Saturday, March 5, 2005

Military management of the media (1)

The latest issue of Parameters has an article giving a military perspective of the role of media in war:  The Media as an Instrument of War by Kenneth Payne Parameters (US Army War College journal) Spring 2005.  This is becoming an increasingly important issue for American democracy.  And, even if we were to find some way to withdraw from Iraq during the Bush administration, it will continue to be a problem.

And, right now, it is very much a problem.

Payne provides a useful summary of journalists' status in international law:

The 1949 Geneva Conventions do, however, address the position of battlefield reporters, at least in terms of the obligations of combatants toward detained correspondents. Journalists are to be afforded all the protection due to combatants, and, while their equipment could be confiscated on capture, they are not legally obliged to respond to interrogation. Sick or wounded correspondents should receive medical treatment and, if detained by belligerents, they should be treated humanely.

With the 1977 protocols to the Conventions, the situation changed somewhat, with signatories agreeing that journalists should be considered as civilians when “engaged in dangerous missions in areas of armed conflict,” provided that “they take no action adversely affecting their status as civilians.” To this end, correspondents have an obligation to differentiate themselves from combatants, for example by not wearing military uniforms. As the Commentary on the Protocol states, “On the battlefield a combatant cannot reasonably be asked to spare an individual whom he cannot identify as a journalist.” As civilians, journalists are entitled by the 1977 Protocol to “enjoy general protection against the dangers arising from military operations” and “shall not be the object ofattack.”

As Payne also notes, the US and Britain have not ratified the 1977 protocols, a situation which will create more and more dilemmas as time goes on.  In terms of legal application (as opposed to practical enforcement), international law in many instances can and does apply to states that have not specifically ratified the particular law.  And one of the big issues addressed by the 1977 protocols is the status of irregular (guerrilla) fighters.  The only thin pretension of a legal justification in international law for the shipping of Afghan prisoners of war to Guantanamo was that because their army did not have a regular uniform, and therefore they were not wearing regular uniforms while fighting, they do not qualify as prisoners of war under Geneva.  The 1977 protocols address that issue as well.

Right Blogostan has been all atwitter recently over the suggestion that US troops have sometimes deliberately targeted journalists in the Iraq War.  But look at this portion of a 1999 opinion from the General Counsel of the Defense Department (DoD) that Payne quotes:

Civilian media generally are not considered to be lawful military targets, but circumstances may make them so. In both Rwanda and Somalia, for example, civilian radio broadcasts urged the civilian population to commit acts of violence against members of other tribes, in the case of Rwanda, or against UN-authorized forces providing humanitarian assistance, in the case of Somalia. When it is determined that civilian media broadcasts are directly interfering with the accomplishment of a military force’s mission, there is no law of war objection to using the minimum necessary force to shut them down. The extent to which force can be used for purely psychological operations purposes, such as shutting down a civilian radio station for the sole purpose of undermining the morale of the civilian population, is an issue that has yet to be addressed authoritatively by the international community.

(The full document is available at An Assessment of International Legal Issues in Information Operations May 1999; *.pdf file.)  And this was the Defense Department under William Cohen during the Clinton administration, which was far more concerned about actually obeying the law in such matters than the current administration.

I think it's safe to assume that, by Bush administration methods of legal interpretation, the last sentence quoted means: if we think some journalist or media outlet is affecting "the morale of the civilian population," we can kill them, blow them up or shut them down.  Keep in mind that respectable, mainstream belief among Republicans today is that CNN, CBS, NBC and ABC are all damaging "the morale of the civilian population" here at home just by broadcasting basic news.

Aside on the laws of war

Despite the 1999 DoD legal opinion's seemingly loose definition of exceptions to the protection of journalists, the DoD paper has some very good information.  For example, the section called "The Laws of War" summarizes several concepts that it calls "Essentials of the Law of War."  Those include: distinction of combatants from noncombatants; military necessity; proportionality; superfluous injury; indiscriminate weapons; perfidy; and, neutrality.

The description of the first of those concepts is worth quoting in full here:

Distinction of combatants from noncombatants: With very limited exceptions, only members of a nation’s regular armed forces are entitled to use force against the enemy. They must distinguish themselves from noncombatants, and they must not use noncombatants or civilian property to shield themselves from attack. If lawful combatants are captured by the enemy they may not be punished for their combatant acts, so long as they complied with the law of war. They are required to be treated humanely in accordance with agreed standards for the treatment of prisoners of war, and they must be released promptly at the cessation of hostilities. Persons who commit combatant acts without authorization are subject to criminal prosecution.

However, in applying that idea specifically to "information operations," the 1999 opinion notes the following:

Distinction of combatants from noncombatants:  This rule grew up when combatants could see each other and make a judgment of whether or not toopen fire based in part on whether or not the individual in the sights wore an enemy uniform.  When the unit of combat came to be a vessel, tank, truck, or aircraft, it became more important that such vehicles be properly marked than that their occupants wear a distinctive uniform.  If a computer network attack is launched from a location far from its target, it may be of no practical significance whether the  "combatant" is wearing a uniform.  Nevertheless, the law of war requires that lawful combatants be trained in the law of war, that they serve under effective discipline, and that they be under the command of officers responsible for their conduct. This consideration argues for retaining the requirement that combatant information operations during international armed conflicts be conducted only by members of the armed forces.  If combatant acts are conducted by unauthorized persons, their government may be in violation of the law of war, depending on the circumstances, and the individuals concerned are at least theoretically subject to criminal prosecution either by the enemy or by an international war crimes tribunal. The long-distance and anonymous nature of computer network attacks may make detection and prosecution unlikely, but it is the firmly established policy of the United States that U.S. forces will fight in full compliance with the law of war.

