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[infowar.de] LDT 24.05.02: 'Sorry, Sir. I Can't Answer That'
London Daily Telegraph May 24, 2002
'Sorry, Sir. I Can't Answer That'
Media manipulation and political spin are overshadowing the war against
al-Qa'eda. Michael Smith, Defence Correspondent, reports
At 9 o'clock every morning, Major Bryan Hilferty, the US military spokesman
at Bagram base north of Kabul, stands up in the media tent to record
precisely how many days it is since the al-Qa'eda terrorists attacked
America, killing 3,063 innocent people.
He then recounts the story of one of those who died, and what effect the
death has had on his or her family and friends. Then, and only then, he
describes what coalition forces have done that day. Almost invariably, this
is less interesting than his preamble.
With one or two exceptions. A couple of weeks ago, Major Hilferty reported
that five "suspected al-Qa'eda terrorists" had been killed by US forces.
The assembled hacks bombarded him with questions - but to no avail. Most
were answered with the now familiar words: "I'm sorry, sir. I cannot tell
you the answer to that, sir."
The Americans who run Bagram are proud that it is the only coalition base
that, so far, has not been attacked by terrorists. There has, however, been
plenty of sniping: indeed, after a few weeks of uninformative briefings by
Major Hilferty and his British counterparts, a major insurrection was
threatening to brew up within the camp.
Their refusal to release information - in marked contrast to the spin
coming from Downing Street - was probably the real genesis of this week's
row over the replacement of the British commander Brigadier Roger Lane.
At the start of the deployment, the Ministry of Defence had let it be known
that it was preparing to accredit war correspondents - which meant issuing
them with uniforms and signing them up to some form of military discipline.
Dozens of journalists, excited by the prospect of real war reporting,
immediately headed for Bagram.
Then the MoD decided that having war correspondents was a bad idea - but it
was too late. The journalists were already at the base, raring to go into
action with the Royal Marines.
All were asked to sign a form stating that they accepted ground rules that
severely restricted their movements and prevented them from either writing
about special forces or taking photographs of anyone in civilian clothes -
largely because Bagram is crawling with American spooks.
Soon afterwards, several journalists were thrown out of the base for
several days as punishment for various breaches - most notably Julian
Manyon, of ITN, who had become embroiled in an Afghan equivalent of
"parking rage". But spirits lifted when Operation Snipe began. Here, at
last, was a real British military operation!
Downing Street warned that the Marines were facing large numbers of
dangerous al-Qa'eda terrorists. Unfortunately, it turned out that Number 10
had ignored the intelligence briefing, which would have told them that the
terrorists were across the border in Pakistan. At Bagram, it was soon clear
that the Marines were not expecting to meet anything more than small bands
of enemy. Day after day went by, and nothing happened.
The tabloids were reduced to writing stories about GMTV's
model-turned-war-correspondent, Lara Logan.
Journalists who wanted to go out with the Marines had to undergo a mines
awareness course - and even then were never allowed out to operational
areas unless situation was considered "benign".
Criticism of the mission began to mount. This, of course, was unfair:
sweeps of the valleys by the Marines and their US and Canadian counterparts
were actively discouraging al-Qa'eda from regrouping inside Afghanistan. A
modest success, then. But, with Downing Street boasting of a "substantive
offensive operation", it became virtually impossible to explain.
Brig Lane tried. But, in an over-enthusiastic attempt to explain to
reporters how al-Qa'eda had been forced out of Afghanistan, he described
the war as "all but won" - and earned himself a public slapping-down from
Donald Rumsfeld, US defence secretary, and a private one from London.
Forced to conform to the spin coming out of London, the Marines then
announced that they had blown up a massive stockpile of al-Qa'eda weapons.
When The Telegraph revealed that they might not actually belong to
al-Qa'eda at all, the journalists began to wonder if anything they were
being told was true.
This was not altogether surprising: the MoD has long had a problem with the
truth. Until recently, its chief press officer Simon Wren had managed to
build up a bit more confidence in what it said by adopting the surprisingly
simple tactic of not lying. But he has now been parachuted into the
Department of Transport, presumably to inject more transparency into
statements by Stephen Byers.
Back in Bagram, an outbreak of winter vomiting virus put the SAS in
quarantine and brought a rash of bad headlines - accompanied by further
threats about throwing journalists off the base.
In what looked suspiciously like an attempt to divert attention away from
the bad headlines, Brig Lane announced that he was sending his men to help
out some Australian SAS who had been ambushed by al-Qa'eda. When it turned
out that they had merely stumbled on a bunch of quarrelling Afghans, MoD
officials rushed to play down the mission.
At least one official then went over the top, briefing heavily against Brig
Lane and claiming he was about to be sacked. In fact, he was already being
replaced for reasons that had nothing to do with Afghanistan - although
there are suspicions that there may be more to it. Last October, he had
rashly contradicted Defence Secretary Geoff Hoon, who had claimed that Brig
Lane's men were ready to go into Afghanistan "immediately".
Certainly, among MoD officials, and even within the military itself, there
is a fairly widespread view that Brig Lane is an exceptionally good
commander but not sufficiently "politically-minded". Whatever the truth,
his honesty last year has probably done little to enhance his career.
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