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Rumsfled Incensed at Military Leaks; Major Charges Dropped Against Allen Iverson

Aired August 3, 2002 - 18:30   ET


HOWARD KURTZ, HOST: Iraq attack on the front pages. Why are the nation's top newspapers printing classified details of the war plans against Saddam Hussein? And why does the on again, off again invasion story keep changing?
Also Allen Iverson beats the rap. Have the media given the Philadelphia basketball star a free pass or puffed up some flimsy charges against him?

Keith Olbermann joins the fray.

Welcome to RELIABLE SOURCES where we turn a critical lens on the media. I'm Howard Kurtz.

The media have practically been sending telegrams to Saddam Hussein in recent days about how, when and where an American invasion may come.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld says that Pentagon leakers are criminals and they are putting U.S. lives at risk.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: There have been plenty of military plans floated on the front pages of various newspapers in past weeks.


KURTZ: But the story keeps changing day after day. July 26th, "The Philadelphia Inquirer", the Pentagon is considered sending 250,000 to 300,000 troops to invade Iraq backed by massive air strikes.

July 28th, "The Washington Post", never mind, senior military officials are against an invasion, saying Saddam Hussein poses no immediate threat.

July 29th, "The New York Times", it's back on. Pentagon officials are exploring a risky approach of taking Baghdad first in hopes of causing a government collapse.

July 31st, "USA Today", not quite yet, the U.S. won't attack Iraq before the elections. No October surprise. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld is playing down these reports.


DONALD RUMSFELD, DEFENSE SECRETARY: There have always been on the shelf plans, sometimes they're called war plans, sometimes they're called contingency plans, sometimes they're called operations plans, sometimes they're called NEOS (ph) or non-combatant evacuation plan.


KURTZ: But are newspapers endangering national security by publishing these classified plans? Who's leaking this stuff anyway and what explains all these conflicting reports?

Well, joining us now, Terence Smith, a media correspondent for PBS' "NewsHour with Jim Lehrer" and Pam Hess, Pentagon correspondent for United Press International.

Should "The New York Times" and other papers, Terry Smith, be printing details of military plans to invade Iraq? Most people would say that's an outrage.

TERENCE SMITH, PBS/"THE NEWSHOUR WITH JIM LEHRER": It's not an outrage if they're authoritative, if they are able to check out and know their sources.

This is the art of being used, which is part of what journalism is all about. You know you're being used probably by some source in the bowels of the Pentagon who doesn't like these plans, doesn't approve of it, wants to scuttle the whole idea, and you know that. And yet, if this is a legitimate plan that is in some stage of discussion, it's legitimate news and you cover it in context.

KURTZ: Would you, Pam Hess, have any hesitation about writing about secret U.S. plans to invade Baghdad, for example. I mean why don't we just send Saddam Hussein one of those Yahoo! maps with the exact invasion route?

PAM HESS, UNITED PRESS INTERNATIONAL: I first want to take you on on this idea that they're publishing secret war plans. They're not. These aren't war plans. These are simply proposals that are kicking around. There's this giant ...


HESS: ... of information. They're proposals, there's ideas, and yet there's nothing in them that any nitwit in the Iraqi army couldn't figure out themselves.

KURTZ: Then why are these stories on the front page, if it's no big deal?

HESS: Because it's the story of the day. It's -- the nation is considering going to war -- to wit, Senator Biden's hearings, two days of hearings today on if we go to war with Iraq, what's it going to be like?

I mean newspapers have an obligation to look at what the conditions are and to educate the public because if this war does come about, we're a democracy and people have to understand the reasons why and how it's going to be pursued. But ...

KURTZ: But I didn't know -- I didn't know the military was considering possibly attacking Baghdad first. Isn't there some element of surprise ...

HESS: How could you not know that and ...

KURTZ: How could I not know that? (UNINTELLIGIBLE) the nitwits in the newsroom ...

HESS: Really. Every ...


HESS: Every single war that we've had since especially the Persian Gulf War, every single military action has begun with an attack, usually a cruise missile attack on high-value target and in places like Iraq, the high-value targets are the command targets, which are all in Baghdad. This is what we do first. We send in cruise missiles because it's the least dangerous way to U.S. soldiers of taking out high-value stationary targets and ...

