September 2, 2002

By Jane E. Kirtley
University of Minnesota

It’s going to be a secret war on terrorism. The president said so last week. Much of what the government will do, in the Middle East, in Central Asia, and even here at home, in the name of the American people, will be kept from us.

Up to a point, even the most ardent Freedom of Information advocate can accept that some secrecy is essential. A covert operation can’t be conducted in public. No journalist would want to be told that a news story revealing operational details led to the death of American troops. And if experience is any guide, the public will tolerate, even embrace, the military’s insistence on secrecy, at least in the short term.

What’s more, it won’t be easy to persuade the public that the government is being secretive at all. After all, not a day goes by without news conferences, photo ops, and statements from various officials. But just because the government is saying it doesn’t mean we should be reporting it without questioning it. Journalists must always be alert to the possibility that they are being used as a public relations tool, or even as a conduit for disinformation. Never is that more important than in times of crisis, or war.

What about coverage of military operations overseas? Assuming the press is “allowed” to join troops abroad, it may find itself hobbled by one of the unfortunate legacies of the Persian Gulf War: the Statement of Principles brokered by media representatives and the Pentagon in 1992. (Of course, this also assumes that the Pentagon intends to follow these principles.)

The Statement of Principles was intended to rectify some of the more egregious restrictions imposed on the media during the Gulf conflict. It proclaims that “open and independent reporting” will be the “principal means” of combat coverage. The controversial press pools supposedly will be deployed only when they are the sole feasible means of access.

All very well, as far as it goes. But who will those “open and independent reporters” be? They will first have to receive credentials from the military. They also will be required to abide by an as-yet-unspecified set of security ground rules, or face expulsion from the battlefield. In light of new technology that permits instantaneous transmission of news reports, will the military be prepared to take the risk that previously untried reporters, unaffiliated with traditional news organizations, will respect operational security? And even for those who obtain credentials, the Principles already anticipate that there will be times when “electromagnetic operational security” will justify restrictions on communications systems used by the media to dispatch their stories.

These types of constraints have the practical effect of accomplishing what the Pentagon failed to secure when the Principles were drafted: a concession from the media representatives to submit to prior “security review” of their news material. If the military control who is allowed to cover the war, and retain the authority to shut down the means of filing the stories those reporters write, then they also control the story.

But I don’t think we are powerless here. It is true that the courts have not been sympathetic to the various legal challenges brought against restrictions imposed during the Grenada invasion and the Persian Gulf War. But unlike those conflicts, President Bush has warned the American public that the “campaign against terrorism” will not be a quick fix. Accordingly, the military need the media as much as the media need the military. They need us to transmit information because the public will not support a sustained conflict for long if it isn’t allowed to know what it going on from an independent source. We should be able to bargain, and bargain hard, for the coverage the public deserves and will eventually demand.

Failing that, we must at least be certain that our readers and viewers know that the “news” they are receiving was not gathered under our usual ground rules. Although this may seem self-evident to us in the industry, it is by no means obvious to the public. Many consumers of news had no idea how shackled the media were during the Gulf War. This time, we must make clear, repeatedly, exactly what obstacles are impeding us from providing our readers and viewers with the independent coverage they expect, and usually take for granted.

Meanwhile, back home, keep an eye on the legislation that is working its way through Congress. It is easy to be distracted from monitoring the deluge of complex bills that have emerged since Sept. 11. But despite repeated statements from the president, Attorney General Ashcroft, and their allies that constitutional rights will be respected, many of these proposals would bestow unprecedented powers of surveillance long sought by the law enforcement and intelligence communities. Meanwhile, the public’s right of access to national security information will be sharply curtailed. Initiatives such as these have been rejected in the past, but will be eagerly embraced by some as a quick fix to allay fears of terrorist threats. The news media must challenge those seeking such measures to justify not only their necessity, but their efficacy in preventing future harm to national security.

Jane E. Kirtley is the Silha Professor of Media Ethics and Law at the University of Minnesota. She was the executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press from 1985 to 1999.

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