On message: a theater of war at the Pentagon. (Report).
An hour before the October 8 briefing begins, only a few of the chairs in the Briefing Room are occupied. The first two rows have already been reserved by those members of the press who maintain offices off the well-polished stretch of hallway known as the Corridor. Wandering behind the podium, I can read the affiliations of the reporters who have already reserved their seats in the front row: they work for USA Today, CBS, ABC, NBC, the AP, Reuters, CNN, AP Radio, ABC radio, and the Voice of America. Some are young; others are in their mid to late fifties, in practical rubber-soled shoes that might save their feet the wear and tear of tramping back and forth to the Briefing Room, to the Press Office, and to occasional meetings with furtive sources. The details of the reporters' shoes, shirts, jackets, and ties are rarely particular enough to identify them as adepts of any particular profession. They are reporters. They write in reporter's notebooks, gossip, and complain. *
The absence of even basic information about the war--such as the disposition of American troops or the numbers of American ships or planes in the general vicinity of Afghanistan--has reduced most of the reporters to quoting the public statements of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld with very little additional comment at all. Having served as secretary of defense during the Ford Administration, Rumsfeld is entirely familiar with his role. His briefings are wonderful theater, packed full of the lessons he has drawn from the last forty years of official U.S. government interactions with the press. In addition to the briefings, there are also daily "trial balloons," which allow public officials to gauge public opinion on vital questions or to outmaneuver their enemies in the ferocious bureaucratic wars that take place entirely out of earshot of the media. Reporters who wish to participate in these faceless games can gain tantalizing exclusives, which are duly prepared for print in the evening and then duly contradicted the next afternoon.
The briefing doesn't start for another twenty minutes. Yesterday morning the United States began its long-awaited bombing campaign in Afghanistan.
"Good afternoon," says Terry Mitchell, the Pentagon employee in charge of the Briefing Room. "It's that time of day when I give my cellphone speech." He is of medium height, with round, freshly shaven cheeks above which are mounted a handsome pair of silver-rimmed aviator lenses.
"Turn them off," he says. The camera lights are switched on, flooding the room with white, unnatural light.
John McWethy of ABC is writing notes on a reporter's pad. He is a tall, handsome man in his early fifties, with thinning silver hair and the gentle, courteous manner of everybody's favorite history teacher in high school.
"Why are we saving the CBS chair?" McWethy wonders out loud. The joke is at the expense of his colleague David Martin, with whom he has shared the Pentagon beat for most of the last two decades. The joke gets a laugh from the CBS cameraman.
McWethy caps his pen and slips his notebook inside the pocket of his blazer. The jokes, like the complaints and the gossip, are intended to relieve the relentless, mind-crowding tedium that comes from the absence of "ground truth," the reporters' term for hard, verifiable, firsthand information about the war.
By now, every chair in the Briefing Room is full, and at least twenty reporters are standing in the aisles, along with the usual crowd of photographers, who are always the last to arrive. They walk into the crowded room, take their cameras out of their bags, and play with the lenses, discreetly flexing one knee, then the other. Donald Rumsfeld walks in the door.
A fit and vigorous-looking man of sixty-nine, he strides confidently toward the podium, his body tilting forward, flanked by the Saxon figure of Air Force General Richard B. Myers, the newly sworn-in chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Stag. Rumsfeld steps up to the podium. He sets his jaw. He is an organizer of men; he is a former Navy fighter pilot, a congressman from Chicago, a bureaucratic infighter, a famous partisan of the missile-defense shield, a deep thinker with a sharp sense of humor who enjoys the give-and-take with reporters and is known to his intimates as "Rummy." General Myers stands a bit stiffly to the side, just behind the Secretary's right shoulder.
The Secretary of Defense lowers his head slightly, then draws a single, carefully regulated breath.
Good afternoon. I have reported to the President, General Myers and I have, on a number of occasions over the past twenty-four hours, and today I'll make some general comments--
The autumnal gray weave of his jacket matches the color of the slackening flesh beneath his throat, which clashes with his silken moderate, late-nineties tie. He tightens the muscles above his jaw, striving for the effect usefully outlined in "Rumsfeld's Rules," a document he authored during the Reagan years, and which is available on defenselink.mil, the Pentagon's official website. There are 154 of these rules in all, helpfully divided into eight subtitled sections. "Manage the interaction between the Pentagon and the White House," reads the third rule in the section entitled "For the Secretary of Defense." "Unless you establish a narrow channel for the flow of information and `tasking' back and forth, the process can quickly become chaotic."
Today's rule is to manage the expectations of the press, I imagine Rumsfeld thinking, in a style that will meet with the approval of the public and also of those segments of the elite who take their cues from the editorial boards of the New York Times and the Washington Post. The reporters know nothing. They lack imagination. They put the lives of American soldiers in danger. Besides, this is not their war.
