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[] 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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