One day, all will be known Newswatch ...on politics today

Jack W. Germond & Jules Witcover

February 08, 1991|By Jack W. Germond & Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON -- The New York Times published a report the other day quoting unidentified Pentagon officials as saying that the three weeks of heavy bombing have not substantially weakened the elite Iraqi units who have been the targets. The obvious inferences for the reader to draw were, first, that a ground war will be required to drive the Iraqis from Kuwait and, second, that it could be difficult.

The Times is a careful and responsible newspaper, and there was no reason to question the accuracy of the report. But here in Washington everyone reads the tea leaves in cases like this and tries to guess at what was "behind" the story.

One obvious possibility would be that Army officers still enslaved by time-honored interservice rivalries were trying to denigrate the successes the Air Force and Navy have been claiming from their bombing attacks. But any reporter who knows anything about the Pentagon obviously would be alert to that possibility from the start.

Then there is another scenario -- that the administration was encouraging such assessments as part of a campaign to prepare the American people for the likelihood that a ground war will have to be fought and that it may be costly in terms of casualties. The report appeared the morning after President Bush himself said he was "skeptical" of the ability of air power alone to win in Kuwait -- a statement that in itself seemed to be an attempt to prepare the American people for what lies ahead.

The problem in all this is that, thanks to the extraordinary military control of the flow of information, nobody other than the president and his military leaders know enough about the facts of the situation in Kuwait to make a judgment -- nobody else, that is, except the Iraqis.

The validity of censorship in time of war is essentially beyond challenge. Everyone in the news business recognizes when there are dangers of providing valuable information to the

enemy, and there is a long history of news organizations withholding reports because they might endanger the lives of troops in the field. Similarly, news organizations recognize the need for pools of reporters and camera crews to be given firsthand views of events and then report back to their colleagues and competitors.

But the control of information on this war -- other than the daily statistics on such things as the number of sorties flown and the tonnage of bombs dropped in one place or another -- has been remarkably tight. And the inevitable result is suspicion that the press is being manipulated for broadly political reasons, not directly to enhance the electability of President Bush but instead to maintain a climate of support for the war effort.

There is, however, a clear danger for the Bush administration if the picture it is presenting proves to be inaccurate. So far, this has been an antiseptic war -- the reporting largely made up of those statistics, military films of bombs striking targets, interviews with returning pilots who seem right out of central casting, file films of weapons systems in action and optimistic assessments of military leaders.

The only thing not controlled by the U.S. military is the videotape from Iraqi television of destruction there -- tape controlled by the Iraqis.

At this point, the satisfaction of the U.S. military leaders seems fully justified. The resistance from Saddam Hussein has been far less substantial than had been expected and casualties have been low among the coalition forces. But the hazard for the administration is that Americans may be nourishing the belief that the war can be won at a very small cost.

If that proves to be the case, everyone will give a sigh of relief and celebrate. Success is the ultimate validation of any policy and no one will be fretting over censorship after the fact.

But if it proves not to be the case -- if the success is achieved only at length and a high cost -- the letdown is likely to be dramatic and questions inevitably will arise about why Americans weren't told things were going to be this difficult.

In the end, judgments on the president's policy in the Persian Gulf are not likely to be affected materially by the censorship policies that are being followed. Bush will be judged by the results. But the president would be mistaken if he believes the information on those results can be controlled forever. At some point, the censors will have to go home and the reporters will be able to do their jobs again.

Political columnists Germond and Witcover of The Evening Sun's staff appear Monday through Friday. Beginning Monday, their column will appear on the editorial page.

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