New Slogan in Washington: Watch What You Say

The following article is from the New York Times, October 7, 2001. It talks about the decreasing flow of information due to security concerns. The original article can be found at

October 7, 2001

New Slogan in Washington: Watch What You Say


WASHINGTON, Oct. 6 — A few Sundays ago, shortly after returning from a weekend of national security briefings at Camp David, President Bush walked into the White House with a small group of advisers and delivered a stern warning. "Anybody who discloses classified information could literally endanger somebody's life," he told the group, according to Ari Fleischer, the White House spokesman, who was there.

On Friday, the president's worries about information in the capital extended to members of Congress. Angry about senators who had evidently disclosed information about the threat of future terrorist attacks provided to them by American intelligence officials, Mr. Bush called a member of the leadership and told him, a legislative aide said, that he might have to restrict the amount of classified information given to senators.

If the United States is embarking on the first war of the 21st century, and one that the president has said may be "secret even in success," then the damming up of information out of Washington is part of the strategy. Although the administration says it is not engaged in censorship, officials throughout the government readily say they have been ordered to be circumspect about their remarks. The caution extends even to the sanitizing of government Web sites as agencies remove information — including large-scale digital maps and a report on the poor security at some chemical plants — for fear that it could be used for terrorist attacks.

It is a sign of the times that Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld stood at a Pentagon podium last month and cited Winston Churchill's famous words that "in wartime, truth is so precious that she should always be attended by a bodyguard of lies." Mr. Rumsfeld, who has repeatedly said from the same podium that disclosing classified information is not only dangerous but against federal law, added that he did not "intend to" lie to the press about present and future military operations.

It is a more bizarre sign of the times that Mr. Rumsfeld told reporters three times as he uttered Churchill's words that he did not want to be quoted — as he was appearing live on CNN.

The current secrecy is reminiscent of the government management of information during the Persian Gulf war, a strategy overseen by Dick Cheney, then the secretary of defense. "If we had to do it tomorrow, I would start with what we've just done," Mr. Cheney said about press restrictions and censorship in an interview after the war.

Last week a senior aide to Vice President Cheney, Mary Matalin, dismissed any comparison between the Gulf War restrictions and those of the moment as "apples and oranges" and said that there was "no new directive" to limit information. But she acknowledged that there was a "new consciousness" among White House advisers to be disciplined in what they said.

Although the clampdown on information is justified as a way to protect lives and military operations, it can also be used to avoid scrutiny of government action. The effects are felt all over Washington.

At the White House, Mr. Fleischer has asked newspaper editors and wire services not to publish the president's schedule or describe any additional security measures at the White House, among other things.

At the Pentagon, there has been sparse information about the movements of troops and weapons, far less than during the gulf war. "It's not that this place has not for decades tried to keep things quiet," said Charles Aldinger of Reuters, the dean of Pentagon correspondents. "But it's become much more strict."

Officials at the Pentagon even expressed private aggravation when the White House, eager to show that it was moving ahead against terrorism, released very general figures on Monday cataloging the military buildup so far. The Pentagon spokeswoman, Victoria Clarke, seemed to dismiss the figures publicly when she called them "approximate."

On Capitol Hill, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell declined an invitation from the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to testify on the state of the coalition against terrorism because, officials said, it would have been awkward while Mr. Rumsfeld was in Saudi Arabia and headed to three other key partners — Egypt, Oman and Uzbekistan — for closed- door talks. Instead, Mr. Powell took the unusual step of inviting the senators to lunch last Wednesday at the State Department, where they were given information in private. And when evidence of Osama bin Laden's connection to the Sept. 11 attacks was finally made public, it came from Britain.

Along with Mr. Cheney during the gulf war, it was Mr. Powell, then chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who helped make the decision to manage the information flow in the Persian Gulf in a way that supported the operation's political goals. Newspaper articles were vetted by military censors, and reporters were confined to escorted pools. Mr. Powell said at the time that the restrictions were necessary to stop security lapses.

"It isn't like World War II, when George Patton would sit around in his tent with six or seven reporters and muse," he said, adding that "if a commander in Desert Shield sat around in his tent and mused with a few CNN guys and pool guys and other guys, it's in 105 capitals a minute later."

Marlin Fitzwater, who was White House press secretary to the first President Bush during the gulf war, later expressed regret over the decision to censor. "I don't like the idea of anybody in the government ever reading a piece of copy by a reporter," he said.

But last week Mr. Fitzwater said in an interview that he did not necessarily feel the same way about the war against terrorism. "I think this conflict is going to require a suspension of freedom and rights unlike anything we have seen, at least since World War II," he said.

Mr. Fleischer argued that the current White House had made top government officials — Mr. Rumsfeld, Mr. Powell, Mr. Cheney — more available than ever through frequent news conferences, and that Mr. Bush, who until now rarely veered from a script, was taking far more questions from reporters. Mr. Fleischer acknowledged that the officials were not always forthcoming, but said the public liked it that way.

"It's not what government officials are saying that's the issue," he said. "It's the type of questions that reporters are asking that's the issue. The press is asking a lot of questions that I suspect the American people would prefer not to be asked, or answered. Is the White House staff going to keep secret sensitive or classified information? I certainly hope so."

There has also been wrong information that has come out of the White House during the crisis, most notably a statement by a senior official that a credible threat had been phoned in to the Secret Service on Sept. 11, shortly after the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, that "Air Force One is next." The official gave the information to reporters on Sept. 12 to explain why Mr. Bush, who was on Air Force One when the threat was received, had delayed his return to Washington. Mr. Bush was criticized for spending the day zigzagging across the country, mostly out of sight, before arriving at the White House at 7 p.m.

But by Sept. 26, a senior administration official said last week, the administration had determined that the threat against Air Force One was not real. "What was said about Air Force One was said because it was accurate at the time," the official said. The reluctance of officials to admit the threat wasn't credible has fed criticism that the White House was passing out disinformation to protect the president politically.

Certainly there is a recent history of disinformation in Washington, if not outright lying. In April 1980, when the Carter White House was about to launch a rescue mission of the hostages in Iran, Jody Powell, the White House press secretary, was asked by Jack Nelson of The Los Angeles Times if the administration was planning such a mission.

"And I said, 'No,' " Mr. Powell recalled last week. "And then I went on at some length to try to make convincing arguments about why we weren't about to do that." Mr. Powell said that had he replied simply "no comment," it would have tipped off Mr. Nelson. He said he was still disturbed about his words, but had decided that "I did not have the right to endanger people's lives."

In conclusion, Mr. Powell said, "If you are prepared to lie to protect people's lives, not to be too flip about it, but it had better be a good lie."

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