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Pentagon: U.S. troops in central Asia to remain off-limits to reporters

By The Associated Press


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Pentagon spokeswoman Victoria Clarke

WASHINGTON — American troops stationed in central Asia to support the war in Afghanistan will remain mostly off-limits to U.S. reporters because leaders in countries there worry that publicity could cause political unrest, Pentagon officials said yesterday.

Media groups sought greater access to the U.S. operations yesterday, saying that the public in a democracy needs information to evaluate the progress of the war.

During the Persian Gulf War, Saudi Arabia had similar sensitivities to publicity about U.S. troops stationed on its soil, noted Charles Lewis, the Washington bureau chief for Hearst Newspapers. Yet reporters still were able to provide coverage of American troops.

"Is it a secret that U.S. troops are in Uzbekistan? Of course it's not," Lewis said.

Americans have a keen desire to understand how the war is going because their security is at stake, said James Steinberg, a Brookings Institution defense analyst who was former President Clinton's deputy national security adviser. That's different from past wars, like Kosovo, with less direct impact on Americans, he said.

At a seminar examining the conflicting wartime roles of the press and the military, Pentagon officials pledged to provide information, recognizing the public's desire and need to know.

But the primary goal is to gain cooperation in the war on terrorism, not to press reluctant countries to accommodate American reporters, Pentagon spokeswoman Victoria Clarke said at the seminar, organized by Brookings and the Defense Department.

If countries cooperate militarily but balk at U.S. news coverage, "that's a pretty good compromise," Clarke said.

Added Pentagon spokesman Rear Adm. Craig Quigley: "If that's the price of poker, then that's what we'll pay."

Countries such as Uzbekistan worry that dissidents, including Islamic conservatives, could become enraged if the extent of their leaders' cooperation with the U.S. military effort is publicized. The United States is bombing Afghanistan and sending in special operations soldiers to try to oust the ruling Taliban regime and destroy Osama bin Laden's terrorist network.

An estimated 1,000 U.S. soldiers with the Army's 10th Mountain Division have been deployed at an Uzbek air base about 90 miles from the Afghan border. The United States also is considering using some airstrips in Tajikistan.

Since the military campaign began a month ago, reporters have been allowed onto some but not all U.S. aircraft carriers where bombing missions are launched, and have also flown on military airplanes over the region. Separately, some news organizations have stationed reporters inside Afghanistan to cover the war from the ground.

Last week, reporters got their first access, by telephone, to a few of the U.S. troops stationed inside Uzbekistan.

Tension between the military and press has long existed, reaching a particularly difficult point in 1983 when U.S. officers tried to bar journalists from the Grenada invasion.

In this war, Pentagon officials said they see no way American reporters can cover special forces operations inside Afghanistan without endangering troops or providing information to enemies.

"There's nothing you could shoot, there's no question you can ask, there's no description you could provide in your text that does not run smack-dab into operational security considerations," Quigley said.

After a raid into southern Afghanistan last month by special operations forces, the Pentagon provided some details the day after, including videotape showing soldiers boarding aircraft in preparation.


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