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Reporter planted GI's question for Rumsfeld

Says issue of unarmored vehicles wasn't being covered

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CNN's Jamie McIntyre reports on the fallout from the planted question.

Troops grill Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld on armor and tour lengths.

Rumsfeld takes some tough questions from soldiers.
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Donald H. Rumsfeld

(CNN) -- The question a U.S. soldier asked Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld Wednesday about the lack of armor on some combat vehicles in Iraq was planted by a newspaper reporter embedded with the soldier's unit, the reporter told colleagues in an e-mail.

Edward Lee Pitts, Chattanooga Times Free Press military affairs reporter, said he wanted to ask the question himself but was denied a chance to speak to Rumsfeld at what the Pentagon called a town hall meeting for GIs in Kuwait.

Pitts wrote the e-mail to co-workers at the Tennessee newspaper Wednesday, and it was published Thursday on the Web site of the Poynter Institute, a center for journalistic studies in St. Petersburg, Florida. (Paper's editor responds)

"I just had one of my best days as a journalist today," Pitts wrote from Kuwait, where he is embedded with the 278th Regimental Combat Team, a Tennessee National Guard outfit preparing for deployment to Iraq.

"As luck would have it, our journey North was delayed just long enough so I could attend a visit today here by Defense Secretary Rumsfeld."

Soldiers at Camp Buehring, a staging area in the Kuwait desert, peppered Rumsfeld with queries, including one about armored vehicles from Spc. Thomas Wilson of the 278th. (Full story)

"Why do we soldiers have to dig through local landfills for pieces of scrap metal and compromised ballistic glass to uparmor our vehicles?" Wilson asked.

The question prompted cheers from some of the approximately 2,300 troops assembled in a hangar to hear Rumsfeld.

Pitts said he was told only soldiers could ask questions, so he and two GIs "worked on questions to ask Rumsfeld about the appalling lack of armor their vehicles going into combat have."

To make sure the soldiers were picked, Pitts said he "found the Sgt. in charge of the microphone for the question and answer session and made sure he knew to get my guys out of the crowd."

Wilson was the second soldier recognized.

"When he asked Rumsfeld why after two years here soldiers are still having to dig through trash bins to find rusted scrap metal and cracked ballistic windows for their Humvees," Pitts wrote, "the place erupted in cheers so loud that Rumsfeld had to ask the guy to repeat his question."

Rumsfeld said armored military vehicles have been brought to the region "from all over the world, from where they're not needed to a place they're needed."

"It's essentially a matter of physics, not a matter of money," Rumsfeld said. "It's a matter of production and the capability of doing it.

"As you know, you have to go to war with the Army you have, not the Army you want."

Rumsfeld's response was aired repeatedly on news channels, including CNN. The Pentagon held news conferences to discuss the issue.

Even President Bush weighed in, telling reporters at the White House Thursday that the military is working to address the issue, and that he didn't blame the soldier for asking such a tough question.

"If I were a soldier overseas wanting to defend my country, I would want to ask the secretary of defense the same question. And that is, 'Are we getting the best we can get us?' And they deserve the best," Bush said.

In his e-mail, Pitts said he had been "trying to get this story out" since he learned several weeks ago that he would be assigned to an unarmored truck, and the Times Free Press published two stories on the issue.

"But it felt good to hand it off to the national press," Pitts wrote. "I believe lives are at stake with so many soldiers going across the border riding with scrap metal as protection. It may be too late for the unit I am with, but hopefully not for those who come after."

Pitts wrote that Wilson told him he "felt good b/c he took his complaints to the top. When he got back to his unit most of the guys patted him on the back but a few of the officers were upset b/c they thought it would make them look bad."

Military officials had given the Tennessee Guard unit "reassurance all along that this would be taken care of," said Tom Griscom, the paper's publisher and executive editor.

"We have pictures of soldiers in the 278th literally going through [a] scrap heap" scavenging steel plate for their vehicles, Griscom said.

"They [the soldiers] spoke for themselves," Griscom said.

Griscom said he supported the way Pitts handled the situation.

"Lee called in here yesterday on the [satellite] phone, told us how the questions had unfolded," he said.

"I am supportive of his trying to find a way to get a question asked," Griscom said.

Though there was some discussion at the paper about Pitts' handling of the matter, Griscom said, "I would not start by saying we made a mistake. I personally do not think we made a mistake."

Professor Stuart Loory, who holds the Lee Hills Chair in Free Press Studies at the University of Missouri School of Journalism in Columbia, said he doesn't consider the manner in which the question was asked to be a problem for the reporter.

"Reporters don't have the same access any longer that they did to ask their own questions," he said. "And planting a legitimate question with somebody who may have the access, I think, is an acceptable practice.

"The question is whether or not the soldier who asked the question really believed in it, and my guess is that he did, or he wouldn't have asked it," said Loory, who also is editor in chief of Global Journalist magazine.

Pentagon spokesman Larry Di Rita disagreed.

"Town hall meetings are intended for soldiers to have dialogue with the secretary of defense," Di Rita said in a news release.

"... The secretary provides ample opportunity for interaction with the press. It is better that others not infringe on the troops' opportunity to interact with superiors in the chain of command."

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