Revealed: Pentagon-Backed Report Hails Embed Program — With a Few Surprises in the Details

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By: Joe Strupp

The embedding of journalists around the U.S. invasion of Iraq in the spring of 2003 was deemed an almost unqualified success by both military officials and journalists who participated in a Defense Department-sponsored study of the program, which was conducted in 2004 but only now made public.

The survey, conducted by the Institute for Defense Analyses and obtained by E&P, involved interviews with 136 military personnel and 104 editors, bureau chiefs with leading newspapers and embedded reporters between May 2003 and April 2004. Although it was finalized in September 2004, the Department of Defense did not approve it for release until last month.

Richard Wright of IDA, who authored the study, would not comment on why it was released or on its findings, saying “it speaks for itself.” Col. Hiram Bell, commandant of the Defense Information School at Fort Meade, Md, which sponsored the $200,000 study, said the report “was what we expected based on what we had heard earlier,” he said. “There were some recommendations that were designed to make a successful project better.”

Bell said the report was not released for more than a year because it had to go through several reviews, but “there was never any particular timeline.”

Besides its overall assessments, the lengthy report is filled with previously unknown or little-known facts. For example, it reveals that only three embeds were permanently banished from the program during the first year, with another two dozen “disembedded” for a time; a late change in the original ground rules banned participants from possessing alcohol or “pornographic materials”; 67 females embedded (9.7% of the total); the oldest embed was 75, the youngest 23; Thuraya was the satellite phone of choice; and the journalists got gas masks for free — but had to pay $4,123 for shipping.

It also discloses that of the 12 former embeds from ground units who took the survey, nine said they had “problems adjusting after returning from Iraq,” with psychological after-effects lasting one week to six months.

One of the surprises in the report is that it reveals that commanders were “often asked” by embeds to review a story or look at a video before it was transmitted, to guarantee “accuracy.” But no claims of censorship were raised.

Another surprise is the emphasis it places on one factor that won wide support for the embeds from the soldiers: the journalists often let them use their satellite phones or laptops to call or write home. Sometimes the military personnel formed in lines of more than 50 to do so.

While it has been generally known for some time that both the military and media outlets view the embed program — which continues in a much-reduced fashion today — as a net positive, this study is by far the most extensive examination of the program and includes remarkably few criticisms from bureau chiefs and reporters. All of them, at least in this report, state flatly that traveling with, and being protected by, the soldiers did not in any way compromise their reporting (although that would seem to be an unknowable). The report summarizes: “Bonding did not hinder their ability to do what they were sent to do — report the truth.”

One journalist is quoted: “Embeds were like a thousand points of light. … For the Pentagon to report on a bad incident, people may have not believed it. An embed reported a bad incident for what it was: a tragic part of war.” Indeed, embeds “indicated that they had experienced a significant change in their perception of the military because of their embed experience.”

The commanders, for their part, “were impressed by the quality of the embeds, to which they attributed much of the success of the program.” Some commanders stated that “some units without an embed felt disadvantaged because they were not getting the same great coverage that units and soldiers with embeds were getting.”

Looking Ahead

While the report offers a mostly positive account of the program, it does find a need for minor changes, including more access for broadcast outlet vehicles, better pairing of reporters and photographers from the same print outlets, better flexibility for embeds to leave units and return, and improved efforts to continue embedding beyond the initial combat missions. “The military can make most of the improvements, but in some cases, it will require coordination with the media,” the report states.

But as for the initial efforts, “In large measure, the program was successful because of the trust and confidence established between the commander and embeds assigned to his/her unit,” the study concludes. “The military and the media became advocates of the program and stated that it should be implemented during future military operations.”

At one point, the report states that military commanders held a dim view of independent or “unilateral” reporters and denied them access and information. The unilaterals “lacked the commander’s trust and confidence that allowed the embed unfettered access to information. Commanders did not have the confidence that a unilateral would report fairly and accurately.” They had the impression they were only looking for the “negative.”

About seven in 10 commanders provided embeds access to classified information, the report states, “to help them understand the concept of an operation and report factually when they observed its execution.”

More stats: 692 embeds were placed with military units during the first phase of the war, 422 with ground units. But the numbers quickly dwindled following the end of serious combat and the fall of Baghdad in late April 2003. By May 2, the ground unit embeds had dropped to 108, and hit 19 by June 6. The report suggests that too many media outlets called reporters home too quickly, based on financial concerns or viewing that the war was, indeed, over and no longer “exciting.”

At the same time, commanders “expressed concern that many great accomplishments related to reconstruction of Iraq have gone unreported,” the survey stated.

While the report indicates both media and military believed the ground rules for embeds were fair and properly followed, it notes that some rules involving reporting of restricted information were the subject of disputes. But it adds that “issues were resolved between commanders and embeds.” (Since the report was finalized in 2004, a new dispute over the photographing of combat damaged vehicles has arisen, with at least two embeds from a Virginia paper losing their slots after their paper published a photo of a bullet-riddled humvee.)

The report notes that in that first year, just three embeds were kicked out and not allowed back for disobeying the rules. It describes the incidents but does not reveal names. In one instance, a photographer was booted after entering an off-limits area and writing a message on a missile. (The study does not disclose that it was, in fact, an antiwar message.)

One embed drew concern because he weighed 300 pounds but he did “an outstanding job.” About four in 10 who took media training courses did not end up embedding, which the report does not explain.

The report indicates that the military spent $1.2 million on embeds in the initial months of the war, primarily on chemical and biological protection gear, media training courses, and food. Some $483,897 was spent in those first months on protective gear and antibiotics for each embed. The military also provided water and ready-to-eat meals — at about $6.95 per serving — which came to $388,000 by June 2005. Personnel got about six bottles of water per day.

For media outlets, specific costs per news agency were not available, but the report estimated each spent between $10,000 and $50,000 per embed on life insurance, $1,000 to $1,500 per person on body armor and helmets, and more than $575 each for vaccinations for smallpox, anthrax, and other potential diseases.

Other costs for the news outlets included airfare of about $1,500 one way, $200 to $300 per night for hotel rooms prior to embedding, and satellite phones running from $1,000 to several thousands dollars each. “One embed stated his satellite phone bill for one month was $11,500,” the report said.

Overall, the study found the embed program to be successful and recommended that it be utilized in the future and continued in Iraq. “Because the interaction between the many individuals involved in the program was so close, relationships were formed that will assist both institutions in the coming years,” the report stated, “when young commanders become senior commanders and reporters become producers, editors, and bureau chiefs.”

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