Reporters, military briefers spar in daily Saudi drama WAR IN THE GULF

February 17, 1991|By Robert Ruby | Robert Ruby,Sun Staff Correspondent

RIYADH, Saudi Arabia -- Judged by his Army career, Lt. Col. Greg Pepin enjoys the foreign, the exotic and the dangerous. Duties have taken him to Turkey, Egypt and Syria. He has parachuted from helicopters and airplanes. He is expert on the world of artillery, including the care and handling of nuclear rounds.

"It's kind of like working with nuclear weapons," Colonel Pepin dTC concluded after several uncomfortable sessions in his new job, dealing with the press in the briefing room here each evening. "It's a no-defects operation. If you make one little error, the whole world knows about it."

Colonel Pepin plays a small part in the cool, very public daily drama when officers enter a makeshift television studio to take turns offering the official account of another day of a war few reporters are allowed to see for themselves.

What the briefing officers report is often the first and sometimes the only account of casualties, victories or mistakes. It is the starting point for almost every newscast and newspaper story purporting to say, Here's what happened today in the war.

The briefings are unavoidably part show, an offering to television and the cult of immediacy. There is constant awareness that Cable News Network is broadcasting live. Colonel Pepin sits off to the side to supply the odd fact to on-camera superiors.

"We knew TV was going to come in and try to do a live program," said Lt. Col. Michael Gallagher, an Air Force public affairs officer working much as an executive producer to make sure the briefings run smoothly. "But the immediacy of the news is a serious difference from the past, especially in a war environment, because it doesn't allow for mistakes."

There have been rocky moments. Reporters were frustrated by a paucity of information. Officers were frustrated by conflicting demands of security and openness. "You all knew we were using B-52s," said Colonel Pepin, remembering one of the difficult times. "The public knew we're using B-52s. But I had to go up there and talk around it."

Eventually the rules were changed. After one session with especially contentious exchanges, the televised briefing was limited to 30 minutes and reporters were given additional, untelevised briefings with senior officers.

On any given day the officers representing the United States, Britain and Saudi Arabia mix basic courses in military science with impenetrable jargon, unintended entertainment with dreadful boredom. Briefers make efforts to inform and efforts to sway.

They have, at the least, altered the public's vocabulary. Consumers of war news hear regularly about the KTO (Kuwaiti Theater of Operations). They are told the latest BDAs (Battle Damage Assessments), the results of ATOs (Air Targeting Orders).

Officers insist they want to avoid "this numbers game," the counting of the dead, destroyed or damaged. But they play when it suits them.

From President Bush down, commanders suggest this is a war fought with map coordinates and computers. Pilots drop laser-guided bombs. Helicopters fire wire-guided rockets at Iraqi tanks. Cruise missiles obey guidance systems providing the equivalent of a street address. But numbers give spokesmen the willies.

Numbers became the military's burden in Vietnam, where the daily "body count" of enemy casualties became the subject of ridicule. Here, after much prodding by reporters, officers agreed to release weekly estimates of damage done to Iraqi equipment, although details are sparse.

Officers maintain that the press has unrealistic expectations. "Reporters, maybe the American public, think we have everything in a giant computer bank," said Colonel Pepin. "Everyone thinks we can go back and flip to a page and, say, here it is. We're fighting a war, not a numbers game."

The briefings are the closest contact many reporters have with the war. What the briefing officers leave unsaid, reporters may never discover, because of Pentagon rules keeping most journalists in hotels rather than with troops.

With few exceptions, access to the U.S. forces is limited to roughly 100 reporters belonging to any of 15 or 20 Pentagon-sponsored pools -- groups of writers, photographers and TV crews supervised by military escorts.

Pool members have stayed in the field for periods ranging from hours to weeks, beginning before the outbreak of fighting. In exchange for access, the reporters share information with colleagues from other news organizations.

Membership in the pools is determined jointly by the military and committees of journalists, a process that generates a lot of heat.

Several organizations left out of the pools have filed suit against the government, alleging that the rules infringe on freedom of speech. Journalists from other countries have signed a petition accusing U.S. officials of usurping Saudi sovereignty and threaten to ignore the rules.

How well people think the system works for Americans depends on whether the judge is a Pentagon official or a journalist.

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