WASHINGTON – The Pentagon said Monday that U.S. soldiers were justified in keeping a newspaper reporter away from the scene of a deadly U.S. missile strike in Afghanistan.
A Defense Department spokesman said soldiers did not threaten to shoot Washington Post reporter Doug Struck, as the Post reported.
The newspaper said Monday that U.S. soldiers held Struck at gunpoint on Sunday. Struck wrote that the troops' unidentified leader said the reporter "would be shot" if he went any farther toward the missile strike site.
Rear Adm. Craig Quigley said the soldier's words to Struck were: "For your own safety, we cannot let you go forward. You could be shot in a firefight."
Philip Bennett, the Post's assistant managing editor for foreign news, said the incident "was baffling to us." Bennett said he had not discussed the Pentagon's version of events with Struck and therefore could not comment on the military's explanation.
"We have questions about exactly ... on what basis the military in Afghanistan prevents American reporters from reporting on aspects of military operations in Afghanistan," Bennett said.
The reporter and the soldiers were investigating an attack last week by a missile fired from a remote-controlled CIA spy plane. The attack in the mountains of eastern Afghanistan killed several people who U.S. officials believed were Al Qaeda members.
The military team has left the site, but no conclusions from its investigation are available, said Rear Adm. John Stufflebeem, deputy operations director for the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
Defense Department spokeswoman Victoria Clarke said the situation in Afghanistan is so chaotic that soldiers can't be sure that someone who identifies himself as an American reporter really is one. Days before the Sept. 11 attacks, anti-Taliban leader Ahmed Shah Massood was assassinated by two men posing as journalists, Clarke noted.
Quigley said Struck, who was traveling in a two-vehicle convoy with armed Afghan guards, showed identification to the American troops proving he was a reporter.
Bennett said the incident occurred in a relatively calm situation in the middle of the day.
"Once the situation was explained, I see no reason for them to continue to train weapons on an unarmed American civilian," Bennett said.
Stufflebeem said one priority for the troops at the scene was to keep everyone, including reporters, away from the area.
"To believe that a U.S. serviceman would knowingly threaten, especially with deadly force, another American is hard for me to accept," Stufflebeem said.
In an audio interview posted on the newspaper's Web site, Struck said he asked the soldiers' leader what would happen if he ignored their warnings and continued to the missile strike site. That's when the soldier said the reporter would be shot, Struck said.
"It wasn't delivered in a joking way," Bennett said. "I've never heard of an exchange quite like that, between an American soldier and an American reporter."
Quigley said Struck left the area after he was told he could not have access to the missile strike site while the U.S. soldiers were there investigating.