--and then General Myers will provide a little more detail, the Secretary is saying, ... and an early assessment of the battle damage.
As every head in the room nods along, the Secretary settles deeper into the rhythm of his sentences, and the reporters do their best to assume the posture that their job requires, of a ritual distance from whatever statements are officially being made from the podium.
I want to stress that we're still in the early stages.... Today we'll be continuing to collect damage assessment and will be striking additional targets as appropriate.... The reports indicating that there were attacks on Kabul are incorrect.
The war, the Secretary reports, is likely to be sustained for a period of years, not weeks or months.
This campaign will be waged much like the Cold War, in the sense that it will involve many fronts over a period of time and will require continuous pressure by a large number of countries around the globe.
This, or so it appears in the moment, might actually be news. The Cold War lasted for four decades; nearly 100,000 American soldiers died in Korea and Vietnam. General Myers makes his remarks, and then the floor is opened to questions. As is customary, the first question is asked by the senior correspondent at the Pentagon, Charlie Aldinger, of Reuters. He calls out to the podium in a gentle voice, as though he were cooing to a baby.
General, the bomber aircraft ... were cruise ... first, were ships used today? And were bomber aircraft, both bombs and cruise missiles, used again today, as they were yesterday?
We will use some Tomahawk missiles today from ships....
And Mr. Secretary, might I add, are U.S. and British forces attacking Taliban troop concentrations as well as air defense and airfields and other sites?
There have been some ground forces targeted.
The photographers have begun circulating through the room, in search of new and better angles. Moving in and around the mass of seated reporters, they get down on one knee and shoot, then shoot again. The camera shutters go off in succession with the sound that a playing card makes when laid faceup on a baize-covered table at a casino. The first flip is followed by several more flips, which trigger a waterfall of tertiary flips, until every photographer in the room has the picture. Then the room falls silent for a moment or two, until someone snaps another shot. Working a press conference at the Pentagon is hard, physically demanding work. It takes stamina, sharp elbows, and a strong back. McWethy asks Rumsfeld about the 37,500 meals for the Afghans, the humanitarian MREs (meals ready to eat), dropped in a country where four million people are starving.
It is quite true that 37,000 rations in a day do not feed millions of human beings. On the other hand, if you were one of those starving people who got one of the rations, you'd be appreciative.
You've got to hand it to the Secretary, I am thinking. Dropping rations while also dropping bombs might perhaps seem cynical rather than generous; or so the question was meant to suggest. In return, Rumsfeld gave an honest, hard-headed, realist answer: he even rounded down the number of MREs, from 37,500 to 37,000.
McWethy asks a follow-up, and then it's off to the races, with reporters shouting questions from every corner of the room:
Mr. Secretary, can you say whether the Northern Alliance is making any military gains on the ground?
... can you help us clarify something that you said the other day?
Can you tell us anything ...?
Have any Stingers been fired?
Standing high above the sea of upraised hands and waving pens, the Secretary of Defense is in complete and entire command of the deck. To say that the Secretary is enjoying himself is wrong. Then again, it is clearly true. It's like the five o'clock follies but in reverse: in Saigon the press made fun of army spokesmen; now the Secretary of Defense is having some fun with the press.
Will the NATO AWACS ...?
General Myers! General Myers!
When the Secretary sees a familiar face, or hears the beginning of a question that he might like to answer, he points out into the crowd and the Briefing Room falls silent. When he doesn't want to answer a question, he responds with a selection drawn from an evolving menu of phrases:
We don't discuss things of that type.
I wouldn't want to speculate on that.
Mr. Secretary, do you know how much this campaign is costing on a daily basis?
Rumsfeld accompanies his spoken answers with a series of gestures that I have been diagramming in my little black notebook for a week and a half. When he wishes to emphasize a point during an answer, for example, he makes a fist and pounds, with the thumb laid flat across the platform of the other four fingers; at other times, he folds the bottom two fingers into his palm, then chops lightly at the air. When he says, "It is clear to me," he supports the phrase by placing both hands on his chest, with his fingers spread apart. "Terrorist networks" evokes broad, sweeping, outward gestures of his open hand, suggesting that terrorist networks cannot be reduced to the whereabouts of a single man. He also has a special grimace, which is reserved for specific words attached to villains such as Saddam Hussein, who will be treated by the United States and its allies in such a way as to "contain"--a pause for the grimace--"his appetite."
The briefing is almost over, and I am still waiting for someone to question the Secretary about what seems to me, at least, to have been the salient point of his opening remarks. Is this really another Cold War? Who is the enemy?
