By: Matt Kelley, Associated Press Writer
(AP) Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld denounced the person who revealed to news media information about special forces operations in Afghanistan as a lawbreaker who showed “disregard for the lives of the people involved in that operation.”
“I just think that the idea of someone in this building providing information to the public and to the al-Qaida and to the Taliban when U.S. special forces are engaged in an operation is not a good idea, besides being a violation of federal criminal law,” Rumsfeld said Monday at a Pentagon news conference.
News of Friday’s overnight raid leaked as 100 Army Rangers and other special forces were inside Afghanistan. The troops attacked an airfield near Kandahar and a residence of Mullah Mohammed Omar, the Taliban leader; destroyed a cache of weapons; killed Taliban fighters; and took documents and other evidence to try to find terrorist leaders.
CBS, one of the first networks to get word of the raids, delayed reporting them for security reasons, said Janet Leissner, the network’s Washington bureau chief.
Rumsfeld admitted the news reports did not endanger U.S. troops, since all returned from the mission safely. But he said: “It was something that (amounted to) disregard for the lives of the people involved in that operation.”
He said the Pentagon was trying to provide as much information about the attacks in Afghanistan as possible without putting soldiers’ lives or missions at risk.
Many news organizations say the Pentagon has been particularly stingy with information during the anti-terrorism campaign. Reporters have been denied access to bases that U.S. forces are using in Pakistan and Uzbekistan. Those interviewing troops involved in the campaign normally are told they can refer to the service members only by their first names or nicknames, in order to shield their families from possible retaliation.
Reporters are sympathetic to many of the restrictions, particularly the one on using soldiers’ full names, said Doyle McManus, Washington bureau chief of the Los Angeles Times.
“I don’t think identifying fighter pilots by their call signs is a major blow to the First Amendment,” McManus said. “The more serious test will be whether down the road we get any information from bombing damage assessments. The question of the effectiveness of bombing measured against whether civilian damage occurs is a serious question that the public deserves a look at.”
Bureau chiefs of top news organizations met with Rumsfeld last week seeking greater access to news about attacks in Afghanistan. Rumsfeld said then that he had under consideration letting reporters onto the USS Kitty Hawk, an aircraft carrier being used as a floating base of operations for some special forces units.
“The war has gotten to a new phase, and we need to get to a new phase in coverage,” CBS’ Leissner said. “We need some access to the ground operations.”
Rumsfeld said he doubts that reporters ever will be brought along during commando raids and repeated his assertion that some missions in the anti-terror campaign may remain secret forever.
More openness could mean fewer leaks, said Lucy Dalglish, executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press.
“We’re going to see a lot of war coverage by leak,” Dalglish said. “As the ground war develops, we’re going to need independent sources of information to be confident our military is behaving appropriately.”
Military officials admitted two cases where bombs either went off target or mistakenly hit civilian areas and Red Cross warehouses, which McManus of the Los Angeles Times sees as a positive sign.
“That’s admirable and suggests this generation of military leaders has learned lessons from previous wars; that if something goes wrong, you’re better off acknowledging it immediately than in prolonging the agony,” he said.