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[] NYT 10.12.01: Pentagon Says It Will Remove Some Obstacles to Covering War,
December 10, 2001

Pentagon Says It Will Remove Some Obstacles to Covering War


Under pressure from news organizations unhappy with Pentagon restrictions placed on journalists trying to cover the fighting in Afghanistan, the Defense Department is promising to be more helpful.

It has also apologized for past obstacles to coverage. Whether that translates into better access for journalists to troops and battle information remains to be seen, news executives said.

"We owe you an apology," Victoria Clarke, the assistant secretary of defense for public affairs, wrote Thursday in a letter to the Washington bureau chiefs of major news organizations. "The last several days have revealed severe shortcomings in our preparedness to support news organizations in their efforts to cover U.S. military operations in Afghanistan." 

 From the earliest days of the war, journalists have complained about a severe information drought at the Pentagon. Defense officials would not let reporters accompany troops in the initial overseas military deployment after Sept. 11 and have since based pool reporters at a single United States operating base in Afghanistan. Reporters in search of action elsewhere have often had to go it alone on dangerous roads and under the protection of local gunmen for hire.

Pentagon officials have generally defended the stringent policy, saying the often covert nature of the war has made sharing too much with news organizations a risky proposition for United States troops. 

But news media complaints peaked on Wednesday when reporters stationed at a front-line base of operations called Rhino were confined in a warehouse as dead and wounded United States troops accidentally struck by an American bomb were returned to the camp. The reporters and photographers were kept from interviewing or photographing the wounded, their doctors, or the troops involved in the rescue and recovery of the 19 who survived and the three who were killed when a stray bomb hit their position north of Kandahar. Military officials later said that reporters should have had some access, even if limited.

In her letter, Ms. Clarke expressed regret over the handling of the news media at the base. "Keeping in mind our desire to protect operational security and the safety of men and women in uniform, we intend to provide maximum media coverage with minimal delay and hassle," Ms. Clarke wrote. 

"That has not always been the case over the last few days, particularly with regard to the coverage of dead and wounded returning to the Forward Operating Base known as Rhino." 

She said the Pentagon would take several steps to assist the news media in Afghanistan, including setting up public information offices in Bagram and Mazar-i-Sharif and reiterating to commanders in Afghanistan that the stated press policy of Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld was "maximum coverage, minimum hassle."

News executives said they appreciated the sentiment but did not know how much things would change.

"We appreciate the Pentagon is willing to recognize that this was the wrong thing to do," Sandy Johnson, Washington bureau chief of The Associated Press, said, referring to restrictions at Rhino. "But the general at Rhino, or any other place where the media is deployed, has to let the media do their job."

Doyle McManus, Washington bureau chief for The Los Angeles Times, said that even if the Defense Department was pledging to be more cooperative, commanders on the battle lines tended to do as they saw fit when situations got intense, regardless of dictates from the Pentagon.

"Once you get on the ground you often find that policy is actually being made by a one-star or a major," Mr. McManus said.

Clark Hoyt, Washington editor for Knight Ridder newspapers, said things would change for reporters in Afghanistan only if "indeed the message of maximum coverage and minimum hassle is relayed with conviction."

Ms. Clarke said she agreed with the bureau chiefs. "What matters is the folks on the ground are executing it the way they are supposed to," she said. But, she added, "I believe the message has gotten through."

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