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Is the Defense Department Providing Enough Information to the Media About the War in Afghanistan? Has the Press Been Caught in a Spin Cycle Reporting on the Anthrax Scare?

Aired October 27, 2001 - 18:30   ET


HOWARD KURTZ, HOST: Welcome to RELIABLE SOURCES, where we turn a critical lens on the media. I'm Howard Kurtz.

The press and the Pentagon are increasingly at odds as U.S. air strikes over Afghanistan continue, and the person caught in the middle is the Pentagon spokeswoman Tori Clarke.

We'll talk with Clarke in her first television interview since September 11 and we'll get the media perspective from two veteran defense correspondents.

We spoke with Tori Clarke earlier about her role and whether the Defense Department is providing enough information to reporters about this new kind of war.


KURTZ: Tori Clarke, welcome.


KURTZ: Journalists are writing over and over again that this is the most secretive military campaign in history, and that getting information from you and your colleagues is like pulling teeth. What's your take?

CLARKE: Well my take is and I sparked a little evidence of it here, is that to the extent possible, we're putting out as much news and information as we possibly can about what is a very unconventional war.

Secretary Rumsfeld and the President has said repeatedly there will be things in this war from the military standpoint that you'll see. There will be things you won't see. There will be a fair amount of Special Operations activity, which by its very nature, you don't see. So, it's very hard to cover.

But, just before I came down today I wanted to take a look at what we've done thus far, since September 11th, and we really consider the first day of this war was September 11th when the World Trade Center and the Pentagon were attacked. This is not a complete tally but it's just a brief list of the number of news briefings that Secretary Rumsfeld and Chairman Myers have had at the Pentagon for anybody and everybody from the press corps that's now about two dozen. Dozens of others who have come down to brief -

KURTZ: But...

CLARKE: Now wait, let me finish. Almost every single day for the last three or four weeks, we have put out images, both maps that give a lot of definition about where the strikes are occurring, what kind of strikes, where the humanitarian relief is. I'll give you that.

We also put out on a pretty regular basis, just about daily, images of what is actually happening over there on the ground, what is the result of the strikes.

KURTZ: After all those briefings and you've certainly been on camera, why the steady drum beat of media dissatisfaction of the level of information. Are reporters being whiny?

CLARKE: I really -- one I'd push back on you, I don't think there has been quite such a steady drum beat, if you talk to reporters, the regular Pentagon press corps who cover the place day in and day out, the regulars.

KURTZ: They're not happy campers.

CLARKE: Well, I think some of them are pretty happy campers, at least they come and tell me that. I think we're all getting used to the fact that this is a very, very unconventional war.

What I'm struck by is that we have the same goals. We, the Pentagon, the Administration, want to put out as much news and information as we can because we want the American people informed.

The more informed they are, the more educated they are about what's going on, the more they'll be engaged and they'll support what's a very important effort. That's our goal.

The goal of the media obviously is to put out news and information and that's the business. So, we have very similar goals. How we get there is the challenge.

KURTZ: Well part of the goal of the media is to have more reporters out with the troops and not just on a handful of aircraft carriers. Why has that not been possible?

CLARKE: Well, as a matter of fact we've had several dozen reporters and media outlets on aircraft carriers. We've had them in bombers. We've had them in strike aircraft. We have had them in countless places and since October 7, and I continue to see reports every single day, in newspapers, on TV, reports from those very aircraft carriers. So, they are getting a fair amount of access. What's really hard to show, and that's where some of the frustration comes in is the Special Operations activity. By its very nature, you don't get to see a lot of that, and we aren't going to do anything that is going to in any way compromise operational security. We're not going to do anything that is going to put some service member's life at risk.

KURTZ: And on that point, you came under fire, media fire that is, at a briefing this week after the Taliban had claimed that they had shot down a U.S. helicopter, denied by the Pentagon. Then you eventually revealed that the helicopter had not been shot down, but had been damaged. Let's take a look at that exchange.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Why did it take so long for them to get this information? What does that say about the flow of information to the defense secretary and the chairman of the joint chiefs?

CLARKE: It says that the people in the helicopter were focused on what's important, which was getting out of there. Secondly, what we're really focused on right now is the military operations, to go after the Taliban, to go after the terrorists, and this was not information that came forward until recently.


KURTZ: Could you have, should you have put out that information sooner about the damaged helicopter?