The list of unasked questions that I am keeping in my head gets longer with every briefing. Today, as on previous days, for example, no one asks a single question about the root causes of the worst intelligence failure in American history. No one presses Rumsfeld to elaborate on the connection between the bin Laden networks and Iraq. No one questions our "alliance" with Saudi Arabia. No one mentions the possible connection between bin Laden and Palestinian terrorist Imad Mughniyeh, leader of Hizbollah, who allegedly masterminded the 1983 bombing of the U.S. Embassy in Beirut, nearly wiping out the CIA's entire cadre of officers who spoke Persian or Arabic. The Secretary of Defense makes ready to exit.
See you tomorrow! someone shouts.
Rumsfeld turns, and crinkles appear at the corners of his eyes. He is smiling. "See you tomorrow" is simply another part of the ritual, a friendly locker-room pat on the fanny. The Secretary of Defense alone will determine whether he shows up in the Briefing Room tomorrow or not. As he leaves, I occupy myself with the following thought: of the approximately one hundred reporters in the Pentagon Briefing Room this afternoon--from ABC, NBC, CBS, CNN, the New York Times, the Washington Post, and every other major news outlet in the country--not a single representative of the press, myself included, was possessed of the energy, or the foresight, or the leisure, to stand up on their hind legs and encourage the Secretary to expand on his invocation of the signal military, political, and cultural event of the
last fifty years:
The Cold War???
The reporters file down the Corridor, past walls lined with framed reminders of the American victories on San Juan Hill, Iwo Jima, and the beaches of Normandy. ROOSEVELT DEAD, another headline announces. TRUMAN PROMISES TO RETAIN POLICIES. The clack of keyboards is already audible in the well-polished hallways. In the Briefing Room, the television reporters do their afternoon stand-ups; trash accumulates at the feet of their cameras. On the other side of the Corridor, close to the windows, is the breezy, light-filled office of CNN, followed by a cluster of three much smaller offices, inhabited by the correspondents for ABC, NBC, and CBS. In the press room, reporters type in their stories for Time, Newsweek, U.S. News & World Report, and twenty-odd newspapers, as well as Reuters, the AP, and Agence France-Presse. On the wall near the press room hangs a photo gallery of postwar secretaries of defense, from Forrestal to McNamara, Schlesinger, Brown, Weinberger, Cheney, Aspin, Perry, and Cohen. All of the portraits appear to have been snapped by the same photographer--a cold, distanced professional with an eye for telling detail. There is McNamara's Brylcreemed hair; Schlesinger's professorial pipe; and Donald Rumsfeld's flinty smile. As I follow the progression of faces from the beginning of the Cold War to the present it is possible, perhaps, to notice a trend. It's not that the secretaries of defense got stupider. The job is just different now. America is the most powerful nation on earth. The men who administer the military aspects of that power are not philosophers or military strategists. They are corporate bureaucrats, the type one might expect to find at the top of General Motors or General Dynamics.
Pentagon spokeswoman Torie Clarke, a tall, blonde woman in her early forties, receives petitioners in her office at the end of the Corridor. There are more reporters in her office than chairs, and so the reporters wander, and chatter with the secretaries, and watch the bombing on CNN. The sun shines in, spreading lazy pools of light on the rug. Through a picture window I can see outside to the sunny perfection of an early fall afternoon in northern Virginia. The temperature is a spectacular seventy-one degrees, according to the weather map on CNN. Fluffy cartoon clouds are taped to the flat blue sky. Torie Clarke isn't here yet. She is meeting with the Secretary upstairs.
Three captive reporters sit slumped in padded chairs near the door, looking up at those who stand. After five minutes, or sometimes ten, you can see the reporters break their pose and start shifting sullenly from foot to foot, like high school students in the principal's office. They lift their heads and raise their eyes, as if to indicate a yawning canopy of boredom overhead; they scuff their feet and stare down at the carpet. Efficient, uniformed secretaries type steadily away at their desks, sending lines of structured type across pages and pages of bonded government paper. Torie Clarke arrives, and she invites me into her inner office, where we sit together at a polished wooden table by a window. I am curious to know who decides to hold a briefing and when, and whether the statements that the Secretary makes at the briefings are written out in advance, and by whom.
"We talk constantly with our counterparts and others at the White House, State, NSC, so that at the end of the day there are probably seven or eight people involved in the decision," she adds. These people, she says, include "Karen [Hughes at the White House], her deputy Dan Bartlett, [White House spokesman] Ari Fleischer, Richard Boucher over at State, Sean McCormack at NSC, Anna Perez at NSC." The "we" of her sentence, she explains, includes herself, Admiral Craig Quigley, and Larry Di Rita, who functions as the Secretary's chief of staff.
