The Pentagon’s inner journalistic circle

Nov 26, 2001  •  Post A Comment

Since Sept. 11, the military has tightened its grip on information, putting more pressure on journalists already working one of Washington’s toughest beats. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has tried to plug leaks by barring military personnel from divulging classified information.
Though Secretary Rumsfeld generally wins praise for being media-accessible-when in town he usually conducts the daily briefings after a few remarks by Torie Clarke, assistant secretary of defense for public affairs and former National Cable & Telecommunications Association spokeswoman-in some cases he is the only source of information on stories because of his crackdown on leaks. Even his handlers can be caught off guard by his comments.
“I’ve been very critical publicly about the lack of information about the way the war is going,” said John McWethy, chief national security correspondent for ABC News. His feelings were echoed by CNN military affairs correspondent Jamie McIntyre, who noted, “It’s been very challenging because the Pentagon has put a real squeeze on information in the claim that they need to protect national security.”
Other journalists, however, are taking it in stride.
“I know there have been a lot of complaints about access and information, but most of those are from reporters who don’t normally cover the building,” said NBC News correspondent Jim Miklaszewski.
CBS national security correspondent David Martin, who has been on the beat since 1983, said, “I think covering a story like this, you’re not going to develop any new sources. It all comes down to focusing energy, and you just can’t allow anything to distract you.”
Mr. Martin has a legendary reputation: He works alone in his bureau, endlessly roams the halls to find sources, keeps a stern poker face and has minimal contact with other reporters.
The journalists may differ with the military, but they respect it. For example, Mr. Martin, a Vietnam veteran, understands why reporters cannot travel with ground troops in Afghanistan.
“If I were the Special Operations guy, I wouldn’t want a reporter along with me. It doesn’t have anything to do with how you feel about press. It just requires a skill level-of wearing night-vision goggles, stuff like that-that journalists don’t have.”
DOD officials agree. It’s just not feasible to have reporters with satellite uplinks mixed in with ground troops, they said. “From their perspective, we’re way too secretive. From our perspective, we’re way too open,” DOD press officer Lt. Col. Ken McClellan said.
Defense officials think their war coverage parameters are based on sound principles. They said it would be dangerous for the Pentagon to inform the media about covert operations, for example. And soldiers have been advised to disclose only their first names because the ongoing terror threat could put them or their families at risk.
There is a lighter side on display in the Pentagon news operations as well: the Mik, as the NBC correspondent is sometimes known, has a huge yellow and orange stuffed animal over his desk, and the ABC bureau pokes a little fun at a fax cover sheet used by the military that reads, “Secret: This is a cover sheet for classified information.” Underneath is the ABC bureau’s take: “Stupid: This is a cover sheet for asinine information.”
While there’s plenty of soundproofing in the ABC News bureau, you can still hear the muffled voice of Mr. Miklaszewski in the NBC News bureau next door as he files a news update.
“Every day my competition can hear what I’m saying through the wall,” said ABC’s Mr. McWethy. “Keeping security on a story is very difficult.”
When he’s feeling mischievous, Mr. McWethy occasionally files a bogus radio bulletin in a loud voice and then listens for his nearby competitors to scramble around double-checking it.
Maintaining secrecy on stories is another of the challenges faced by network reporters on the Pentagon’s Correspondents Row, which sits across from the spacious Department of Defense press office, near the press briefing room. The network bureaus, which are a safe distance from the site of the Sept. 11 plane crash, are small, but the reporters have more workspace than their White House counterparts.
The Big 3 correspondents, while fiercely competitive, respect and like each other, a good thing given the close proximity of their quarters. But when a story is at stake, they have plenty of tricks for guarding sources and covering their tracks.
“There are offices I have gone in where I have made an effort not to be seen going in,” CBS’s Mr. Martin said.
Mr. Miklaszewski said Pentagon officials prefer not to talk to reporters on the phone in case lines are monitored.
Mr. McWethy doesn’t go directly to certain offices and only rushes to the camera.
Shrugs, nods and indirect speech allow sources to communicate without saying much.
In fact, much of the beat requires reading body language.
“You can walk through a hallway and not talk to a single person but know instinctively that there’s a big story,” Mr. Miklaszewski said.
On Sept. 11, Mr. Martin and Mr. McWethy were forced to commandeer phones at Arlington National Cemetery to report on the plane crashing into the Pentagon. Mr. Miklaszewski, at work in his office, learned from NBC “Today” show anchor Katie Couric what had happened-people in the building thought a bomb had gone off. CNN’s Mr. McIntyre didn’t hear the plane hit, but co-workers alerted him by e-mail.
Since that fateful day, the pace has quickened considerably for these journalists, who were already accustomed to long hours. Some have been putting in 18-hour shifts, arriving as early as 5 a.m.
“There is no relaxation,” said Mr. McWethy, who gets phone calls all night long.
“Coffee and the occasional piece of chocolate-and that pretty much gets you through the day,” the Mik said. “I’ve always been considered to be wound pretty tightly. I don’t need too much of it.”