Press advocates: Cheney kept a tight rein on media during military conflicts
WASHINGTON — Among the resolutions that then-Rep. Dick Cheney, R-Wyo., sponsored during a decade in Congress was one designating Aug. 4, 1985, as “Freedom of the Press Day.” But a few years later, he presided over a Defense Department that seemed determined to keep reporters from exercising that freedom in military conflicts in Panama and the Persian Gulf.
Unlike Democratic vice presidential nominee Sen. Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn., who has taken a leading role in some legislative battles that leave some free-speech advocates uncomfortable, Cheney, No. 2 on the GOP ticket, kept a much lower congressional profile.
Playing a key role in legislation as Lieberman has done was not Cheney's style. However, once he arrived at the Pentagon, Cheney was forced to the forefront and quickly became involved in mapping media strategy for coverage of U.S. military missions.
With 10 years in Congress in the 1980s and a stint as President Ford's chief of staff at age 34, Cheney was no novice when it came to dealing with the Washington press corps. But it wasn't long after his 1989 appointment as defense secretary under President Bush that Cheney came under fire for his handling of the media during the U.S. invasion of Panama.
Rather than using U.S. journalists already in Panama to form the basis of a “pool,” a small group of reporters who share their observations and interviews with the rest of the press corps when timing and logistics make open coverage impossible, Cheney chose to activate the Washington-based Pentagon pool.
According to a post-invasion review of the operation prepared by Fred S. Hoffman, longtime Pentagon reporter and former No. 2 spokesman for the Defense Department, “the pool was called out too late and arrived too late to cover the decisive U.S. assaults in that brief war” in December 1989.
Once it got to Panama, the pool was confined to a holding area rather than being allowed into the field, and when the reporters did get to the action, they encountered heavy restrictions on interviews and photographs, logistical nightmares and malfunctioning transmission equipment.
Hoffman's report — which was prepared at the request of Cheney spokesman Pete Williams — blamed “a secrecy-driven decision by Defense Secretary Dick Cheney” and the failure of Williams to anticipate logistical needs for a good part of the fiasco.
The Freedom Forum Online he also held Chief of Staff Colin Powell responsible for the problems with the Panama pool.
“I didn't spare Colin, I didn't spare Cheney and I didn't spare Pete,” said Hoffman, who spent nearly three decades covering the Pentagon for the Associated Press before joining the Defense Department as an information officer. “The responsibility went all the way up to Cheney because Cheney was secretary of defense.”
However, Hoffman said he thought Cheney “took his cue from” Powell when it came to restrictive press coverage.
Maintaining the secrecy of the operation was foremost in Cheney's mind, Hoffman's report said, and that is why the Panama pool was called out so late.
“We basically decided to notify the pool after the evening news Tuesday to minimize the possibility of leaks,” the report quotes Cheney as saying.
The report continues, “The 7:30 p.m. callout guaranteed that the pool would reach Panama hours after the operation began just before 1 a.m. Wednesday. Cheney said 'I did it with full knowledge' of what his decision would mean for the pool.”
However distressed the news media were over what they saw as the mishandling of coverage of the brief Panama invasion, their complaints paled when compared with the outcry barely eight months later when, in August 1990, the United States moved to the brink of war in the Persian Gulf after Iraq invaded Kuwait and seized control of the oil-rich nation.
The Pentagon failed to activate the press pool when the first forces were ordered to Saudi Arabia, and because the reporters could not get Saudi visas independently, no American journalists accompanied the U.S. troops. Five days later, a 17-member national press pool was formed and sent to Dhahran, and the reporters operated fairly effectively for about two weeks. But according to Frank Aukofer, then the bureau chief for the Milwaukee JournalSentinel, that was the first — and the last — time the pool worked in the Persian Gulf.
Although open coverage was allowed briefly after the initial pool was disbanded, before long the news organizations in the area cooperated in implementing a system of combat pools that stayed in effect for the remaining months of Desert Shield and Desert Storm, including the brief ground-war portion of the conflict.
A bad situation grew worse when the ground war started in late February 1991. More than two hours after the ground assault began, Cheney went before television cameras at the Pentagon to announce that to protect the troops, regular briefings in Washington and in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, would be suspended until further notice. An article in The New York Times described the action as “the latest, and possibly most troubling, example of Defense Secretary Dick Cheney's efforts to control the flow of information from Washington.”
But the following morning, when it became clear that the ground war was advancing faster than expected and allied troops were encountering virtually no resistance, the news blackout was lifted.
“Good news defeats a blackout,” Jonathan Wolman, then the Washington bureau chief of the Associated Press, told The New York Times.
“If they've loosened it (the blackout) today,” Howell Raines, the then Washington editor of The New York Times, told The Washington Post, “it was because they had good news to report, and it was in their interest to report it. What they've put in place is a mechanism to block out bad news and to keep good news in the forefront.”
In an article in the 1992 edition of Government Information Quarterly, Aukofer took the press itself to task for going along with the combat pools, suggesting that the major news media were more interested in protecting their own interests than furthering freedom of the press in the war zone. But he also aimed criticism at Cheney's Defense Department for using the combat pool situation to manipulate the media and control the flow of information.
