The Deputy and the Deadlines
By Al Kamen
Friday, June 25, 2004; Page A27
Been a bit of a rocky week for Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul D. Wolfowitz and the media.
He created a bit of a fuss Tuesday when he told the House Armed Services Committee about a heretofore overlooked factor hampering the U.S. effort in Iraq: a cowardly press corps.
"Frankly," Wolfowitz said, "part of our problem is a lot of the press are afraid to travel very much, so they sit in Baghdad, and they publish rumors. And rumors are plentiful."
Wolfowitz didn't specify what rumors were published, most likely because it wouldn't do to repeat them. Nor did he mention the at least 30 reporters who have been killed covering the story since the war began or the others who have been injured or abducted.
For example, colleague Dan Williams reported recently from beautiful downtown Fallujah, where masked gunmen are in control and fundamentalist mullahs flog folks in the streets while asserting sharia.
Williams drove around town with an Iraqi interpreter, protected by his reporter's notebook, which usually stops gunmen in their tracks. (Some reporters also take tape recorders as backup protection.) Fortunately, he did have an armored SUV on the 35-mile drive back to Baghdad. That came in handy when a carload of gunmen overtook the SUV just outside town and blasted away with their AK-47s at close range (about 10 feet) during a long, high-speed chase. The SUV was hit by nearly 200 rumors.
Reporters are being advised by the military to restrict their movements, and their editors are demanding they exercise extreme caution. Frankly, part of their problem, to paraphrase the deputy secretary, is that the security situation, especially for Westerners, has deteriorated so badly in the last few months that it is getting a bit scary even for battle-hardened warriors such as Williams.
In contrast to the intimidated press, Wolfowitz is completely unafraid to leave the hotel. In fact, he travels about the entire country, as he did last week. Unlike reporters, however, who tend to travel on land, his feet never touched the ground except in a U.S. military base or secured zone.
Probably just for convenience, Wolfowitz prefers to travel by air, in a fleet of Black Hawk helicopters with several Apache attack helicopters -- bristling with machine guns, rockets and Hellfire missiles -- flying escort. Wolfowitz choppered from the secured airport to the secured Green Zone downtown, a distance of maybe 10 miles as the RPG flies. (Cabs are expensive.)
Heading north to Mosul? No problem, take a C-130 transport plane to the U.S. base and meet with Kurdish leaders in a totally secured area. Need to trek to Basra? The C-130's the way to go. Get some nice views of the country and a good feel for what Iraqis are thinking.
And even in Camp Victory or other bases, Wolfowitz would have a half-dozen or more security folks with automatic weapons ringing him on the tarmac plus a few Humvees with .50-cal. machine guns on top as he boarded the aircraft.
To his credit, Wolfowitz also went to Fallujah. Okay, so maybe, unlike Williams, he didn't try to chat with the folks hanging out there. No, he went by air to the U.S. base on the outskirts of town where Iraqis could come chat with him. No rumors hit the choppers on the way back to Baghdad.
Wasn't clear whether Wolfowitz thought the cowardly reporters included the dead ones.
On Wednesday afternoon, he appeared on MSNBC's "Hardball," where guest host Campbell Brown gave him ample opportunity to revise and extend his remarks. He went on criticizing the media for misreporting the news from Iraq and denied he had been "media-bashing."
© 2004 The Washington Post Company