Openness, secrecy at odds in coverage PERESIAN GULF SHOWDOWN

January 23, 1991|By New York Times

WASHINGTON -- In Saudi Arabia, the military briefing officer was so careful about sensitive information that he would not say whether it had been good flying weather yesterday.

At the White House, Marlin Fitzwater, the president's spokesman, got as many questions about U.S. policy on news from the Persian Gulf as about the progress of the war.

After six days of conducting the most intensive bombardment in history, with inconclusive results, the administration is confronting the political problems created by war news as it affects political debate, journalistic analysis and, potentially, public support or opposition.

Every wartime president has had to find the balance between the need to wage war in an effective and secure way and the need to inform a public and Congress who ultimately judge whether the bloodshed was justified.

It is particularly hard to conduct a war that is showing little progress, or producing high casualties.

But for President Bush, news from the war front has become a contentious issue at military briefings and among some in Congress even before the public has had a chance to judge the progress of the war, or debate the efficacy of the Pentagon's tactics and strategy.

It underscores the risks of a policy that has appeared to succeed at keeping down information so far but may become a political problem.

There is no way to say now whether the information withheld by the military would provide a different view of the war than Americans have seen through vague briefings, controlled interviews and a half-dozen videotapes of successful attacks by high-technology rocketry.

Those have provided snapshots of the action, but the government has so far not revealed a comprehensive picture of the results of a bombing campaign that has surpassed that launched on Hanoi and Haiphong in 1972.

The Pentagon blames clouds for obscuring its view of bomb damage, but almost one week into battle, most analysts agree that Iraq still has 450 of its 500 warplanes, an army capable of fighting and worrisome surface-to-air missiles like the one that struck Israel last night.

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