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[] Columbia Journalism Review 3-4.2002: The Brief, Ineffective Life Of The Pentagon's Media Pool,

Columbia Journalism Review
March/April 2002
Pg. 66

The Brief, Ineffective Life Of The Pentagon's Media Pool

By Mark Thompson

The Department of Defense National Media Pool, a cranky child born of a loveless marriage, died after a long illness during the final quarter of 2001. It was fourteen.

The pool, a child of the Pentagon and the U.S. press, was conceived in the wake of the military's ham-fisted handling of reporters during its 1983 invasion of Grenada. It was an imperfect solution to a vexing problem: How to ensure independent press coverage of the nation's most sensitive military operations. 

The pool came to life on July 19, 1987, when a band of ten reporters took off from Andrews Air Force Base for its first real-world deployment. Under strict secrecy, they flew to the Persian Gulf to witness the reflagging of Kuwaiti oil tankers with U.S. flags. They were on hand to document a first-class snafu when a mine blew a hole in the hull of the first tanker the U.S. military had pledged to protect.

But the pool would bear witness to no such embarrassments this time around. If there ever had been a time to use the pool, it came -- and, alas, went -- during the final three months of last year, as the U.S. began attacking those it deemed responded for the terror attacks that killed 3,000 people on September 11.

The pool, truth be told, had been in poor health for years. Made up of journalists representing wires, newspapers, magazines, TV, and radio, it hadn't been deployed on a real-world mission since 1996; its most recent practice run was in 1997. But after the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, those of us in the pool during the final rotation of 2001 -- the membership changes every three months -- thought its time had come.

Initially, the Pentagon thought so, too. Washington news bureaus were told to gear up for action. The military even called in those whose pool duty wasn't slated to start until the first quarter of 2002. "Let's face it, it's more likely you're going to be used now than in the last ten years," Army Lt. Col. Lane Van de Steeg, the Pentagon pool coordinator, told bureau chiefs September 28. "Who's to say we won't have to call out two pools at the same time?"

A week later, having been on alert for a scant four days, pool members got calls at 2 A.M. ordering us to Andrews within four hours. In the predawn darkness, our military minders practiced sweeping our cars for bombs -- for those who ignored the Pentagon's plea to take taxis to better hide our tracks from inquiring spouses ("Honey, why have you been up since 2 A.M., and why are you packing so, um, strangely?" they'd ask. "Don't worry, darling," reporters were told to respond. "Just an early day at the office that might stretch into a week. Have you seen my passport?") We ran our bags through security, and pretended to get required vaccinations. But it was only a drill. We were back at our desks by lunch.

"They won't start the war," pool members felt, "without us." But shortly before the bombing began on October 7, we heard disquieting rumbles. "Don't bet," a senior military officer told me, "that the pool will be called before the war begins." Sure enough, he was right.

But if we were going to miss the opening shot, it seemed inevitable that the pool would be tapped for sensitive missions where the Pentagon would want only a handful of reporters on the scene. There were two historic assignments ideal for the pool: the deployment of 1,000 members of the U.S. Army's 10th Mountain Division to a Uzbekistan base (the first deployment of U.S. troops to a former Soviet state), and the dispatch of the USS Kitty Hawk to the Arabian Sea (the first time a special-forces war was waged from the deck of a U.S. carrier).

But despite such opportunities, the Pentagon never mustered the pool. "I'd be happy to mobilize the pool and send you off," Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld told frustrated bureau chiefs on October 18, "but I frankly would not know where to send you." He said he'd be happy to dispatch the pool to Uzbekistan, where the last pool mission had ended five years before. "The problem is," he said, "we're in a country that is not happy" to have reporters around.

And the Kitty Hawk? He ultimately vetoed that notion, too.

So as the war in Afghanistan wound down, key pieces went uncovered by reporters. Both soldiers and journalists know how easily the truth can be fudged. During that maiden 1987 deployment, the Pentagon counted more on the press pool for fast reports of what was going on after the supertanker Bridgeton hit a mine than on the military's own chain of command.

In addition to its parents, the pool is survived by such stories untold, and at least some journalists who dutifully participated in such a half-baked scheme, believing that was better than none at all.

Mark Thompson, a Pulitzer Prize-winning correspondent at Time, covered the pool's birth for CJR in the November/December 1987 issue.

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