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WASHINGTON — The secret profiles commissioned by the Pentagon to rate the work of journalists reporting from Afghanistan were used by military officials to deny disfavored reporters access to American fighting units or otherwise influence their coverage as recently as 2008, an Army official acknowledged Friday.
What’s more, the official said, Army public affairs officers used the analyses of reporters’ work to decide how to steer them away from potentially negative stories.
“If a reporter has been focused on nothing but negative topics, you’re not going to send him into a unit that’s not your best,” Maj. Patrick Seiber, spokesman for the Army’s 101st Airborne Division, told Stars and Stripes. “There’s no win-win there for us. We’re not trying to control what they report, but we are trying to put our best foot forward.”
Seiber, who as a task force public affairs officer in Afghanistan in 2007-08 was responsible for deciding whether to approve requests from reporters to accompany some U.S. units as “embeds,” said his superior officers routinely sent the reporter profiles to him as part of the review and placement process.
In at least two instances, Seiber said, he rejected embed requests based partly on what he read in the profiles — once because a reporter had allegedly done "poor reporting" and once because a journalist reportedly had violated embed rules by releasing classified information. The latter allegation, if true, would have been grounds for automatic denial of an embed request even in the absence of the profile.
"In one case we had a writer who had taken a story out of context and really done some irresponsible reporting," Seiber said. "When I looked at that on the [profile], I decided if that guy is going to take that much effort to handle and correct I wasn’t going to put a unit at risk with an amateur journalist."
The revelations are the latest twist in the controversy over how the military is gathering and using reporter profiles compiled by The Rendon Group, a Washington, D.C. public relations firm contracted by the Pentagon to rate journalists’ work.
Stars and Stripes revealed the existence of the profiles this week in several stories documenting how a "positive-negative-neutral" reporter rating system was being employed, including advice on how to try to "neutralize" negative coverage of the U.S. military — a practice that appears to contravene the Pentagon’s longstanding policy that the embed system is "in no way intended to prevent release of embarrassing, negative or derogatory information."
Pentagon officials repeatedly denied this week that the Rendon profiles are being used to rate reporters or determine whether they will be granted permission to embed with U.S. units in Afghanistan.
"There is no policy that stipulates in any way that embedding should be based in any way on a person’s work," Defense Department spokesman Bryan Whitman told reporters on Monday.
Officials of U.S. Forces-Afghanistan, who assumed control of the war effort in October 2008, said they began phasing out use of the Rendon profiles months ago.
But a Rendon representative is currently working in Afghanistan, according to Air Force Captain Elizabeth Mathias, a public affairs officer with USFOR-A. And at least one reporter who requested and received copies of her own Rendon profile this week said it rated her work as recently as July.
Another reporter, freelance writer P.J. Tobia, obtained the Rendon report compiled on him in May and posted it Friday on the True/Slant blog.
"Based on his previous embed and past reporting, it is unlikely that [Tobia] will miss an opportunity to report on US military missteps," the report read. "However, if following previous trends, he will remain sympathetic to U.S. troops and may acknowledge a learning curve in Afghanistan."
Meanwhile, Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, on Friday published an essay in a military journal that was sharply critical of the U.S. government’s attempts to use "strategic communications" to shape messages directed at the Muslim world.
"To put it simply, we need to worry a lot less about how to communicate our actions and much more about what our actions communicate," Mullen wrote in the essay in Joint Force Quarterly.
"I would argue that most strategic communication problems are not communication problems at all," he wrote. "They are policy and execution problems. Each time we fail to live up to our values or don’t follow up on a promise, we look more and more like the arrogant Americans the enemy claims we are."
Reporters Charlie Reed and Kevin Baron contributed to this story.