In recent articles, a Stars and Stripes reporter has claimed that officials screen reporters before allowing them to interview people in the military or embed with a unit in Iraq or Afghanistan, and that they have been accepting or rejecting journalists’ requests based on whether or not their previous coverage has been favorable to the military.
Defense and military officials acknowledge that they use assessments provided by a private contractor, the Rendon Group, to learn more about a reporter’s background. Finding out about a journalist, and reading their previous work, before they come for an interview is simply doing due diligence, and that is something that journalists expect. Nevertheless, as The Washington Post reports, some people have claimed that the military has turned reporters down because of stories they have written.
Officials, however, deny that “the analysis has been used to exclude journalists from embedding with U.S. military units in combat zones or to bar them from interviewing military personnel.” In fact, officials have told journalists they could not interview certain people in the military – I know, because it happened to me. Last September, I was planning to visit Fort Huachuca, Arizona, and interview people who were learning how to become interrogators, and I spoke with Tanja Linton, a media relations officer in the Fort Huachuca Public Affairs Office, about the visit. I was very much looking forward to it.
Then, not long before I was scheduled to leave Washington, I got an email from Linton: The subject heading said the following: “Visit to Fort Huachuca cancelled.” In her email, dated September 15, 2008, she wrote: “In preparing for your visit to Fort Huachuca, we had the opportunity to do some more research and learned that you authored Monstering: Inside America's Policy of Secret Interrogations and Torture in the Terror War and edited One of the Guys: Women as Aggressors and Torturers. This raised concerns about how our Soldiers would be portrayed and caused us to take a closer look at your original request.”
I was surprised – and disappointed. I had thought that the fact that I had an understanding of the subject of U.S. interrogations and had written about them in my book Monstering -- which chronicles the Abu Ghraib scandal, received a full-page review on The New York Times Book Review, and was praised by one of the Pentagon’s top public-affairs officials on Amazon -- would have put me in a strong position for the interviews that I had planned on doing. Instead, I was barred. I’m not sure what was said between Linton and the other people at Fort Huachuca about my upcoming visit, but the conversations did not go very well, at least from my point of view, because of the cancellation. I also wondered who was involved in the decision, particularly since Maj. Gen. Barbara Fast, who was the top intelligence officer in Iraq during the Abu Ghraib scandal, serves as an intelligence commander at Fort Huachuca.
Ultimately, the decision that the Fort Huachuca officials made to cancel the visit seemed very small-town-official-like: We don’t like something you wrote, and so we won’t talk to you. It also seemed below the Army. Most of the people whom I have worked with in the public-affairs offices have been extraordinarily professional and helpful, and I have learned a great deal about the military from them. My experience with the public-affairs office of Fort Huachuca, however, only confirms the accusations against the military, showing that it attempts to choose only those journalists who will write positive stories about them.