The preparation of the Secretary's opening statements, she says, varies from case to case. "Sometimes it's written," she says. "Sometimes he just writes notes based on conversations we've had leading up to it." More formal statements, she says, are written by some combination of the Secretary, herself, one of the Pentagon's staff writers, and Di Rita, with occasional input from speech-writers and various government officials.
It is easy to see why Torie Clarke was chosen for her job. She is a highly structured, well-organized person. From where she sits, Clarke believes that Americans will be able to understand a war they will not be able to see or hear, and for which conventional scorecards may not be available.
"I have a lot of faith that they can understand that this is a very different time, and a very different kind of war," she says with a hopeful, impatient glance out the door, anticipating her scheduled 4:45 phone call with General Tommy Franks, the commander of American forces in Central Asia, who is based down in Tampa.
The reporters, she believes, are getting the message. "Not the new ones who've all come flocking here in the last week or so," she explains, "[but] the ones who have covered this place for years, and are closest to what we are doing, to the military aspect of the war, have understood for quite some time that this is very different, and won't be covered and won't be seen in the same way that the Persian Gulf War was, or Kosovo, or Bosnia, or anything like that."
As she talks, she makes sure that her eyes never leave my face. "We've been very open about the fact that a lot of the military piece will be covert," she says. Torie Clarke has very pretty eyes.
"You're going to have to call General Franks in a minute," her secretary interrupts, before withdrawing from the doorway.
"I apologize," Clarke says. "I asked General Franks to hang out so I could call him." In my remaining few minutes I ask her to explain the object of the current bombing campaign in Afghanistan.
"It's not about one man or one network," she says. "It's not. It's about a lot more than Osama bin Laden. It's not about a country or a people or a religion." As usual, the aims of the war are defined in the negative. There are some reporters, Clarke adds, who complain about hearing the same message again and again and again from the Pentagon. "Well, I take that as a sign," she says.
"That you're `on message'?" I ask.
"You know, `on message' has taken on a certain connotation around here, in this town," she answers. "It happens to be what we're doing, and it happens to be the truth, and the fact that we're repeating it ad nauseam is a sign that we're sincere."
"Because everything we want to do, whether that's freezing people's bank accounts--"I begin.
"--or military action--"
"--is going to require the support--"
"Of course it will."
"--of other people, in other countries."
"The cooperation has been pretty extraordinary," she admits.
"So you believe the message is getting out, and support is there--"
"--and that the need to aggressively get that message out--"
"Oh yeah, without a--"
"--and everything is fine, and--"
The job will take years, not weeks or months. There is also, she says, the evidence of the Secretary's recent swing through Saudi Arabia, Oman, Egypt, Turkey, and Uzbekistan.
"Without putting words in other people's mouths," she says, "we were all struck by the fact that most of the people with whom we met said exactly what we've been saying. Rumsfeld, he's a great listener," she concludes. "And person after person with whom he met said almost exactly those same things that we've been saying here."
The day that the Secretary of Defense left for the Middle East and Central Asia, I spent a morning with John McWethy. One of the senior reporters on the Pentagon beat, McWethy, fifty-four, works out of a windowless cubicle that he shares with Barbara Starr, an ABC News producer who does radio. The office measures approximately eight feet by eight feet, the size of the cage at a parking garage, which it greatly resembles, with the addition of the dark institutional carpet that runs up the walls. Stuffed with books, papers, television monitors, and broadcast equipment, the office gives the two of them just enough room to work at their desks while sitting back-to-back. Fluorescent light pours into the room from a boxlike plastic fixture. It's government-issue light, the kind you might see inside a big-city courtroom in the middle of December. McWethy is talking on the phone to a producer in New York.
"They're not going to accept anybody but me on the plane," McWethy explains. Hunched over in his chair, he keeps quiet and still, like a kid who is praying for anything other than broccoli. McWethy has been covering the Pentagon and the State Department for ABC News for the last twenty-two years. Before that, he worked as a writer for U.S. News & World Report, covering the White House, where, as legend has it, ABC News president Roone Arledge saw him ask a question at a press conference, noted his handsome looks and intelligent bearing, and ordered someone to hire McWethy and put him on the air.
"We don't know what the itinerary is," he says. "We don't know shit."
A few more calls and McWethy has arranged for his camera equipment to be delivered to the airport; in forty-five minutes he will do his stand-up for the West Coast edition of Good Morning America. He gets to his office at five or six in the morning and stays until seven or eight at night.
"A lot of what happens will be absolutely invisible," he tells me. "I think it's going to make my job extremely difficult. It has already done so." What he has received from the Pentagon so far, he says, are "carefully sifted insights," compiled in accordance with a highly restrictive set of ground rules that "are tougher maybe than the rules in any conflict that we've been engaged in."
