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Insider : The War of Words at the Pentagon : The 'Tom and Mike Hour' is the daily battle briefing between the Washington press corps and the military's two senior officers for operations and intelligence.

January 29, 1991|MELISSA HEALY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — To correspondents and those watching the Pentagon's daily briefings on television, the sessions have become known as the "Tom and Mike Hour"--a daily back-and-forth between the press corps and the military's senior overseers of operations and intelligence.

For Lt. Gen. Thomas W. Kelly, 59, director of operations for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the war in the Persian Gulf is neither the first one he has experienced nor the first he has overseen.

A mud soldier who served in the Vietnam War, Kelly was at his current post on Dec. 20, 1989, when U.S. troops invaded Panama, and was assigned to brief the press on how the operation was going. The assessments he proffered were so blunt, he became an almost instant media star.

Since then, the gruff-but-quotable Kelly--a college journalism major who served briefly as a public affairs officer early in his military career--has been keeping his reputation intact. Recently, he described the hunt for mobile Scud missile launchers as a "big-time" priority. When asked how the enemy's troops had performed, he rasped: "If I were (Iraqi leader) Saddam Hussein, I would certainly not be proud of what my forces have done."

By contrast, the Persian Gulf War has been something of an initiation for Rear Adm. John (Mike) McConnell, an unassuming career military intelligence officer who has been thrust reluctantly into the public spotlight. While the bespectacled, 47-year-old admiral has spent 24 years analyzing potential enemies for his higher-ups, colleagues have said that he shuddered at the prospect of providing similar briefings in a roomful of cameras.

"Not to dodge your question, but being an intelligence officer . . . if I were an Iraqi, I would love to know the answer to those kinds of questions," McConnell replied recently in one of his typical responses to a reporter's question. "So I'm going to have to beg off, if you don't mind."

Against Kelly's bluff loquacity, McConnell is the picture of a military intelligence analyst--meticulous, detail-oriented and scrupulously organized. While Kelly admits he has no "great penchant for mathematics," McConnell is a dedicated bean-counter.

By Navy standards, McConnell has spent remarkably little time at sea. Not since his first naval assignment, on a reserve support vessel berthed in Boston, has he served on a ship. But Kelly has punched the tickets that are standard fare for an Army general--armor school, infantry school, a couple of tours in Germany and a stint in the Army's manpower branch, one of the service's bread-and-butter assignments.

But to the select few Pentagon officials who attend the daily "Ops/Intel briefing" provided for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Kelly and McConnell are a more likely pair than their contrasting personalities would suggest. One participant calls them the Huntley and Brinkley of the Pentagon's briefers, complementing each other's talents and providing a calm but frank picture of the unfolding Persian Gulf War.

Although they are equal in rank, Kelly is described as the "first among equals." Both report to the Gen. Colin L. Powell, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

As the chief operations officer for the Joint Chiefs, Kelly is master of the Pentagon's National Military Command Center. With the exception of the hours that he has been either before the cameras or briefing the President, Kelly has been there--amid the winking display consoles and elaborate communications gadgetry--virtually around the clock.

His one concession to civility: Throughout the gulf crisis, he has regularly spurned the take-out pizza and vending-machine sandwiches that have been favorites of his staff. Instead, he has dinner at home every night with his wife, Dorothy.

Had Kelly been permitted to follow his intended career plan, he could be eating breakfast and lunch with his wife as well. Due to retire this month, Kelly is probably one of the most senior military officers to be affected by the Army's emergency "stop-loss policy," which has kept thousands of would-be departees from leaving the service because their special skills are needed in the gulf operation.

For their trouble, Kelly and McConnell have been treated to more trips to the White House than most senior military officers make in a lifetime. The audience there, at least, is more sympathetic than the ones both have faced in the glare of the Pentagon press briefing room.

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