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End the Blackout

November 08, 1987

The fact that Americans are able to get any news at all about this country's military operations in the Persian Gulf certainly is not due to the assistance and cooperation provided by the U.S. Navy and the Defense Department. In fact, there is evidence that the government of the United States is doing its best to make it difficult for such information to reach its citizens. The situation violates the spirit and the letter of regulations adopted by Secretary of Defense Caspar W. Weinberger following the secret attack on Grenada in 1983.

The military has established a press pool of representatives from the print and broadcast media that in theory is allowed to observe events in the Persian Gulf in connection with the U.S. escort of oil tankers through waters made hostile by the war between Iran and Iraq. For convenience, the small pool would share its reports with other correspondents not accommodated on shipboard, or wherever. In practice, the press pool largely has been prevented from covering any of the significant actions such as the U.S. helicopter sinking of two Iranian boats or the attack on an Iranian oil platform.

In an article written for The Times, Arthur A. Lord, acting foreign editor for NBC Nightly News, said that the press pool was not informed when the oil platform was attacked, nor taken to the scene even though it was just a 30-minute helicopter ride away. Rather, the military delivered its own home-quality videotapes to the press more than 24 hours later. When news officials complained, a defense spokesman said the operation was conducted on such short notice, there was no time to advise the correspondents. However, Lord said, it was learned independently that the attack was formally approved more than 36 hours beforehand at the Pentagon. When the question of press coverage come up, sources said, it was dismissed "with a simple wave of the hand."

With no on-the-scene press coverage, the Defense Department is able to control the news, although this is not a declared war and there can be no official censorship. If an operation is a success, the department can release its own videotapes to the media, as it did in the attack on the oil rig. If such an attack failed, and American lives were lost, one wonders if the department would be forthcoming with any photographs, videotapes or information at all.

After American forces invaded Grenada with no accompanying press, a commission was created to devise a plan for including the media in future operations without compromising security. In the first major test of the agreement in the Gulf, where secrecy hardly is a factor, the military has failed to keep its end of the bargain.

The press and the military somehow managed to work together for more than a century in providing coverage of wars both declared and undeclared. One could argue that press access to Civil War battlefields in the 1860s was better than it has been in the Persian Gulf in the 1980s. This is inconvenient and frustrating for reporters. It should be alarming to all American citizens. The new defense secretary-designate, Frank C. Carlucci, should order news coverage opened.

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