KURTZ: You ...

HESS: ... that's always first.

KURTZ: You seem rather nonchalant about this notion of being used. I mean if senior administration officials and four-star generals are sending messages to each other through the press about plans they like, they don't like, things they're trying to shoot down, why do journalists need to act as a delivery system for that sort of thing?

SMITH: Well, it's not a comfortable position to be in. But if these are legitimate plans at whatever level of sophistication or development, and if they are being discussed as described, then that's news, and I don't think you have to ask the second question.

Am I being used to transmit this information in an internal debate? I don't think you have to ask that question. I think you go to the first one first. You also have to realize you might be doubly used. It's not inconceivable that this is in fact a disinformation campaign, that none of these are viable plans beyond the obvious, as Pam suggests, and that what we're really trying to do is deprive Saddam Hussein of a good night's sleep.

KURTZ: Well, I myself only like to be used once at a time, but you cover the Pentagon. You understand the culture. There is, in fact, a new Bush Administration Office of Global Information. I mean, could some of this, as we saw in the Persian Gulf War, be deliberately being fed to the press as in a way of confusing Iraq, not to mention the American public?

HESS: Rumsfeld this week on camera denied this, and he promised at the start he'd never lie to us. I'm going to have to take him at his word, and frankly, I'm not sure that the apparatus really exists in order to carry something like this off. We saw how quickly the office of strategic influence was disbanded once it became public and what it was going to do. And so ...

KURTZ: When I pick up "The Washington Post" ...

SMITH: Yes, it really is disbanded.

HESS: Right.

SMITH: Because if you look in the current budget, defense budget, the same monies for that office under a different title ...

HESS: Sure. Well that was the announced plan. I mean it's still a function that they feel like they need to do. At any rate, I think it's a really hard thing for them to pull off.

KURTZ: When I pick up "The Washington Post" last Sunday and see senior military officials are advising against an invasion of Iraq, Saddam poses no immediate threat and then I pick up "The New York Times" on Monday and it talks about the plans to possibly invade Baghdad, it's pretty confusing. How can all of these stories be true?

HESS: I'm not -- I can't say that all the stories are true. But I can tell you that it's absolutely the obligation of military generals and admirals to be the most skeptical of war plans, to be the least, the least enthusiastic about sending people into war, because these are the guys that have to point out everything to President Bush and say listen, if there's -- if we do it this way, these are how many people are going to die.

If we do it this way, these are how many people are going to die. You do not want a cadre of officers linguistically applauding a war coming on because that's when you get into mistakes.

SMITH: I would argue that there's a serious public policy benefit to this sort of reporting because it is yet another contribution to the public debate over a very questionable and controversial plan by this administration to effect a regime change in Baghdad.

And as you saw in the hearings held by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, there's a lot of dispute about this. There are many ramifications from costs to the lack of allies to other things and this is part of that general public debate. If we'd had it before Vietnam, we might not have done it.

KURTZ: And yet you know, Terry Smith, that there are people out there watching who think there should be a regime change in some media organizations and think that this whole genre of publishing internal Pentagon plans, documents, whatever you want to call them, is downright unpatriotic. SMITH: You noticed that they haven't really pursued the source. I know there's an alleged FBI investigation into the ...

KURTZ: You don't take that seriously?

SMITH: ... source of the leaks. You -- let's wait and see what comes of it, very little, I suspect.

HESS: There's a real difference between the level of reporting that's going on right now, which I think is very good and very interesting and very informative and tactical war plans, which are very different, which say we have 600 Special Forces that are going in at Zulu (ph) 0200 in this place.

That's really different and reporters don't report that information. If they do, it's really irresponsible and to wit Operation Anaconda, there was a group of reporters, I think about 20 or 30 of them that were embedded that had access to all of the secret information and none of it leaked out before that operation in March.

KURTZ: Isn't it true that the Pentagon has all kinds of internal plans? They're probably plans to invade Canada and that ...


KURTZ: ... it's -- and so it's an easy story therefore to say the Pentagon is studying ...

HESS: Right.


HESS: And there is an element of competition here. Once "The New York Times" sort of got things kicked off with that July 1st story, which was in fact, sort of followed on a "L.A. Times" story from earlier in the year.

KURTZ: Which was about an invasion from three different ...

