WASHINGTON – For one of the first times in his almost daily briefings, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld appeared genuinely perplexed.
The question put to him Monday was why reporters or civilian photographers can't tag along on special operations missions inside Afghanistan.
Rumsfeld paused for a second before answering. "Well," he stammered. "It seems," he paused again. Then, finally: "I'm amazed at the question."
It would seem obvious, he continued after collecting himself, that "when a handful of American soldiers are parachuting into a hostile place and are going to be fully occupied in dealing with the opposition forces and shooting them to the extent it's necessary," it might not be such a great idea to have reporters tagging along.
Such is the tone of the Pentagon press briefings these days. The mighty maw of the 24-hour news cycle is clamoring for ever-more details about an ever-more elusive war. And with only grainy video of blackened sandy mounds in Kandahar or dark screens with algae-colored specks from Kabul to chew on so far, the reporters are getting grouchy.
No fewer than six of the questions at Rumsfeld's daily Pentagon briefing Monday had something or other to do with why the administration isn't rolling out the red carpet for the media. Hearing only the questions, one would wonder if the future of Operation Enduring Freedom wasn't at stake.
"Do you worry," asked one reporter, setting the tone for many of the exchanges, "that by withholding so much information and by withholding so much access, that it may undermine the credibility ultimately of the United States government's story of what's going on?"
The conflict was inevitable, says Fox News' Washington Managing Editor Brit Hume, and is even healthy. Some of the press complaints are silly, he says, and some are more substantive.
"The idea that they are going to put some potbellied scribes into the mix and send them up into the hills with a computer strapped to their back strikes me as being a little bit unrealistic," Hume says. "But this is an unusual war, and we in the media are searching for ways to measure its progress."
The complaints have extended beyond the theater in Asia and onto the home front.
A statement released recently at the annual Associated Press Managing Editors conference complained that security measures implemented in reaction to the terrorist attacks are hampering the media.
Brant Houston, executive director of Investigative Reporters and Editors Inc., said information about airport security, bridges and dams, among other things, has been removed from a number of federal Web sites. He says it was without explanation; others would argue that it's because terrorists might find the information as useful as reporters.
"I think it's outrageous that we're seeing the government remove databases meant to protect the public," Houston said. "It's really easy to get caught up in the national cause. But in getting caught up, we lose some of the freedoms that the cause is all about."
To be fair, the media have capitulated a couple times of late. Knight-Ridder withheld a story about special forces operating in Afghanistan at the request of the Pentagon, said Clark Hoyt, Washington editor for the chain, only to see the story surface elsewhere a few days later.
And the five news networks agreed to limit broadcasts of Usama bin Laden after the White House said the head of the Al Qaeda terrorist network may have used the TV footage to send a coded call to action to his supporters.
Rumsfeld made it clear Monday that the whining among the Pentagon press corps and the reporters in places like Uzbekistan wasn't going to get them anywhere. He will be honest and candid when he can, he promised, and not say anything at all when he can't.
"We cannot and will not provide information that could jeopardize the success of our efforts to root out and liquidate the terrorist networks that threaten our people," Rumsfeld lectured the reporters. "To the extent that the Taliban and the Al Qaeda know the goals and the purposes of our operations, they will be in a better position to frustrate those goals and those purposes. It is not in our country's interest to let them know when, how or even why we are conducting certain operations."
Matthew Felling, media director for the Center on Media and Public Affairs, says both sides in the conflict appear to be making the best of a situation that is new for them both.
"It is obvious where Rumsfeld believes the lines exist between information and secrecy," Felling said. "What he said today was quite apparent. He said he would inform but stop short of demystifying their maneuvers. When such demystifying could possibly result in the loss of American lives, the press are loathe to push any further."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.