Pentagon's News Filter May Obscure Air War Effect
By Bradley Graham
Worried that too much information was leaking out of the Pentagon, Defense Secretary William S. Cohen and his chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Henry H. Shelton, decided before the first bombs dropped to clamp down on news about NATO's air campaign against Yugoslavia.
For several weeks after bombing began March 24, senior officials spoke only generally about "degrading" Yugoslav forces, refusing to provide even the most basic facts – the kind that had been routine in past conflicts – about the number of attacks or targets that U.S. and other NATO warplanes were hitting.
Since then, the Pentagon has lifted some of the veil. Now, statistics about strike missions flown, targets attacked and damage done pour out daily in briefings here and at NATO headquarters in Brussels. Journalists regularly view gun camera footage from NATO warplanes and receive updates on destruction of Yugoslav tanks, aircraft, ammunition depots, oil storage facilities and other targets.
Defense officials say the change in recent weeks reflects a reduced risk to NATO pilots now that Yugoslav air defenses have been disrupted, giving alliance commanders greater confidence that information will not compromise military operations. It also comes after protests from major news organizations about excessive Pentagon censorship.
Kenneth Bacon, the Pentagon spokesman, acknowledged adopting "an extremely conservative approach" at the outset about information. He attributed the restrictions to concerns that any details gleaned by Serb defenders could endanger NATO pilots. He also said heavy cloud cover over Yugoslavia meant little aerial photography was available to show in the first weeks.
But aside from the particulars of the conflict, Bacon said the tight hold on news was intended by Cohen and Shelton to establish a larger precedent.
"I think they both feel that over time, the Pentagon has become much too lax in providing operational information, and they would like to see a cultural change that would make the building somewhat less forthcoming," Bacon said in an interview.
While sympathetic to the need for secrecy during war, even some senior military officers regarded the extent of the initial stinginess as unwarranted and fraught with risks of its own in a democratic society.
"I was really astounded at how little information was being released," said Air Force Col. Phil Meilinger, an air power expert and professor of strategy at the Naval War College. "Not everything can be cloaked as an operational security matter. I think in our society, that's asking for trouble. If you don't tell people something, then they wonder why and start asking even more questions."
Still troubling for some critics is the contrast between NATO's repeated claims that the airstrikes are having their intended effect and other evidence showing Yugoslav forces accomplishing their goals of smashing the secessionist Kosovo Liberation Army, emptying the rebel Serbian province of many ethnic Albanians and digging in to defend against any invasion by NATO troops.
These divergent views of the battlefield have given an air of unreality to some government accounts of the air war and have complicated predictions about whether allied bombing strategy can succeed.
Drawing an analogy with the Vietnam War, when U.S. counts of enemy war dead gave a false impression that the United States was winning, Stephen Larrabee, a defense analyst at the Rand Corp., said many statistics being cited by NATO authorities now may be irrelevant to the ultimate goal of evicting Yugoslav forces from the province.
"They're using all sorts of indices that aren't particularly meaningful," he said. "If you listen to the briefings, the message has remained very much the same from start – Serb forces are eroding, we're winning. But the reality on the ground is, they've driven out these refugees, they've achieved most of their objectives, they're hunkering down and there's very little assurance that we're going to be able to get at their forces, which are dispersed."
On the central question of whether NATO's airstrikes can ultimately change President Slobodan Milosevic's mind, battlefield assessments by the Pentagon and NATO have provided scant insight, just repeated assertions that no rational leader would continue to subject his military to such destruction.
"You're getting a pretty good account now of where the strikes are going on in Kosovo," said Anthony Cordesman, a military expert with the Center for International and Strategic Studies. "But the problem I have – and anyone looking at this has – is okay, we have this data, so what? Does it tell us when Milosevic is going to give in? Does it tell us when Serbian operations are truly crippled? No."
Pentagon officials, mindful of the Vietnam precedent, insist they are being careful to avoid exaggerating the impact of the air campaign. But military spokesmen also bristle at suggestions the allied airstrikes are making little difference by blasting away at Yugoslav military capabilities.
"There is a misperception at the success of this campaign, in a lot of fronts," Air Force Maj. Gen. Charles Wald, the Pentagon's chief military briefer on the war, told reporters last week. "I think the pilots I've talked to are frustrated that people don't understand how well it is going."
While briefings about the air operation have become more detailed, they also have acquired a propaganda element aimed at demonizing Milosevic and his Belgrade government and imparting a moral imperative to the conflict. U.S. and NATO spokesmen, in scripts closely coordinated with the help of several public affairs specialists loaned by Washington to Brussels, routinely mix reports on allied strikes with fresh accusations of atrocities by Yugoslav forces.
Just last week, officials used Pentagon and NATO podiums to broadcast allegations that Yugoslav authorities have begun to dig up mass graves of ethnic Albanians in Kosovo to destroy evidence that could be used against them in war crimes trials. Yugoslav authorities also were accused of moving the bodies of some victims to make the deaths appear to have been caused by air strikes.
On the subject of civilian casualties, alliance officials have become quicker at acknowledging bombing mistakes, following a five-day delay last month in admitting NATO planes erroneously struck a convoy of ethnic Albanians in Kosovo. But U.S. and allied officials still tend to try to deflect blame at the outset and wait at least one news cycle or two before owning up to attacks gone awry.
When news bulletins flashed May 14, for instance, that scores of refugees in the Kosovo village of Korisa were killed in an air attack, allied officials asserted there were no NATO strikes in the area and suggested Yugoslav artillery may have killed the refugees by shelling. The next day, NATO spokesmen acknowledged that allied aircraft indeed attacked the village, unaware the refugees were there and believing it harbored a Yugoslav military command post.
Even so, alliance officials sought to turn the episode against Milosevic, saying Yugoslav forces brought the refugees into Korisa to use them as "human shields" against allied attack. Interviews with survivors by journalists on the scene suggested, however, that the refugees may have ended up in the village more by happenstance than design, having been blocked earlier in the day from entering Albania and directed to Korisa to bed down for the night.
© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company