Editors complaining about dearth of facts from Balkans war

NATO allies control flow of information to news organizations


SAN FRANCISCO -- President Clinton noted in a speech to newspaper editors here Thursday the "stark contrast between a free society with a free press and a closed society where the press is used to manipulate people by suppressing or distorting the truth."

But while U.S. journalists are not being shot dead, as one dissident editor was this week in the Balkans, some of America's most prominent opinion-makers are accusing the Pentagon of kidnapping the facts on the war in Kosovo.

In a letter to the Pentagon this week, seven editors and bureau chiefs of national news organizations said they are getting far less information than they did during the Persian Gulf war and the more recent bombing campaign in Iraq.

Not daring to venture back into Serbian-controlled Kosovo without an official escort, and with access to Belgrade limited, most U.S. journalists have been covering the war from the White House, the Pentagon, NATO headquarters in Brussels and refugee camps in Albania and Macedonia.

That gives the U.S. government an advantage: The flow of information is easier to control, public opinion easier to manipulate.

"We of course recognize your need to withhold information that would jeopardize ongoing military operations or endanger the lives of individual members of the military," top-level editors at the Washington Post, New York Times, Los Angeles Times, NBC, Associated Press, CNN and the Wall Street Journal wrote Defense Secretary William S. Cohen.

"There is a long history of cooperation between the media and the military on this point," the letter continued. "But the current restrictions on the flow of information seem to us to go way beyond this need."

After his speech, Clinton was asked directly why the military was withholding information.

The president blamed the Balkan weather and terrain, which he said makes it more difficult to evaluate targets. And he blamed the difficulty in getting the sprawling NATO alliance coordinated. He said he'd already spoken with two other NATO leaders about the information gap and promised more details would be released.

"I think the more information we can get out there more quickly, the better we are," Clinton said. "The assumption is there is some deliberate scheme at work here, but I don't think that is the case. NATO has never done this kind of operation before and we're trying to work through it."

However, unlike the gulf war, said Leonard Downie Jr., executive editor of the Washington Post, the Pentagon is not providing specific information about the number of bombing raids, location of targets, which raids were effective and which were not, and the type of aircraft carrying them out.

Restricting the flow of information may help the Pentagon avoid the kind of embarrassment it experienced after the gulf war, when reporters discovered, for example, that military officials had greatly overstated the effectiveness of the Patriot missile-defense system.

"I'm not talking about not giving us propaganda, which happened during the Persian Gulf war," Downie said. "But it [the propaganda] was accompanied by a lot of specific information so you could keep track of how well things are going. We don't even know how many sorties, for example, dropped ordnance or not."

Pub Date: 4/17/99

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