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News media, administration struggle over press freedom, national security

Analysis

By The Associated Press

10.12.01

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WASHINGTON — The nation's war against terrorism has led the government and news outlets into uncertain terrain, raising questions about how both sides proceed when press freedom and national security concerns clash.

Central to the conflict is the exchange of information about the military and diplomatic pursuit of a clandestine terrorist network.

"This will be a war like none other our nation has faced," Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

The White House has aggressively protected details of its anti-terror campaign, warning reporters and lawmakers that leaks could endanger more lives. President Bush even scolded Congress for leaking classified information.

News outlets, meanwhile, are agitating for everything from better access to the front lines of this war to details of the investigation.

The sides have stumbled upon some middle ground in recent days.

Americans highly supportive of Bush and the military campaign are likely to be patient, polls suggest.

"The public is giving the administration the benefit of the doubt," said Clark Hoyt, Washington editor of Knight Ridder.

Some news outlets are too. Five major news networks agreed this week to limit broadcasts of Osama bin Laden after the White House said the head of the al-Qaida terrorist network may have used the TV footage to send a coded call to action to his supporters.

And The Washington Post last weekend withheld information from a classified briefing received by members of Congress from a story quoting anonymous officials as saying new terrorist strikes were "100 percent" certain if the U.S. were to attack Afghanistan.

At the request of the Pentagon, Knight Ridder delayed publication of a story saying special operations units had secretly entered Afghanistan, Hoyt said.

But the restraint doesn't mean news outlets are willing to be spoon-fed hand-picked details about a war that will cost billions of taxpayer dollars and put American troops at risk.

"It's our job to press for information and use good judgment about the information that we receive," Hoyt said. "It's never our role to just sit back and accept what's handed to us."

Even the restraint shown thus far by news outlets — especially regarding the broadcast of bin Laden footage — has raised hackles among free-press advocates.

"Patriotism and transparency are kissing cousins," said Robert Manoff, director of the Center for War, Peace and the News Media at New York University. "Denying the American people the opportunity to understand what they are facing and to debate among themselves what to do about that is a terrible mistake."

But restraint and responsibility are close relatives too, the administration insists.

Bush fired a stern warning down Pennsylvania Avenue after the leak to the Post: If lawmakers can't keep war secrets, none but a handful will be trusted with any. The news came the same day the House Ethics Committee issued a caution against disclosing secret information, saying violating the Classified Information Oath can result in sanctions. Bush later dropped restrictions that severely limited the members of Congress who could get top-secret briefings on the war on terrorism.

The Pentagon, meanwhile, told defense contractors not to talk about the weapons they make.

The State Department also tried to block the government-funded Voice of America radio network from airing an interview with a Taliban official.

And last month, White House spokesman Ari Fleischer publicly scolded the host of TV's "Politically Incorrect" talk show, for controversial comments on the terrorist attacks and admonished Americans "to watch what they say."

Rumsfeld invoked Winston Churchill's comments about the importance of the element of surprise during the invasion of Normandy.

"Sometimes the truth is so precious it must be accompanied by a bodyguard of lies," Rumsfeld paraphrased during a briefing in September.

Later, he added: "I don't recall that I have ever lied to the press. I don't intend to, and it seems to me that there will not be reason for it. ... There are dozens of ways to avoid having to put yourself in a position where you're lying."

Related

White House cautions TV networks about airing bin Laden tapes
Five major broadcasters agree to screen, possibly edit transmissions from al-Qaida before airing them after administration warns tapes may contain coded messages.  10.11.01

European critics fault U.S. coverage of terrorist aftermath
Reporters Sans Frontieres issues report questioning American journalistic objectivity.  10.12.01

Panelists tell editors: Congressional efforts to protect freedom may thwart it
Meanwhile, 18 journalism groups say government restrictions are limiting news media’s ability to give people the information they need to stay safe.  10.15.01

U.S. buys exclusive rights to satellite imagery of war zone
Government secrecy analyst says move denies news media, public access to important tool for overseeing military operation.  10.16.01

Terrorism: the only winner when government tries to control news coverage
Commentary Also disturbing was swiftness with which TV network chiefs agreed to limit coverage of video statements by Osama bin Laden.  10.20.01

The war on journalism
Ombudsman Closing off information to the public by squeezing the press leaves us in the dark with pundit prattle, poor policies and panic.  10.22.01

Pentagon: U.S. troops in central Asia to remain off-limits to reporters
Military officials say they're willing to restrict press access to American soldiers if it means countries in region will cooperate militarily.  11.09.01

Open-government advocates see 'epidemic of official secrecy'
Analysis No White House can arbitrarily withhold information and expect to maintain public confidence, says Federation of American Scientists' Steven Aftergood.  11.15.01

VOA journalists win censorship battle with State Department
Broadcast of interview with Taliban leader airs after all.  09.26.01

Pentagon to allow full-name IDs of soldiers
Press had questioned how withholding names protects military personnel interviewed in field.  10.19.01

Larry Flynt sues Defense Department to relax news media restrictions
Meanwhile, Knight Foundation's Hodding Carter III urges publishers group to seek better access for journalists to cover Afghan war.  11.20.01

War on terrorism revives tension between press, government
Bush administration says ‘new type of war’ requires high degree of secrecy, but journalists worry officials are blocking access to too much information.  09.25.01

Panel: Media-military tension intensifying during war on terrorism
Newseum-sponsored panel discusses longstanding conflict between news media need for access, military need for secrecy.  04.10.02

Amateur photographers barred from snapping near World Trade Center site
Meanwhile, White House spokesman criticizes talk-show host’s remarks on terror attacks.  09.27.01

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