Spin Cycles: Spinning war
Bob Bergen Interview
February 15, 2007
IB: I wanted to ask you about the article you wrote in October "Canadian Military Censorship Hiding in Plain Sight. You use the words "censorship" and "news management" in the first line of that article. What do you mean by those two terms.
BB: Well, news management I mean the way the military directs what the news media will and will not report upon and that's laid out in a series of ground rules that embedded journalists sign when they agree to travel with the Canadian Armed Forces on what they will or will not write about. There are, in the case of the embedded journalists, twenty different categories of things they will not write about, including the last one which is a very broad, general category about anything the commanders deem to be in the interests of operational security, which is a huge overall catch all, to mean anything that in his estimation might jeopardize the integrity of the mission or the safety of people involved with it, be it military or other personnel.
And when I say manage, it's not just the news media that they manage, they manage anybody that they feel like it and if the military tells you you're not going somewhere, you are not going somewhere. I'll give you a specific example of that. Look at the House of Commons Committee on Defense that went over to Kandahar, Afghanistan in January; and it was their objective to examine the operation of the Canadians in Afghanistan and this is a group of Members of Parliament, not just the news media, so these people have actual clout. This is supposed to be civilian oversight to the Canadian Armed Forces at its highest by Members of Parliament and the military made it clear to them that they were going no further than the wire outside the base. They could ride around in vehicles inside, they could talk to the troops inside, they could eat in the messes, they could sleep in tents, but they were going no farther than the wire. And if that isn't management, I don't know what is. Those are members of Parliament.
Now the media, who decide they want to go outside the wire, they have to sign these agreements and that's management as well in controlling the message that gets out and they make it very clear, quite apart from those ground rules, that the news media, they must not spend an inordinate amount of time talking to outside the wire, talking to people other than the Canadian Forces, so they don't really want journalists to talk about Afghans in their schools, in their fields, quite apart from where the military is, possibly to get an independent assessment of what the Canadian Forces are doing, how successful their missions are, how the people feel about them outside of having that military presence there. That isn't stopping journalists from going outside and doing it on their own, flying there without military protection but that is almost suicidal in my estimation and most people will agree that Afghanistan is one of the most dangerous places on this earth and I don't know that I' d be comfortable going there without the Canadian Forces and I've traveled all over the world with them and I have great respect for them, but you know, having done that I know what they do.
IB: Now you're not arguing that it's not appropriate for the military to set some limitations on the media and Members of Parliament. You just think they are going too far in this case?
BB: You know, if I can, I have the ground rules agreement here and what I would really like to do is talk to you about the - I don't know if you've seen these rules, the things that you can talk about. You can talk about the arrival of military units in the area of operation when officially announced. So you can talk about the arrival of the military units once it 's already been announced in Ottawa. Well, hello! That's a foregone conclusion if they announce in Ottawa that they say they're going to go and they arrive five days later, that's not news. You can talk about the approximate friendly force strength figures - in very general terms you can talk about non-sensified, unclassified information regarding air and ground control operations past and present. I love this one - you can talk about weather and climate conditions, but you know, the most important things that they're doing over there are engaging in combat with the Taliban and it's more than just a nice day out.
IB: Of course the military, says that making the rules of engagement public would jeopardize operational security. You're not buying that?
BB: Well, operational security in my experience and my experience embraces the Kosovo air war in which the Canadian Forces used the catchall of operational security to ban the Canadian news media from even stepping foot on the base in Aviano, Italy, which meant that there is no way that Canadians could talk to the air crew, they could not talk to the ground crew without absolute supervision of what they could say and they only talked to them twice over the length of the seventy eight day air war. The only access that the news media had to the operations was either through briefings that were taking place in Ottawa at National Defense Headquarters, or they might possibly have learned something from the NATO briefings that were taking place in Brussels, which said nothing at all about the Canadian Forces according to the journalist I know who went there. So the reason that they said the Canadians could not talk to the Air Force personnel was for operational security reasons. They didn't want the journalists to actually talk to people on camera, they didn't want them to use their names, they didn't want them to talk about the kind of bombs they were dropping, they didn't want to talk to them about the accuracy, they didn't want them to talk to them about the kind of fire they came upon and there was much more that they would have asked had they had known actually what the Air Force is doing, but they couldn't and the reason that they couldn't was the Commander thought that by identifying members of the Canadian Forces, that their families would be threatened at home by people who were opposed to the war and he didn't want to see that. He said that they learned that lesson from the 1991 Persian Gulf War which is absolutely false; but nonetheless that was the reason, the operational security reason that they banned the news media from covering that war to the extent that nobody in Canada today apart from a handful of people in the Canadian Armed Forces, and I might add myself, who spent the time in Cold Lake, Alberta and Bagottville, Quebec for a graduate research in the University of Calgary - I wrote the first history of that war and I can tell you absolutely that most Canadians have absolutely no idea of what the Canadian Forces did there in 1999 and my fear is that we're seeing this replicated in Afghanistan now.
