I'm going back to Afghanistan to report on the war. But after the McChrystal fiasco, what the heck are the rules?
This will be my fifth time in Afghanistan since 2001. I'll be hanging out with several battalions of the 10th Mountain Division, whom I've traveled with and reported on for going on two decades in places like Somalia, the Balkans and Afghanistan.
So this will be familiar ground. Except for the new cloud of uncertainty that came between soldiers and journalists after Gen. Stanley McChrystal and his top aides jocularly derided the Obama administration and others, in front of a reporter. Result: Rolling Stone Magazine won a place in history for its sensational story last month on "The Runaway General,'' and the general was forced into ignominious retirement after a brilliant career for what he may have assumed was off-the-record barstool banter.
Now what? As a war journalist, my M.O. has always been simple: live with the troops, from privates to generals, and report as accurately as I can. Two goals: 1. Have fun. 2. Give readers an upfront view of the troops and the war so they get a better gut feel for the conflict, and perhaps rethink the conventional wisdom.
But it's an awkward position. Embedded reporters like me inevitably become friends with the troops that we're covering. After all, we share the heat and dust, the sticky MREs, the boredom and the danger. We make them visible to their families and friends back home. Everybody likes to see his picture in the paper. And the troops keep us safe. "Thanks for being with us -- it takes a lot of balls to go out there without a weapon,'' a Marine corporal told me once. "But just remember, we always had your back covered.''
The price is, you have to be willing to risk those friendships if it comes to that. Sometimes, it comes to that (I'm thinking of the towering, red-faced, clenched-fist sergeant major who tore after me once for something I wrote). But I always ask myself, if I'm not willing to write straight and honest and take the consequences, what am I doing out here?
Of course it's more complicated than that. Covering war is not press-conference reporting, divided neatly into questions and bland answers from an "Authority.'' This is trickier (and way more interesting). Embedded reporters are not quite inside the Band of Brothers, but we're alongside. Through some mental gymnastics, troops forget I'm a journalist even though I have my notebook open. And they love to talk. Ask a grunt what he does, and you'll get the technical specs of his weapon, the unprintable details of his latest amorous conquests and his opinions of his platoon sergeant, the grand strategy of the United States, and on members of Congress.
And in the heat and stress and confusion of military operations, people say things without stopping to consider how it'll look in print. One evening in Haiti, after a day of searching for putrefying bodies in the earthquake rubble, a sergeant confided that he and his paratroopers -- hardened combat veterans -- were all going to a mental health counselor when they got home. I used that in a story because it encapsulated the stress the troops were feeling. But I didn't name either the sergeant or the unit.
The trick is to separate out wheat from chaff. No, private, I'm not going to quote you on whether Richard Holbrooke ought to be replaced. No thanks, major, for your acerbic views on Hamid Karzai; I'll talk to somebody who deals directly with the Afghan president and has a credible assessment.
Much of what I hear (and write down) is just outrageous enough or majorly funny that I can't resist, even if I have to clean it up. A Marine major in southern Afghanistan once wearily complained to me that he has spent his entire adult life "eating out of a plastic bag and [defecating] in a hole in the ground.'' I used the quote but it wasn't an "interview'' and I didn't use his name.
After the smoke cleared from the McChrystal affair, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates issued new guidance to his top commanders, requiring them to clear any interviews first with his office, the New York Times reported Friday.
That's for the generals. The Pentagon has long required reporters requesting to cover military operations first to sign a lengthy "media ground rules'' document.
My copy, from ISAF ( the International Security Assistance Force, the allied military command), is touchingly earnest in its attempt to specify what must and may not be done.
Don't divulge details of upcoming operations, it advises, unnecessarily. Don't give away secrets to the enemy. OK. But also, Don't say two F-16s strafed enemy positions (as it does in an Air Force press release). Say "fighters'' or "fixed wing aircraft,'' and instead of saying "two'' you must say "many'' or "few.''
Go ahead and laugh (you could violate the rules by quoting the military's own press releases!), but I have had friends thrown out of the country for violating these rules. Rumor has it that the Defense Department has battalions of lawyers searching the news for violations. And I wouldn't be surprised.
The ISAF rules also demand that "all interviews with service members will be on the record.'" I presume this is an attempt to head off random quotes and make everybody think before they speak. The problem, of course, is the definition of "interview.'' If a guy on the next seat in the latrine complains about his weapon misfiring, is that an interview? If you go on shore leave with boisterous gang of Marines and end up in a drunken brawl in which allies are loudly insulted, is that off the record? (Not that I necessarily speak from experience.)
And what of Michael Hastings, the freelance journalist who sank Stan McChrystal's career? Did he sign every page of his ISAF Media Ground Rules? I bet he did -- and then went on to make up his own. Maybe he told himself that hanging around a Paris bar with the guys wasn't "an interview.''
I've been in that situation many times as an embedded reporter. Being around when soldiers take off their game face provides some of the richest stuff of war reporting, getting past the vapid press releases and briefing summaries and getting deep insights into what's going on and how people feel about it. I would fight for that kind of access. Any reporter would.
But I would not have used the McChrystal quotes. Here's why.
Embedded with the 1st Battalion, 6th Marines in southern Afghanistan two years ago, I spent hours and days sitting in a conference room while the Marines planned a huge upcoming operation. It wasn't long before I realized the operation was being delayed because of bickering and confusion in the allied command. The Brits disliked the intent of the operation; generals in Kabul disagreed with generals in Kandahar about what ought to be done; there was squabbling among the Canadians and others about who was to do what.
Military operation delayed by command confusion? That, I thought, was a story worth telling.
I wrote it from the notes I'd taken openly (without declaring to each person in the room, "This is an interview!''). Officers senior enough to be held to account, I quoted by name. I spared the names of a few junior Marines, not wanting to blight their young careers. I was careful and accurate. The story caused a sensation when it hit the streets (that was back in the olden days when newspapers were delivered to doorsteps). Washington called, demanding to know what the heck was going on with the command structure. The Marine command was livid and put me on a plane to Kabul.
Within a few days, however, I was allowed back to go into combat with them -- they reluctantly granted that the story was accurate, and wanted someone around to record what they were doing.
And the Defense Department quickly moved to straighten out the tangled lines of authority in the allied command.
The difference with the McChrystal quotes? A story on flaws in the command structure mattered; lives would depend on how smoothly the commanders worked. Off-hand comments, made in private, about Joe Biden? Not important enough to break a confidence. Surely, Hastings overheard more significant and compelling stuff from his month with the general. If McChrystal and his staff had deep and bitter disagreements with the White House, Hastings should have written that story. But he chose to go with the trash-talk as the more sensational story.
There are those who disagree vehemently with this. New York Times columnist Frank Rich, for example, fulminates about how regular beat reporters (that would be me), drunken with access to top officials, would never dare jeopardize their standing by writing a critical story. An opposite view comes from his conservative colleague, David Brooks, who bemoans the rise of "kvetching'' as journalism. Hastings, Brooks writes, "essentially took run-of-the-mill complaining and turned it into a direct challenge to presidential authority.''
The argument can and maybe should go on. Meantime I'll take my ISAF media ground rules with me to Afghanistan, but I'll navigate by the old standards: fairness, balance, accuracy. If I've got to burn a bridge, I'll be home early.
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