Pentagon: Don't trust all you see
March 22, 2003
ARLINGTON, Va. — With network cameras capturing an endless stream of operations in the opening days of the war with Iraq, Pentagon officials’ consistent “no-comment” reaction is producing an Alice-down-the-rabbit hole feeling for many journalists here: Why wait to officially confirm an event that was just seen on television by millions around the globe?
There are good reasons for the delays between military actions and official confirmation, although those reasons may not be obvious to laymen, Army Lt. Col. Gary Keck, a Pentagon spokesman, said Thursday.
“Our goal is to put out information in a timely fashion, based on the operational needs of fighting a war,” Keck said. “Our goal is not to put out information as fast as we can.”
The first Persian Gulf War showed the initial bombing of Baghdad, but very little else, as most media in the Persian Gulf were either restricted to tightly controlled “pools” or stuck in hotels around the region, far from the action.
This time around, the coverage has exploded: More than 500 reporters are embedded with troops in the field and are providing firsthand, almost immediate reports of the war.
If Pentagon officials keep their promise not to prevent those embedded reporters from filing stories unless absolutely necessary, this conflict will go down as the first in history that the world population can watch live, start to finish.
But with cameras capturing dramatic shots of incoming Tomahawk crusie missiles and U.S. troops on the move and instantly beaming the proceedings around the globe, it still takes Pentagon officials hours, if not days, to officially confirm media reports, no matter how well they were independently documented.
The reason for the delays, Keck said, is that official confirmation “removes any shred of doubt from the enemy’s mind.”
Reporters on the scene may not always understand precisely what they are seeing, or the information they report is incorrect. And even the most experienced reporter cannot see beyond a limited range, where other related military actions are almost certainly taking place, Keck said.
For example, TV cameras have just shown a government building in Baghdad erupting in flames. “But there might have been three other targets hit at the same time that the camera didn’t see,” Keck said.
A quick confirmation from the Pentagon that the building had, in fact, been destroyed may give the enemy information on other unseen targets, Keck said.
“Maybe they put up decoys, and they were successful in diverting an attack to that decoy,” Keck said. “Maybe we are in the middle of a systemic pattern of attack that we don’t want the enemy to [discern] before that attack is over.”
So until war planners are absolutely sure that the enemy can’t glean valuable operational information from those confirmations, they can’t afford to allow public affairs officers to say, “Yes, it happened,” Keck said.