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Panel Discussion: National Security

May 1999

Murrey Marder, Retired Diplomatic Correspondent, The Washington Post, Moderator

After the inspiration of the last panel I think we're going to have a hard time even approaching it, because it seems to me that the most fundamental points were made when Will Rashbaum said that when you are shut out, you have to work harder and dig harder. I think that could well serve as the emblem for watchdog reporting.

I've been trying to determine how we could best explain what we mean by digging harder and working harder, and I'd like to give one or two examples of my own experience. The most open time of any administration is the first few weeks of the time it's in office, before it gets its feet set in concrete and surrounded by all the obstructions of bureaucratic procedure.

Too Many Top Secrets

In the case I would like to cite, it was the Kennedy Administration, and despite the august circumstances of our setting here [at Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government], the Kennedy Administration very quickly evolved into a very strongly armed spinning agency. I would like to mention, to start with, that when I was here as a Nieman Fellow I met George Bundy, who became the National Security Advisor in the Kennedy Administration. When he first entered the White House, soon after, he called me into his office and said, "How do I deal with people like you?" I said, "What do you mean by that?" He said, "Look at my desk, it's covered with documents all stamped secret, top secret," and I said, "Well, one thing you'll find out is no more than about 5 percent of them deserve any classification whatever." In fact, that later proved to be so much the case that he acknowledged it was 2 percent. [Laughter]

I recall an episode during the Vietnam crisis when I called him once to ask him about some information regarding aerial flights and he said, "I'm sorry, I can't help you, that involves rules of engagement." We had these linguistic exchanges over all elements of security during the Vietnam crisis. I know on this particular occasion I said to him, "Mac, if you can't help me, I can't help you." That startled him because he had said, "I guess there's no point in me invoking national security with you," and I said, "No, there isn't."

He said, "I'll tell you, Murrey, the problem here is that the information you have is partially wrong and partially correct, and I can't tell you which is which." I said, "In that case, I can only print what you tell me, and print what I know, and let the reader make his judgment." He said, "You can't do that," and I said, "Why not? There's no rules of engagement that prevent me from disclosing what I know."

Press Failure in Yugoslovia

I would like to begin with this question regarding the current crisis in Yugoslavia. My own feeling about the press coverage of this crisis, not just for some months but for some years, has been that the press has done, in my judgment, a very poor job of setting the scene in the public's mind, of familiarizing the public with the fundamental issues involved in the Yugoslavian conflict. The press usually does a very poor job of explaining issues before a crisis begins, even when they're visible weeks and months ahead. It's a struggle on every newspaper to get the adequate amount of space for that crisis, and only when the crisis breaks does the press go into a crash operation to try to piece together the history of the particular crisis.

In the case of the Yugoslav operation, the press for multiple reasons - the internal bureaucratic problems that one has running a publication or a broadcast network - you can't get your superiors to focus on the issue before the crisis is in your faces. But no crisis has been more complex than this one, and it seems to me that in the aftermath of the Cold War, the press was sucked into the formulation of public issues by the Clinton Administration's emphasis on "it's the economy, stupid," and the issues were all domestically centered, so far as the press as a whole is concerned.

If you go back and look at the campaign coverage of the two Clinton campaigns, you'll see that very rarely were there any serious questions raised by the press about foreign policy or about the general outlook of the incoming administration on world issues. These issues should never be breaking on the public as they do at this time, especially with the complexity of this one.

Now, I don't know if my colleagues agree with that at all - we haven't had a chance to discuss this - but I'd like to hear if the problem occurred to them and what they attempted to do as the crisis broke. Do they think their publications, their networks adequately prepared the public for what was coming at them?

Few Interested in Albania

Susanne Schafer,
Chief Military Correspondent, The Associated Press.

[Susanne Schafer was named chief military correspondent for The Associated Press in July 1989. She has covered the Pentagon and military operations during the tenures of Defense Secretaries Dick Cheney, Les Aspin, William Perry and William Cohen. In 1996, Ms Schafer became the first journalist and first nongovernment employee to attend the National War College and obtain a masters degree in national security studies from the National Defense University.

