A reporter traveling with a National Guard unit prodded one of its soldiers to ask Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld about the lack of armor for some U.S. military vehicles in Iraq, an exchange that made worldwide news Wednesday when the assembled troops cheered the question.
Edward Lee Pitts of the Chattanooga Times Free Press told colleagues in an e-mail that he and members of the Tennessee Army National Guard now in Kuwait "worked on questions to ask Rumsfeld about the appalling lack of armor" and that Spec. Thomas Wilson posed the question at his request.
Reporter Edward Lee Pitts cited an "appalling lack of armor" in Iraq.
(Chattanooga Times Free Press)
President Bush and Rumsfeld both said yesterday that they welcomed the pointed questions that soldiers posed and that the concerns they raised were being addressed. The Pentagon held a briefing to make a similar point, but congressional Democrats continued to pound on Rumsfeld for his responses to the troops in Kuwait.
Two media analysts said Pitts should have disclosed his role in the story he wrote. But Tom Griscom, the paper's publisher and executive editor, said yesterday in a telephone interview that "the soldier asked the question" and could have rejected Pitts's idea.
"Because someone's in the media who's embedded with them, does that mean they don't have the same opportunity to at least make a suggestion of something that might be asked?" said Griscom, a White House communications director in the Reagan administration. "Is that what makes it wrong, because a journalist did it? . . . That response from the troops was a clear indication that this is an issue on their minds."
In the exchange in Kuwait, Wilson asked, "Why do we soldiers have to dig through local landfills for pieces of scrap metal" to armor their vehicles "and why don't we have those resources readily available to us?"
Rumsfeld replied that "you go to war with the Army you have . . . not the Army you might want or wish to have at a later time."
Pitts, who last week wrote a story about what he terms "hillbilly armor," boasted about his role, according to the e-mail, which was leaked to the online Drudge Report. "I have been trying to get this story out for weeks," Pitts wrote.
Griscom said that today's edition of his paper will carry an explanation of Pitts's role.
Tom Rosenstiel, director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism, said that Pitts "may have emboldened soldiers to ask questions that citizens are often a little more timid about asking" and may have helped frame the question "in a more provocative way" but that there was "no sleight of hand" involved.
Alex Jones, director of Harvard University's Shorenstein media center, said Pitts's role "makes me uncomfortable" but "I don't consider this to be a setup because it was a legitimate question as far as the soldier was concerned."
Bush told reporters that he thought the questions to Rumsfeld were legitimate. "We expect our troops to have the best possible equipment," he said. "And if I were a soldier overseas wanting to defend my country, I'd want to ask the secretary of defense the same question."
Rumsfeld, who traveled from Kuwait to India, told reporters there that it is "good for people to raise questions." He said he found his session in Kuwait "a very fine, warm, enjoyable meeting."
The Pentagon held a briefing to say the soldiers' concerns were being addressed. It emphasized that the military is putting armor on Humvees as fast as possible and that it is military policy not to have soldiers drive into Iraq in vehicles lacking armor.
The problem the Guard soldier pointed out has more to do with other vehicles that the Army operates, such as cargo trucks, to which armor is being added in less formal ways. Of the 30,000 wheeled military vehicles the military has in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere in the region, about 8,000 lack armor, Army Lt. Gen. Steven Whitcomb said.
Congressional Democrats kept up their fire. "I think the secretary's comments [in Kuwait] were more dismissive than thoughtful and reasonable," said Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.), a member of the Armed Services Committee.
Pentagon officials are working to address the problem. The Pentagon is preparing the largest supplemental budget request ever -- close to $100 billion -- to pay for operations in Iraq and Afghanistan and for gear to replace equipment worn out in the fighting. That request would come on top of other, smaller supplemental appropriation bills.
Still, some commanders in Iraq say Wilson is correct in that the Pentagon was broadly unprepared for the war it is fighting. One officer compared the Army to a sprinter trying to run a marathon -- designed to prevail in short, sharp, high-tech wars but fighting a counterinsurgency campaign against a poorly understood enemy.