368. "Censorship of War News Undermines Public Trust." USA Today (October 23, 2001) p 15A.
A friend who works as a high-ranking public-information (that is, publicity) officer for the U.S. Army told me that he does not expect to be sent any place near Afghanistan, because "we plan to release as little information as possible, or less."
Although the Pentagon did allow a few reporters on aircraft carriers, it has been tight-lipped so far. The military is closely controlling what information the media get on the success of the bombing raids, choosing which few, selected photos to release. We do not even have limited opportunities now for independent verification of either side's claims. We instead are subject to the spin of both sides: The Pentagon tells us this past weekend's actions were great successes; the Taliban claims they weren't. The truth? Who knows? The real test will come during the U.S. ground operations. In World War II, Korea and Vietnam, reporters accompanied frontline troops. My friend's comment about keeping a tight lid on news recalls the lesson the Pentagon learned from the first war fought on television, the war in Vietnam. The sight of our military men attacking villages and slogging through mosquito-infested rice paddies and, above all, the long rows of body bags, did in popular support for American intervention. Since then, the Pentagon, never anxious to expose its war-making ways to public scrutiny (which it considers unprofessional meddling by civilians), has been keen to curb access to battlefields.
When the United States invaded Grenada in 1983, it did not permit the media near the place during the critical first 2 days, and only a small pool of reporters was admitted thereafter. The media were hence forced to rely almost completely on accounts provided by the Pentagon. These described a smooth, successful operation, although in actuality intelligence was poor, supplies were fouled up, and confusion was rampant -- all in the face of tiny, Third World opposition.
During the Gulf War, the military greatly limited access to its operations and even detained journalists who evaded roadblocks set up to limit their reporting.
This time around, there are strong reasons for keeping the media at arm's length. The war against terrorism must take place in the shadows in which terrorists lurk. We cannot have our CIA agents named and subsequently killed. Richard S. Welch, CIA station chief in Athens, Greece, was killed in 1975 after he was named in Counterspy magazine. We cannot allow the movements of Special Forces to be broadcast live on the evening news, because their ability to strike greatly depends on surprise. (Larger forces can overwhelm their opponent simply by their size and firepower.) And disinformation -- although it also misleads the folks at home -- is very useful to the military. Every West Point cadet learns how pretending that the Normandy beach invasion was not the real thing was one of the major reasons it succeeded.
The public understands this. Viewers have been flooding TV stations with complaints that they are disclosing too much about this war rather than complaining about the paucity of information.
All of this might suggest that we are better off if the military keeps a tight lid on all information about the worldwide war against terrorism. But this is a dangerous thought -- first for the military itself. The disastrous Bay of Pigs invasion would have been aborted if the media had published reports they had on that operation, which depended largely on surprise. If the public had known about the ways President Carter was micromanaging military strikes in the attempt to rescue our hostages in Iran, it might not have ended up a total disaster.
Second, information is essential for democratic oversight. During the Gulf War and in Kosovo, the Air Force claimed great successes, as it does now. However, we found out later that numerous Scud launchers in Iraq were missed and that many of the tanks obliterated in Kosovo were cardboard decoys. Only Americans, not the enemy, were fooled.
When you read we are making progress because "terrorist training camps" have been blown away, this may mean as little as the elimination of some huts or training areas. And officials have a hard time keeping a straight face when they suggest we are gaining ground because we have frozen $ 24 million of the terrorists' money since Sept. 11. Osama bin Laden will just have to dig a bit deeper into his hundreds of millions of dollars, or divert a bit more to terrorism from his worldwide "charities."
Such phony optimism will encourage public support in the short run, just as false low assessments of the enemy's size did early in the war in Vietnam. But it undermines support in the longer run, along with the precious trust in government.
Still more is at stake. Military operations involve moral decisions in which the public and its elected officials ought to participate. The American people long have been told it is against our policy to assassinate foreign leaders; that it is terrorists who engage in such vile actions as killing Egyptian President Anwar Sadat and attempting to assassinate the first President Bush.
However, we now seem to be targeting Taliban leaders as well as bin Laden. I personally hold that it is more ethical to take out these tyrants than to starve their people through economic sanctions or to cause considerable civil "collateral" damage. But whatever course we follow, it should not be a decision made in secrecy. The same holds for the call to bring in terrorists "dead or alive" rather than try to deliver them to our courts.
In the longer run, keeping the American people in the dark will undermine support for the war, make it too easy to cover up foolish operations and make the war even dirtier than it needs to be.
Amitai Etzioni teaches at George Washington University. He is the author of Limits of Privacy and a member of the USA TODAY's board of contributors.