By: Joe Strupp
Correction: This story incorrectly referred to alleged threats against a Wall Street Journal reporter by U.S. troops. The reporter was from The Washington Post.
U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld told the nation’s newspaper editors Wednesday that reporters were being given news about the war on terrorism in a fair manner. He criticized those who claim the Pentagon is trying to censor information.
Rumsfeld reiterated his stance that his office will not lie to the press, but that they will continue to withhold information if they believe national security is at stake. “We just don’t discuss it,” he said.
Rumsfeld’s remarks came during an interview with Marvin Kalb at the American Society of Newspaper Editors (ASNE) annual convention here. During the often lively exchange before several hundred ASNE members, Kalb challenged the Pentagon’s record of openness with the press since the military campaign began in October.
Kalb, who serves as director of the Washington office of the Shorenstein Center on Press, Politics and Public Policy, asked Rumsfeld why press access to war zones and information had been so limited in recent anti-terrorism activities.
Rumsfeld defended his department, saying the press has had as much access as possible without jeopardizing U.S. relations with other countries and national security. “The minute we put American troops in [Afghanistan], shortly after, the press were connected to them,” Rumsfeld said.
When asked by Kalb and a member of the audience about several examples of the press being denied information, Rumsfeld wrote off such instances as rare exceptions. The cases cited include a local newspaper near a military base being refused the identities of some military personnel and a Washington Post reporter allegedly being threatened with a gun by a soldier in a combat area.
“These are people who serve in the military, who are young and are not experienced at (dealing with the press),” Rumsfeld said.
The secretary said some reporters have expected the war to be similar to previous conflicts, such as Desert Storm, in which the U.S. could clearly define its enemy and reveal information about troop build-ups against another nation. “This war is different,” Rumsfeld explained, citing a greater need for secrecy in some planning elements and the unusual nature of terrorist networks. “It is a totally different situation; it was an unrealistic expectation.”
On the subject of his sharp criticism of Pentagon leaks shortly after Sept. 11 and the possibility that it may have “chilled” some Defense Department officials from talking to reporters, Rumsfeld said, “God bless chilling.” But he said he had made no push to find leakers in the Pentagon and believed going after them in a “witchhunt” would be unproductive. “I do not want to waste time trying to engage in finding people who are just trying to make themselves look important,” he said.
When asked about the recently disbanded Office of Strategic Influence, which was shutdown after The New York Times reported it would engage in lying to foreign press and citizens about U.S. military operations, Rumsfeld called it “a soiled” office and said the government had to “do a better job of dealing with the kinds of information that is important to our success.”
The defense secretary stressed, however, that the U.S. needed to be able to counter disinformation from foreign leaders and opposition groups that some reporters, including those in America, often report too freely. “Anything that is against the United States gets a lot more attention,” he said. “You know that. When you are in the middle of a war, you have people out there spreading information around and you can’t just sit back and do nothing.”
Although he claims to spend less than five minutes preparing for press briefings, Rumsfeld said he enjoys talking to reporters and plans to keep up his practice of holding several press events each week. “I don’t feel it is a burden at all,” he said.