Speak no details
The Pentagon has a new media strategy for this war. Here's how it works
By Romesh Ratnesar
April 12, 1999
The most entertaining sideshow of the war in Kosovo is staged almost every day at the Pentagon's press briefing room. There exasperated reporters conduct jousting sessions with uniformed military commanders in vain attempts to divine the most banal of battlefield data information. How many NATO air strikes have been aborted because of bad weather? "I'm afraid I can't get into that level of detail right off the top of my head," Vice Admiral Scott Fry said at a Pentagon briefing early in the campaign. How about an approximation? "I'd prefer not to even approximate it." A ballpark figure? "I don't have that information available." How many of Milosevic's surface-to-air missile launchers have been taken out by NATO bombers? "That's a military number I'm not going to talk about," Major General Charles Wald told a reporter last week. How about a guess? "A large percentage." A large percentage of SAM launchers? "The launchers themselves, no...He still has a large number left." But you just said...oh, never mind.
This may seem like something out of Ionesco, but the Pentagon is playing by a script. For months Secretary of Defense William Cohen has fretted that Pentagon officials were leaking too much sensitive security information to the press. The top brass ordered a clampdown on the release of specifics about the NATO campaign in Kosovo, so military briefers have remained maddeningly vague. Take the oft-repeated NATO goal of "degrading" the Yugoslav military. "Degrading could mean breaking the window of a barracks," says George Wilson, a former Pentagon reporter for the Washington Post. "We don't have any specifics. It's much more restrictive than other wars I've covered." Journalists are getting testy. Last week, when Pentagon spokesman Kenneth Bacon opened a briefing by saying he would take questions "until the cows go home," reporters were unimpressed. "How about until the refugees go home?" an irritated wag wearily asked.
But just as the Pentagon is experimenting with new tactics in the skies over Kosovo, it is also experimenting with new ways of handling the media. Bacon says that in the age of cell phones and the Internet, the Serbs have instant access to any military information put out to the press, meaning that even basic military info can be translated immediately into Serbian battle plans. "We've just decided to give them as little information as possible," he said on the NewsHour last week. There have been cracks in the armor: some Pentagon officials were upset when the Washington Post reported, two days in advance of an attack, that the U.S. planned to widen air strikes to target ministries in Belgrade.
There may also be a more cynical motivation behind all this news management: it allows the Pentagon and NATO to shield potentially embarrassing details about the war. Despite video footage showing pinpoint allied missile attacks, the military acknowledges that only a small percentage of NATO planes have dropped ordnance on their targets so far. And though the Pentagon declined to say last week what portion of the total NATO sorties had been flown by U.S. aircraft, most military observers believe Americans are doing as much as 80% of the dirty work.
Of course, military briefings can never tell the full story of a war. But the conditions on the ground are even worse. Milosevic's expulsion of almost all foreign reporters from Yugoslavia and his crackdown on independent local journalists--have left Western viewers with little more than Serbian television images of towns smoldering from stray NATO bombs. The West calls it propaganda: U.S. intelligence officials say they have evidence that buildings in Kosovo that the government claims NATO destroyed were actually blown up by Yugoslav agents themselves. Sadly, the truth will likely remain buried in the rubble.
--Reported by Mark Thompson and Douglas Waller/Washington
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