CLARKE: Oh, in many instances you want to try to get out the information faster. We can always communicate probably in a better, more efficient fashion. It's one of the common expressions around the Pentagon, ground truth is hard to come by.

In that case, the operation was last Friday. It was the first night of the Special Operations and a helicopter coming out of Afghanistan hit a barrier, lost some of the landing gear and the wheels. It got back safely to where it was going, which is what is important.

It wasn't until the following week I think, Monday or Tuesday, that we all saw some images. We were talking to the folks at Central Command trying to get the information. That wasn't the absolute priority. We knew our helicopters were back. We knew our people were safe. We know it was not the number one priority to find out exactly what it was.

KURTZ: But it feeds a perception that you're quick to put out good news, video and successful raids and not so quick on the bad news.

CLARKE: Oh, I can find you plenty of reporters who actually came to us a couple times and said "we're going to commend you" because we've been out there on the podium on several occasions, myself included, not only talking about things that have gone wrong, but showing images of things that have gone wrong. We've been quite forthcoming about that.

KURTZ: Your boss, Don Rumsfeld, was pretty outraged or so he seemed when word leaked about the first U.S. ground forces in Afghanistan.

Now, the Washington Post reported the presence of U.S. ground forces a week ago Friday, but not the specifics of those first raids, and the Post says the Pentagon never asked them not to publish that story, is that true?

CLARKE: Well, what I'll tell you is we got lots of questions and inquiries days leading up to last Friday. What Secretary Rumsfeld was trying to do was underscore a message he's delivered before, is that he considers the leaking, the trafficking in of classified information a very, very serious offense.

He wasn't focused on any particular outlet. He wasn't focused on any particular story. He's had those concerns for some time, well before September 11th. He just found an opportunity to underscore it again.

KURTZ: I'm told that CBS's David Martin held that story for some hours, so was there any unhappiness with CBS or NBC or the Washington Post?

CLARKE: You know, we were so busy on Friday. A bunch of us were with the Secretary out at Whitman Air Force Base and then all night Friday night, we were spending a good bit of time preparing footage from the Special Operations activity that night, to be shown in the Pentagon briefing room on Saturday morning, which again if you want to talk about access to this war, I have asked repeatedly and most people come back to me and say "we have never before in history seen footage of Special Operations activity." We brought it back for the world to see.

KURTZ: Right.

CLARKE: So we were focused on that. I honestly don't know what the sequence of stories was, but...

KURTZ: I believe it was a questions of leaks -- I'm sorry, because a lot of people have the impression that journalists are much more interested in scoops than they are about national security.

There have been instances, I believe this year, when the Pentagon has asked the news organizations to hold back details that could jeopardize this.

CLARKE: Right.

KURTZ: Is there any instance where a news organization has refused to do that?

CLARKE: Not on my watch. I actually am one of the ones and repeatedly says the overwhelming majority of the time the media, especially the media we deal with which is the Pentagon Press Corps, is extraordinarily responsible. And, I have had reporters come to me on several occasions and say "I've gotten a hold of this information, and here's what I'm thinking about doing. Would this in any way compromise an operation? Would this in any way put somebody's life at risk?" And this has happened before September 11th as well.

KURTZ: Sure.

CLARKE: And if we said "yes, that would be a concern" they don't go with it. The overwhelming majority of the media, I believe are extraordinarily responsible about this, and Secretary Rumsfeld's comments are always very carefully crafted to say he's talking about the men and women in government.

KURTZ: Right.

CLARKE: For whom leaking classified information is a very, very serious offense. He always makes a point of specifying to whom he's speaking when he says that.

KURTZ: Understood. You're relatively new to the Pentagon culture. You've been in corporate public relations. You've been in political campaigns. Have you found that there is among the military people you deal with, a lingering distrust of the press, perhaps because of Vietnam?

CLARKE: I think I wouldn't generalize that much. I think there are different people, both civilians and military. It's not just, you know, we have to say in the end military working there. I find that sometimes some of the civilians are the least eager, if you will, about working with the media.

But what's really important is that the senior leadership from Secretary Rumsfeld to Chairman Myers and the other senior leaders with whom I work understand how important it is.

They understand that the main means, and this is where I go back to our conversion goals, the main means of communicating with the American people is the media. That's why we want to do it. That's why we do do it.

That's why I lose sleep every night trying to figure out how do I work with your colleagues in the media so we can get this news information out, without ever compromising an operation or ever putting somebody's life at risk.