HESS: Right ...

KURTZ: ... directions.

HESS: But again, I mean the invasion from three different directions. The only direction they weren't invading from was Iran. Again, nitwits, Iraqi army figuring it out, we're not going to be invading from Iran. So the information isn't terribly sensitive, but there is an element of competition here, is that once "The New York Times", which is a paper of record, kicks the ball off, everybody else needs to match or be and beyond that, it sets the agenda, and everyone falls in line.

SMITH: But there is competition among the leakers as well, those who oppose the policy, those who support it. They leak that which they believe contributes to their argument or their side of the argument. And so, this -- it's a deliberate process. HESS: And that's what Rumsfeld is so angry at. I -- Rumsfeld cannot point to a single instance, at least in this last spate of reporting, where he could see any national security problems. But what he is mad about is that anybody's talking at all because it might be something important leaked later.

KURTZ: And my argument is that the motives of the leakers are not always made clear in some of the stories.

SMITH: They're not always known.

KURTZ: Well, sometimes they are known and sometimes newspapers choose not to share them for reasons of protecting sources. Pam Hess, thanks very much for joining us; Terry Smith, stay put.

We have to take a break, but before we go, our "Question of the Week", are the media hurting the country by publishing plans to invade Iraq? Let us know what you think. E-mail us at

Well coming up next, the legal case of NBA superstar Allen Iverson. Are the media making a mountain out of a molehill?


KURTZ: Welcome back to RELIABLE SOURCES. He was "The Most Valuable Player" a year ago, so when basketball superstar Allen Iverson was accused of threatening two men while carrying a gun, the story scored high on the media scoreboard. A capacity crowd of local and national reporters was on hand as Iverson appeared in a Philadelphia municipal court this week to face criminal charges stemming from a domestic dispute with his wife.

In the days leading up to Iverson's court date, TV cameras staked out the sports rebel's home as he entertained relatives and friends. But a judge who said he was an Iverson fan dismissed all but two misdemeanor charges against him. So has the press been cuddling Iverson and other top athletes, or did journalists overplay this story from the opening tip?

Well, joining us now from Orlando, Florida is Ralph Wiley, columnist for; in New York sports commentator and CNN contributor Keith Olbermann; and still with us PBS media correspondent Terence Smith.

Keith Olbermann, Iverson was accused of throwing his wife out of the house either naked or half naked, depending on which version you believe, threatening two men while carrying a gun. I'm told you didn't talk about this at all on your radio show. You don't think this is much of a story?

KEITH OLBERMANN, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: I didn't think at any point -- and my radio show basically focuses on the top three or four sports stories of the day because of the amount of time I have -- I never thought at any point it was the lead story or one of the top three or four, for the simple reason as it proved, as you've described it, that maybe what happened with Allen Iverson or he may have broken into his own apartment, armed with a pager and said bad things about his wife, who was not present.

So there are two extremes on this story, and it always seems to me that when you are in doubt as to what the facts are, the best case and the best rule to follow is wait until the authorities press charges and wait until those charges are filed and wait until there's a hearing and ...

KURTZ: But Keith ...

OLBERMANN: ... I think we've seen the outcome of that.

KURTZ: Keith, we certainly don't apply that standard when officials from WorldCom are arrested, once there's actually an arrest, or politicians. The press is all over it. Is there a different standard for star athletes who can score 25, 30 points a game?

OLBERMANN: I don't think it's about the fact that they're star athletes. I think it's about the fact that the events they usually are involved in are not in public places, and if they are in public places or they somehow affect what they do on the court, for instance, 10 or 12 years ago when James Worthy (ph) of the Los Angeles Lakers was arrested on a solicitation charge in Houston and missed the first half, there was no way not to report that story because he was not in the game.

You had to explain where he was. He was in jail still. He hadn't made bail. There's a reason to report such a story under those circumstances and a reason to report a story like that because it happened in a public place. The Iverson stuff is not necessarily out in public like the WorldCom matter has been.

KURTZ: Ralph Wiley, if Allen Iverson wasn't a scoring machine, wouldn't this guy -- and engage in this kind of behavior, legalities aside, wouldn't he be described as something of a thug?

RALPH WILEY, ESPN.COM: If he was described at all, Howard. He probably wouldn't be described at all if he wasn't a ...

