When U.S. soldiers conducted a raid north of Kandahar, Afghanistan, on Jan. 24, it was initially reported as an American victory.
"U.S. Special Forces got into a fight with the Taliban. . . . Fifteen Afghan fighters were killed and 27 taken into custody," said ABC's Peter Jennings.
"Army Special Forces stormed two Taliban compounds," said NBC's Jim Miklaszewski. Newspapers carried similar stories, adding such caveats as "Defense Department officials said."
Days later, however, a few reporters in Afghanistan began challenging the official accounts, eventually prompting the Pentagon to acknowledge that those captured were not Taliban members after all. On balance, though, some journalists say the news business has been too passive during a war in which the first, often lasting impressions are left by military briefers at the lectern.
"We are the auditors of this operation," said Mark Thompson, Time magazine's defense correspondent. "Sometimes you get the feeling there's a little too much Arthur Andersen going on."
After five months in which the Bush administration drew consistently upbeat coverage for a successful military campaign, the media climate has turned sharply negative. Suddenly, the issues of civilian casualties, military mistakes and the Pentagon's own credibility have been dragged into the national spotlight.
Perhaps there was lingering resentment among journalists over their limited access during the war while Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld was hailed on magazine covers like a rock star. Perhaps the tales of innocents slain in remote Afghan villages became too heart-rending to ignore. Perhaps there was a news void as the fighting largely subsided and the Osama bin Laden trail went cold.
Or perhaps it is easier for reporters to raise uncomfortable questions about military blunders now that the Taliban regime has been toppled and the threat to American troops greatly eased.
Whatever the cause, war coverage now resembles a kind of time-lapse photography, with journalists revisiting the scene of past bombing raids for the kind of up-close-and-personal reporting that was all but impossible while the ground war was raging.
On Monday, the Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post and the New York Times reported allegations by some of the 27 Afghans captured in last month's raid that American forces had beaten and kicked them – prompting Rumsfeld to order an investigation. A day earlier, the New York Times ran a lengthy piece on civilian deaths in several raids in Afghanistan. On Wednesday, The Post, the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times examined civilian casualties in a raid in October.
But the Pentagon still controls access in some areas where journalists want to dig for information. One dramatic clash took place last weekend when Washington Post reporter Doug Struck tried to visit the site of the Jan. 24 raid. He was turned away at gunpoint by U.S. soldiers who threatened to shoot him if he went farther.
Struck said from Afghanistan that "the important thing isn't whether Doug Struck was threatened. It shows the extremes the military is going to to keep this war secret, to keep reporters from finding out what's going on."
Pentagon spokeswoman Victoria Clarke defended the department's dealings with the media. "I think it's a reflection of the often confusing and shifting nature of a very unconventional war," she said. "It's always a balance. We want to put out as much information as we can, and we want that information to be as accurate as it can be. We can't always do that as quickly as some reporters would like."
Since the Persian Gulf War, the military and the media have been arguing over the degree to which journalists can accompany battlefield troops without jeopardizing their safety. These complaints grew louder after the United States began bombing Afghanistan Oct. 7 without activating previously designated pools of reporters. At the same time, Rumsfeld threatened to prosecute anyone caught leaking classified information.
Now that journalists are relatively free to invade Afghanistan on their own, the war's latest phase has produced a spate of murky, conflicting accounts of whether U.S. troops sometimes targeted the wrong people.
CBS correspondent David Martin said Rumsfeld's crackdown has meant that "the real story does not seem to bubble up from below in the reporting chain the way it used to. People who care about their credibility with you no longer trust all the information they're getting. They've become more cautious because they don't want to be made to look the liar when some other report comes up two days later."
Thompson said the military itself frequently has incomplete information about the impact of its bombing. "The Pentagon was pretty much as blind as we were," he said. "As painful as it was to watch, the Pentagon has provided us with their changing assessment as it occurred. Frankly, I don't know how they screwed up so bad."
Not all journalists are critical of defense officials. "I know there are a lot of complaints from reporters that this war has been harder to cover, but personally I don't find it so," NBC's Miklaszewski said. "You get the first blush from military sources, and in many cases a more thorough examination finds it didn't exactly happen that way."
CNN's Bob Franken, who recently visited Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, said officials at the U.S. naval base there considered lifting the ban on filming the transfer of detainees. But, he said, "people on the ground got a tremendous amount of grief from higher-ups for suggesting the idea. I was told there was a concern about what if something goes wrong. Well, in a free society you report the good and the bad."
The day after the Jan. 24 raid, National Public Radio introduced a report from Mike Shuster by noting that "there have been many accusations of errant bombs that killed civilians and civilians who died because they were too near military targets."
"It's been a hard story to get," said Barbara Rehm, NPR's managing editor. "We've tried very hard to chip away at it. The best information for us has been on the scene. I wish we had infinitely more access. It's hard moving around the country."
On Jan. 28, the Los Angeles Times, the New York Times, Knight Ridder and London's Guardian reported claims by Afghan villagers that those killed in the raid four days earlier were, as the Los Angeles paper put it, "pro-government local residents, not hard-line Taliban holdouts as described by the U.S. military."
The Pentagon opened an investigation Jan. 30, even as Gen. Richard B. Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said there was no evidence that U.S. forces had struck the wrong target. The military later released the 27 captives.
In the incident involving Struck, Rear Adm. Craig Quigley, a Pentagon spokesman, said the reporter was turned back "both for his safety and that of the soldiers who were there doing that work."
Although Struck presented his credentials, Quigley said, he was accompanied by armed Afghan guards and "we had no idea who these guys were."
Struck called that explanation "an incredibly specious excuse on the part of the Pentagon." He said his guards, who remained at the bottom of a hill where the soldiers were stationed, "were clearly no threat to the Americans and clearly going nowhere."
Struck said the soldiers' commander, after consulting by radio with his superiors, told him: "If you go further, you would be shot."
Quigley challenged the reporter's version, saying the commander had told Struck: "For your own safety, we cannot let you go forward. You could be shot in a firefight."
Struck said: "That's an amazing lie. Those words were not spoken. With all due respect, Admiral Quigley was not there; I was."
The question of access has come up in other settings. At Camp Rhino, the U.S. Marine base in Afghanistan, military spokesmen repeatedly told reporters last month that they could not see, interview or photograph the detainees because of Geneva Convention rules – even though the administration was then arguing that the detainees were not formally covered by the international agreement.
Clarke, maintaining that the captives always enjoyed Geneva-type protections, said the military has accommodated "scores and scores of reporters" on airplanes, aircraft carriers and even with Special Forces units. "We go to extreme lengths to the extent possible to facilitate media coverage of this war," she said.
Miklaszewski said the media is still getting a good picture of the war: "A complete picture? We'll never get that. There's still information being released about secrets kept during World War II."
© 2002 The Washington Post Company