News agencies wrestle with use of information

Analysis: Who gets to decide whether reporting is a security risk or just news?

October 12, 2001|By David Folkenflik | David Folkenflik,SUN TELEVISION WRITER

The Bush administration has promised a war against terrorism on many fronts. This week, its information offensive came to light, as government officials became stingy in disclosing developments and sought to dissuade the media from giving a platform to those accused of planning the Sept. 11 attacks.

"Up to this point, in the propaganda war, Osama bin Laden has proven to be a considerable adversary," says Marvin Kalb, former chief diplomatic correspondent for CBS and NBC.

After Sunday's first air strikes against Taliban strongholds in Afghanistan, President Bush spoke to the nation in a televised address. A bit later, American networks showed an uninterrupted tape of bin Laden making his call for a holy war against the United States. Similarly, on Tuesday, U.S. broadcasters aired lengthy footage of a bin Laden associate making new threats.

It was as though those accused of plotting terrorism were conferred equal status by the television news to leaders of a democratic system.

"The networks don't put many people on unedited," says Doyle McManus, Washington bureau chief for the Los Angeles Times.

Senior federal officials sought to cut that practice short. On Wednesday, after lobbying by National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, U.S. television news executives agreed to reconsider how much footage they will broadcast of bin Laden and his aides.

Yesterday, White House press secretary Ari Fleischer appealed to newspaper editors not to publish bin Laden's full statements. And FBI and White House officials have also prevailed upon the Fox network to broadcast a special edition tonight of America's Most Wanted to focus attention on the 22 top surviving terrorism suspects.

Meanwhile, government agencies have removed sensitive data from their Web sites that could aid those who would stage a chemical or biological attack on civilians. The White House set new rules for sharing intelligence on the attacks with congressional leaders, while the Defense Department has cut back sharply on its briefings with reporters.

"In the modern world, information is a resource and a weapon," says Dee Dee Myers, who was a press secretary for former-President Bill Clinton.

Journalists have also been kept far from military action, which is said to involve an unusually high degree of covert operations. The Pentagon has not yet reached a means of helping reporters cover the conflict, despite promises made after the Persian Gulf War. During that war, a selected group of correspondents shared dispatches from carefully vetted situations with their peers.

In interviews, journalists uniformly say they are sensitive to the need to guard against revealing information about military plans and sensitive intelligence sources that could get Americans or their allies killed. "In fairness to the Bush administration, there are some very real security concerns," says Erik Sorenson, president of MSNBC. "I am not in the chorus that's suggesting the administration has been onerous."

However, some question actions by the White House that may involve only a loose connection to those stated aims.

In addition to its restrictions on military reporters and lobbying the networks and newspapers, the Bush administration called on Al Jazeera, a Qatar-based broadcaster widely watched in the Arab world, to limit how much criticism of the United States it airs. American media outlets took its live feed for the source of the bin Laden tirade. And the administration has pressured the Voice of America, a government-funded, international broadcaster that reaches many Afghans, to withhold statements by a Taliban spokesman from a radio dispatch.

After several days, VOA defied the State Department to air its piece, which included comments from Bush and observers as well as the Taliban mullah.

Al Jazeera, which is partially funded by the emir of Qatar, rejected the American criticism of using al-Qaida statements. "Any organization that was able to obtain such a scoop would not hesitate to accept it," Hamad bin Thamir, the news service's chief executive, told reporters yesterday. Even so, Secretary of State Colin Powell and British Prime Minister Tony Blair have been interviewed by al-Jazeera, which reaches 35 million viewers. An appearance by President Bush is reportedly being weighed.

Pete Williams, who served as the chief Pentagon spokesman during the administration of President George H.W. Bush, says the White House appears to be motivated by genuine security concerns.

"The only legitimate reason for controlling information is to safeguard military operations and intelligence," says Williams, who now covers the Justice Department for NBC News. "I think most journalists, and the majority of citizens, understand that, and agree."

In this week's appeals to television and newspaper executives, Fleischer cited security concerns, saying the suspected terrorist mastermind may be conveying coded messages to his collaborators.

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