WASHINGTON — Some journalists interpreted Monday's firing of Air Force Chief of Staff Michael J. Dugan over comments to the press as a signal that the White House believes U.S. military leaders have become too open with the media over the Persian Gulf crisis.
"What Dugan was saying is 'the politicians are not going to be meddling with me and the other generals,' " said one editor involved in the story, who asked that his name not be used so that his reporters could maintain better relations with their sources. "Clearly, he was misguided."
Even before Dugan made his remarks to reporters from The Times and the Washington Post in Saudi Arabia last week, journalists had been surprised by the candor of many of the generals at the Pentagon with whom they have dealt since the crisis began.
Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Colin L. Powell was known to be angry last week over comments that Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf made to the Post, in which he said there were 145,000 U.S. troops in the gulf region and complained about the delays in the delivery of equipment by the Navy and breakdowns in the American airlift.
Less than a week later, Dugan was quoted in separate stories in the Sunday editions of The Times and the Post as saying that the United States will target downtown Baghdad and Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein personally if the crisis results in combat. Dugan made his remarks over the course of hours of conversations with reporters traveling with him last week.
After Dugan's firing, his staff communicated to Times reporter John M. Broder that the general did not regret what he said and would act the same way if he had it to do over again.
"This comes on the heels of a number of statements by military people in Saudi Arabia which have been quite outspoken in the articulation of American policy and strategy," said Marvin Kalb, director of the Shorenstein Barone Center on Press and Public Policy at Harvard University. "I would not be at all surprised if the civilian arm of the military, meaning (Secretary of Defense Dick) Cheney, said enough was enough."
A senior Defense Department official Monday went out of his way to deny that Dugan's firing was an attempt to silence other generals.
"It would be wrong and would misread the secretary's action entirely if the message is, 'Don't speak to the press,' " the senior official said.
However, officials from elsewhere in the Pentagon strongly disputed that view privately with reporters.
Top editors at the newspapers involved in the story said they were struck by the candor of Dugan's remarks.
"We were surprised by his frankness," said David Ignatius, foreign editor of the Washington Post. "We had no reason to think he was acting contrary to the interests of the Administration or the Pentagon."
The firing, Ignatius said, "shows that civilian oversight has not been entirely jettisoned" from the American military.
"I did not expect this," said Benjamin C. Bradlee, executive editor of the Post.
The Times was sufficiently surprised by the frankness of Dugan's remarks that it took the unusual step of reading its story to Dugan's press secretary Saturday to see if it accurately reflected what Dugan said. The Post "made similar checks," Ignatius said, and also confirmed with other Pentagon officials that Dugan's statements "fit with the general Pentagon view."
"It was an interesting and newsworthy discussion of strategy by Gen. Dugan," said Times Editor Shelby Coffey III. "Our reporter did his job in writing the story. Secretary Cheney had a different reaction. That is his job."
"Actually, this guy (Dugan) was saying in public what a number of other people are saying in private," said Al Hunt, Washington bureau chief of the Wall Street Journal.
Dugan's firing was part of a long history of U.S. military personnel running afoul of their civilian superiors.
"Generally, generals who shoot off their mouths find themselves in trouble," said Stanley Cloud, Washington bureau chief of Time magazine. The list of examples range from Gen. George B. McClellan, who criticized Abraham Lincoln's conduct of the Civil War, to Gen. Douglas MacArthur, who was fired for criticizing President Harry S. Truman's conduct of the Korean War.
"Eventually they need to be reminded that the civilians are in control and there are limits to how far a general can go," Cloud said.
Ironically, Dugan took the job in July in part with the intent to improve the public profile of a wing of the military seen as remote. One gesture that illustrated his more open style was Dugan's decision to give defense reporters laminated cards listing his office phone number and the numbers of his chief aides.