By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, February 24, 2007
To the Army's public affairs chief, it was simply an effort to "get the facts out from our perspective."
To Dana Priest, who covers national security for The Washington Post, it was a case of Army officials "shooting themselves in the foot, because reporters are not going to trust them."
The Post last week gave the Army six days to respond to the paper's investigation into decaying, cockroach-infested facilities and an overwhelmed patient-care bureaucracy at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Northwest Washington. The Army's public affairs office used the time to summon journalists from other news organizations to a briefing at which Walter Reed's commander responded to the findings -- in an article that had not yet been published.
"It made us feel very uncomfortable that we were being set up to be the Army's public affairs arm," said Los Angeles Times correspondent Peter Spiegel, who attended the Pentagon session. "They were trying to brief us on a story when we didn't know what the story was about." Journalists from the Boston Globe, USA Today, the Associated Press and Fox News also attended the invitation-only briefing.
When journalists seek a response from a government agency on a pending story, there is generally an understanding that the information will not be shared with rival news outlets before publication. Such unspoken agreements, however, are hardly iron-clad. Treasury Department officials last year gave the Wall Street Journal declassified information about a secret program to track the banking records of terror suspects after failing to persuade the New York Times to kill a planned story on the subject.
Col. Dan Baggio, the Army's chief of media relations, said Walter Reed's commander had already been thinking of briefing reporters on conditions at the medical center. But Baggio acknowledged that the timing was dictated by the upcoming Post stories, which ran Sunday and Monday and detailed inadequate care for wounded veterans.
Priest, who reported the two-part series with Anne Hull, says she told an Army public affairs officer this week: "How do you think this is going to affect our relationship? Do you think I'm going to be willing next time to give you that much time to respond, if you're going to turn around and tell my competitors?"
But Maj. Gen. George Weightman, Walter Reed's commander, viewed the matter differently, Baggio said. "Because we had a long holiday weekend coming up and we knew the story was coming out about Walter Reed, he felt an obligation to make sure to get the facts out from our perspective," Baggio said. "We have a responsibility to communicate with the public about things going on at our command, regardless of who says they had the right of discovery."
Priest first contacted the Army on Monday, Feb. 12, and provided a list of 30 questions about conditions at Walter Reed. She said that Weightman was responsive during a two-hour interview Thursday, Feb. 15, but that she initially thought he was joking when he said that he would be briefing other news organizations on Walter Reed's problems the following day.
At the Friday briefing, reporters were told that Weightman's remarks were embargoed until late Saturday afternoon, around the time that The Post's story was expected to be posted online. That, said Baggio, was done as a "courtesy."
After an internal debate, said Spiegel of the Los Angeles Times, "it seemed to us pointless to try to cobble something together" without The Post's findings.
But the Army succeeded in putting its stamp on some stories. An AP report Saturday evening began: "The commander of the Army's leading medical facility acknowledges problems in outpatient treatment but said the hospital is working to address the concerns of patients and their families." Spiegel's Times piece Sunday said Weightman "has acknowledged that the staff responsible for tracking patients after they receive treatment was overwhelmed by the number of wounded when violence spiked in Iraq two years ago." Both reports said Weightman spoke in advance of The Post's stories.
Army officials are now questioning the paper's handling of the probe. In a letter to Walter Reed's staff this week, Weightman said that "information for this article was covertly obtained over more than two years by reporters who did not wish to bring their findings to the leadership for action."
Priest, saying that the inquiry lasted four months, not two years, declined to explain how she and Hull repeatedly signed into Walter Reed without the knowledge of the Army brass. Every patient or family member quoted by name, she said, had agreed to be on the record.
"We never lied to anyone about who we were," Priest said. "We just tried not to be in a position to identify ourselves to anyone who would report us to public affairs and have us kicked off the base."
As for Weightman's complaint that the paper should have notified the Army of its conclusions earlier in the process, Priest called that "ridiculous," saying: "You find wrongdoing and you don't report it to the public first? You report it to them first? That's not our role."