Rumsfeld's propaganda war

With battlefield access nonexistent, the secretary of defense is keeping the press in line with carefully calibrated leaks and themes of the day.

Published November 2, 2001 5:30PM (EST)

Rummy was on a rant. Three days after nosy journalists reported on a special operations raid in Afghanistan -- while it was still underway -- Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld marched into the Pentagon press room and delivered a lecture about the proper limits of providing information to the press.

The reports on the raid, he lamented, "appeared, obviously, as the result of someone in the Pentagon leaking classified information ... It floors me that people are willing to do that." After a few remarks about the importance of a free press, Rumsfeld explained the rules for this new kind of warfare: "Our goal is not to demystify things for the other side."

Fair enough. But what about the instances when Rumsfeld and his senior aides have appeared to do just that? This week, Rumsfeld detailed how pilots bombing Taliban forces get some of their key targeting information, when he revealed that "a very modest number of [American] ground troops" were in northern Afghanistan, coordinating airstrikes with opposition forces there. Rumsfeld was merely acknowledging what had become an open secret -- but also broadcasting it to anybody with a satellite dish, just in case they hadn't figured it out for themselves.

A week earlier, Rumsfeld telegraphed plans to begin bombing Taliban frontline forces, after he was asked about reports that Taliban troops were actually fleeing to the frontlines, which they perceived as being relatively safe. "I suspect that in the period ahead, that's not going to be a very safe place to be," Rumsfeld warned. Even the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Richard Myers, has tipped off the Taliban on occasion.

On Day 2 of the war, a reporter asked Myers if the United States had fired any Tomahawk missiles. Myers answered, "We will use some Tomahawk missiles today from ships," helping clarify what those projectiles going overhead might be for any viewers in Afghanistan. Of course, the insights followed forceful insistence by Rumsfeld that "we do not discuss operational activities."

Presumably, the secretary of defense and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs are not abetting the enemy. But they are discovering that in a war with a huge propaganda front, a continuous flow of information is as important to the war effort as an uninterrupted supply of bombs.

As a result, there are almost daily violations of Rumsfeld's dictum not to discuss operational matters with the press or the public. Some even come from Rummy himself, speaking from the podium. Many more are planted by unnamed "senior defense officials," such as an Oct. 10 Associated Press story that cited three such insiders promising that U.S. planes would soon start dropping 5,000-pound "bunker-buster" bombs to destroy caves and tunnels.

"It's almost comical, the juxtaposition between leaks like this and Bush and Rumsfeld's stern lectures on the sanctity of classified info," observes Owen Cote, a national security expert at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Usually these leaks, sanctioned or otherwise, are intended to convey some hopeful news when none is obvious, or to counter the impression that the war is a halfhearted affair. They sometimes garner full-throated headlines such as "U.S. Said to Plan Copter Raids in Afghanistan" (New York Times, Oct. 10), or "Pentagon May Set up Base in Afghanistan Soon" (USA Today, Oct. 29). In reality, the Pentagon is planning for every conceivable scenario in Afghanistan short of nuclear war, which means the press can virtually fill in the blank after "Pentagon Plans ..." and be more or less correct.

Not that the press requires much.

Just one new tidbit of information per day out of the Pentagon is usually enough to satisfy most correspondents for the television networks and the daily papers, which set the news agenda for the rest of the press. The trouble occurs on days when there really is nothing new in the war, and the Pentagon spinmeisters haven't mustered the imagination to produce a credible new theme of the day. That's when two things are apt to happen: The press gets the day's news from the Other Side, and it begins to "interpret" the same old humdrum news in ways that produce stories that sound new and different.

The most tangible form of news from the other side is the inevitable cavalcade of "collateral damage" claims. The Taliban has been clumsier than other U.S. enemies in using the American press as an outlet for its propaganda. The Serbs and Iraqis, for instance, at least allowed a limited number of American reporters to hang around once hostilities began, so they had some familiarity with the way things work. The Taliban relies mainly on Islamic press, such as the Qatar-based Al-Jazeera television network, only bringing in Western reporters when there are opportunities to film some particular display of carnage -- prearranged or otherwise. Pentagon officials have even suggested that, rather than cultivating Western press, the Taliban organized at least one press convoy hoping that American pilots would mistake it for a military column and bomb it.

So far, the Taliban has scored few points, at least in the Western press. Despite several errant bombs, including two that blew up Red Cross facilities, Rumsfeld has carried the day with his claims that the Taliban leaders are accomplished liars and the press should turn to the Pentagon for the truth. But as the war drags on and the methodical nature of the campaign begins to test the patience of hawks and doves alike, mistakes that kill civilians will be an ever-increasing problem -- especially if there is no tangible progress to report.

During America's last war, the 1999 Kosovo conflict, collateral damage nearly derailed the military plan. Some of the most notorious incidents in that campaign occurred just as progress in the war was stalling -- NATO was stonewalling, and the press was howling for facts. Into that information vacuum tumbled snafus like the bombing of a line of refugees in Kosovo, the destruction of a bridge just as a passenger train was crossing it or the accidental bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade. Such foul-ups not only dominated the news for days and produced outrage among the war's opponents, but also forced immediate restrictions on what targets NATO could bomb, thus hampering the military effort until the very end of the 78-day war.

