With Bush joining chorus, Pentagon finds answers to requests for damage news WAR IN THE GULF

January 23, 1991|By Charles W. Corddry | Charles W. Corddry,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- As bad weather cleared over Iraq yesterday, some of the cloud cover over Pentagon war information also seemed to be dissipating.

In the morning, the White House held out that President Bush was having as much trouble as the news media in getting information on the damage done to Iraq by air power and that he was frustrated about it.

Within hours of the White House comment, the Defense Department announced that Secretary Dick Cheney and Gen. Colin L. Powell, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, would brief the press this afternoon on results of the air campaign.

All sorts of official explanations have been offered for the failure generally to reveal bombing results, other than some of the spectacular successes of laser-guided "smart" weapons. Bad weather seems to get most of the blame.

"President Bush has asked for the same kind of damage reports that you have, and it's just not there," spokesman Marlin Fitzwater said. "But it will be made available to you as soon as it is there."

An administration official said yesterday evening that Mr. Bush was given a more detailed briefing in late afternoon than he had been before.

Whether it was bad weather preventing aerial photography, institutional bias toward secrecy or whatever reason, skimpy information on the air campaign since last weekend was causing "heartburn" at the Capitol, according to Representative Les Aspin, D-Wis., chairman of the House Armed Services Committee.

In a TV interview, he said he thought U.S. air power was doing "extremely well." But the widely televised successes of the opening strikes with precision-guided weapons, he said, could raise expectations about the rest of the war that "we can't match."

Growing complaints about an information drought could have begun to cause political problems for the White House, some observers argued, and so more detailed briefings were set for today.

The weather- or otherwise-caused problems of assessing and publicly reporting on bomb damage coincided with other media complaints about restrictions imposed on reporters in the conflict zone.

Part of the reason for the restrictions, military officers said, was that an estimated 600 reporters and other media representatives were in Saudi Arabia. They contended that it was necessary to regulate travel, which is chiefly provided by the military, and to use a pool system under which a few correspondents are transported to scenes of action throughout the zone and share their reports with all hands.

One who circumvented the U.S.-imposed system was Arnaud de Borchgrave, editor in chief of the Washington Times and a veteran war reporter. From the "Kuwaiti-Saudi border" yesterday, he told how he had signed on with an Egyptian outfit and driven about the desert.

"Interestingly, the Americans we encountered were the only allied nationals that treated us with suspicion," Mr. de Borchgrave wrote. He said he asked a U.S. lieutenant whether a road ahead, toward the border, was secure. "Sorry, sir," he quoted the officer. "We are under orders not to talk to the media."

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