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News media protest lack of access to U.S. soldiers

By The Associated Press

12.06.01

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Image taken from TV on Nov. 11 shows Northern Alliance military vehicle carrying journalists as it leaves Khwaja Bahuaddin for inspection of Taliban frontline trenches near Taloqan, northeastern Afghanistan. Vehicle later came under fire from Taliban forces; two French and one German journalist were killed.

WASHINGTON — News organizations protested a U.S. military decision to prevent journalists inside Afghanistan from witnessing the transfer of American soldiers wounded by an errant B-52 bomb.

Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said today that "the media should have access to both the good and the bad in this effort." Military officials on the ground in Afghanistan "have acknowledged that they have not handled the matter perfectly, and they're in the process of reviewing their procedures," Rumsfeld said.

The restrictions on the journalists, the only news media so far allowed to accompany and cover U.S. forces based in Afghanistan, are a troubling example of the "lack of direct contact with American forces who've actually participated in the war," said Leonard Downie Jr., executive editor of The Washington Post.

Downie criticized the Pentagon for "locking those reporters up ... rather than figuring out how to make information available to them in a way that didn't compromise security."

Top Pentagon spokeswoman Victoria Clarke said there was no policy to prevent news coverage of American casualties.

Three U.S. Special Forces soldiers were killed and 19 were wounded when a bomb launched from an Air Force B-52 bomber missed its target north of Kandahar. Some of the wounded soldiers were first taken to the Marine base in southern Afghanistan before being transferred to another facility.

Journalists at the base were confined to a warehouse as the injured American and Afghan soldiers began arriving yesterday morning and while they were being treated, according to several reporters at the base. The journalists were not permitted to approach the medical area at the center of the base.

Asked at the Pentagon briefing if it were Defense Department policy to prevent television footage or other news coverage of American casualties, Clarke said no.

"The journalists were kept from reporting on the casualties, and we've questioned the restrictions," said Jonathan Wolman, the AP's executive editor. "The policy allows for coverage of casualties, but it was subverted in this case."

The journalists who went into the remote desert base in southern Afghanistan with Marines on Nov. 25 were the first reporters the Pentagon has allowed to accompany U.S. troops into the country.

Journalists at the base represented the Associated Press, The (Baltimore) Sun, CBS, CNN, Newsweek, The New York Times, Reuters, The Wall Street Journal, Gannett, The Washington Post and AP Television News. They were pulled out of Afghanistan last night. Another "pool" group will rotate in, although it was uncertain when.

The Pentagon requires those news organizations to share, or "pool," their reports with other news media. As part of their reporting arrangements, journalists have agreed not to specify where in Afghanistan the airstrip is located or divulge plans for future operations. The pool journalists also operate under guidelines to refrain from coverage that would endanger the security of an operation or put service members' lives at risk.

The Defense Department has not organized broader access for reporters to go into Afghanistan to cover the U.S. military's anti-Taliban operations or its search for terror suspects.

Eight journalists from Western news organizations have been killed in Afghanistan covering other aspects of the current conflict.

American reporters have been allowed on U.S. aircraft carriers and other ships in the Arabian Sea involved in the war. The Pentagon has not allowed reporters to visit bases in Uzbekistan, Pakistan and other countries where U.S. forces are working, however.

Media executives have urged the Pentagon to provide wider access as U.S. military operations unfold, saying that the public needs information to evaluate the policies and progress of the war.

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