KURTZ: Do you find that these briefings that you're involved in just about every day, there's an awful lot of journalistic impatience now about why haven't we captured Osama bin Laden, and why haven't we won this war yet? Let's see some progress. Does that bother you at all?

CLARKE: Actually I think most people, and again I can talk primarily about the Pentagon Press Corps. I can talk primarily about what we sense and feel and hear from the American public that checks in with us pretty regularly. I think most of them understand this is a very unconventional war. It is going to be long. It is going to be sustained. It's not just about military operations. It's economic. It's diplomatic. It's financial. They understand it will be very hard. They understand that there will be casualties. They understand it's not like things we've seen, some of us have seen in the last ten, twenty, thirty years.

They're not going to see thousands of troops coursing across deserts. You're not going to see night after night of missiles in the air.

KURTZ: But journalists are impatient.

CLARKE: Well, maybe some of them. Again, I just talk about the ones that I deal with on a regular basis.

KURTZ: Right.

CLARKE: I think they understand just how different this is. We're all getting used to that. I fully admit we're all getting used to the fact that we're in new turf here, and we're trying to find the new rules of the road.

KURTZ: We have about twenty seconds. You're caught between the two sides, the Pentagon and the press. What exactly is it that you like about this job?

CLARKE: Oh, it's so important. You're involved in something that is so important. I think this is one of the greatest challenges of the last fifty, sixty years, and probably for the next fifty, sixty. And being involved in that, it's just, it's a terrific honor.

KURTZ: Tori Clarke, thanks very much for joining us.

CLARKE: Thank you.


KURTZ: Up next, we'll get the other side of the story from two military correspondents. Are journalists getting enough information from the Pentagon?

And reporters covering anthrax get sucked into the spin cycle. That's coming up.


KURTZ: Welcome back to RELIABLE SOURCES. Joining us now, Tom Ricks, military correspondent for "The Washington Post," and John Barry, national security correspondent for "Newsweek."

Tom Ricks, we just heard Tori Clarke say that relations between the press and the Pentagon during this war are pretty close to peachy keen. Is she in denial? THOMAS RICKS, MILITARY CORRESPONDENT, "WASHINGTON POST": No, I think she's very good at her job, which is to be in denial sometimes. The Pentagon is really controlling this information in a way you haven't seen in any recent war.

It has made itself the sole source of information on the American side. The Commander Tommy Franks hasn't briefed or been interviewed once, except for one short opportunity in Bahrain, in contrast to General Schwarzkopf in the Gulf War who constantly was out there speaking. And we have thousands of ground troops, not just Special Forces, but regular infantry and not a single reporter with them.

KURTZ: No access there whatsoever.

RICKS: On a combat deployment. I think that's unprecedented.

KURTZ: John Barry, are Pentagon reporters generally frustrated?

JOHN BARRY, "NEWSWEEK": Oh yes. I mean, this is the toughest it's been in my sixteen years here, and it's not merely that as Tom says, it's a small group and Secretary Rumsfeld has really become the daily briefer, which is kind of bizarre for the Secretary of Defense.

But, what's happened is that they've shut down everybody else from talking really with quite severe lectures and warnings.

And so, the normal flow of background information, the normal flow of guidance and so on that one used to get from senior military and from the senior civilians, that's pretty much shut down unless you really work the phones late at night when they're at home.

KURTZ: So you get the daily TV episode, but otherwise life is very difficult. Now Tom Ricks, it was your story a week ago Friday, "Special Forces Open Ground Campaign in Afghanistan" that prompted Secretary Rumsfeld to issue that blast against leaks of confidential information.

Let's take a look at what Don Rumsfeld had to say.


DONALD RUMSFELD, SECRETARY OF DEFENSE: The fact that some members of the press knew enough about those operations to ask the questions and to print the stories was clearly because someone in the Pentagon had provided them that information, and clearly, it put at risk the individuals involved in the operation.


KURTZ: Now, did your story in any way jeopardize U.S. forces in those commando raids hours later?

RICKS: I don't believe it did. We had actually put that question to government officials, "is there any problem here" and have been told no.

KURTZ: Why do you think we had this blast then from Secretary Rumsfeld about terrible leaks and that sort of thing?

RICKS: I think he doesn't like leaks to begin with. I think he's...

KURTZ: Most cabinet officers don't.

