News lockdown tighter than in previous wars
Congress, press complain about lack of information. So far, public seems content.
WASHINGTON — The White House is in information lockdown.
In this war against individuals, where intelligence matters more than numbers of troops, tanks, and bombers, the administration is restricting information to a much broader degree than in previous wars.
Americans know only the bare bones of what's happening in Afghanistan, and perhaps that's not surprising. But they also, for "security reasons," aren't being told what antibiotics are being used to treat the Anthrax cases in Florida. And for days now, they haven't known the whereabouts of their vice president, who has been in a separate, secret location from the president.
"The extent of the clampdown seems a lot wider than it's been in other wars," says historian Alan Brinkley at Columbia University in New York.
So far, the public has been patient with the restrictions on information. The unprecedented nature of the attacks has led to an unprecedented trust in the government's actions. At some point, though, such blind faith will give way to second-guessing, and people will want information more specific than the administration's general admonition to "be alert."
Observers like Mr. Brinkley say the Bush team will no doubt begin to have a harder time limiting access to information - whether about the military campaign, the investigation, or the threats of future retaliatory attacks on the US.
National security adviser Condoleezza Rice may have successfully convinced broadcast-news executives to use restraint in airing videos from Osama bin Laden's Al Qaeda network, but the terrorist group can just as easily make use of the Internet. Foreign news outlets, moreover, will be much more difficult for the White House to influence.
"The president's frustration is that we're in an Information Age, where information flows freely," says Col. John Bonin, director of Army planning at the US Army War College in Carlisle, Pa.
Colonel Bonin and others point to several factors that will make it much harder for the government to prevent leaks in this war than in past ones:
News sources are far more numerous and diffuse than in previous wars - making government efforts to keep information under lock and key far more difficult.
The number of potential leaks grows with the number of partners in the international coalition - especially since the terrorist threat, though visible, has not been as sustained and massive as, say, the London air raids of World War II. The less immediate the threat, says Bonin, the harder it is to keep an international coalition together - and the greater potential for leaks.
The entire US feels vulnerable to attack. This means that the public will want information about the extent and kind of threats, as well as what to do about it.
Vague government warnings to "be alert" are not enough. Amy Smithson, a specialist in chemical and biological weapons at the Stimson Center, a security think tank, points to "public confusion" and panic in the absence of reliable information about these kinds of threats, and what to do about them.
"There are a lot of Americans now who consider chemical and biological attacks to be inevitable," she says. "The federal government needs to begin putting this into perspective."
It was a leak from a classified briefing, in which the White House told members of Congress of a "100 percent" likelihood of further terrorist attacks, that caused Mr. Bush to restrict the number of lawmakers in the information loop to eight.
That caused an uproar on the Hill, where members said they could not fulfill their watchdog role if they were not informed. This week, the White House backed down, and widened the circle to include the House and Senate Armed Services and Foreign Relations Committees.
"I'm glad to see signs of life in Congress. You need a rally-around-the-flag effect, but it can be carried too far," says historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr., former assistant to President Kennedy.
Certainly, the Bush administration is casting a wide net in terms of a news blackout. The Environmental Protection Agency, for instance, pulled a website with information about chemicals and emergency plans at 15,000 locations around the country. The Department of Transportation excised pipeline maps from its site. The Justice Department, meanwhile, is not saying anything about the terrorist investigation except for the total number of people detained - 655 as of yesterday. The White House has reduced the number of people in its media-strategy meetings by more than half.
Not surprisingly, the media are concerned about their level of access to this war, which so far has been limited to broad-brush Pentagon briefings and a press trip to aircraft carriers and warships.
"Nearly three days into this operation, we - and therefore the American public - really have no idea how it's going, what's being done in our name, and what effect it's having," Paul Friedman, ABC News executive vice president told the Los Angeles Times.
For now, the public does not seem concerned with the heightened secrecy in Washington. According to a Gallup poll last week - before the airstrikes - 88 percent of Americans thought the Bush administration and the military have been "cooperative enough" in providing information to the news media.
But that could change over time.
"People are so shaken at the moment that they're choosing to trust the government in a way they haven't for a long time," says Brinkley. "But if things don't go well ... then I think people will be more demanding."