up with a unit somewhere and lose sight of the big picture. And you essentially become useless once certain events transpire elsewhere. And so what we're going to do is to cover the big picture as best we can by following the troops -- assuming there is a war -- into Iraq."

Looking back on his experience of 12 years ago, Gasperini admits that information which was cut from his reports by military censors during the last Gulf War sometimes was strategically significant. He agrees that the U.S. military has the right to prevent security leaks that could endanger the lives of U.S. soldiers.

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