"He's so absolutely ... I don't know how to say this," McWethy says, when I ask him about Rumsfeld. He pauses. "He has a passion for secrecy," he finally says, "and he is absolutely unforgiving and unrelenting on this issue." Not only has Rumsfeld threatened sources with legal prosecution, from the Briefing Room podium, on national television, he notes, but the Pentagon also refuses to confirm or deny much of the information that reporters do manage to find out, thus ensuring that the news that does reach the public is often riddled with guesswork and error.
"You've already seen disinformation created by this policy," he says, referring to rumors of a deployment of F-15 fighter planes to the Middle East, which turned out to be false. Refusing to answer reporters' questions, he says, is hardly compelled by a desire to protect the lives of American troops.
"I think it's nonsense," he says flatly. In recent off-the-record meetings with the Secretary, he adds, reporters aired their concerns about the effects of the department's policy for the second or third time this month. "I think he was delighted to hear the effect of his edicts," he says. "During the Gulf War, [then Secretary of Defense] Cheney made his famous statement that `the press has absolutely no capacity to police itself.'" In the talks that McWethy gives at the Naval Academy, he adds, he has noticed how often the cadets make reference to "the Vietnam effect," a phrase that implies, in so many words, that the press was responsible for losing that war.
"What they seem not to understand is that we were being lied to at the highest levels of government," McWethy continues. "This terrible breach of trust ..."
The effect of this attitude on the psyches of even the most experienced reporters is easy to spot. In the middle of the afternoon, on the fourth day of the American bombing campaign in Afghanistan, David Martin, fifty-eight, the correspondent for CBS, is sitting alone in the dark. His office is larger than McWethy's, and it has a window: the sun is blocked out by a plastic shade. On the shelf above his head is a row of policy books with serious-sounding titles, including a book that he wrote in the eighties on terrorism. "It wasn't very exotic," he explains sadly. "There was the bombing of the Marine barracks in Lebanon, then the Libyans, you remember." Our conversation is interrupted by a knock on the door. The door opens, and in walks Dan Rather, the CBS anchorman.
"I'm sorry," Dan Rather says. Since the attack on the World Trade Center, he has cut his hair short. It makes his face look wider. I stand up to give Dan Rather my chair, as Martin points me, politely, toward the door. I exit into the waiting area, which is just big enough to accommodate a pair of filing cabinets plus the anchorman's three-person entourage from New York, which consists of a slick-looking white producer in a suit, an older black professional woman, and a young, pretty blonde who speaks with a pronounced British accent. The only flaw in her beauty that I can see is a slight, insect-bite-size swelling on her cheek. She will later be diagnosed with cutaneous anthrax. NBC correspondent Jim Miklaszewski passes by, swinging one leg ahead of him as he walks.
"Is he the real deal?" asks the CBS producer from New York. He is eager for the scoop on Rumsfeld, whom Rather will interview in half an hour.
"He's the real deal," Miklaszewski brightly assures him. "The trip I took with him last week was the best trip I've ever taken with a public official, by far."
The door to Martin's office opens. Everyone in the hall stands up. "I'm sorry to have disturbed your meeting," Rather offers, in a folksy Texas twang. "Thank you very much for your chair." He is a strange man, who is doing his best to meet the demands of a strange job at a very strange time. The anchorman waves and disappears down the hall. I ask David Martin to define the story that he will be reporting for CBS News over the coming weeks and months.
"As long as bin Laden is there, he is the story," Martin says. I ask him who his viewers are, and he tucks his head and offers me a weary smile.
"I've always imagined a person who is trying to eat dinner and to help his kids with their homework at the same time," he answers. "I do not have his full attention. And that's not patronizing. It's just a fact of how people live their lives. In this case, they're paying closer attention. They want to `get' Osama bin Laden.
"I'm under no illusion that people necessarily want us to get the information that they need to be properly informed," he adds. "When the press is shut out, there is never any shortage of people applauding. `Why do they need to know that?'"
It makes sense that Martin might be depressed. The job he does now is no longer the same as the job he was hired to do. Like McWethy, Martin belongs to an older generation of reporters who imagined that television would provide them with a way to reach tens of millions of people with stories that shed real and necessary light on the actions of their government. (The evidence of the nineties suggests that the networks are no longer interested in reporting the news. By cutting news budgets year after year, and by eliminating investigative and foreign reporting in favor of the serial dramas of O. J. Simpson, Jon-Benet Ramsey, and Monica Lewinsky, the networks have succeeded in transforming "news" into yet another shabby subdivision of the Magic Kingdom. The networks now have little choice but to treat the war as a dramatic entertainment, rather than as an occasion for asking the larger and subtler questions that need to be asked.)
