Lid keeps coming off Bush's effort to limit stories

Media: Determined to shape coverage, the administration may find spinning information is easier than trying to withhold it.

Terrorism Strikes America


September 14, 2001|By David Folkenflik | David Folkenflik,SUN TELEVISION WRITER

Even as it shapes a response to the terrorist attacks, the Bush administration is also highly mindful of the sensitive information -- and imagery -- being conveyed to the public by the media.

The White House is trying desperately to limit what officials say to the press. And the administration is trying to dictate the terms of the stories that are being broadcast and written.

These are the common impulses of any administration, whatever its political stripe. But observers and participants say the stakes have rarely been higher. And it may prove easier for Bush aides to spin information than to keep it from coming out, they said.

"There are too many people who know what's going on," said longtime CNN correspondent Wolf Blitzer. "As a reporter, am I concerned that the government is going to clamp down? No, I'm not."

Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld declared Wednesday that anyone who leaks classified information is willing to "frustrate our efforts to track down and deal with terrorists and is willing to cost the lives of men and women in uniform."

Said White House press secretary Ari Fleischer, "Anybody in the government who is in receipt of classified information must at all times obey the law. ... It's to protect the security of the country and individuals around the world."

Neither man identified those to whom they were referring, although, after a briefing on intelligence findings, Republican Utah Sen. Orrin G. Hatch disclosed that intercepted communications between associates of exiled Saudi dissident Osama bin Laden suggested his involvement.

Subsequent sessions with congressional leaders -- often reliable sources for the Washington press corps -- have been severely limited in scope.

"You could learn more by going to your local high school newspaper than you could by sitting in on that briefing," Rep. David R. Obey, a senior Wisconsin Democrat, complained to the Associated Press. "The briefing was useless and insulting."

Yet Blitzer, who has covered the White House, State Department and Pentagon, said plenty of information that is sensitive can be revealed without jeopardizing lives, even if that annoys the administration.

"We don't wait for them to spoon-feed us," he said, while acknowledging that some information should not be made public. "If you've got good sources, if you've established good relations with them, you break stories."

During the Persian Gulf war, when Bush's father was president and Vice President Dick Cheney and Secretary of State Colin L. Powell held major government posts, the Pentagon often misled journalists. But Blitzer argued that the truth usually surfaces, as in the corrective stories after the conflict on the inefficiency of some highly praised missiles.

At times during the past few frantic days, officials appear to have contradicted one another's intentions. A few hours after President Bush rejected reporters' pleas yesterday to confirm the identity of the primary suspect in the attack, Secretary of State Powell announced that it was bin Laden.

Meanwhile, even as they seek to intimidate leakers, White House advisers are doing what they can to sculpt the coverage to their liking.

Duke University scholar David Paletz, who has written extensively about media coverage of military and political figures, said the White House is attempting to convey related but separate messages.

Aides are stressing the themes that Bush is in charge, that the government is still functioning, and that it will destroy the terrorists, he said.

Those imperatives may help explain why Fleischer called NBC's news desk Wednesday to announce that a credible threat had been posed to Bush on Air Force One. The president had been roundly criticized for his zig-zag trip around the country during the crisis.

Conservative New York Times columnist William Safire also had reproached Bush for failing to return to Washington. So Karl Rove, perhaps the president's closest adviser, was dispatched to tell the pundit that Bush had urgently wanted to return but relented only in the face of the advice of his security experts. Safire eased his stance in a second column yesterday after Rove's call.

In peacetime, the agenda is controlled through imagery and tactical leaks, the Duke professor said. In this time of virtual war, the Bush philosophy is not all that different.

"The model is not his father," Paletz said, referring to George Bush. "The model is Ronald Reagan. They've tried assiduously to follow that model. There's a picture of the day, and he's largely kept away from reporters.

"What was [the president] doing when this happened?" Paletz asked. "He was reading to schoolchildren in Florida."

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