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Pentagon’s embedded honeymoon sours

Kuwait, March 31: The deluge of gritty, violent images rolling into American living rooms from the battlefields of Iraq has begun to spark regret among Pentagon leaders about the unprecedented access they have granted war correspondents, defence officials say.

The Pentagon’s civilian and military leadership have spent much of the war either trying to debunk reports from the battlefield or to put those reports into what they have called a broader context. In recent days, the fundamental problem has been squaring depictions from inside Iraq of pitched battles, guerrilla warfare and hungry soldiers with the upbeat assessments of the war effort issued from the press room podiums of the Pentagon and Central Command at Doha, Qatar.

“It’s giving the leadership fits,” a defence official said yesterday.

The trend of trying to hold the press as far from the battlefield as possible ended before the current conflict, when defence department officials decided to deploy — or “embed” — hundreds of newspaper, television, radio and magazine reporters with front-line army, Marine and navy war fighters.

Pentagon officials say they’re pleased with the results, especially the positive images of determined and dedicated troops performing professionally under tremendous pressure.

But behind the scenes, the embedded reporters have helped to create problems, both militarily and with the public’s perception of the war, defence officials say. On Saturday, some army and Marine units forbade reporters from using a type of satellite phone, called a Thuraya, for fear the phone’s signal would broadcast troop locations to the Iraqi military.

Thurayas issue global positioning satellite signals, and air force Maj. Gen. Victor Renuart told reporters the new restriction stemmed from “a requirement for the operational commander to ensure that his movements are appropriately secured.”

But concerns over battlefield reporting are mainly about mage control, a defence official said. “It does require people to square reports from the field — that’s nothing new,” he said. “It’s happening in real time.”

On Saturday, Pentagon spokeswoman Victoria Clarke and Maj. Gen. Stanley McChrystal struggled to deflate reports that Marines deployed deep inside Iraq were down to one military meal — or Meal Ready to Eat (MRE) — a day due to stretched and harassed supply lines.

“There are many advantages to the embedding programme,” Clarke said. “There are also some challenges. One reporter may have heard one person say: ‘I haven’t gotten my second or third MRE of the day yet,’ and that gets back, and it gets back very quickly. Because of the volume and velocity of the reporting coming directly from the field, we all have to take a breath sometimes and say: ‘OK, is this representative of a broader picture, or is this an individual incident'’”

Especially with TV reports, Pentagon leaders are asking the public to place more faith in their assessments of a smoothly progressing war than the more chaotic images viewers are seeing with their own eyes, a defence official said.

On Friday, defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld opened his press briefing with a broadside against the war coverage. “We have seen mood swings in the media from highs to lows to highs and back again, sometimes in a single 24-hour period,” Rumsfeld complained.

“For some, the massive TV, the massive volume of television — and it is massive — and the breathless reports can seem to be somewhat disorienting. Fortunately, my sense is that the American people have a very good centre of gravity and can absorb and balance what they see and hear.”

When the programme was hatched, defence leaders thought the technological challenges of broadcasting from a battle zone would naturally limit coverage, a defence official conceded.

They envisioned television reporters finding time and a strong enough satellite signal to broadcast “live shots” only once or twice a day.

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