Information about war is tightly controlled

Reporters have to accept Pentagon's slant on action

April 07, 1999|By Ellen Gamerman | Ellen Gamerman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Beyond pictures of departing warplanes and occasional images of buildings engulfed in flames on Serbian TV, American news-watchers have seen and read little to gauge the success of the NATO airstrikes after two weeks in the Balkans.

The Pentagon readily acknowledges it is withholding details on the number and success of sorties, strikes and direct hits in the Balkan attacks -- but calls it part of a new strategy to protect military secrecy in the information age.

The result: The wall between the Pentagon and the public is rising again. It is even higher than during the Persian Gulf war, many believe, and certainly more restrictive than in the Vietnam War, when reporters hitchhiked on helicopters into the battle zone.

The crisis in Kosovo is described by NATO officials with gung-ho sound bites, blurry aerial videotape of bomb drops (with the sounds of pilots in combat politely left out) and occasional aerial photos of bombed-out targets.

In Washington, daily briefings by White House spokesman Joe Lockhart and Pentagon spokesman Kenneth H. Bacon occasionally release a bit of new information but they have routinely allowed the briefings to remain vague.

"Just listen to Joe Lockhart -- he dances around the questions 100 percent of the time when he's up there -- and Ken Bacon releases very little," said retired Lt. Gen. Tom Kelly, director of operations in the gulf war. "They're only saying what they're told to say."

This week, Bacon told reporters that this increasing secrecy is part of a new "culture" ordered by the top brass at the Pentagon. The military's first priority is to protect its soldiers, he argued, adding that sometimes too much information can be harmful.

Bacon complained that reports of the administration's intention to bomb two targets in Belgrade -- with shots of planes departing from Aviano Air Base on that mission -- allowed Serbian officials to calculate exactly when and where the bombs would start falling.

Pentagon officials worry about more leaks to Serbia via the Internet as well as on-the-spot cell-phone reports from a few journalists in Belgrade and other hot spots in the Balkans.

"We're very concerned about the capability of [Yugoslav President Slobodan] Milosevic to assemble and to aggregate information that could be used to the detriment of our forces," said Navy Capt. Michael Doubleday, a Pentagon spokesman. "The information is unclassified in many cases, but when put together with other unclassified information can build a complete picture."

So it came as little surprise when British Air Commodore David J. G. Wilby, at the NATO briefing in Brussels, Belgium, yesterday, said the attack on Serbian armored forces yielded "encouraging results" but refused to elaborate further.

When pressed about allied bombing of Serbian tanks, he told a reporter, "I was very careful with my words" in describing that effort and added only that "we will continue to track them and hit them successfully."

Some reporters say they can see the military's public relations machine at work.

"The NATO briefings are total spin and propaganda," said Patrick Sloyan, a reporter for Newsday who won a Pulitzer Prize for coverage relating to the 1991 gulf war. "They use this as a podium for spinning their views. But if you pay close attention, you can get information."

In the gulf war, information was easier to come by in part because the war had been planned for months before the first strike was launched, giving journalists in the Middle East time to figure out who the players were and how the ground rules would work.

Although reporters complained bitterly about restrictions on pool reporters, those journalists were allowed more access to decision-makers and war-zone action than reporters in the Balkans.

This time, the administration started air attacks with little warning. Further blocking the information flow: Serbian authorities banned nearly all reporters from the country, forcing journalists to depend on official military channels for information.

The two campaigns are entirely different. The U.S. Army publication about the gulf war, printed after the conflict ended, was titled "Certain Victory." The crisis in the Balkans is far more confusing and the outcome less clear, and some reporters say the release of details may seem more risky to the Pentagon and NATO forces as a result.

"This is much more complicated than Desert Storm," said Newsday's Sloyan. "Maybe this one will be called `Uncertain Victory.' "

While he feels he is getting roughly the same amount of information as he did during the gulf war, Sloyan said, the refugee problem and the escalating reports of genocide have changed the climate in which that information is delivered.

NATO's supreme commander, Gen. Wesley K. Clark, a Rhodes scholar from Arkansas, is known as a tough taskmaster who wants to control as much information as possible, Pentagon officials say. The result has been sporadic crackdowns on information.

Within the past several days, the Navy abruptly ordered a Norfolk, Va., television crew off the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt. The crew was deposited in Spain, before the ship moved on to the Adriatic.

But this conflict also has seen some media landmarks. The Navy allowed a reporter on a submarine for the first time in combat to witness a Tomahawk cruise missile launch. And reporters were put on B-52 bombing runs for the first time since Vietnam.

For the future, though, information is likely to come from military briefings -- not firsthand reports. Now, some military experts say even the sound bites are too much.

"All this constant talk -- `we are determined, we will persevere' -- all this droning on and on -- to me, this is talking too much," said retired Maj. Gen. William L. Nash, a commander in the gulf war and the 1995 Bosnia intervention.

"Sometimes not talking is better than saying too much."

Sun staff writer Tom Bowman contributed to this article.

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