Pentagon rules for gulf news coverage more restrictive than those of Vietnam era

January 05, 1991|By New York Times News Service

WASHINGTON -- The Pentagon has proposed rules for news coverage of a war in the Persian Gulf that are far more restrictive than the guidelines that were used in Vietnam.

The Pentagon said the restrictions would be necessary to protect the security of U.S. military operations in the gulf and to guard the privacy of U.S. troops.

But some news executives and other critics said the proposed rules were excessive. They said the restrictions appeared to be aimed at preventing politically damaging disclosures by soldiers and at shielding the American public from the consequences of war.

"We are always willing to obey rules that protect lives and national security," said George Watson, the Washington bureau chief for ABC News. "These go too far, and we are concerned about it."

Pete Williams, the chief Pentagon spokesman, said in an interview Thursday that the proposed rules would be "subject to some further revisions" and that important changes might be made.

During the Vietnam War, journalists were able to travel relatively freely to combat zones and were not routinely escorted by military officials. In the Persian Gulf, combat operations would be covered by specially designated "pools" of print and broadcast journalists subject to tight restrictions.

Under the Pentagon's proposals, pool members would have to remain with military escorts, and all interviews with servicemen and women would be on the record. Critics said this restriction might constrain the troops from being candid.

News reports produced by the pools of news organizations would be subject to a formal "security review" by public affairs officers in the field before their release.

There was no official censorship of news reports from the field during the Vietnam War, although correspondents adhered to general guidelines designed to protect the security of military operations.

In an apparent effort to prevent unauthorized comments by military officers, the proposed press restrictions would also prohibit impromptu interviews by pool members of military officials entering and departing the Saudi Defense Ministry and "other public places." Interviews with such officials could only be conducted by pool members if coordinated in advance by military press officers, Pentagon officials said.

In deference to Saudi sensitivities, the new regulations would also forbid coverage of religious services in Saudi Arabia.

The proposed press rules ban television coverage of "personnel in agony or severe shock" or "imagery of patients suffering from severe disfigurement." The military said its primary concern in setting the restrictions was to protect the privacy of wounded troops and to ensure that family members of those wounded or killed did not learn of the casualties before they had been officially notified by the military.

Television broadcasts showing combat in Vietnam helped build opposition to the war in the United States.

"The starting point for these ground rules were the rules used in Vietnam," Mr. Williams said. "As the proposed rules worked their way through the system, everybody added something to it. We are now at the point where we have to simplify them down again."

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