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When ‘secret’ may not mean secret

This is the third part of a review of Stars and Stripes’ articles on the military’s use of the private Rendon Group to analyze journalists’ work in Afghanistan. The series recently received a Polk Award. The first installment of this review was published Feb. 12, the second Feb. 25. All installments are posted at stripes.com with associated links.

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In its reporting last summer, Stars and Stripes variously characterized the Rendon Group’s analyses of journalists’ published and broadcast work as “secret” or “confidential,” terms that have special resonance for this newspaper’s readers.

Military public affairs officers with experience in Afghanistan were firm in telephone interviews with me that PAOs and government officials were always at liberty to discuss the files openly and to provide journalists with copies of their own, as my previous column noted they had done in May, June and July.

“They were never classified,” Army Col. Wayne Shanks, a senior military spokesman in Afghanistan, told me.

The only restriction I could find in the contract’s “Statement of Work” was under “Data and Intellectual Property Rights,” which granted the government sole copyright to “all deliverables” Rendon produced and authority over their dissemination.

Had the Rendon files, which were compilations and analyses of journalists’ public work and statements – a standard practice in the field of public relations/public affairs – been classified “secret” or “confidential,” simply acknowledging their existence, as PAO’s and Rendon did when Stars and Stripes inquired, could have violated law or regulation.

Anyone can view a detailed listing of the Rendon contract at usaspending.gov, along with a host of other federal contracts awarded to the firm going back to the Clinton administration.

Characterizing the Rendon files as “secret” clearly touched a nerve in professional circles.

An editorial distributed by the McClatchy-Tribune worldwide news service in September stated, “Stars and Stripes reported that the secret profiles were used by military officials to prevent ‘disfavored reporters’ from being embedded with the troops in Afghanistan.” The judges who bestowed a prestigious Polk Award on Stars and Stripes  hailed the “riveting series that revealed” what the announcement described elsewhere as a “secret Pentagon program.”

The editor of Stars and Stripes, Terry Leonard, and his deputy, Howard Witt, rejected suggestions that the paper’s use of the word “secret” could be read as classified.

In an e-mail, Witt asserted that the newspaper “never implied that the Rendon profiles were classified as secret,” but that they “were definitely secret according to any common understanding of the word, meaning that their existence was concealed from both the reporters themselves and the general public.”

Except that they were not.

“In Kabul, we’ve all known about these Rendon reports,” freelance journalist Nir Rosen said Sept. 1 on the progressive-media program “Democracy Now!” “We just never really talked about it. It didn’t seem like such a big deal.”

Rosen corroborated comments that another freelance journalist, Kabul-based P.J. Tobia, made on his own blog four days earlier, a post that Stars and Stripes cited for other reasons Aug. 29 without mentioning Tobia’s observation that Rendon reports were open knowledge.

 Rosen and Tobia, who posted extensive excerpts of their Rendon files on their blogs and who were the only journalists Stars and Stripes ever named (although it never interviewed them), have both said they were given their Rendon files by the military well before the paper began writing about the issue, though the newspaper did not provide that information to its readers. (They both also said they were not especially troubled by the files, another piece of information the paper omitted.)

When used by a newspaper published under Pentagon auspices for the armed forces and applied to official files, reports, documents or programs, “secret” can reasonably be expected to be taken as something on the order of classified or covert. Stars and Stripes above all should use such terms with care and precision.

Just because something is unknown to you does not mean it is being kept from you or “secret.”

It was similarly imprecise for Stars and Stripes to repeatedly describe the Rendon files as a Pentagon initiative, one intended “to help Pentagon imagemakers manipulate the types of stories that reporters produce.”

 This particular contract, W91B4N-09-F-5000, was awarded Jan. 21, 2009, and modified March 5, 2009, by the Army-led Combined Joint Task Force-101 through the Central Command’s Regional Contracting Center at Bagram Air Field, Afghanistan. That may partly explain why “Pentagon officials” consistently seemed so behind the curve in responding to reporters’ questions about contract details last August.

My Webster’s says “Pentagon” and the civilian-led “Defense Department” may be used interchangeably, but not so with the uniformed “military.”

While some people may consider such parsing a distinction without a difference, to military readers these terms are not all one and the same and should not be used loosely as synonyms.

Stars and Stripes readers have a right to expect a certain level of expertise in military affairs and culture in this newspaper’s pages, whether it’s in the use of “secret,” nuances of terminology or what constitutes an “Army official.”

Much of Stars and Stripes’ thesis that the Rendon files were used to “blacklist” journalists or stage-manage news coverage turned on an August interview with a PAO who had recently returned to Kentucky from Afghanistan, Maj. Patrick Seiber. 

Seiber, public affairs officer of the Army’s 101st Airborne Division, which led CJTF-101 during his March 2008-09 tour, did not quarrel with the literal accuracy of his published quotes when I spoke with him, but he took strong exception to how they were recast by the newspaper, especially in the lead paragraphs on Aug. 29:

“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.”

Seiber disputed the portrayal of his remarks as his having “acknowledged” that the files were “secret” or had been ordered up “by the Pentagon” to “rate” journalists’ work or to “deny disfavored reporters” embeds or to “steer” reporters “away from potentially negative stories” or to otherwise improperly “influence their coverage.”

Here are his published quotes:

¶ “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. 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.”

¶ “In one case we had a writer who had taken a story out of context and really done some irresponsible reporting. 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.”

I think Seiber makes a good argument that those two quotes are slender threads upon which to hang the highly charged, paraphrased lead paragraphs in which he appears to be exposing widespread wrongdoing.

It was also imprecise in a Washington-datelined story to elevate a major who speaks for a particular field command to the more imposing status of “Army official.”

In our interview, Seiber defended the use of Rendon’s services as warranted by the sheer volume of embed requests that his PAO operation had to handle, and he asserted that they were only one tool used to process applications.

Seiber said that during his 12-month tour, he had handled embed requests from 147 journalists representing 72 news organizations – which he said he had emphasized to the reporter who called him.

Of those 147, Seiber said, only two were denied embeds, in part because of data in a Rendon report: one involved mishandling of classified information and the other competence, namely inaccuracy. Their news organizations, he added, were invited to replace them and one did.

Like two other news outlets that interviewed Seiber, Stars and Stripes reported the rejections, but unlike them, it omitted mention of replacements and the context that the two rejections were the only ones that Seiber could recall among nearly 150 embed requests that he had granted and processed.

Seiber also pointed out that the Aug. 29 article erred in describing his Afghan tour as 2007-08 rather than 2008-09. That may account for the puzzling emphasis on “as recently as 2008,” since Rendon had previously stated that it got the contract in 2009.

On Aug. 31, that error was repeated and magnified when the newspaper appeared to clone Seiber in reporting that “military public affairs officers who served in Afghanistan said that as recently as 2008 they had used reporter profiles … to decide whether to grant permission to embed with troops on the battlefield.”

Seiber says his experience with Stars and Stripes last summer will not affect his working relationship with its reporters when he returns to Afghanistan this year.

That is fortunate, for Stars and Stripes’ front-line journalism is among the best, and as the influential military affairs journalist Thomas E. Ricks is wont to say, it is an indispensable “daily read” for anyone seriously interested in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. It would be a shame if any Rendon coverage lapses affected that vital work.

Got a question or suggestion for the ombudsman on what appears, or should appear, in Stars and Stripes? Send an e-mail to ombudsman@stripes.osd.mil, or phone 202-761-0945 in the States. For several links associated with this column, please go to Mark Prendergast’s Right to Know blog. It can be found here.


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