KURTZ: You're saying ...

WILEY: ... 25 point a game score, come on ...

KURTZ: ... it wouldn't get two paragraphs.

WILEY: Come on, it's a domestic case. Even the police wouldn't have wanted to look into this case. The only reason we looked into this case is because Allen Iverson can easily be made into political referendum and that's exactly what this case became.

KURTZ: What's the referendum?

WILEY: Either you're young or you're not young. Either you agree with the symbolism of hip-hop, of tattoos embrace (ph) or you don't. It's either one or the other and that's what this case was about, not about the legal charges because there was never anything -- I mean you really to say that he either threw his wife out of the house naked or half naked, I mean you're taking a stretch there, Howard, really.

I mean we -- none of this has been proven. None of this has been admitted, that he had a gun. I mean these charges were NBA charges, nothing but air. It was -- the whole case was specious except for the fact that it was Allen Iverson who people either have a very warm reaction to or a very cold reaction to.

KURTZ: Terry Smith.

SMITH: Well, that's true, Ralph, but I must say that measured by the standards of our celebrity journalism, this was a legitimate news story because there is a ...

WILEY: Good point.

SMITH: ... there is a whole trend ...

WILEY: Good point.

SMITH: ... of stories of athletes acting out, acting men behaving badly and ...

WILEY: Well, good point and acting has to do with this. You see sports has become, has collided with pop culture and entertainment as one of our great X (ph) sports. Allen Iverson is not just a 25-point a game scorer. More people buy his sneaker than any other sneaker. More people buy his jersey than any other jersey. So therefore, he becomes a commodity.

So you're right. There is interest in his actions, but unlike the people at WorldCom and whatnot who have been accused of stealing millions of dollars, he's accused of maybe having an altercation with his wife. Don't you think that's a little bit different?

SMITH: Well, of course it is, and 12 of the 14 charges, which must say have been dismissed and against Allen Iverson. So that as a - as a prosecutor's case, it doesn't hold up well at all. I agree with that and there has been wretched (ph) access. I did a little search on Allen Iverson and this case. Look at this. Just in the Philadelphia, New York and Washington papers, and ...


SMITH: ... that's too much. But it is not without grounds as a news story.

KURTZ: Let's talk about the culture of sports, Keith Olbermann. I mean television covers these games of the NBA. Papers or sports writers write about them. So when the box office guys, the athletes like Iverson get into trouble, isn't there sort of a natural tendency not to want to tear them down because after all, that's what brings in the ratings, that's what sells papers.

OLBERMANN: No, I don't think so. I've never seen that, even working at some of the most in bed with sports leagues networks that exist, and I've worked for almost all the networks, as it is. I have never seen athletes being protected. I've seen owners being protected, but never athletes being protected by television networks and rarely by newspapers. I think there is an adversarial relationship within the sports journalism business, and I don't think you're likely to have that particular problem cropping up in the Iverson case.

I think Terry's point is well made about how much coverage this in general, this garnered compared to even the number of charges. Just the articles in "The New York Times", there were 15 articles between July 7th and July 30th and about four or five of them were columns that assumed some form of guilt for Allen Iverson, and these were not - these were columns in sports pages.

I think you find the columnists tending to be a little more willing to convict someone in advance of even charges being filed, and I think you find the reporters not protecting the guys that they're covering, and I don't think you find the television operations. I think - I don't think there is that measure of self-protection at all, and I don't think it -- certainly was not the case in the Iverson story.

KURTZ: One of those "New York Times" columns, Ralph Wiley, by Mike Freeman talks about an epidemic of violence among athletes, mentioning Miami Dolphins Derrick Rodgers, who went into a restaurant and picked up a metal chair and slammed it into the head of a man he thought was having an affair with his wife, talked about race car driver Al Unser Jr. hitting -- accused, excuse me, of hitting a female companion while drunk.

It doesn't even mention the manslaughter charges against Jayson Williams, former basketball star. Is all this getting enough media attention, in your view, or are these isolated cases that ought not to get all that much ...