“The Pentagon did a masterful job of controlling the press through the combat pools,” Aukofer said. “It soon became obvious that the only way anyone could officially cover the war would be through one of the pools – a violation of the often-stated principle that the pools were to be temporary arrangements.”
As the military buildup continued and hundreds of reporters flocked to the war zone, the Pentagon solidified its coverage rules that not only restricted war-zone coverage to combat pools with military escorts at all times, but it also required prior security review of the pool reports before their release. Despite media protest, those were the rules that were in place in January 1991 when the Gulf War officially began, and those were the rules that remained in place through early March when the conflict ended.
“In practical terms, this meant that no unilateral coverage was permitted during the bulk of the conflict, a position that was supported by many pool journalists, most of whom represented the major American media organizations which had participated in the autumn negotiations (to set up the combat pool structure),” wrote Jane E. Kirtley, former executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, in a 1992 article in Government Information Quarterly.
As a result of the rules and the coverage restrictions, the news of the war essentially came from televised media briefings in Washington and Riyadh. The pool reports that did get filed were often days late and rendered virtually unusable because of the delays.
“In some cases, we got pool reports two or three days down the road. That's clearly unacceptable,” said Andy Alexander, who supervised the Gulf War coverage for the Cox Newspapers Washington Bureau. “In terms of the overall picture, we were at the mercy of the military, and frankly, the military was not terribly cooperative. I don't think they had any sense of the true definition of news.”
“The tragedy for the American people is that a large part of the Gulf War — we will never know how much — will never be known because no reporters were there to cover many of the operations. Even censorship, which allows a story to get out eventually, is preferable to denial of access, which is something akin to murdering eyewitnesses,” Aukofer wrote later.
For his part, Cheney maintains that the Gulf conflict was “the best-covered war in history.”
“It upsets my friends in the press corps when I say it was the best-covered war in history,” Cheney said in an interview with Aukofer and retired Navy Vice Admiral William P. Lawrence for a 1995 Freedom Forum report on relations between the media and the military.
“They don't like this at all,” he continued. “They fundamentally disagree because they felt managed and controlled. … I understand their concerns, to the extent that they didn't get to cover the war the way they wanted to cover it. I also think it's fair to say it's a legitimate criticism for them to make. Access was very uneven. There were some people in the field who were able to file their stories, and others who weren't.”
Trying to identify exactly who was the true architect of the massive press restrictions in the Gulf War is virtually impossible since everyone involved seems to have a different view of who made the actual calls. A sampling of comments included in the Aukofer-Lawrence report shows the extent of the finger-pointing.
Steve Katz, former chief counsel to the U.S. Senate Committee on Governmental Affairs, who directed a Senate hearing on the media restrictions, thinks Army Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf, head of allied forces in the Gulf, was to blame and that Cheney and Williams surrendered civilian control of Pentagon public affairs to him. But Schwarzkopf says it was Colin Powell and Pete Williams who were to blame.
Veteran Washington Post defense correspondent George Wilson also names Powell and Cheney, while Hoffman blames Powell but qualifies his opinion by saying it is based on talking to individuals involved in the Gulf coverage as opposed to any first-hand knowledge.
Melissa Healy, who covered the Gulf conflict for the Los Angeles Times, blames the military, not Cheney, while Pat Sloyan of Newsday, who won a Pulitzer Prize for his Gulf coverage, says Cheney and Williams were responsible.
But journalists say that no matter who actually came up with the policy, the fact remains that Cheney was at the helm of the Defense Department and could have changed anything he disagreed with.
“Clearly, he is the defense secretary. He outranked Schwarzkopf. Had he wanted to, he could have said yes (to wider coverage),” said Alexander, who now is Washington bureau chief for Cox Newspapers.
“I think he should have weighed in,” Hoffman said. “Cheney came from the Hill and was not a neophyte when it came to dealing with the press. Also, having been in the White House, he should have understood the importance of candor and the perception of candor and the inimical effect of being less than candid.”
However, Hoffman, who spent about a year at the Pentagon under Cheney, does not think the former defense secretary's media record should be of concern when it comes to considering how Cheney would perform as vice president if he and George W. Bush are elected to the White House in November.
“I would not interpolate this beyond that into other areas of responsibility and influence,” Hoffman said. “From what I have heard, and my impression from working with Cheney apart from crisis situations, he was pretty savvy in a PR way and I also thought he was inclined to be more forthcoming … in situations of the everyday workings of the Pentagon.”
“I wouldn't expect that as vice president … he would go down the same track that he did in Desert Storm and Panama. I don't get that feeling,” Hoffman said.
Paul McMasters, The Freedom Forum's First Amendment ombudsman, isn't as certain.
“There must be something in the water at the Pentagon that provokes a love of secrecy and a distrust of journalists. It appears that Secretary Cheney drank deeply from that well,” said McMasters, who was national FOI chair for the Society of Professional Journalists and deputy editorial director at USA TODAY during the Panama and Gulf War invasions. “Hopefully, the effects wear off after a while.”