At Large

Newsroom Warriors

If there's going to be an Iraq war, one newspaper in particular wants equal standing with the Joint Chiefs.

By 7.17.02

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Yes, war may be too serious to be left to the generals. But we could do a lot worse, and it may be that we will. Watch out for press and politicians, especially when they encourage one another. The same day last week that Sen. Joseph Biden said the Foreign Relations Committee would question administration officials on their Iraq policy, the New York Times was once again exploring what that policy might be. Actually, the Times wants to have a voice in forming it.

The Times reported, in a front page story, that "American military planners are considering using bases in Jordan to stage air and commando operations against Iraq." The story went on to say that "an American military planning document" calls for "air, land and sea-based forces to attack Iraq from three directions, but the details of which countries might be involved are just coming to light." The Times also reported that "using Jordanian bases would enable the Pentagon to attack Iraq from the west, as well from the north via Turkey and the south via several Persian Gulf states."

That's true, of course, if the bases were available, the U.S. could attack from three directions. War planning, however, is a complex game, and as the knowledgeable Financial Times recently noted, "Turkish public opinion is strongly opposed" to supporting an attack on Iraq, and "the powerful military high command is equally skeptical."

Consequently, a three-sided attack might not be possible, no matter what the Times may suggest. The Times, though, has a vested interest in sounding authoritative; it wants a seat at the table when high policy is discussed. Nonetheless, the source of some of its information should be questioned. As this column pointed out last week, an earlier Times story about U.S. war plans was based not on an "American military planning document," as the Times said it was, but instead on "a set of briefing slides," along with a good deal of journalistic conjecture.

But the phantom military planning document has now taken on a life of its own. It was mentioned again in the Times story on Jordan; other news organizations have also cited it. Meanwhile, politicians read the papers, and do not want to be left behind. As Joe Biden, chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, told the Times about his plans to question administration officials:

"I want them to define their objectives in Iraq. I want to know what scenarios there are for eliminating the chemical and biological weapons that Iraq may use if we attack. I'd like to know how important our allies are in this."

The Times would like to know that, too. (And so, for that matter, would Saddam Hussein.) In an democratic society like ours, information gets passed around, and thoughtful citizens would not have it any other way. There is, however, a downside to this. Recall now the Gulf War, and some of its absurdities. Editorial pages were clogged with misinformation, and opinion makers proved they knew nothing about war.

In a piece on the op-ed page of the Wall Street Journal, for example, Michael Gartner, the president of NBC News, and a former president of the American Society of Newspaper Editors as well, complained about the things the Pentagon did not want the press to know. They included:

(1) Number of troops.

(2) Number of aircraft.

(3) Number of other equipment -- artillery, tanks, radar units, trucks, etc.

(4) Names of military installations/geographic locations of U.S. military units in Saudi Arabia.

(5) Information regarding future operations.

(6) Information concerning military security precautions at installations in Saudi Arabia.

And so on, ending with "(9) Photography that would show level of security at military installations in Saudi Arabia," and "(10) Photography that would reveal the name of specific locations of military forces or installations."

The Pentagon, however, resisted Gartner, and his like-minded colleagues, and the generals went about their business. If we do attack Iraq, you should hope they can do this again.

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About the Author

John Corry is a former New York Times media critic and reporter.