One effective way to neutralize news from the Other Side is to supplant it with news from the Inside. In other words, let reporters get close to the action, bunk with the troops and relate the dramatic stories from the front -- or whatever passes for it -- that virtually tell themselves. Unless it is a dirty war, these stories are overwhelmingly positive. They tend to be sympathetic tales of dedicated troops working 18-hour days while eating gruel and living in mud. On-scene reports of actual combat are so compelling that they simply blot out lesser issues like collateral damage.

There have been remarkably few stories of that nature in this war. Rumsfeld and his military aides have largely blocked press access to troops for a variety of complicated reasons. They don't want terrorists knowing which service members or units are conducting warfare against them. Countries U.S. troops are operating from fear that public association with the "infidel" Americans could enrage anti-Western extremists within their borders, so they keep the press away. And of course Rumsfeld doesn't want the press blabbing operational details -- at least not before he does. News executives are getting increasingly bitter about the lockout and are demanding better access. A bemused Rumsfeld has promised to take those demands under consideration.

If the other side isn't producing any news, and there's none coming from Inside either, then -- well, I don't want to say we'll just make something up, but we certainly will play something up. Over the last few days, for instance, the theme has been the intensifying campaign against Taliban forces arrayed near the northern Afghanistan cities of Kabul and Mazar-e-Sharif. On numerous newscasts, anchorpersons describe how U.S. forces are "pounding" these targets. On Wednesday, a CNN correspondent in the region insisted there was a "much more ferocious emphasis" on Taliban forces.

Without question, if you are one of the few Taliban soldiers getting a bomb dropped on you, it feels like you are being pounded. But vantage point is everything. "The war is 'intensifying' because reporters are finally getting close enough to see what's going on," one Pentagon spokesman told me. In fact, the proclamations about this tough new phase of the war just happen to coincide with Western cameramen capturing the first footage of a bombing raid in progress on Wednesday. The video, replayed incessantly that day and cropped for the next morning's papers, showed a series of bombs thudding into a hillside. An entire ridgeline went aflame.

Dramatic, no doubt. But the strike probably was no more intense than a standard 15- or 20-minute artillery barrage. And even though the Pentagon may have taken a new tack by starting to carpet-bomb some frontline positions, it is still launching fewer than 10 bomber runs per day against frontlines that stretch for miles and miles. There are perhaps 60 fighter sorties per day, but those jets carry only one or two precision weapons that will do little or nothing against massed forces. Even if the bombers find the front lines, most reports indicate they are only sparsely manned, with Taliban troops hiding out in cities until some kind of opposition offensive forces them to defend positions near the front.

This is the phenomenon of the ever-intensifying war. If you look hard enough, every day will yield some scrap of information that suggests we're really getting serious now: New and deadlier kinds of weapons, broader targets, ground forces going into action. Expectations will rise accordingly -- surely now the war will be heading toward climax. Disappointment becomes inevitable. If we're ramping up and they're still holding out, the war must be going badly. Time to change our strategy.

As the Kosovo war showed, though, a war that appears intense at the outset can quickly fizzle out. The day after the war's first strikes, for instance, the Washington Post declared that "a broad and punishing wave of air attacks" was underway. The Wall Street Journal trumpeted "massive airstrikes intended to halt ethnic violence in Kosovo." A week later, the Washington Post still believed the bombing campaign was "relentless."

In fact, we now know that during the entire first month of the war, NATO was so restricted in what it was allowed to bomb that there was near revolt among some senior military commanders. Top generals and politicians genuinely believed that a few days of pin-prick bombing would compel Slobodan Milosevic to pull his tormentors out of Kosovo. They barely had a plan for what to do if Milosevic didn't cave.

Still, the press thundered onward. By Week 2, the theme was how the deployment of Apache attack helicopters and A-10 attack jets would surely pummel the helpless Serbs on the ground. The Apaches never even entered Serbian airspace; the A-10s flew a few missions, but not the low-altitude tank-chewing sorties the press had led the public to believe would be so decisive. Such frustrated expectations all around eventually produced withering criticism. Only the miracle of a casualty-free war vindicated the military strategists.

Is Operation Enduring Freedom headed for failure? If you believe the war has entered an intense new phase, then the likely conclusion is yes. After all, the bunker busters haven't killed Osama bin Laden or any of the Taliban leaders, and the B-52 raids haven't produced dazed, terrified foes desperate to surrender. The press is right to push for all the information it can get, and to highlight changes in the texture of the story when they appear. But in the breathless rush to get out today's story -- any story -- skepticism gets deferred. Then it becomes its own story down the road, when the generals aren't meeting the expectations the press has established for them.

Rumsfeld et al. seem to understand at least this much: Lowering expectations early on could produce better-looking results later. They promised a long war, not a short one. And they told us there would be casualties. What they didn't anticipate is how the media's incessant demand for information -- and their own need to meet that demand -- would change expectations and the measures for success.

"How the press handles this new conflict will also contribute to the success of it," Rumsfeld told reporters two weeks into the war. It could also lead it to failure.

By Rick Newman

Rick Newman is a senior editor at U.S. News and World Report, where he has served as Pentagon correspondent for the past six years and is currently covering the war against terrorism.

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