Press secretaries and military operations

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White House reporters following the United States move into Grenada were outraged that they had not been able to penetrate the news blackout on the eve of that military operation.

Presidential spokesman Larry Speakes had fended off questions that, if answered, could have disclosed the invasion, negated the element of surprise, and endangered the lives of American fighting men and others.

Speakes may have been purposely kept in ignorance of the military operation - so that he could deny related questions without squirming or purposely misleading. Or perhaps he knew much and was saying little.

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But, finally, Speakes fielded this query:

''Could we assume that no matter how well and incisively such a question was phrased - that is, a question would go toward a forthcoming surprise military action - could we assume you would never confirm such an action when it might mean loss of American lives?''

Speakes's reply: ''I would certainly not have confirmed it - but there are many ways to say 'no comment.' And I would know them better than most anyone else in this town.''

Thus the issue focuses on just what a presidential press secretary's obligation is at such moments, when success of a mission could rest on secrecy.

Jody Powell, Jimmy Carter's press secretary, said,''Government has the right to lie and the obligation to lie under certain circumstances. A military operation is clearly such a circumstance. I lied about the mission to rescue the (Teheran) hostages. In fact, when I was asked two or three days before whether the administration was considering such an operation, I not only said, 'No,' but I went on to do all I could to convince the reporter that something like that couldn't possibly happen.''

Jody minces no words. Nor did Arthur Sylvester, the Pentagon information chief during the Cuban missile crisis who first articulated the right, as he saw it, for a press secretary to lie to the press to protect national security. Later he was often misquoted as saying that press secretaries generally had the right to lie to the press.

Phil Goulding, a Pentagon information head during the Johnson years, thinks it is never necessary to lie. ''There are ways,'' he says, ''to deal with questions when a truthful answer would endanger American lives - without lying. I never had to deal with this. But I'm sure I would have said: 'I'm just not going to respond. You know I never respond to questions like this.' ''

Jerry ter Horst resigned as press secretary when President Ford failed to tell him he was getting ready to pardon Nixon, thus putting ter Horst in what he saw as an unforgivable position: Through ignorance, ter Horst had been telling the press that Ford was doing no such thing. Ter Horst felt the President had caused him to lie and that he had lost his credibility with the press.

When troops might be endangered by a press secretary's disclosure, ter Horst says, the issue would be different than the one he dealt with. ''But,'' he adds, ''if it was clear that a landing had not taken place and troops might have been endangered, I would have found a way of not giving away what was going on - short of lying.''

Bill Moyers said: ''When Johnson asked me to be press secretary, my father called me and said: 'Tell the truth if you can; if you can't, don't tell a lie.' '' Moyers said he never found he had to lie. But he said to do so, even when a confirmation of a question might endanger troops, would ''run the risk of losing credibility.'' Instead a press secretary should ''find some ruse . . . to protect a military action that is in motion.''

Speakes's main responsibility was to the success of that Grenada mission. His job was not to blow the cover of surprise. However he did it, he did it well.

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