IB: Are you saying there never was a case in 1991 where military families were threatened?
BB: I'm telling you that as a matter of fact. What the Canadian Forces argued was that as a result of the Air Force participation in the Persian Gulf War in 1999, 1991 rather, that there were protestors who threw body bags on the lawns of pilot's members families in Canada which totally upset the members families and obviously they thought people in the Canadian Forces who didn't want their family members subject to harassment back at home. That actually never happened. That was misreported by an incident, it was a misreported incident that happened on a Naval base, it was supposed to have happened on a Naval base at Esquimault, B.C. A local paper there had printed the names of some sailors who were supposedly traveling to the Gulf War and there might have been, well, for a fact there were protestors dressed in body bags saying that this is how the Canadian Forces members are going to come home if we continue participating in the war and there is a rumour of something approaching a garbage bag that found its way onto a lawn of a Naval member's family, but it was never a threat to the point where the Military Police or the Civilian Police were called. There were reports of harassment like that where body bags had ended up on the Military families lawns, but it was never confirmed by the Police and it was never brought to the attention of the Base Commander there, and I know because I talked to the Base Commander at the time and I remember, in 1991 being horrified that that might have happened. I read about it in a national newspaper in Canada and I called down to the Military Police in Esquimault and the Civilian Police and I said "Did that happen?" and they said "We have no evidence of it" and I didn't report upon it. I was a journalist at the time and I didn't write anything about it because it would have been like writing that there were no plane crashes at the Calgary Airport yesterday; so it was a non-incident that in fact was then picked up by the news media and perpetuated in numerous stories across Canada that this happened and over time this became an elaborate myth that was believed by the Canadian Military and it was told me when I was doing my research on the Kosovo War that that happened, as a matter of fact, and their whole operational security plan, to deny the news media access to the Canadian Forces was based on a myth. Now, that's the extent and the power that the Canadian Forces have over the media and that's the extent that they can manage them if they believe that to be the threat.
IB: So what do you mean when you call censorship today hidden in plain sight censorship?
BB: It 's there for all to see and there are elements of it that are pretty hard to argue with. For example, they talk about current or future operations - or that have been postponed. So for example, if they were planning an assault on an objective A, tomorrow and it's cancelled, well, it's not in the Canadian Forces interest to have that made available to the enemy, that they had planned that assault, that it didn't take place, but it could take place at some future point, at which case they can prepare their defenses and move against it, although one might say, well, if they're already dropping pamphlets saying we're launching this offensive, civilians get out so we can take on the Taliban, they already know that so what's the objection to Canadians reporting on it? So you know, there's a balance there that could be struck that isn't struck.
IB: As you know, when you use the word censorship around Public Affairs Officers they can very shirty about it. They say they never tell people what they can and can't write.…
BB: Well, I certainly disagree with the claim that they never tell people what they can and can't write. One journalist who I dealt with extensively during the Kosovo Air War, Geoffrey Yorke with the Globe and Mail has written extensively in the Globe about stories that he was forced to kill by Canadian Force Public Affairs Officers. For example, he wanted to write about a movement of troops away from a forward operating base and the Public Affairs Officers killed that. His argument was that, the bad guys would have seen the Canadians move away from that forward operating base; certainly they would have know that. I don 't understand why I couldn't write about it and the notion that the Taliban was going to learn about that movement after the fact from a Canadian newspaper is folly.
IB: And you believe that operational security is really a smokescreen?
