WASHINGTON — Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf's climactic briefing on the eve of victory this week raised the idea that one weapon in the allied arsenal may have been overlooked: fooling the enemy by deceiving the American media.
"The chart (of the allied assault) you showed there," a reporter told Schwarzkopf during the briefing, "was almost the exact reverse of what most of us (in the media) thought was happening."
Did the military follow an organized plan to lie to the press in order to deceive the enemy? And did the media buy it, aiding the American military effort without meaning to?
A close review of press coverage of the war, and discussions with Pentagon officials involved in handling the press, reveal that in large part the answer is no.
There were some incidents of military officials misleading and even lying to the press--especially foreign news agencies. The military also relied heavily on the notion that television grossly exaggerates anything with pictures to dramatize exercises for the Marine amphibious landing "Imminent Thunder"--which never happened.
But more significant to protecting military security, U. S. officials concede, is what the media held back from the American public voluntarily.
In particular, some key members of the media--notably CBS, NBC and the Washington Post--actually figured out the American battle plan, but they never reported it.
The Pentagon's primary effort at controlling the press--its system of keeping reporters in organized pools with military escorts--was designed not so much to deceive the press as keep it away from the action.
But as it turned out, the most potentially damaging security leaks were those allowed by military censors. "We are guilty of contributing to the release of some very important information that could have been very helpful to the enemy," said one high-ranking military official instrumental in trying to manage the press at the Pentagon.
Potentially most devastating, military officials admit, was the approval a censor gave to a pool account written by a Los Angeles Times reporter on Jan. 23, which mentioned near the bottom that allied engineers were working in the western Saudi Arabian town of Rahfa.
To CBS Pentagon correspondent David Martin, the story was a dramatic signal that the allied troops were secretly migrating much farther west than anyone was expecting. Rahfa is 200 miles away from where most experts expected the assault.
"When I was there in December they (the troops) were not going out that far," Martin said.
By reading subsequent pool reports and talking to their military sources, Martin and NBC correspondent Fred Francis eventually figured out the secret objective of the allied military's surprise "Hail Mary" rush north into Iraq--Nasiriyah, a town near the Euphrates River, where the allies eventually cut off the Iraqi retreat.
"Nobody (in the media) understood the full weight of the western swing," said one key military official. Nevertheless, after Martin's questions of his sources made it clear he understood a good deal of the plan, a Pentagon official recalled, the military appealed to Martin "to not emphasize the activity you are seeing in the West."
Not only did Francis and Martin keep that information to themselves to protect national security, at one point, Francis even warned his network against revealing the plan inadvertently after one of its expert commentators speculatively pointed on a map to Nasiriyah. The Washington Post also knew and protected the broad outline of the battle plan. In addition, military officials contacted two expert network commentators warning them against emphasizing certain points that could betray the plan.
One of the most significant ways in which press coverage helped the allies, Schwarzkopf said in his briefing, was that in the early days of the operation last fall, the press gave the allies credit for more military strength than it had. "That gave me quite a feeling of confidence that we might not be attacked quite as quickly as I thought," the general said.
Military briefers insisted in those early months that they had the troop strength to protect Saudi Arabia. "In retrospect, that was proably not really truthful," said Michael Ross, a Los Angeles Times correspondent in that first press pool.
But the press also helped knowingly. A senior military official held a briefing for some members of the initial press pool and told them "we are going to be vulnerable for a while, and you would do a great deal of (harm) if you focus on that weakness."
The reporters, the Pentagon official said, agreed, and "deliberately and consciously protected the vulnerability of the force."
Outright deception also occurred. In particular, the military planted false reports, or disinformation, of Air Force landings in Kuwait and Iraq, one senior military official said, in the Saudi and Kuwaiti news agencies.