By: Rafe Bartholomew
When his paper’s embedded reporter was banished from Iraq on April 25 the punishment didn’t fit the “crime,” according to David Newhouse, executive editor of The Patriot-News, Harrisburg, Pa.
The paper’s embed, Brett Lieberman, was ordered to exit his assignment with the 2nd Battalion, 25th Marines in Nasiriyah, Iraq, because one of his stories allegedly included too much military detail.
Newhouse said he didn’t think Lieberman’s story, which described the 2/25’s mission of remaining in Nasiriyah to secure the city after other units left, endangered the lives of any troops. Instead, Newhouse suggested that the Pentagon’s guidelines for embedded reporters were vague and didn’t provide journalists with a clear understanding of the level of detail that the military would accept.
“The commander on the ground made the decision that [the reporter] put servicemen in danger and violated the ground rules that were agreed upon,” said Maj. Brad Bartelt, a spokesman for Central Command in the Middle East.
Unlike most embeds, Lieberman did not arrive in Kuwait until March 30 and his assigned military unit had only been in Iraq for about three weeks. Lieberman’s dismissal seems odd, coming as it does in the less uptight “post-war” era, with military advances at a minimum.
Newhouse received a bulletin from military officials that listed three reasons for Lieberman’s expulsion. They were: “reporting on the specific number of troops below the corps level, providing information on future operations, and providing information on force protection measures,” said Newhouse, reading from the letter.
Newhouse called the embed rule that forbids reporting on future operations, “about as vague as you can get.” The “plan” Lieberman revealed in his story was that the unit might stay in Nasiriyah until the end of the summer.
Newhouse said he didn’t think the story compromised U.S. military operations or endangered soldiers, and that he’s seen many other stories that included similar details. “How is it that Brett’s story violated that [rule] and 500 other stories that clearly did the same thing didn’t?” he asked. “Any strict interpretation of the guidelines would have led to hundreds [of reporters] being asked to leave.”
After Lieberman’s expulsion The Patriot-News consulted other military officers in Iraq and the United States who said they saw no problem with the article.
The problem, Newhouse suggested, is that with the vagueness of the guidelines, and with no clear “wartime” operations, reporters need precise directions about what kind of information is acceptable. The current rules allow too much room for interpretation — what one commander considers permissible may cause another one to ask a reporter to leave, said Newhouse. If his reporter knew clearly about “the level of detail that was accepted … he would have adhered to it,” Newhouse added.
Loose guidelines may give military commanders who are less sympathetic to journalists the discretion to remove unwanted reporters. That’s where the appeals process is supposed to come in. The official embed guidelines promise reporters the opportunity to contest removal through a process that would travel up the chain of command. It is not known if Lieberman’s appeal received this treatment. The only military official he was allowed to speak with about the story was the one who ordered him to leave, said Newhouse. “If the appeals process was followed,” he said, “it was followed unbeknownst to us.”
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