RICKS: But I think Rumsfeld in particular has indicated that he doesn't like it. He's made it clear to his subordinates, and I think they were a little bit surprised at how much information reporters could get when they really were determined to get it, as it became clear that Special Forces raids were coming, were being operated and carried out that Friday night.

KURTZ: But isn't it a clear implication, John Barry, when Don Rumsfeld talks about those who are doing the leaking, that those who are receiving the leaks or the information that perhaps the Pentagon doesn't want to put out to the reporters, the journalists, are somehow being unpatriotic?

BARRY: Yes, and I suspect that that sort of approach goes back to the Gulf War when what happened was they realized for the first time, I think, of televising the briefings live from the Pentagon. Those briefings you will remember was where we had dozens and dozens and dozens of new reporters come into the Pentagon who were asking frankly dumb questions. So viewers all over America said "good heavens."

KURTZ: These were people who never covered a war.

BARRY: That's right.

KURTZ: And couldn't tell a stinger from a scud.

BARRY: They certainly were generally asking questions like "well, can you tell us when the attack is going to start?" I think then the Pentagon realized the power of persuading the American people that it was the military, who could be trusted, and of course they always tell the truth and the reporters were being impertinent or unpatriotic trying to pursue it further. These...

KURTZ: Have Pentagon officials excuse me, ever asked you during this last few weeks to hold back any sensitive details?


KURTZ: And your response was?

BARRY: I checked it with the bureau chief and we did.

KURTZ: You did. Same with you?

RICKS: Several times with the government, we've had situations where they've said, "that presents a problem" and I said "I'll take it to my editor" and it's been negotiated. But we've withheld several times sensitive information. KURTZ: Why do you think that the Pentagon has been resistant to the notion of reporters being out with the ground troops, not just stuck on a couple of aircraft carriers? Do the commanders in the field not want that to happen?

BARRY: Yes. That's part of the problem I think, that it isn't clear that. There are two problems. One it isn't clear that in the last analysis Rumsfeld is willing to order, let's say Tommy Franks of CENCOM, always willing to order the unit commanders that you've got to do this.

In the session that Tori Clarke has had with the bureau chiefs, for instance, the people on Tori's side have said, "look, you know, it's the unit commanders that make the decision" I think is one point.

But there is a deeper point here, and it goes wider than the Pentagon. The problem is that this administration doesn't know if it's winning this war or not and is rather scared that it isn't and it's going much more slowly and not really as well as they thought.

And so one of the reasons for this clamp down on information is precisely because, in my view, the administration and this is not just Rumsfeld, it goes up to the White House, is very, very anxious to make sure that the picture of the war that has been presented accords with this picture of unstoppable momentum towards victory, which is what they want to present for political purposes.

KURTZ: Which on one point...

BARRY: I can see why they want to do it, but it makes for lousy journalism.

KURTZ: It helps when you shoot and edit the video yourself and you can make the pictures however you want.

BARRY: Sure.

KURTZ: But speaking of things not going that well, there was the U.S. air strike, accidentally of course, on the Red Cross facility, the second time that target was hit. It got a big play in the New York Times this morning, front page story, and a big picture.

But generally speaking, do you think the press has kind of played down these incidents with civilian casualties, maybe because they don't want to be perceived as being too critical of the war effort?

RICKS: They have not made a huge thing of it, that's right.

KURTZ: Why is that?

RICKS: I think because they've accepted the notion that there are civilian casualties and the conduct of war, and that they're willing to accept the Pentagon explanation that sometimes mistakes do occur.

At the same time, there's an interesting problem here for the Pentagon. It is that events occur in Afghanistan and in Pakistan. Statements are made and it takes the Pentagon eight to twelve hours to catch up with that cycle.

So, I think to a surprising degree they've been reactive, especially because the sole spokesman for this war has become Donald Rumsfeld, as if McNamara during the Vietnam War was the sole source of information on the war. It's a bizarre situation that has really become, I think, extremely reactive in how they handle information on this war.

KURTZ: And sometimes, as in the case of the damaged helicopter, it takes more than a day. It takes several days for an acknowledgement that things didn't go that well, which makes me wonder.

BARRY: Yes. It is on the face if you think about it, absurd that we are surprised that bombs go astray. I mean, it is in fact a reflection of the extent to which we accept the astonishing precision of the skill of the U.S. military. You know, we are nipping at the edges. If in any previous war you said "gee some bombs have gone astray" the people would say to you by how many tens of miles?"

