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'E-war' coverage depends on working technology

By Kevin Sites

CNN correspondent Kevin Sites says weapons designed to disrupt communications could make covering a war difficult.
CNN correspondent Kevin Sites says weapons designed to disrupt communications could make covering a war difficult.

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•  Commanders: U.S. | Iraq
•  Weapons: 3D Models

Editor's note: In our Behind the Scenes series, CNN correspondents share their experiences in covering news around the world.

KUWAIT CITY, Kuwait (CNN) -- Don't get me wrong. It's not boredom, but desperation that makes me consider some things while waiting for a possible war to begin.

"Have we done a story on cellular phone ring tones in the Middle East?" I recently asked someone. "I mean, you literally can't go 30 seconds without hearing a Kylie Minogue tune or Beethoven's 'Symphony in C Minor' emanating from someone's pocket."

I was eating breakfast with a CNN engineer recently when the strains of "Camptown Races" filled the restaurant. The microwave dish got blown over in the windstorm last night, he was told. All the doo-dah day.

It is, after all, appropriate. This war, if it happens, will be the ultimate e-war, with its satellite-guided munitions, night-vision goggles and pilotless drones.

And it won't be just the military. When journalists embed with fighting units, they'll carry the gear that will theoretically allow them to report live from the front lines, and send back video and still images as quickly as they can fire up their satellite phones.

So far, while we wait, we're able to stay connected. We can wake up and watch President Bush's news conference at 4 a.m. local time. We can read the wires on the diplomatic chess match at the United Nations, and e-mail friends and family to report that we are rested, well-fed and safe.

But of all the images of this pre-possible-e-war, there is one that stays with me. It's watching the personal laptops in our workspace -- temporarily abandoned by users off on a break -- as screensaver images of wives, children, girlfriends, husbands and pets slowly emerge from cyberspace.

For most of the journalists here in Kuwait, this is the fear and this is the joke: that for all our technology -- our videophones and portable dishes, our Thurayas, and Iridiums and Neras, our digital cameras and laptop editing systems -- we could end up covering this war with wind-up film cameras.

Talk around here is that the U.S. Air Force might be developing an electromagnetic-pulse weapon that could be used in a war against Iraq.

The concept is devastating simple: such a device would, while flying over the target area, emit a microwave swath that could fry the electronics of any appliance or device in its path.

Tactically, it could help to end the war more swiftly by denying Iraq wireless military communication, and bombs would take out the rest. The order by Saddam Hussein to fire a chemical weapon might be eliminated along with the chain of command.

But the prospect of such a weapon is the bogeyman of TV network news executives' dreams because it could affect the media's equipment -- and with our reliance on satellites and microwave technology, TV is particularly vulnerable.

We journalists worry that we would have to revert to technology that hasn't widely been used to cover news since the mid-to-late '70s.

In the first Gulf War, CNN viewers around the world were awed by the broadcasts from Baghdad while under a thunderstorm of thousand-pound bombs.

This time, we fret, the pictures on every channel could have the look and feel of the muddy film footage airlifted out of jungles during the Vietnam War.

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