The Bush administration turned the U.S. military into a global propaganda machine while imposing tough restrictions on journalists seeking to give the public truthful reports about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Associated Press chief executive Tom Curley said Friday.
Curley, speaking to journalists at the University of Kansas, said the news industry must immediately negotiate a new set of rules for covering war because "we are the only force out there to keep the government in check and to hold it accountable."
Much like in Vietnam, "civilian policymakers and soldiers alike have cracked down on independent reporting from the battlefield" when the news has been unflattering, Curley said. "Top commanders have told me that if I stood and the AP stood by its journalistic principles, the AP and I would be ruined."
Curley said in a brief interview that he didn't take the commanders' words as a threat but as "an expression of anger." Late in 2007, Curley wrote an editorial about the detention of AP photographer Bilal Hussein, held by the military for more than two years.
Eleven of AP's journalists have been detained in Iraq for more than 24 hours since 2003. Last year, according to cases AP is tracking, news organizations had eight employees detained for more than 48 hours.
AP, the world's largest newsgathering operation, is a not-for-profit cooperative that began in 1846 to communicate news from the Mexican War. Curley has been the company's president and CEO since 2003.
He came to the University of Kansas to receive this year's national citation for journalistic excellence from the William Allen White Foundation. Curley also won national awards in 2007 and 2008 for his work on First Amendment and open records issues.
His remarks came a day after an AP investigation disclosed that the Pentagon is spending at least $4.7 billion this year on "influence operations" and has more than 27,000 employees devoted to such activities. At the same time, Curley said, the military has grown more aggressive in withholding information and hindering reporters.
Embed gone awry
Curley said a military program to embed reporters with battlefield units in Iraq was successful in 2003, the war's first year. But afterward, the military expanded its rules from one to four pages, and Curley said they're now so vague, a journalist can be expelled on a whim if a commander doesn't like what's being reported.
"Americans understand hardships and setbacks," he said. "They expect honest answers about what's happening to their sons and daughters."
Curley acknowledged that upon taking office, President Barack Obama rolled back many of the policies instituted by George W. Bush. But he said when the Pentagon faces difficulties again — perhaps in Afghanistan, with the new administration's focus on it — experience has shown, "the military gets tough on the journalists."
"So now is the time to re-negotiate the rules of engagement between the military and the media," he said. "Now is the time to insist that the First Amendment does apply to the battlefield."
He added: "Now is the time to resist the propaganda the Pentagon produces and live up to our obligation to question authority and thereby help protect our democracy."
Curley said examining the Defense Department's spending on its public relations efforts and psychological operations is difficult because many of the budgets are classified.
He said the Pentagon has kept secret some information that used to be available to the public, and its public affairs officers at the Pentagon gather intelligence on reporters' work rather than serve as sources.
Curley traced the propaganda efforts to former Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld. He cited a 2003 operations "road map" signed by Rumsfeld, declaring that psychological operations had been neglected for too long. Curley also noted that the current secretary, Robert Gates, has defended such efforts, including in a speech at Kansas State University in 2007.
"But does America need to resort to al-Qaida tactics?" Curley said. "Should the U.S. government be running Web sites that appear to be independent news organizations?" Should the military be planting stories in foreign newspapers? Should the United States be trying to influence public opinion through subterfuge, both here and abroad?"
He also said the Bush administration had stripped hundreds of people, including reporters, of their human rights. He noted that when an Iraqi judicial panel reviewed the evidence gathered by the military against Hussein, the AP photographer, it ordered his release. He declined in an interview to say who said AP could be "ruined" for sticking to its principles, but "I knew that they were angry."
"This is how you improve the standing of America around the world, by taking the universal human rights we enjoy as Americans and ensuring them for everyone," Curley said in his speech.
Both the award Curley received at the University of Kansas and its journalism school are named for White, who was publisher of the Emporia Gazette until 1944. A Pulitzer Prize winning editorial writer, White's commentary and friendships with prominent Americans made him a national figure.
"There's no doubt that White would have been angered by the last eight years," Curley said. "The right to access information and the ability to know the source of that information were diminished."