KURTZ: Right.

BARRY: So, we are dealing, in fairness to the military, we are dealing with a unique situation. But Tommy's right, the fact is, the important fact is not that these collateral damage incidents are played up on the front page of the New York Times. That's irrelevant. What's important is how they're played in the Muslim world.


BARRY: And across the Islamic world, and that is hugely important. And, one of the things the administration has done, while clamping down on news here, is in fact, in my judgment and I think in the administration's own judgment belatedly is simply not to get hold of the international ramifications of the story.

KURTZ: Tom Ricks, how does the press measure progress in this war? We're three weeks in now. Some people say it's not going all that well, at least up to the expectations that it would be like the Gulf War and it would be over in four days, and I see these briefers and they say "well things are going according to plan." What plan? "We've achieved our objective." What objective? So how do you as a reporter try to measure just what's happening out there when you're not there?

RICKS: I think we accept their measures of success. The administration said "we're going to bomb Afghanistan for three reasons, to punish the Taliban, to undercut their support, and to encourage the opposition."

The problem is, by any one of those measures, there is no evident success. The opposition has not captured territory. In fact, they've retreated somewhat since the bombing campaign began. There have been no defections on the Pashtun side from the Taliban to the opposition. And there has been collateral damage and there has been an increase in instability in the region, as we've seen refugees flow into Pakistan and so on.

So right now, on the administration's own statements on how to measure their success, they're in negative territory.

KURTZ: If that is the case, John Barry, then in the coming weeks, assuming there's no dramatic turnaround on the U.S. side, are we going to see the press corps becoming more critical of the war effort, of the President, of the Pentagon, even though that's a dangerous thing to do in this environment?

BARRY: Yes, I would think so. I think the media signed up for the victory parade way too early, and I think it hurt us if one talked to the military. They were very considerably more pessimistic. Indeed they were worried that what they saw was being primarily an economic and political set of problems, was going to be handed to the military to solve. And so far, I have to say I think their fears are becoming true.

KURTZ: OK. We will check back with you again. John Barry, Tom Ricks, thanks very much for joining us.

Well now, for a look at the spin cycle. One of the basic tools of journalists is that we tell you what the authorities think, political leaders, department heads, spokesmen, experts.

But sometimes it turns out they don't know what they're talking about and then the media have to scramble to catch up.

By late last week, the anthrax threat had reached Tom Brokaw's office, Dan Rather's office, and Tom Daschle's office, prompting a partial shutdown on Capitol Hill. But the administration was determined to project a calming image.


TOMMY THOMPSON, SECRETARY OF HEALTH AND HUMAN SERVICES: The public health infrastructure I want you to know full well, is responding extremely well to this threat. Americans should rest assured in knowing that we are responding quickly and effectively.


KURTZ: Well, what about the postal workers who handle mail for the Hill? While congressional staffers were being tested for anthrax, the authorities wanted to show that Washington's Brentwood Postal Facility was safe.

So they held a news conference in what turned out to be an affected building. Days later, two postal workers from the Brentwood Branch were dead and the media quickly shifted gears.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) DAN RATHER, CBS NEWS ANCHOR: There are questions now about whether the government has, in fact, moved wisely, aggressively and quickly to protect postal workers and the public from anthrax assassination attempts.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: When anthrax exposures were suspected in the House and Senate Office Buildings, health officials moved swiftly, but many postal workers say the facility where the mail was processed did not get the same attention.


KURTZ: Now journalists were demanding answers, and what's the best information available about the bombing of Afghanistan? Is it this?


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Today there is clear evidence that the U.S. military is making progress in its goal to root out terrorism.


KURTZ: Or this?


TOM BROKAW: In the war zone today, the U.S. kept up its assault on Taliban forces, but they're turning out to be much tougher than expected.


KURTZ: For the moment at least, things remain shrouded by the fog of war. Finally, we on this program would never side with one of the opposing camps in a breaking news event, so we won't say a word about tonight's World Series.

That's it for this edition of RELIABLE SOURCES. I'm Howard Kurtz.

Join us again tomorrow morning for a special live Sunday edition of RELIABLE SOURCES at 9:30 Eastern. We'll talk with "New York Times" columnist Tom Friedman and "National Review" Editor Rich Lowry.

"CAPITAL GANG" is up next.




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