Besides, being the Pentagon correspondent for one of the three major networks is no longer really where it's at. Around the country, and around the world, viewers interested in the latest installment of the Afghan campaign are likely to turn to CNN, the twenty-four-hour news channel, which has just pulled Bob Franken off of the Condit beat to report on the war. I talk instead to CNN's regular Pentagon team, Jamie McIntyre and Christopher Plante, whose sunny, capacious surroundings say all one needs to know about the relative importance of the networks and instant news: the total square footage of the CNN office is roughly equal to that of ABC, NBC, and CBS combined.
"The first `N' stands for `news,'" says Plante, gesturing toward the network logo with his thumb, "as opposed to the domestic entertainment networks down the hall." A news veteran in his early forties, he is CNN's senior producer at the Pentagon; he speaks in the sardonic, educated accent of Chicago's Lake Shore Drive. When I ask him about the Secretary's evocation of the Cold War, he turns his head.
"How many Americans died during the Cold War?" he asks.
"A lot," I answer, after a pause.
Still, he says, there is very little information around that might be useful in determining what Rumsfeld's use of the phrase "Cold War" might portend. "We're covering an invisible war," he says.
Jamie McIntyre, forty-eight, applies his makeup in a small mirror above his desk. "The highlighter beneath my eyes," he explains. "A little foundation to even out my skin." He has been reporting from the Pentagon for almost nine years, he says; he applies the cosmetics with sure, even, professional strokes, while keeping up a friendly, SportsCenter-like banter. His next spot is in less than five minutes. The Briefing Room is empty, save for the techs.
"I'm still hearing domestic. I need to hear international," McIntyre says, holding his earpiece up to his ear. He does two or three spots an hour. As he prepares to speak, he holds a reporter's pad in his hand. The page in front of him is empty. When he notices me looking, he flips the pad over so I can see the next page, which is also blank, with the exception of a single pair of parentheses that have been written in with a red ballpoint pen. As the broadcast moves from Islamabad to Afghanistan then back to Atlanta, approaching the Pentagon, I notice that the space between the parentheses is empty. A trancelike expression settles over his features as he stares into the camera lens:
The reality is that it's just a small part of U.S. strategy ... he begins ... not so much an exit strategy but a strategy to never get fully in. Of course, Jamie McIntyre doesn't have the slightest conception of what U.S. strategy in Afghanistan might be; if a strategy does indeed exist, the reporters inside the Pentagon will be among the last people in the building to know. Still, his voice is a handsome instrument, conveying a familiar, soothing sense of authority.
"If you're on TV every hour for ten years," he says, once the camera light clicks off, "eventually you get the hang of it." He arrived at the Pentagon in 1992, he says, after Wolf Blitzer got promoted. He knew nothing about American military history, he says, or about the practical mechanics of fighting a war.
"My desire was to have a beat, any beat," he explains. "You don't need to be a lawyer to cover the Supreme Court."
Back at the CNN office, Chris Plante is shooting down a rumor that originated on debka.com, a website that offers actual reporting on troop movements, intelligence agencies, and the motivations for actions by foreign governments. "Major portions of this story," he remarks, "will be impossible to verify and impossible to report." Still, he adds, he is quite satisfied with the product that CNN is putting on the air.
"The guys down the hall do one show a night," he explains. "They do one small package. They know what we have, because they're watching us all day long. Our mission is to leave them with nothing at the end of each and every day."
There's plenty of nothing at the Pentagon. As the sun sinks below the highway, Charlie Aldinger is sitting in the press room, talking to the Reuters Washington desk. "When in doubt, fudge," he says. "You got that?" The rank of senior Pentagon correspondent is not without its privileges; his cubicle adjoins a large window.
"The man was in a lot of trouble before the war came along," he says, using his pointer finger to indicate the man upstairs. "He staked it all on missile defense, then the tax cut eliminated the surplus." Back then, he says, Rumsfeld's relationship with the press was poor.
"There was the sense that he didn't have time for the press and that he didn't give a rat's ass about the press," he explains. His conclusion is simple:
"The war saved the man."
But what about the press?
In the surrounding cubicles I can hear the clack-clack-clack of laptop keys, like ice cubes against the side of a glass.
In a rack by the door, I find an official Pentagon press release dated September 10, 2001. "Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld launched a battle against Pentagon bureaucracy today in a speech opening the 2001 Acquisition and Logistics Excellence Week," the text says, before proceeding to a quote from the Secretary himself: "The battle against bureaucracy is a moral imperative because the lives of Americans depend on it."
Clearly times have changed at the Pentagon. I corner Bradley Graham of the Washington Post, who returned to the Pentagon last week after finishing a book on missile defense. A balding, bearded man with deep-set, intelligent eyes, he chooses words with great care; his sentences are loaded with long, aphasic pauses, which he uses to further revise and correct his thoughts.
