AP CEO: Military Emphasizes Spin, New Rules Needed

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Associated Press

AP CEO: Military Emphasizes Spin, New Rules Needed

by
John Hanna

Tom Curley, president and chief executive of The Associated Press, speaks during the William Allen White Day program at the University of Kansas in Lawrence, Kan., Friday, Feb. 6, 2009. Curley came to the University of Kansas to receive this year's national citation for journalistic excellence from the William Allen White Foundation. (AP Photo/Orlin Wagner)

LAWRENCE, Kan. - The Bush administration turned the U.S.
military into a global propaganda machine while imposing tough
restrictions on journalists seeking to give the public truthful reports
about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Associated Press chief
executive Tom Curley said Friday.

Curley, speaking to journalists
at the University of Kansas, said the news industry must immediately
negotiate a new set of rules for covering war because "we are the only
force out there to keep the government in check and to hold it
accountable."

Much like in Vietnam, "civilian policymakers and
soldiers alike have cracked down on independent reporting from the
battlefield" when the news has been unflattering, Curley said. "Top
commanders have told me that if I stood and the AP stood by its
journalistic principles, the AP and I would be ruined."

Curley
said in a brief interview that he didn't take the commanders' words as
a threat but as "an expression of anger." Late in 2007, Curley wrote an
editorial about the detention of AP photographer Bilal Hussein, held by
the military for more than two years.

Eleven of AP's journalists
have been detained in Iraq for more than 24 hours since 2003. Last
year, according to cases AP is tracking, news organizations had eight
employees detained for more than 48 hours.

AP, the world's
largest newsgathering operation, is a not-for-profit cooperative that
began in 1846 to communicate news from the Mexican War. Curley has been
the company's president and CEO since 2003.

Before his speech,
Curley met for about a half-hour with Lt. Gen. William Caldwell IV, a
former spokesman for the U.S. military in Iraq. Caldwell is commander
at Fort Leavenworth, Kan., where military doctrines are drafted and a
staff college trains both American and foreign officers.

"It's
important for us to be very transparent," Caldwell said during an
interview after Curley's speech. "If we do those things, ultimately,
we're both trying to do the same thing."

Curley came to the
University of Kansas to receive this year's national citation for
journalistic excellence from the William Allen White Foundation. Curley
also won national awards in 2007 and 2008 for his work on First
Amendment and open records issues.

Answering questions from his
audience of about 160 people, Curley said AP remains concerned about
journalists' detentions. He said most appear to occur when someone
else, often a competitor, "trashes" the journalist.

"There is a
procedure that takes place which sounds an awful lot like torture to
us," Curley said. "If people agree to trash other people, they are
freed. If they don't immediately agree to trash other people, they are
kept for some period of time - two or three weeks - and they are put
through additional questioning."

His remarks came a day after an
AP investigation disclosed that the Pentagon is spending at least $4.7
billion this year on "influence operations" and has more than 27,000
employees devoted to such activities. At the same time, Curley said,
the military has grown more aggressive in withholding information and
hindering reporters.

Curley said a military program to embed
reporters with battlefield units in Iraq was successful in 2003, the
war's first year. But afterward, the military expanded its rules from
one to four pages, and Curley said they're now so vague, a journalist
can be expelled on a whim if a commander doesn't like what's being
reported.

"Americans understand hardships and setbacks," he said.
"They expect honest answers about what's happening to their sons and
daughters."

Caldwell now requires officers who attend Fort
Leavenworth's staff college to blog and "engage" the media. "Not only
when it's good stuff, but when it's challenging," Caldwell said.

Curley
acknowledged that upon taking office, President Barack Obama rolled
back many of the policies instituted by George W. Bush. But he said
when the Pentagon faces difficulties again - perhaps in Afghanistan,
with the new administration's focus on it - experience has shown, "the
military gets tough on the journalists."

"So now is the time to
re-negotiate the rules of engagement between the military and the
media," he said. "Now is the time to insist that the First Amendment
does apply to the battlefield."

He added: "Now is the time to
resist the propaganda the Pentagon produces and live up to our
obligation to question authority and thereby help protect our
democracy."

Curley said examining the Defense Department's
spending on its public relations efforts and psychological operations
is difficult because many of the budgets are classified.

He said
the Pentagon has kept secret some information that used to be available
to the public, and its public affairs officers at the Pentagon gather
intelligence on reporters' work rather than serve as sources.

Curley
traced the propaganda efforts to former Defense Secretary Donald H.
Rumsfeld. He cited a 2003 operations "road map" signed by Rumsfeld,
declaring that psychological operations had been neglected for too
long. Curley also noted that the current secretary, Robert Gates, has
defended such efforts, including in a speech at Kansas State University
in 2007.

"But does America need to resort to al-Qaida tactics?"
Curley said. "Should the U.S. government be running Web sites that
appear to be independent news organizations?" Should the military be
planting stories in foreign newspapers? Should the United States be
trying to influence public opinion through subterfuge, both here and
abroad?"

He also said the Bush administration had stripped
hundreds of people, including reporters, of their human rights. He
noted that when an Iraqi judicial panel reviewed the evidence gathered
by the military against Hussein, the AP photographer, it ordered his
release. He declined in an interview to say who said AP could be
"ruined" for sticking to its principles, but "I knew that they were
angry."

"This is how you improve the standing of America around
the world, by taking the universal human rights we enjoy as Americans
and ensuring them for everyone," Curley said in his speech.

Both
the award Curley received at the University of Kansas and its
journalism school are named for White, who was publisher of the Emporia
Gazette until 1944. A Pulitzer Prize winning editorial writer, White's
commentary and friendships with prominent Americans made him a national
figure.

"There's no doubt that White would have been angered by
the last eight years," Curley said. "The right to access information
and the ability to know the source of that information were
diminished."

Associated Press Writer John Milburn also contributed to this report.

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