CHATTANOOGA, Tenn. – A National Guardsman who asked Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld (search) a bold question about armor on war vehicles went to the microphone after consulting with a Tennessee reporter.
Chattanooga Times Free Press reporter Edward Lee Pitts, who is embedded with the 278th Regimental Combat Team (search), wrote about the incident in an e-mail to co-workers sent Wednesday.
Pitts said he worked with guardsmen after being told reporters would not be allowed to ask Rumsfeld any questions.
"I was told yesterday that only soldiers could ask questions so I brought two of them along with me as my escorts," he wrote. "Before hand we worked on questions to ask Rumsfeld about the appalling lack of armor their vehicles going into combat have."
Pitts also said he arranged for the questioners to get recognized.
"While waiting for the VIP, I went and found the Sgt. in charge of the microphone for the question and answer session and made sure he knew to get my guys out of the crowd," Pitts wrote in an e-mail that was posted on several Web sites Thursday.
Spc. Thomas "Jerry" Wilson, 31, of Nashville (search), asked Rumsfeld why, after almost two years of war, soldiers were searching dumps for metal to weld on vehicles destined for hostile territory.
"Why do we soldiers have to dig through local landfills for pieces of scrap metal and compromised ballistic glass to up-armor our vehicles?" Wilson said.
The question appeared to surprise Rumsfeld and prompted cheers among the soldiers listening to him in a hangar.
Tom Griscom, the Chattanooga newspaper's publisher and executive editor, commended the reporter's work Thursday. He said the question was one that members of the unit and their families wanted answered, based on the reporter's previous coverage of training stints in Mississippi and California.
"I think that Lee used what was available to him to get an answer to a story that we have covered and that has been important," said Griscom, who served as White House communications director under President Reagan.
Kelly McBride, a member of the ethics faculty at the Poynter Institute, said she did not fault the reporter for getting help with asking the question, but described the failure to include that information with his story as "dishonest with his readers."
"I think he should have been more transparent with his readers," she said.
"I suspect some people would see it as manipulative," McBride said. "I suspect Rumsfeld felt manipulated."
Pentagon spokesman Larry Di Rita said Rumsfeld gives reporters ample time to ask questions and that his appearance in Kuwait was for the soldiers.
"Town Hall meetings are intended for soldiers to have dialogue with the secretary of defense," Di Rita said. "It would be unfortunate to discover that anyone might have interfered with that opportunity, whatever the intention."
Griscom said Thursday he did not have a chance to ask Pitts about exactly how he collaborated with Wilson before the question was posed to Rumsfeld.
In hindsight, Griscom said, the newspaper should have informed readers in a note with the story published Thursday. He said there would be a note to readers in Friday editions.
The reporter's e-mail also indicated Pitts was proud of his role in asking the question: "I just had one of my best days as a journalist today," he wrote.
He said it "felt good" that the question and answer received so much attention from other media.
"I believe lives are at stake with so many soldiers going across the border riding with scrap metal as protection," Pitts wrote. "It may be too late for the unit I am with, but hopefully not for those who come after."
The Chattanooga newspaper and the Tennessee National Guard said Thursday that they could not reach Wilson.