Although "undermining the morale of the civilian population" is an exception large enough drive a very large truck through, the focus in the 1999 opinion is clearly on combatant activities, not annoying press reports.  Propaganda broadcasts by the enemy army aimed at civilian morale would seem to be pretty clearly legitimate military targets, since their purpose is supporting combat operations.  A journalist whose reports some commander finds irritating would not be.

Information as a tool of war

One thing that I try to keep in mind with the military and news reporting is that, while conceptual clarity is important, there are also a lot of vague formulas floating around that seem to reconcile the need for military-operational security with the need of the public to get accurate news about what their country's fighting forces are doing.  The formulas often don't mean much.  What counts is the actual effects of policies on the ground.

Another consideration to keep in mind is that the US military has extensive operations in countries other than Iraq and Afghanistan, where open conflicts are taking place.  The Pentagon runs the National Security Agency (NSA), which is responsible for code-breaking, a critical part of national intelligence operations.  There are programs like the Star Wars "missile defense" effort that don't have much to do with active military operations.  (With Star Wars, it's unlikely so far that it will ever have any actual military application; it's basically just a huge boondoggle for military contractors right now.)  And there have been recent discussions about having the military take on more of the kind of "black ops" that have previously been run by the CIA.

Add on to that the fact that the current US administration is more suspicious of professional journalism, more obsessed with secrecy and more willing to dupe the public than any administration before it.  So paying close attention to what is actually done, rather than just the pretty formulas that make everything sound okay, is what counts in this area.

Like any organization, the Pentagon (including here both the civilian leadership and the uniformed services) would prefer to have favorable press, to have independent news reports not only reflect favorable on them but to promote the message that they prefer to go out.  But not only does the Pentagaon have far greater resources to control the message than most organizations.  In wartime, it has even greater leeway, not least because patriotic fervor makes people more willing than ever to swallow disinformation and plain old lies.

Embedding in Iraq

One refreshing thing about reading a paper like Payne's is that it's at least blessedly free of the Republican-propaganda cant about "Liberal Press! Liberal Press! Liberal Press!"  This is clear in his discussion of the experience of "embedding" reporters with US Army units in Iraq.

As he notes, reporters imbedded with combat units tended to focus on tactical events.  They also tend to identify emotionally very heavily with the unit with which they are "embedded":

When US forces go into combat, the mainstream American media are, in the first instance at least, predisposed to back them. There is a plausible supposition that embedding enhances this tendency, by bringing reporters closer to the soldiers of one side than the other, perhaps to the extent of prompting a subconscious bias in reporting, the product of shared hardships and camaraderie.

For the benefit of the mouth-breathers, let me emphasize that first sentence again:  "When US forces go into combat, the mainstream American media are, in the first instance at least, predisposed to back them."  That should be such a straightforward statement of the situation as to require no special comment.  But since the alternative reality of FoxWorld and OxyContin radio constantly accuses the "mainstrem press" of drowning in bias against America and the American military, we're at a point where simple "reality-based" points like that sound exotic to a large part of the voting public.  As Bill Moyers put it so well, the delusional has become mainstream.

For reporters, there is an implicit danger in talking about where “we” go and what “we” have achieved—and this “Stockholm syndrome” is evident even among reporters who aim for the most scrupulous objectivity. For George Wilson, a journalist for the National Journal, the dangers of subconscious bias were very real: “You were put in a position where you would certainly not be antagonistic to the kids that you were involved with and admired, and you went in, in those conditions, without having the ability like I had in other wars to check things out for myself. So in effect I was putting myself in a position to be a propagandist, which was great for the Pentagon, but not so great for the readers.” 

Payne also describes, in somewhat more delicate terms, how the "strategic" briefings from senior officers to the press during the Iraq War have been little more than hack propaganda exercises. 

He concludes that the tactical reporting combined with the useless "strategic" briefings served the Pentagon's media goals, at least during the very early conventional phase of the war (March-April 2003), fits well with the Pentagon's preferences.  The embedded reporters provided stories of American soldiers performing well and beating the enemy handily.  And the larger problems, like the lack of planning for the occupation, didn't receive much attention from the press at that stage.

But planning for the occupation is a good example.  By virtually all accounts, including even grudging general acknowldgements by administration officials,  the planning for the postwar occupation was abyssmal.  If the press had been insisting on reporting that aspect of the story prominently during the immediate prewar period and the conventional-combat phase, there woud have been plenty of carping by our ever-vigilant superpatriots that The Liberal Press was failing to "support our troops."

Yet now, I would think it would be obvious to everyone but the inhabitants of FoxWorld that planning for the occupation has cost our soldiers, and the American goals in Iraq, very dearly.  If prewar reporting had been insistent or raising this issue, it might have pushed even Rummy's Pentagon into being a bit more responsible on that score.  Sometimes the best way for Congress, the press and the public to support our troops is to be diligent in holding public officials to account.

(Continued in Part 2)

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