Ms. Schafer has been with The Associated Press since 1978. She has reported from all the major beats in Washington including Capitol Hill, State Department and the White House since arriving in the capital in 1982.

Before working in Washington, Ms. Schafer was a foreign correspondent for the AP, first in The Hague and later Bonn, Germany. From there she covered West and East German political and military affairs, NATO issues and events in Yugoslavia, Poland and other points in Eastern Europe.

Ms. Schafer began her career with the AP in Des Moines, lowa, and worked as an editor on the foreign desk of the New York bureau before going overseas.

She worked as an editor for The Boston Globe while obtaining a master's degree from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy. She is a graduate of the University of Nebraska and attended the University of Tuebingen on a junior year abroad program. Upon graduation, she returned to Germany as a Fulbright Scholar and attended the University of Munich.]

I can say that having been covering Eastern Europe before the fall of the wall, getting there and doing the job as a Western reporter in an Eastern communist state was exceedingly difficult. Being able to get there and to start to report on what was happening, the fomenting ideas of democracy, and working with the free press was a rather heady change.

I recall several years ago we went on a trip with Secretary Perry to about 10 Balkan and Eastern European nations in about eight days. This was at the height of summer; it was very hot. He was the first U.S. Secretary of Defense to get into Albania and I remember, they had one officer there who had trained with Special Forces in the United States and was coming back and training 600 Albanians in being able to use tactics that Special Forces in the United States did. So Perry was entertained with a lot of rappelling and people jumping out of boxes that had been hidden underground, and things like that.

But in any case, it was an amazing chance to take a look at what was going on in that part of the world, and of course very few people were interested in the story, let alone printing such a thing. "Albania? Who cares?" We ran into that periodically. One of the points that Perry had made, besides trying to get nuclear weapons out of other Soviet states and back into Russia, was trying to formulate a grouping of Balkan defense leaders and to deal with them and try to get them to understand how the United States worked and what the idea of a civilian-run military was all about, because of course that was foreign to them, totally.

So even the chance to go on a trip with, say, the secretary of defense, where you could go to a meeting of these defense ministers and talk to people there who were trying to learn those things, many times the editors wouldn't even pay for you to go on that trip. "Why? I mean, that's just an inconspicuous, silly part of the world; it means nothing."

So as a reporter, fighting to even try to tell that kind of story and try to get access to places like that, I think, yes, it's come back to bite people and haunt editors terribly, because they do not have the background, they don't have the understanding of what that part of the world is all about. I think our administration is showing some of that ignorance.

It's very hard. I think the reality of what's happened is that people are caught suddenly, and they need to know. When you've got in any kind of situation where we are with the economy booming now, and you see it even in the structure of our country, there are very few people who really want to join the military; it's a voluntary situation.

So we have had a problem, I think, as reporters over the years. In the Pentagon - Mark can talk to that - you see a shrinking of interest in the military story, and you see a shrinking of the number of publications that are willing to put a reporter in there to specialize in military issues. It is a very troublesome development, and it is something that may make people turn to The Associated Press more, but it doesn't really help when you need a lot of broad and factual information in a crisis situation.

Marder - Mark, I wish you would turn now to the question of sources and discuss for us, as briefly as you can, but as penetratingly as you can, the difference between working with sources for a magazine and working with sources for a daily paper, and what obligations you incur in dealing with them.

Hatfield and McCoy Attitude at Pentagon

Mark Thompson,
Defense Reporter, TIME Magazine.

[Mark Thompson, a defense reporter in Washington since 1979, is a national security correspondent for TIME Magazine. Key areas of his interest include the military's evolving role following the Cold War, its efforts to develop a template for the use of the American military in an increasingly Balkanized world, and the Pentagon's halting attempts to become more reflective of the society from which it is drawn. He discusses military affairs on PBS's The News Hour with Jim Lehrer and other PBS, CNN and BBC programs. He has discussed military and journalistic matters at the Pentagon's war colleges and various institutions, including programs sponsored by Harvard and Georgetown universities. ]

First of all, for our magazine, the lunch hours are longer. [Laughter] And the expense accounts are bigger. Both of which are not conducive to good stories.

