When war plans go public

When war plans go public

Cooper, Gloria

When war clouds gather, leaks are never far behind. Leaks from hawks, leaks from doves. Leaks to rouse the public, rattle the enemy, rally friends. Leaks that bring on threats of inquisitions, leaks that raise no official protest at all. And inevitably, leaks that demand from their recipients in the news business an uneasy compromise of the principles that otherwise guide their work. Now, in the 2003 version of that age-old game, encouraging signs suggest that journalists have begun to improve the rules of play.

On Sunday, November 10, the front pages of both The Washington Post and The New York Times carried similarly detailed reports on the Bush administration’s plan for war with Iraq that bore the unmistakable watermarks of a Pentagon leak. The Post piece, however, by Thomas E. Ricks, took a valuable extra step: it explained the “strategic benefit” of the leak itself (informing the Arab world of U.S. determination to avoid attacking the Iraqi people; impressing the Iraqi military with the futility of resistance). Earlier, in a July 5 page-one report by Eric Schmitt that also outlined a U.S. plan for the invasion – a three-sided assault from north, south, and west by air, land, and sea – the Times took a similar tack: the reason for that silver-platter story, Schmitt made clear, was the source’s “frustration” that the plan was “insufficiently creative, and failed to incorporate fully the advances in tactics and technology that the military made since the Persian Gulf war in 1991.”

Carrying water for any camp is always a perilous exercise, particularly in a war zone. But in telling what they knew about the leakers’ motives, Ricks and Schmitt became more than conduits: they raised the public’s understanding to a deeper level. Speaking of “strategic benefits,” that one seems real.

Copyright Columbia University, Graduate School of Journalism Jan/Feb 2003

Provided by ProQuest Information and Learning Company. All rights Reserved.