"There is a ... deep fright about the release of even some basic information ... which borders on ... the irrational," he says. Academics at military war colleges, he tells me, have even been told not to talk to the press on historical subjects, such as the Soviet campaign in Afghanistan.
In search, nonetheless, of some historical perspective, I visit for a while with Raymond Cromley, whose honorary cubicle is situated in the Pentagon press room just to the right of the door. He is by far the oldest living reporter at the Pentagon. A wizened old man with lively eyes and a two-day growth of beard, Cromley wears a soup-stained navy sweater pulled down low over an oxford shirt, and a red tartan wool cap on his head for extra warmth. The front of his sweater reads CHAPS RALPH LAUREN.
Raymond Cromley is ninety-one years old. When I ask him to name the biggest change he has seen at the Pentagon, he shrugs. Then he offers a dry, one-word answer.
"Sloppiness," he says. When I ask for an example, he shrugs again.
"Why," he answers, as if the point were much too obvious to be anything more than a momentary waste of breath, "this thing right here."
In 1941, he tells me, he was the Wall Street Journal's correspondent in Tokyo; after Pearl Harbor he spent six months in solitary confinement before he was repatriated to the United States, along with five of his fellow correspondents, in return for some Japanese spies. "This was the intelligence section for Korea and Japan," he says, of the room where we are sitting now. His commander was General George C. Marshall. "He was head of everything, for some reason," he remembers. "He was a wonderful guy, don't get me wrong."
It was at Marshall's behest, he says, that he went to a cave in China to visit with Mao, who was interested in discussing American investment in his country after the war.
Then he shares a few stories about Einstein, whom he met while studying physics at Cal Tech.
"He was interested in people," he remembers, in a flat, uninflected tone that approximates the sound of good old-fashioned newspaper prose. "He loved to play this viola, this big bowed instrument. He was the lousiest player you've ever heard. Don't print that. He would sit in one of the common rooms at the college and play. Sometimes he played another instrument, with those strips of metal that you hit with a stick. What's that called?" he asks, describing the distant form of the instrument with his large, gnarled hands.
"Oh, yes," he says. "A xylophone."
The hour is getting late, so I ask him if he can sum up all that he has learned in a few simple sentences. He is happy to oblige.
"People of all countries are nice," he offers, gently. "There are some villains in every country. All the top commandments of every religion are the same."
Down the Corridor, the Fox News guys are preparing for their seven o'clock hit.
"You tell Brad to get me a hotel room and I'll bring him a box of fucking energy bars!" a producer named Greg Headen barks excitedly into the phone. He is young and energetic, with crew-cut hair and the jockish, upbeat attitude of a recent Dartmouth graduate. I take a chair and examine his setup. A line of black-boxed videotapes marches west on a shelf across the far wall. They are the visuals, perhaps several miles' worth of Pentagon-approved operational footage of destroyers and aircraft carriers, bombers, fighters, and other weapons systems in action, produced in concert with the defense contractors who profit from their manufacture and who would love nothing more than to gain additional appropriations from Congress based on cool-looking footage. In the meantime, the footage stands in for the reality of a war that is impossible to see, hear, or touch.
"Khakis and white shirts," Headen says, enthusiastically repeating the wardrobe directions for his upcoming trip to Islamabad. "Jeans stand out. It means you're an American."
He joins me after his call is done. We sit for a while, and we talk about what it is like to work at the Pentagon.
"We just need a little something to go with," he explains. One month after the Pentagon building was attacked and the World Trade Center was leveled by terrorists, the threat that we are facing is larger than Osama bin Laden and the Taliban, and far less susceptible to crude force. Without the official briefings and footage, he says, the Fox reporters would have very little to put on the air. "So we're grateful for whatever they give us," he explains.
It is now almost seven, and the television reporters have arrayed themselves in a semicircle around the perimeter of the Briefing Room. Cables snake across the floor and beneath the chairs, clinging to the gray synthetic surface with gummy-edged feelers of electrical tape. Soon the cameras will click on. Awaiting their evening stand-ups, the reporters seem to have lapsed into states of suspended animation, Jamie McIntyre by the podium, John McWethy by the far wall, and Mike Emmanuel of Fox by the bleachers. Then, one by one, they come to life:
There are reports of heavy U.S. bombing in Afghanistan, Mike Emmanuel begins.
Well, Wolf, the U.S. is shifting its sights, Jamie McIntyre says, citing the arrival of the new, improved bunker-busting bombs.