In terms of reporting on the Pentagon and the national security establishment, the framework people talk about is the Pentagon, but it's not the Pentagon, it's not a monolith, and that's the most important thing that people need to understand. It's a city. If you add up the people in the Pentagon and their families, and defense contractors and their families, you've got 8 million people across this world. And, like New York, it's got good neighborhoods and bad neighborhoods, and gangs and fiefdoms.

As a reporter, your job is to take advantage of that Hatfield and McCoy attitude that exists, and it's rampant. Every service deals with the press differently. Some are pretty good. And then there's the Army. [Laughter]

It's important also to realize that there isn't a [single] source. I've been doing this for 20 years, and every year it's like plowing a field; you've got to leave that field alone and let it grow back, and it's an ever-changing constellation of sources. If you get too wedded to one, you'll run dry pretty soon.

Don't Let Preconceptions Get You

It's amazing when I am with other reporters, either on a trip or at a base, and you listen to some of their questions, and for folks who want to report on this area there are two really simple rules. The first one is simply to be fair, not to go in with preconceptions. You see so many times with folks coming in with a predetermined agenda and, boy, nothing makes the military turn like a school of fish more quickly than that sense that you're tainted. So if you've got something, if you believe something, don't be so quick to betray it.

Know Your Terminology

And secondly, like a reporter going in for a new job at the big city paper, do a little investigating before you go out to the base to talk to the commander; know the difference between an M-16 and an F-16, between a brigade and a battalion. Those are small things, but once you blow it in a question or an interview, you're branded as someone who's driving beyond his headlights and you don't want to be branded in that way.

Invest your time as a reporter. It's really silly now, but when I look back at some of my best sources on the ongoing operation in Kosovo, one of the best ones is a fellow who worked with me on a story eight or ten years ago in the Navy, about what the Navy was doing to make its aircraft carriers hospitable to female sailors. It was a story for Knight-Ridder and it was sort of a goofy Monday morning kind of story, but the fellow who helped me put that together is now high up in the Pentagon and helps out a lot, and he remembers that story with great fondness and affection because it made him look good to the Navy and it's like an acorn that you plant and years later there's a sapling, and hopefully not a sap.

Why Did Helicopters Crash?

In terms of dealing specifically with individuals, I did a story on Bell Helicopter in Fort Worth, Texas, when I worked for the Fort Worth paper. What was interesting about that story in terms of sources, the Bell Huey and Cobra helicopters had been going down and crashing for a number of years, 67 of them from the early '70's until the mid-'80's, and every time this peculiar malfunction happened, everybody on board the helicopters died; the fatality rate was 100 percent.

I was in the Washington bureau of the Fort Worth paper and one day I heard an interesting tale, that once again this mast bumping had occurred on a Bell helicopter at Patuxent River in southern Maryland, but for the first time one of the two fellows on board had survived. This was the first survivor of this peculiar type of accident, and because Bell Helicopter is such a big presence in Fort Worth, this could be a big story if this survivor said, "Hey, I wasn't doing anything wrong when the rotor blade came through the cockpit."

Obviously, it would be in his interest to say that. He's not going to admit that he did something wrong, but enticing him onto the record, as Loretta said, in terms of appealing to conscience, in terms of appealing to the future, and in terms of getting that individual to trust you and that you as a reporter and he as a military man shared some of the same goals in terms of safety for our forces, was really important. Ultimately, it worked.

He did come on the record with us, and he did make a series of articles that led to the grounding of these helicopters and the elimination of these kind of deaths for the U.S. military.

Trying to Get General to Talk

I contrast that with my current assignment, which is trying to get Wes Clark to talk, the current fellow running Operation Allied Farce - Force. [Laughter] It's very interesting because he was always very eager to talk to me when it was in his interest to do so, when he was at SOUTHCOM and we got some word that he was going to be the next SACEUR or the next NATO commander, and we called SOUTHCOM to find out if that was true. In 10 minutes the base returned the call and it was General Wes himself wanting to know what we heard, and triangulating it with what he had heard, and trying to deduce where the truth was.

But he's not talking now, and as a reporter that's very frustrating. There are lots of reasons, good reasons and bad reasons, perhaps, why he doesn't want to speak. He's doing highly scripted interviews, highly scripted press briefings, but he's not letting anybody be a fly on the wall. So you as a reporter, your charter is to figure out, well, if we can't do that, number one, how can we do it, and, failing that, what's our next best approximation of it.

