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This lesson from the Constitutional Rights Foundation engages students in a simulation in which small groups represent a Presidential Commission on Press Rules for a War on Terrorism. In addition to procedures for introducing and using the simulation, the lesson presents historical background on freedom of the press during wartime and suggests a method for evaluating policies.

America Responds to Terrorism: Press Freedom vs. Military Censorship
From the Constitutional Rights Foundation

Much of the war on terrorism involves gathering highly sensitive information about terrorists. In addition, the U.S. and other governments are developing new strategies to contend with terrorism at home and abroad. There has been considerable discussion about what information about terrorists and the strategies to combat them should--or should not--be released to the press. Is it important for people in a democracy to know what the government is doing? Can the media print or broadcast all information they receive? What press policy should the military use in wartime?

Throughout the Persian Gulf War of 1991, Iraqi President Saddam Hussein permitted only one foreign journalist to remain in Baghdad--CNN's veteran war correspondent Peter Arnett. Arnett had to obey Iraqi press-censorship rules. "From the beginning," Arnett later revealed, "I accepted the constraints that the Iraqis laid down. They said, 'Anything you do, you put on paper. We go over it, and we alter it. We change it if we wish to, and that's what you're going to use.'" Once the war began, the Iraqi government selected Arnett's reporting locations and monitored his interviews. As a result, many of Arnett's stories dwelled on bombing damage to civilian areas and the suffering of the Iraqi people.

Many Americans, including members of Congress and even fellow journalists, severely criticized Arnett for reporting material provided or censored by Iraq. But at the same time, hundreds of American reporters sent to Saudi Arabia had to deal with attempts by the U.S. military to control information.

Press vs. Military
During the short, successful Spanish-American War of 1898, reporters, if anything, led cheers for the military. Throughout World War I, journalists considered themselves part of the war effort, not independent observers. This pattern of press and military cooperation continued through World War II. But starting with the Korean War and then Vietnam, the press took an increasingly independent and critical view of the military. In Vietnam, more than 2,000 accredited reporters roamed freely throughout battle zones interviewing ordinary soldiers rather than relying on the often rosy picture of the war presented by the Pentagon. There were few incidents of news stories endangering U.S. troops or military operations. But negative press accounts fueled anti-war feelings back home.

When the war in Southeast Asia finally ended, many in the military blamed the press for “losing Vietnam.” Some Pentagon officials resolved to restrict press coverage of future American wars. In 1983, the Pentagon barred all journalists from the initial invasion of Grenada. Then, in 1989, the Pentagon selected a dozen reporters to cover the invasion of Panama and restricted them to an airport in Panama until nearly all fighting ended.

Policy #1: Press Pools
When U.S. military units went to Saudi Arabia in the fall of 1990, about 1,000 journalists eventually joined them. The Pentagon set ground rules for the press. It authorized about a dozen "pools," of up to 18 reporters each, to visit U.S. military units in the field. News organizations selected reporters for each pool and military escorts accompanied them into the field. Pool reporters distributed their dispatches to their news organizations and to all other non-pool reporters who were required to remain in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, near the Kuwait border, or in Riyadh, the capital of Saudi Arabia.

The Pentagon accredited all American journalists and required them to observe the following battlefield press rules:

  • No reporters could visit any U.S. military unit or travel outside of Dhahran or Riyadh except in a press pool.
  • No pool was permitted in the field without an escort, usually a U.S. military public-affairs officer (PAO).
  • No interviews of U.S. military personnel were permitted without an escort present.
  • All pool dispatches must first pass through the "military security review system." (PAOs at each pool location reviewed all dispatches and could delete or change any "military-sensitive information." Reporters could appeal any censorship to the military pool coordinating office in Dhahran and then to the Pentagon.)

Violations of the above rules could result in arrest, detention, revocation of press credentials, and expulsion from the combat zone.

The Pentagon explained that these rules protected American troops, military operations, and the journalists themselves. One high Navy official, Rear Admiral John Bitoff, remarked: "There is a clear and present danger in today's instant-communications age, which may put our troops at risk. Our enemies are watching CNN-TV."

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