Peter, the U.S. took another big step into Afghanistan's civil war today ... John McWethy says. Every word of his report seems carefully chosen to further a perspective that is subtly different from that of the Pentagon. Afghanistan's civil war? A prophecy, perhaps. Then again, according to the badly corrupted logic of the corporate news cycle, it would be premature to wonder whether the Pentagon is telling the truth, or to detail the very evident policy splits within the administration, which will determine the future course of the war on terrorism, after the Taliban melts away into the mountains for winter.
The stand-ups are over. The room goes dark. "When you hear `Pentagon insiders,' that's us," a tech explains. In a corner of the room, McWethy presses his earpiece in deeper, communing with Ted Koppel in New York. The private assessment he gives Koppel is more pointed than the report he delivered on the air.
"The Pakistanis have supported the Taliban, and they very definitely don't want the Northern Alliance running the country," he says. "There is no way that the United States can accurately measure what's going on in the country. None."
The gap between what the correspondents say in private and what they can say on the air is one of the most familiar features of the American corporate news business. The arrangement is fair to everyone--unless, of course, you are one of the 11.4 million viewers who watched tonight's broadcast of ABC news. In that case it appears that you were robbed. And on the Monday after we bombed Afghanistan, when the Secretary of Defense explained that the war on terror would likely be as long and difficult as the Cold War, and would make use of strategies and tactics familiar from that very different and particular time, only one broadcast of the ten or so that I watched saw fit to highlight the day's biggest story:
"American Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld compared the campaign against terror to the Cold War," began the news on Deutsche Welle, the leading nightly broadcast in Berlin.
No one can say that Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld has not been entirely straight with the press. "The cruise missiles and the bombers are not going to solve this problem," he says, speaking from a thirteen-inch monitor propped up on a chair in the Briefing Room, right around the spot where Jamie McIntyre was standing only a few minutes earlier. The Secretary of Defense has promised to tell reporters as little as possible and to prosecute leakers under federal law; he is followed by canned footage of F-15s in flight, which is followed in turn by footage of aid drops. I notice a crumpled handout by my feet. I pick it up.
Two USAF C-17s Globemaster III from Charleston AFB, SC perform high altitude humanitarian airdrops into Afghanastan [sic] using the TRIAD (Tri-wall Airdrop) system to deliver Humanitarian Daily Rations (HDR's) to fleeing refugees, I read. The text is a precise description of the footage I have just seen on television. I wonder, idly, when "fleeing refugees" might gain its own acronym. This mission, the handout continues, with pride, was the first Combat Airdrop for the C-17 aircraft, the first operational test of the TRIAD system with the C-17, and the first high-altitude airdrop of its kind for the C-17. The footage serves as a plausible facsimile of the war as defined by the Pentagon; it tells viewers nothing about the origins and nature of an enemy that Republicans and Democrats alike have been ignoring for the last ten years, out of deference to the demands of Big Oil and in the hope that a world of six billion people might wake up one morning, consider the odds, and start bowing to Bill Gates, Michael Jordan, and the Goddess of Democracy.
Somehow, it seems, the Pentagon has got the lessons of Vietnam exactly wrong. In a great democracy, a policy of honesty and openness with the public and the press is probably the only way to win the war on terrorism. It is important for reporters to ask difficult, even unpardonable questions of people in authority, in order to keep themselves and the rest of us informed. We should all know the answers to the questions that are not being asked, or are not being asked often enough. Otherwise, it is difficult to imagine any other result than another long, expensive, frustrating, fruitless, and divisive war.
* I begin my morning by circumnavigating the Pentagon, exiting the Pentagon Metro stop, into the parking lot, where the sidewalk has been closed to pedestrian traffic, then walking up to the highway. The view of the burned-out section of the building where the plane hit on September 11 has been cordoned off by a curtained fence, where a sign announces PHOTOGRAPHY PROHIBITED. I make my way to the River Entrance checkpoint, which is manned by military police in combat fatigues who carry assault rifles. Their ages range from eighteen to twenty-one. They are up from Fort Bragg in North Carolina, they tell me, and they request that I don't use their names. One grew up in Illinois. Another, a woman, is from out west; the other MPs refer to her forceful, efficient, manner as "high speed." I learn other words as well. A "pogue" is a soldier with a low-ranking job and no special skills. They are happy to make friends with a reporter, who is wearing a navy suit, and who might have some useful information about the war. After perhaps an hour or two of conversation, and the gift of a few cigarettes from my bag, the MPs are kind enough to turn their backs just long enough for me to cross over to the building entrance, where I might hook up with someone with the right credentials, a network tech or a wire-service photographer.
David Samuels is a contributing editor of Harper's Magazine. His last article for the magazine, "Notes from Underground," appeared in the May 2000 issue.
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|Title Annotation:||press briefings|
|Date:||Jan 1, 2002|
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