`Embedded' journalists put our troops in danger

Reporting the war

April 07, 2003|By Douglas MacKinnon

WASHINGTON - "Embedded" is the new media catchword.

Meaning that the Pentagon has inserted, or embedded, about 600 journalists with front-line and support troops in Iraq. Many people are applauding this move as "much needed," "cutting-edge" and "transparent."

I strongly disagree. I think it puts the lives of our troops in danger while creating serious security concerns for the ongoing mission.

For the better part of the last decade, I have worked with the media almost daily, including three years at the Pentagon and during the first Persian Gulf war. I have many friends in the media and have great respect for the profession. That said, I don't think they should be embedded with American and British combat troops. My rationale is as follows:

In talking to friends at the Pentagon, I have already heard serious complaints or concerns regarding the "embedded" journalists.

Among them is the worry that these journalists, when doing their live or taped broadcasts back to their home networks, are, in fact, giving away operational details of the mission - details that could, or have, put American troops in harm's way.

One example: I was horrified to see an NBC embedded journalist announce to the world and the Iraqi intelligence services (who watch every one of these broadcasts) that the unit that he was traveling with had not received its fuel and was not sure when it would arrive. I'm sorry, but that's critical information that could assist the Iraqi armed forces.

The next point made by my Pentagon friend was that embedded journalists were distracting soldiers during live firefights.

On several occasions, I saw an embedded journalist crawl up to a soldier during a firefight and start asking him questions. Common sense will tell anyone that if the soldier is turning to address the journalist during an ongoing firefight, he is distracted and could be risking his life as well as the lives of his fellow soldiers.

The final complaint of my Pentagon friend was that the presence of embedded journalists with front-line combat troops might make the troops question their judgment or hesitate in their action. Because combat is not always black and white, it's not always easy to identify the enemy. There have already been numerous reports that Republican Guard troops are dressing as civilians and pretending to surrender to U.S. forces. Once our troops got in range, the disguised Republican Guard forces would open fire.

Knowing that "Big Brother" is watching their every move, will American troops hesitate, even a split second, before firing on "civilians" they believe to be Iraqi troops? And will that hesitation result in the loss of American lives? I strongly believe those are valid questions.

My final concern with these embedded journalists has to do with their immediate reporting and the consequences back home. Already, families of dead or missing U.S. service personnel have learned of their fate not from the Pentagon but by watching television and then having journalists shove microphones in their faces. They are not even allowed to mourn the loss of their child in peace.

Lastly, live reports from the battlefield of American casualties will continue to erode the morale of the American people and potentially drain support for the troops. Before this war is over, the United States may tragically lose several hundred soldiers.

Embedded journalists do more harm than good. Let's end the experiment.

Douglas MacKinnon is former press secretary to former Sen. Bob Dole of Kansas. He is also a former White House and Pentagon official.

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