Marder - I'd like to switch subjects slightly here. One of the perennial issues before us is who is responsible for failing to focus the attention of the press on any given subject, and reporters often say, "The publisher and editors aren't interested in the story, I couldn't arouse enough excitement to allow me to do a comprehensive story on it." I have always believed – and we were given a very good example by the previous panel, with Loretta Tofani particularly, to bolster this point – I maintain it's the reporter initially who is the gatekeeper of the conscience of the press. If somebody is not out on the street there forcing attention on the subject, it will never get to the editor and to the publisher, and the reporter should not be turned off by his first turndown. The best stories that you look at are ones in which the reporter, most of the time, was responsible for pushing editors, publishers, into greater focus on a story.

How Bosnia Story Was Reported

Roy Gutman
Diplomatic correspondent, Newsday.

[Roy Gutman joined Newsday in January 1982 and served for eight years as National Security reporter in Washington. While European bureau chief,from late 1989 to 1994, he reported the downfall of the Polish, East German, and Czechoslovak regimes, the opening of the Berlin Wall, the unification of Germany, the first democratic elections in the former East Bloc and the violent disintegration of Yugoslavia. He currently covers the issues and institutions of international security in Washington for Newsday. His reporting on Serb atrocities in Bosnia was awarded the special Human Rights in Media award of the International League for Human Rights, the Pulitzer Prize for International Reporting, the Polk award for best foreign reporting, the Selden Ring award for Investigative Reporting, and other awards. Simon & Schuster published his book, "Banana Diplomacy: The Making of American Policy in Nicaragua 1981-1987," The New York Times named it one of the best 200 books of the year and the (London) Times Literary Supplement designated it best American book of the year.]

I should say, first of all, as Lars [Nelson] I'm sure would agree, and Marvin [Kalb], that as a reporter who came to the State Department in the Carter Administration, that I learned at the feet of the master, who is sitting right in the middle of the table [Murrey Marder], an awful lot about trying to develop an independent mind and an independent report for Reuters in those days, and then later for Newsday.

The Balkan conflicts that we've seen from 1991 to this day, and maybe for many months to come, were an example of an event that the establishment, both in government and the elite of the East Coast, preferred to ignore. NATO itself decided that the war against Slovenia and Croatia in 1991 was beneath its field of vision or concern. I once went to see the U.S. ambassador to NATO. I had just reported for Newsday on the fact that the Croatians had repelled an invasion attempt over part of their territory on the Adriatic, and I had it down to the last detail of just how it happened, which officer changed sides at which moment, and how they saved basically the middle Adriatic coastline of Croatia.

The ambassador told me, "We really are not following this matter and what's your next question?" I said, "Don't you want to at least see it? I think this has changed the entire course of the war." His answer was, "Well, if you want to leave the article, you can, but this is not something NATO is following."

And the same person, William Taft IV, is now really one of the champions of a very active U.S. policy, by the way. But at that time, it was something so peripheral to NATO itself, to U.S. concerns; the president himself had decided basically what was going to happen there was not our business, and I think the intention within the U.S. government was to let it happen and to hope that it would happen quickly.

Our editors had a difficult decision to make. I was the reporter for all of Europe and they had a hard decision: Why should we justify covering a war that is not seen by anybody in the national security establishment as being of national security concern?

Listening to Loretta earlier, so many bells began to ring about some of the experiences she went through, and not just Loretta, but also Bill and Alison. How do you get the interest of your editors in something that you feel is really central, that you get obsessed about? In the case of the Balkan wars, what got me the most was a few experiences early on in the war in Croatia.

Running for Office on Basis of Crimes

I covered the town of Borovo Selo when Serbs took control, a town in eastern Croatia, and something had gone on there. Croatian policemen had been killed, 13 or 15 of them, and Serb paramilitary were walking around the town, and the Serb army. Something was really rotten in the place and I didn't know what it was. But I later determined that essentially paramilitary, supported by Slobodan Milosevic from Serbia, had in a sense run a criminal operation of ambushing policemen and killing them, and then mutilating them, slaughtering them.

