Letter From Kuwait
The Hilton's Strange Embed Fellows
By Richard Leiby
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 7, 2003; Page C01
KUWAIT CITY -- In "Doonesbury," the duty of placing journalists with troops bound for combat in Iraq falls to B.D., the gung-ho Army reservist who never takes off his helmet. At a beachfront Hilton resort here, it falls to Lt. Col. Rick Long, a cigar-smoking Marine who's suddenly become every would-be war correspondent's best friend.
"Great to have you," Long tells a newly arrived Los Angeles Times reporter, as he handshakes his way through a media mob that's descended on the posh headquarters of the U.S. military's PR operation in Kuwait. "Whatever you need, I'll take care of you."
A onetime artillery officer, Long is public affairs pooh-bah for the 60,000-strong 1st Marine Expeditionary Force here. He pauses to reload his formidable grin. He aims it simultaneously at a New York Daily News scribe and a CNN correspondent: "You just tell me what you want."
In the annals of war coverage, the military has viewed reporters as either hostile forces or helpful propagandists, or both. It's no different in this new era of "embedding," when the Pentagon is deploying hundreds of correspondents to live among the troops.
This time the brass seems to want to make nice, outfitting the media with gas masks and dispensing anthrax vaccinations, talking about how this process will help reporters understand military culture. They'll share chow and endure hardships, just like a band of brothers (and sisters).
The Marines and the other military services promise lots of access and exclusives, though of course there will be "escorts" for the embedders. To supervise them?
Long's smile suddenly flattens. "I think 'supervise' is a poor choice of words," he says. "We have to ensure that you're getting accurate information."
In war, it's appropriate for the media to serve as watchdogs, but "you should not walk into a situation being a skeptic," he says in an interview. Reporters shouldn't be digging for dirt or even independently probing for facts, in his view. If something bad happens, it's the military's job to investigate, Long says, not the media's.
"Our job is to provide the truth and provide context." He fires up his stogie. He puffs. "The truth will set you free."
During the Civil War, some 500 reporters provided coverage on the Union side alone, furiously filing by telegraph and, in the words of Gen. William T. Sherman, "doing infinite mischief." One correspondent whose words caused offense "was placed backwards on an old horse, a placard marked 'Libeler of the Press' was tied to his chest, and he was paraded through the army to the tune of 'Rogue's March,' " Phillip Knightley recounts in "The First Casualty," a history of war reporting. The book takes its name from this 1917 quote from Sen. Hiram Johnson of California: "The first casualty when war comes is truth."
During Vietnam, military spokesmen had a term for nonaccredited correspondents: "renegades." Here a correspondent who has agreed to Pentagon ground rules, but isn't embedding, wears a badge emblazoned with the word "unilateral" in red. The same term was applied to reporters who attempted to operate outside the strict pool system during the 1991 Gulf War.
The correspondents being deployed in the Gulf theater -- more than 600 are being placed with U.S. forces -- far outnumber the military's public affairs force, optimists point out. But in the field an embedder's access will depend on how he behaves and whether he is trusted.
"You are not going to be mother-henned," Long promises in his briefing to embedders. "There are not going to be [escorts] over you all the time. They will be there to open doors for you."
And, he says, they'll help protect reporters from many dangers -- minefields, chemical attacks and so forth.
© 2003 The Washington Post Company