Terrorists and the Hometown Press


February 12, 1991|By JEFF KAMEN

WASHINGTON — Traditional ''hometown'' reporting of the exploits of soldiers at war is exposing the families of the fighters to possible terrorist attack. News-media executives need to look closely at what could be their inadvertent role in preventable tragedies.

Soldiers' loved ones back home could be selected for attack by terrorists picking their targets from newspaper, magazine and television accounts of servicemen and women doing their jobs in the Persian Gulf. Innocent reporting of how Sgt. Jane Doe of Anytown USA loads the bombs that blow up Saddam Hussein's Republican Guard may make her parents feel proud, but those same dispatches are also being read by people who can kill her parents.

An estimated 1,500 trained terrorists and their supporters, loyal to Iraq, are believed by the FBI to be inside the United States right now. The bureau and the National Security Agency have noted unusually worded short-wave broadcasts by Radio Baghdad which may be coded signals to those terrorists.

Their presence within the borders of our country makes the Persian Gulf war utterly different from others. It is the first conflict in which the enemy has the capability to project violence within the United States, Canada, Britain and other allied countries thousands of miles from the zone of combat.

Many government officials, let alone news executives, are hard to convince that there is a real menace of terrorist attacks on the pTC home front. Their skepticism is based, in part, on the fact that until now, Middle Eastern terrorist groups have generally avoided carrying out atrocities on American soil. Those groups depend for their sustenance and protection on state sponsors who have known that no matter who was president of the United States, he would retaliate massively if large numbers of American civilians were slaughtered at home. No president could hope to win re-election if he did not retaliate under those circumstances.

But that protection against terrorist operations inside the United States disappeared when the bombs, smart and otherwise, began slamming into Baghdad. During the build-up before the war began, Mr. Hussein had publicly welcomed to Baghdad an '' assortment of terrorist ''starts'' including George Habash, founder of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, Yasser Arafat's old friend Abul Abbas, Abu Nidal and Carlos ''The Jackal.''

Terrorist groups, including Hezbollah, the Lebanon-based Shiite group responsible for the truck-bombing of 241 Marines in Beirut in 1983, have people in the U.S. and have publicly declared their intention to support Mr. Hussein by striking us at home.

Many of these organizations and some of their suspected sympathizers, have long been under the sharp surveillance of the FBI's Foreign Counter Intelligence service. Even more troubling are unpredictable fanatics, currently unidentified. They may take it upon themselves to shoot, stab or bomb the relatives of Desert Storm fighters whose names, hometowns, and in the case of local newspapers, even residential addresses, are printed for all to see.

Pentagon public-affairs officers have been acutely aware of the danger inherent in such press practices and say they have asked correspondents not to include hometown information in stories or captions. But hostility between news media and Defense Department officials is running high over issues of military censorship, and there is little or no compliance with the additional request to delete facts which could help terrorists pick their targets.

One senior Army officer said, ''nobody cares when we tell them'' a soldier's family can be hurt because of an otherwise innocent war dispatch ''because they don't believe it can happen.'' He noted that when the Pentagon refused to name the hometowns of fighters listed as Missing In Action, reporters representing regional newspapers complained bitterly that the government was engaging in more censorship; ''nobody wanted to hear that what we were really engaging in was trying to save lives.''

American reporters have never had to worry about possible negative consequences back home because of a story from the battlefront. That is not the case this time. News executives won't be able to apologize enough if their reports lead to violence against the families of servicemen and women.

Jeff Kamen writes on national-security affairs. He is co-author with Robert Kupperman of ''Final Warning: Averting Disaster in the New Age of Terrorism'' (Doubleday).

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