BB: I believe that operational security is a black hole of information, that can be invoked at any time by any officer in the Canadian Armed Forces that no journalist can challenge - along the lines that no Member of Parliament is able to challenge, was able to challenge their access beyond the wire in January because the Canadian Forces said they couldn't in the interest of operational security. So if they say you can't do it, you can't do it and you are in no position to argue why because if you can 't see why you can't get there then you can't argue it, can you?
IB: And what do you think the consequences of all of this is? I mean, are we not getting the whole story about what is happening there?
BB: Well that is the $64.00 question. I mean, as an academic you would want to say well, how can we do an experiment to see whether or not we are getting the whole story here? In a laboratory you would say well, let's deploy journalists to Afghanistan who are not subject to these rules of engagement and they're traveling with Canadian Forces and then we'll have the other group which is traveling with these ground rules and we'll compare the two after a period of time to see what happened. I mean, that is an experiment that we cannot possibly conduct because in the interest of operational security, they want you to sign these ground rules agreements so I cannot tell you definitively that we would learn more without the ground rules agreements than we would afterwards you know, from a clinical perspective. Having said that, I can tell you that the journalists who were there, who I've talked to have told me that absolutely we are not getting the whole story. One journalist was there when the Canadian Forces fired their heavy artillery, their Howitzers for the first time and they found out about it when they were in camp and they went to the Public Affairs Officers and said why didn't you tell us about this and they said, well, it's not a big deal, they're only flare rounds and in fact they weren't flare rounds, they were live ammunition and they were firing at the Taliban with the Howitzers, probably the first time that Howitzers have been used in combat since the Korean War and they didn't tell them that. They found out after the fact from the soldiers in the tents and the soldiers in the tents had taken to hiding the journalists from the Public Affairs Officers where they were coming through because they wanted Canadians to know what they were doing but the Public Affairs Officers wouldn't let them tell them.
IB If you had to devise an ideal system for Canadian reporters in Afghanistan what kind of scenario can you think of that would satisfy everyone's objectives?
BB: Well, that is something that I've thought about long and hard and I don't think that' s something that you can just say, here's the magic wand, let's waive it now and we've got Afghanistan fixed. What I would like to see is I would like to see the Canadian news media approach the Canadian Armed Forces the way the Armed Forces approach the news media and that's a very complex arrangement. The Canadian Forces are a profession in the true sense of the word. They study the Canadian news media, they write about the Canadian news media in a very studied and studious way, in refereed journals, such as the Canadian Military Journal and the Armed Forces Journal. Chris Henderson, who you quoted in talking about what is fair, what isn't fair, dealing with the media is a published author in a Canadian Military Journal who you know, makes an argument that the bedded? rules agreement works. I'm not talking just about Afghanistan, I'm talking about dealing with the Canadian Armed Forces day in, day out, day in, day out in Canada, seeing their training, looking at their operations, peace keeping domestically, Afghanistan over and above that and then saying well, what did we learn in terms of how we covered say the forest fires in BC? What did we learn about how we covered the ice storms? What did we learn as an industry and how we were treated, what they did to us when we were in Afghanistan. But they don't. What you end up with is individual journalists bitching and complaining, and I'm not saying Geoffrey Yorke is bitching and complaining, but he is like a voice in the wilderness, arguing against a monolithic organization which is the Canadian Armed Forces and there are about half a dozen journalists in Canada who specialize in covering the Canadian Armed Forces and that's it. Out of a Parliamentary Press Gallery of more than 300 people, there's a half a dozen people who can talk about the Canadian Forces knowledgably or Foreign Affairs and the rest of them show up in theatre cold. They don't stand a chance against a professional organization that has been studying them, well, since 1991 they've had these ground rules in place, so that 's for more than 15 years and they have developed a body of expertise so they do all what they can but they do it in their interest and like I say, for me to wave a magic wand and say this is what needs to happen in Afghanistan, I would say that's wrong. I would say this is what the news media as an industry has to do to deal with the Canadian Forces as a professional organization that totally overwhelms them in terms of their expertise in dealing with the news media, studying the news media, managing the news media, accommodating the news media, making it look like they were accommodating the news media and giving them everything possible, but at the same point restricting them to the point where censorship is as I say, the big white elephant in the room that nobody talks about.