Military Operations, the Media, and the Public's Right to Know. (Mass Media)

By Pritchard, Robert S. | USA TODAY, March 2002 | Go to article overview

Military Operations, the Media, and the Public's Right to Know. (Mass Media)


Pritchard, Robert S., USA TODAY


THE SEPT. 11 heinous attack on the U.S. has heightened the American public's--indeed, the world's--interest in tracking current events and critically analyzing what is being reported to a degree arguably not seen since World War II. Already ubiquitous, 24/7 news coverage gives us a never-ending stream of news from reporters and "military experts." Barraged by all this information, one of the most important questions people want an answer to is "How credible is the information I am receiving?"

Sen. Hiram Warren Johnson, in a speech to the U.S. Senate in 1917, said, "The first casualty when war comes is truth." In the wake of the Vietnam War and Watergate, more than a few in America might agree with him. Many Americans are conditioned to question the credibility of the information they receive from their government. While Johnson's statement makes a nice bumper sticker, nothing could be further from the truth with regard to how the military supplies information about its operations today.

It is true most journalists think the Department of Defense is too restrictive about what it releases, but it is, and has been for some time, guided by its "Principles of Information." A quick excerpt of the pertinent sections of the DoD's policy on the release of information, taken directly from its website, provides an important foundation for discussion:

"It is Department of Defense policy to make available timely and accurate information so that the public, the Congress, and the news media may assess and understand the facts about national security and defense strategy. Requests for information from organizations and private citizens shall be answered quickly."

In carrying out that DoD policy, the following principles of information shall apply:

"Information shall be made fully and readily available, consistent with statutory requirements, unless its release is precluded by national security constraints or valid statutory mandates or exceptions. The Freedom of Information Act will be supported in both letter and spirit.

"Information will not be classified or otherwise withheld to protect the Government from criticism or embarrassment.

"Information shall be withheld when disclosure would adversely affect national security, threaten the safety or privacy of U.S. Government personnel or their families, violate the privacy of the citizens of the United States, or be contrary to law."

Military practitioners use the shorthand "Maximum disclosure--minimum delay" to describe these principles. For instance, the Creel Committee, created by Pres. Woodrow Wilson during World War I, mounted an impressive effort to mobilize public opinion in support of the war effort. During World War II, the Office of War Information conveyed the message of the U.S. at home and abroad. Part of Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower's success and popularity following World War II derived from his dealings with the press. He and his staff routinely briefed reporters on highly confidential information about troop movements and battle strategies. It is a testament to his relations with and trust in those reporters and the high regard in which they obviously held him that neither U.S. interests nor American troops were compromised by news reports.

The rules changed in Vietnam, though. The Johnson Administration, and particularly the Nixon Administration, began to obfuscate routinely when providing information on military operations to the American public. As the nation became more deeply involved in that conflict and unrest grew at home, the White House issued press guidance intended to shield the president and his staff from "unfortunate developments that might occur in the field." They also restricted those who could provide detailed comments on the tactical situation to certain members of the Department of Defense and the Military Assistance Command. This political pressure on our military leaders led to more than a few occasions when the obfuscation crossed the line into downright lying. …

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