Pentagon halts daily briefings, issues terse statement

White House urges care in televising terrorists' statements

War On Terrorism : The World

October 11, 2001|By David L. Greene and David Folkenflik | David L. Greene and David Folkenflik,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - The Pentagon suspended its daily war briefings yesterday, saying that after three days of military operations in Afghanistan, it was time to move to a less frequent schedule of updating the public.

Officials released a three-paragraph statement that said, "U.S. military strikes against terrorist and military targets, and humanitarian relief airdrops for the Afghan people, continued." They provided few details.

At the White House, Condoleezza Rice, President Bush's national security adviser, urged TV executives to consider carefully whether to air videotaped statements from Osama bin Laden or his lieutenants on their networks. It is possible, Rice said, that the terrorists are using the videos to send secret messages to their associates, perhaps in preparation for further attacks.

The White House indicated that it has no "hard" evidence of any such signals in the al-Qaida broadcasts but are reviewing them further.

Administration officials said that in releasing information to the public, they are seeking a balance between informing the public and guarding national security. But the efforts to clamp down on information are raising old questions about whether the government, in a time of war, is protecting national security or protecting itself from unexpected embarrassments by tightly controlling what the public is told.

Victoria Clarke, the Pentagon spokeswoman, said that even though officials typically held daily briefings during past wars, this "is a very unconventional war." She indicated that the Defense Department wants to return to the prewar schedule of twice-a-week media briefings, while leaving open the option of more briefings as developments warrant.

With the U.S. military campaign in Afghanistan thought to be on the verge of a new phase involving covert operations, U.S. officials could become even more reluctant to be questioned on television about U.S. military action.

"Obviously, there's very little that can be put out right now," said retired Rear Adm. Thomas Jurkowsky, a former chief spokesman for the Navy.

Carl Gottlieb, deputy director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism, said he was "a bit surprised" that the Pentagon would call off daily televised updates after a few days.

The decision could send an alarming signal that the administration is trying to restrict information too severely, said Gottlieb, a former TV news executive in Washington whose organization is funded by Pew Charitable Trusts.

"It's easy to control the information if you don't put as much of it out," Gottlieb said. "And I would think, in a situation that is so unfamiliar, where we are fighting an unseen enemy, we should be giving people more information, not less."

Ari Fleischer, Bush's chief spokesman, said the White House asked network news executives in a conference call to "exercise judgment" in broadcasting messages from terrorists.

"One way to communicate outside Afghanistan to followers is through Western media," Fleischer said. "At best, Osama bin Laden's messages are calling on people to kill Americans. At worst, he could be issuing orders to his followers to initiate such attacks."

Fleischer said that by running a videotaped statement from bin Laden on Sunday - it was not known when the tape was recorded - the networks might have been airing a coded message "at a timing and in a manner of Osama bin Laden's choosing."

Administration officials were also angered by a decision Tuesday by CNN and MSNBC to run a videotape of an al-Qaida spokesman that had been provided by the Arab satellite television station al-Jazeera.

Rice pressed her case yesterday morning with the heads of the major TV network news divisions.

Afterward, the network executives said they would not broadcast any more footage from al-Qaida members without reviewing it first and would decide later how much, if any, to air. Two network officials said Rice was careful not to say that broadcasting the tapes would endanger national security.

Gene Roberts, a journalism professor at the University of Maryland who is a former managing editor of the New York Times and former editor of the Philadelphia Inquirer, advised network executives to press for more proof of any coded messages. Roberts noted that the words of bin Laden's associates are likely to be newsworthy.

"It's almost a replay of the gulf war in many respects," Roberts said, pointing to criticism of CNN correspondents in 1991 for reporting from Baghdad, the Iraqi capital. "The charge heard against Peter Arnett was that he was advancing the enemy's cause. With a decade of history behind us, I don't think that charge holds up."

Yesterday's developments followed other efforts by the administration to restrict the flow of information since Sept. 11. Bush, angry that details from one intelligence briefing were leaked, has ordered several federal agencies to limit the classified information they give to members of Congress.

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