Sig Christenson, MRE president and a military writer with the San Antonio Express-News, said no rule barring photographs of damaged vehicles existed when he first embedded in 2003. He said the alleged rule is one of several that have been added to the embedding program since it first began nearly three years ago, and should be changed.
"This rule does not have any legitimate purpose in preventing future attacks," Christenson said. "I'm pretty sure the rule was not in the agreement I signed. I think the insurgents already know about the vulnerability of the vehicles."
MRE Vice President Jim Crawley, a military writer with MediaGeneral, cited the original embed rule list currently posted by Reporters Without Borders that does not include such a restriction. He also pointed to a number of photos on the U.S. Army and Marines official Web sites that clearly show damaged vehicles.
"It is unrealistic to have in there that you can't take any pictures of damaged vehicles," Crawley said. "Especially damaged vehicles being sent back to the states."
Major Matthew Mclaughlin of U.S. Central Command, which oversees the embedding program, acknowledged that the photography rule had not been in place when embedding began in Iraq, but said the Army command in Kuwait had issued a new set of ground rules since the first list was issued that included the tighter photography control. "That is perfectly within their purview to do," he told E&P. "I understand this reporter had signed those ground rules."
When asked about the Army and Marine Web sites posting of damaged vehicle photos, Mclaughlin said he had heard of those photos, but had not seen them. "I think it is (the Army command's) contention that there is a good deal of difference between the photos," he said.
The incident that sparked MRE's concerns occurred earlier this week when reporter Louis Hansen and photographer Hyunsoo Leo Kim of the Virginian-Pilot in Norfolk lost their embed credentials. The duo was forced to leave after the newspaper published a story Dec. 10 on the removal of battle-damaged military vehicles.
The story included at least one photo of a bullet-ridden Humvee at Camp Arifjan in Kuwait. The Richmond Times-Dispatch reported that the journalists had been escorted by military personnel to a compound where the vehicles were located and believed that that gave them permission to photograph them.
Virginian-Pilot Editor Denis Finley, who couldn't be reached for comment Thursday, told the Richmond paper that the Coalition Forces Land Component Command in Kuwait pulled the pair's credentials, claming they violated the rule about photographing damaged vehicles. He said the journalists' two-week assignment had already ended, "so we were done anyway."
Still, the expulsion has drawn fire from military journalists who claim the alleged rule is one of several that have been added since the war began and is a clear violation of press freedom. "Our job is not to be stooges of the administration or the Pentagon and be complicit in their attempt to manage the news," said Christenson, a three-time embed. "We are here to tell our readers about the war."
Christenson also sent a memo to MRE members Thursday urging that the organization form a committee to push for a review of embed rules with the Pentagon during its next board meeting in January.
"Reporters ought to draw a line in the proverbial sand when there are questionable provisions in these agreements," the memo said, in part. "Our reputation as journalists independent of government and political control, and beholden first and foremost to our editors and readers, is at stake. Maybe by raising consciousness on this matter we can avoid incidents like the one earlier this week and the bad blood that comes with it."