Relying on Blind Faith

Media Assembles Fractured Picture of War

As the war unfolds in the hills of Afghanistan and sources on both sides dispense cryptic messages designed to confuse the enemy, U.S. war correspondents are beginning to sound like blind men describing an elephant.

Depending on who you're talking to, (1) U.S. troops are still assembling in Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, (2) they've already gone deep into Afghanistan and come out, (3) they're under orders to capture Bin Laden, (4) they're just gathering information, (5) a team of three Americans and two Afghan guides has been captured by the Taliban, and (6) no such event ever took place. When the story is this fractured, who can you trust?

We've been told this will be an invisible war. And of course no one expects the media to publish explicit reports on future military and intelligence ops. But the public has a right to be informed, and if too many journalists self-censor and accept what they're told on blind faith, this war will remain a protean and phantasmagorical thing, even to the people who are paying for it.

USA Today ripped away the first veil on September 28, when it published a front-page story revealing that Green Berets and Navy SEALs have been operating in Afghanistan since they landed in Pakistan on September 13. According to reporter Jack Kelley, three-to-five-member commando teams had been searching caves and underground bunkers on a mission "to capture or kill bin Laden [or] pin him down in an area until U.S. air strikes can be launched." But after two weeks, they'd come up empty-handed.

This was a huge scoop, a U.S. exclusive. But many journalists hesitated to follow it up, even though the advance of U.S. troops into Afghanistan had already been reported by Pakistani newspapers, and as USA Today noted, the story "would not come as a surprise to bin Laden or [the] Taliban."

"We felt the story was important," says USA Today executive editor Bob Dubill, "and that it would not jeopardize the security of our forces." Dubill says the paper had "impeccable" sources and "more than the usual number." They called the Pentagon for a comment, and no one asked them to hold the story. In fact, the only complaints came from "a fair number" of readers—which suggests that the U.S. government may have actually wanted to get this story out.

"Make no mistake about it, we're in hot pursuit," Bush crowed later that day. Both CNN and the Associated Press quickly confirmed that U.S. and British special forces had been "in country," and by nightfall, General Wesley Clark was on CNN imagining what special forces "might be" up to in Afghanistan.

But other outlets seemed paralyzed by USA Today's scoop. That night, Dan Rather cited a senior official who called the story "crap through and through." On September 29, The Washington Post played dumb, while The New York Times played it safe ("Indications of Covert Action"), explaining the use of special forces as a hypothetical, instead of something already under way.

No doubt some editors consider it their duty to postpone real-time reporting on the special forces, but how long will they allow themselves to get scooped by competitors? On September 29, the Daily News splashed the special forces on its cover, with a clear story line: Operating out of Uzbekistan and a CIA base in Afghanistan, they're doing scouting missions but not actively seeking Bin Laden. The story was the first to acknowledge the media's role in psychological warfare, noting that the president may have deliberately disclosed the troops-in-Afghanistan story to "spread fear and confusion" among the Taliban and to "put the enemy on the move."

On September 29, the Times Web site posted a fresh story by John F. Burns, who is now based in Islamabad. Burns did the honorable thing, crediting CNN and USA Today for their reports that special forces are operating inside Afghanistan. He added the news that "several Pakistani air bases . . . have been earmarked" for U.S. military use and that Pakistan's border towns are crawling with U.S. military brass.

Burns also fielded the latest hot potato: a report by Qatar-based Al-Jazeera TV network that the Taliban had arrested three American soldiers and two Afghan guides near the Afghan border with Iran. He reported that the Taliban had denied the story, but also showed an appreciation for the spin factor, quoting diplomats who said the Taliban's denial might be a strategic move designed to forestall any backlash from the U.S.

Clearly no one wants to publish unfounded rumors. But if U.S. troops are allegedly being held hostage and other outlets are reporting it even as the authorities deny it, is that news? CNN seemed to think so. A story posted on its Web site last weekend cited the Al-Jazeera story and a Pentagon source who said that no evidence "lends credence" to the account.

On September 30, the Daily News ran a Reuters dispatch on the Al-Jazeera story, and The Washington Post mentioned it in passing, officially dubbing the report "incorrect." For all we know, the hostage story could turn out to be bogus, the first round of terrorist bluff. And if true, publicizing it could damage public support for the war.

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