Weapons of Mass Instruction

By David Von Drehle
Wednesday, February 22, 2006





Torie Clarke

Free Press, 214 pages

Relations between high officials and the press are icier than the Weddell Sea, so it is interesting to find a veteran press secretary from the ruling party making the case for an aggressive press and a more candid government.

But Torie Clarke, former assistant secretary of defense for public affairs, contends that there really is no alternative. Technology has so dispersed the means of mass communication that any government that remains silent is simply surrendering the field to its foes. Every day, secrets are becoming harder to keep and distortions easier to transmit. Truth is the only answer, Clarke declares -- no matter how badly it hurts.

"In the Information Age, the bad news is going to get out," she writes in this brisk and optimistic book. "The only questions are who will tell it first and will they tell it accurately."

This philosophy lay behind Clarke's boldest and most memorable initiative during four eventful years as chief Pentagon spokeswoman. Clarke designed the program to "embed" journalists with the military units fighting the war in Iraq. Despite initial resistance from old-school generals and Pentagon lawyers, Clarke managed to place more than 700 reporters, photographers and camera operators with units conducting the initial invasion and subsequent counterinsurgency war.

Using lightweight, durable satellite equipment, these journalists gave the world something new in the history of media and warfare: real-time combat coverage. The program came in for predictable criticism from left and right ideologues, and also for more nuanced discussion of the sort offered by media critic Dan Kennedy of the Boston Phoenix back in 2003: "What we've seen has been a fragmented whole that adds up to considerably less than its parts."

On balance, however, Clarke has ample support in the media and the general public for considering the program a success. Embedded reporters, some of whom died in the invasion, covered "the good, the bad and the in-between," Clarke writes. The program became a vehicle for spreading messages about the power and capacity of the U.S. military, and also a way of dealing "directly and quickly" with bad news from the front.

What Clarke and her boss, Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld, understood was that information is as potent as an arsenal of bombs in modern warfare. If the United States didn't supply it, Saddam Hussein and others would. Clarke felt vindicated when she watched Saddam's spokesman -- "Baghdad Bob," to the comedy writers -- declare victory over U.S. forces while, simultaneously, other cameras captured live images of armored vehicles rolling unopposed into the Iraqi capital.

But it's not just a matter of presenting facts to drive out rumors and lies, Clarke continues. Public scrutiny can have a disinfectant power. She recounts an exchange with an unnamed former colleague "almost a year after I left the Pentagon when the story of prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib prison broke." As she tells it, the colleague said, "I bet you wouldn't have wanted any reporters embedded at Abu Ghraib."

"I absolutely would have," Clarke answers. "If that prison had been crawling with reporters, this never would have happened." In another passage, she says her impulse was to open the detainee center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, to journalists with cameras. "We had nothing to hide," she says.

She contrasts, gently, this approach with the fumbling and fibs from the White House after President Bush stood under a huge banner proclaiming "Mission Accomplished" and announced that "major combat operations" in Iraq were over.

"I cringed," she reports of her immediate reaction, and kept wincing as the administration tried to blame the aircraft carrier banner on exuberant sailors. By the time the White House finally admitted a mistake, "their credibility had sustained a hit, and their reputation for stubbornness had been ratcheted up a notch. Had they skipped straight to the apology, the effect might very well have been the opposite."

Clarke's book is not really a memoir, although flashes of her funny, down-to-earth manner come through. Nor is it media analysis, thank goodness. One line of it reads -- at least since last week -- like a personal message to Vice President Cheney: "Wait for somebody else to tell the story, and you're probably not going to like how they tell it."

Mostly, "Lipstick on a Pig" (the title refers to the adage that trying to sugarcoat bad news is like putting lipstick on a pig) is pitched as practical advice for people who find themselves caught in the public eye. Learn to get your story out, Clarke preaches, and make sure your story is the truth.

Given that theme, some readers will probably wish that Clarke had spent some more time talking about moments when she may have thought she was speaking the truth at the Pentagon lectern, but learned later that she and her boss were wrong. The phantom weapons of mass destruction come to mind, as does the low-balled estimates of what it would take to establish a peaceful future for Iraq.

In these cases and others, damage was done to America's interests not by keeping secrets, but by going public with more than the government actually knew.

Even so, there's something appealing about a press secretary who offers this motto: "Own up, stand up, speak up." And there's something useful in that advice for just about everyone.

Von Drehle is a Washington Post staff writer.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company