I caught up with a man named Vojislav Seselj, who later became very famous in Serbia. He was running for political office, and he was running for political office on the basis that he was responsible for the crimes of Borovo Selo. And I wrote a story about it and the story was totally inadequate, because I couldn't quite grasp myself that anybody could be responsible and then actually run for office on a platform of not only being responsible but then saying he would do it again.

So the problem I had was that, as I say, the security establishment had no interest in the story, and yet I thought evil is happening here, crimes are happening right in front of me. Eventually, and it took me more than a year really, I figured out that there was one way I could attract the attention of my editors and the public and maybe even the East Coast establishment, and that was by reporting the crimes, that the crimes were something that people could and would relate to, that the Balkans, as Bismarck once said, were a place where nobody wants to sacrifice a single Pomeranian grenadier.

But when a power like a Serbia decides to conquer territory, and to use as its methods the wholesale crimes against civilians, and when you can actually prove it because you can get it from the man who's responsible, that he's bragging about it, then you know you're dealing with something vivid, that captures you, that just simply forces you to carry on.

When I started writing those stories early in the Bosnia conflict, I failed; we all failed, all of us reporters who covered Croatia, to attract the attention of the world to the war crimes that were going on there.

When Bosnia began, I think many of us were fairly depressed that there was yet another war, one that had been predicted. By the way, Kosovo had been totally predicted and, as you rightly point out, we had not adequately prepared the public for it. It just fell into place that the one story I knew I could get across was war crimes, and frankly that's what led to the book that you have there [Crimes of War: What the Public Should Know].

Marder - I would like to broaden the discussion here as we reach our final speaker on the panel to make a brief explanation of what I find most fascinating as a non-deadline participant, just watching the output of the press in all its dimensions. Frankly I find that if I'm sitting in my living room with access, most notably to C-Span, and to other channels, particularly CNN, public broadcasting, and the networks, I often feel - maybe a delusion - that I can on many days beat most reporters writing from almost anywhere, because I have access to more information many times than any one person does who doesn't have similar television access. C-Span does a remarkable job, especially if you're going to be getting up at 4 or 5 o'clock in the morning and watch some of their more obscure broadcasts, which are showing you the proceedings of the Duma in Moscow and bombs landing in Belgrade. And you're getting on Washington Journal in the morning a discussion between the reporters and people around the country about what they're reading in their newspapers. You get sort of an instant poll of public attitudes in the United States, those at least eager enough to call into the station.

It's quite apparent to me that the press of the future is going to be an amalgam of all these factors, of print and the broadcast media. I don't know if each person is going to end up with a little console at his home, but it's very possible that those who are the most eager beavers in this field need a console with little pictures of three or four spots. It so happens that public television is engaged in promoting this kind of venture in high-definition television. We had a demonstration in Washington a couple weeks ago, and it's very impressive. I would like Lars to focus on the operation of a columnist and his access to sources, how that differs from the work of a daily spot deadline reporter, and what the pros and cons are. Does he ever feel he has become the hostage of his sources?

How Columnists Operate

Lars-Erik Nelson
Washington columnist, for The New York Daily News.

[Lars-Erik Nelson has been Washington columnist for The New York Daily News since March 1981, apart from two years at Newsday. He writes his column three times each week. Nelson was born in Brooklyn on October 15, 1941, attended New York City public schools and was graduated from Columbia College with a major in Russian. He has worked at The New York Herald-Tribune and The Bergen Record in New Jersey. He was a foreign correspondent at Reuters for 10 years, serving in London, Moscow, Prague and Washington, and then spent three years as diplomatic correspondent at Newsweek. He covered the start of the dissident movement in Russia, the Prague spring and subsequent Soviet occupation of Czechoslovakia, nuclear arms talks, Middle East shuttle diplomacy by Henry Kissinger, the rise and fall of Reaganomics and now Washington politics and government.]

This is not exactly the topic we were asked to discuss in the invitation, but I'll try to deal with it.

Marder - We try to take you by surprise here.