WILEY: And you just hit the tip of the iceberg. There was also Scott Erickson, the Baltimore Orioles pitcher and some others that came out, all in the wake of the Iverson incident. I find it interesting that the Iverson incident was sort of a reason to sort of look at all the things that have happened and have been happening in the world of sports for a long, long time. But I think the point that was made about there being an adversarial relationship is also true, and I don't think that was the case further back in the past. I think there's an element of race baiting in this. I'm not going to say racism, but there's definitely some race baiting.

KURTZ: If Allen Iverson were white, the coverage would have been different in your view?

WILEY: If Allen Iverson were white, he might not even have the same image of himself.

SMITH: No, I think there's celebrity baiting, which I can see in fair measure, but I would agree that you wouldn't have read about this if he wasn't a celebrity. On the other hand, Allen Iverson didn't come to this as a first-time figure in this sort of reporting. He's had a checkered past ... (CROSSTALK)

SMITH: ... he'd been in jail ...


KURTZ: Involved in a brawl and a conviction was later overturned on appeal.

SMITH: I remember talking to Coach John Thompson when he -- when Allen Iverson was planning to leave Georgetown as an underclassman and go to the NBA because Thompson said there is no question about his basketball skills. He can play in the NBA today and be among the best. But there is a real question about personal maturity.

KURTZ: Keith Olbermann, we've got about 24 seconds left on the shot clock here. Do you think in general that the press coverage of athletes like Iverson, who get into some trouble, is about right, too harsh, or pretty soft?

OLBERMANN: Oh, as with all things in sports, Howard, it exists only at the extreme. It's either too much or too little. It's never just right and I might point out one thing about Jayson Williams of the Nets. When all this happened to him in New Jersey, he was no longer a basketball player. He was a sportscaster, so he falls into a different category now.

KURTZ: Right, but of course, once you've played on a NBA team, you have that requisite measure of celebrity and I'll have to blow the whistle there. Time has expired gentlemen. Keith Olbermann, Ralph Wiley, Terry Smith, thanks very much for joining us.

When we come back, Don Rumsfeld and those front-page leaks about Iraq. Bernard Kalb's take in a moment.


KURTZ: Time now for "The Back Page". Here's Bernard Kalb.


BERNARD KALB, CNN CORRESPONDENT (on camera): Now to pick up that theme of the media and Iraq. Suppose you were a president or a king and suddenly bingo, there's a leak in the press and you don't like it. What to do? Well we've just had a couple of high-profile examples of what to do. You pounce on the leak with ridicule. You try to laugh it off the front page, which is where this now famous leak surfaced.

(voice over): Page one, "The New York Times" July 5th. U.S. plan for Iraq said to include attack on three sides including Jordan. Well the leak struck the King of Jordan as a royal pain in the neck. He promptly saw it to dismiss it as some sort of macho exhibitionism motivated more by romance than knowledge.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We got an apology from some senior American official that the way he described it to me is some young officer in the American Pentagon probably trying to impress a girlfriend wanted to come up with a story that there was something that he knew about referenced (ph) Jordan.

KALB: And then the commander-in-chief also took a shot at trying to kick the leak into oblivion.

GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I actually didn't read the whole story about somebody down there at level five flexing some know-how muscle.

KALB: In other words, this was a leak that wasn't. Case closed, right? Wrong. The Pentagon certainly wasn't treating it as a joke. Secretary Rumsfeld asking the FBI to investigate the leak that wouldn't go away. Not only that, but Rumsfeld's Q&A on Capitol Hill the other day was filled with questions about that leak and what he was doing to stop it.

SEN. JIM BUNNING, (R), KENTUCKY: Do your best to find those who are leaking classified material to the press.

KALB: Leaks have been around as long as politics have been around and every administration gets hit with a big one. The Pentagon papers of Vietnam during LBJ's time; Watergate during Nixon's time; and then Reagan's famous denial of an overseas leak in '86 about the U.S. swapping arms for hostages with Iran. No foundation, he said, but it turned out the leak was right on.

(on camera): Look, whether you're a pro leak or anti leak or whether you're a president or a king, the fact is this latest big leak has helped kick off a national debate on any invasion of Iraq.


KURTZ: Bernard Kalb. Well that's it for this edition of RELIABLE SOURCES. I'm Howard Kurtz. You can catch our program again tomorrow morning at 9:30 Eastern for another critical look at the media.

"CAPITAL GANG" is up next. Mark Shields has a preview.




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