Nelson - I don't have to be independent of my sources. I'm a columnist; I find people who will help me or people whose stories intrigue me and I can advocate their cause for them. So I have much less need to keep independent of somebody's agenda than a straight news reporter. I hate to use the word "sources. " I call people up and I talk to them and sometimes they tell me things. The word source always struck me as being kind of exploitative. Because I am in this tower, I can watch the current news business from afar, and I'd like to call to your attention something that gets to the subject matter of this conference, which is sources and being hostage to them, because we're right in the middle of one of the most glaring examples of the misuse, I think, of sourcing and of news page people adopting the agenda of the sources, even if they might not be realizing it.

Adopting Agenda of Source

Sample one is from yesterday's New York Times, off-lead story. It says, "China Is Installing a Warhead Said to Be Based on U.S. Secrets." The lead is, "For the first time, China is close to deploying a nuclear missile." Well, they're installing the warhead, now they're close to deploying the missile with the warhead. How close is close? "The missile is expected to be deployed within three or four years."

So somebody here is predicting three to four years in the future, according to the estimates. Well, who made the estimates and when? It's a 1996 Air Force intelligence report that says this thing will be ready for deployment as soon as 2002 or 2003. So we have somebody in 1996 looking seven years into the future saying that the Chinese will deploy a missile equipped with a warhead stolen from the U.S. Except that China has not actually produced the warhead, they don't have this weapon yet.

The secrets were stolen in the late 1970's. Well, it's now 1999, so the story here is China stole a warhead secret in the late 1970's. It has taken them 20 years, they still don't have the warhead, and they might deploy the missile four years down the road.

We worry about reporters accepting a source's agenda in exchange for facts. Here we've got an agenda without any facts, and it's considered a news story. And it's not the only one. The Times on China I think has gone berserk. It's convicted this physicist at Los Alamos of espionage on the basis of zero evidence.

The problem with this kind of sourcing is you can win prizes for it, and The Times won a Pulitzer Prize this year for its coverage of the satellite transfer to China, which was a major story, the American technology people were selling satellites to China.

But if you know enough to cover the story, you also ought to know enough, that when the Chinese buy an American satellite and use it for military communications, which was one of stories that won the prize, that the Chinese bought our satellite and use it for military communications, that's a major technological military breakthrough for the United States. Previously, the Chinese had been using land lines for military communications. They buy our satellite, they put their military communications up in the air, we can all of a sudden intercept Chinese military communications. That's not a setback for us, that's a triumph for us. But the way the story was presented by the sources – who were trying to stir up hostility I think between the U.S. and China – it was presented as a defeat and a scandal for the United States. There's a way of making accusations now also using sources that troubles me, and I see this in the press frequently. A source will make an allegation and you take it to the person who's being accused and he fumbles with it. Then you write a story saying, "so-and-so has been slow to respond to charges that - " and you've got a new scandal. It doesn't matter whether the charges are true or false.

Look at the Whitewater coverage. The Clintons were accused of being slow to respond to allegations from sources that they were crooks in Whitewater. It turns out the charges were not true, the Resolution Trust Corporation and Ken Starr and everybody else found out there's nothing there. But it's still a stain on the Clintons, that they were slow to respond to these baseless charges. I've got another one from The Times that also troubled me, because it's something that goes back to every basic police reporter. It was a customs official who thinks the Mexican defense minister is a drug dealer, and he can't prove it, and the Justice Department won't take the case, and the customs service doesn't think he's got a case that they can present. So the story runs in the newspaper as though there's this major cover-up, the entire government is covering up the drug dealing of a Mexican defense minister for diplomatic reasons. Anybody who's ever covered the police knows there's always a detective who thinks that the mayor is a crook and he can't prove it, but it's not his fault that he can't prove it, it's because it's a complete conspiracy, everybody's involved in this conspiracy except the informant. Usually you tell the guy, "Listen, it's a nice story but you don't have a case, you can't prove it, I'm not going to write it."

Now we go with the allegation, we make the charge, we accuse the victim of being slow to respond, or imply that there's a cover-up, and to me that's adopting an agenda from sources that we should be treating much more skeptically. As I say, I'm a columnist now, I'm out of this business and I'm watching it from afar, and I must say I'm watching it with great dismay.

And I've got more.

For the Q&A, Please Go to Page Two.

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