Television networks use retired military officials to fill in the blanks in Afghanistan

Wednesday, October 10th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

NEW YORK (AP) _ With the war on terrorism essentially out of camera range, television networks are relying heavily on former military leaders to explain the complicated operations to viewers.

All of the national network news operations have ex-military brass working as consultants, including former Defense Secretary William Cohen at CBS and former NATO commander Wesley Clark at CNN.

Often armed with pointers and detailed maps of Afghanistan, the former leaders use their expertise to suggest possible strategy. Off the air, they advise journalists on how not to breach national security and even, in the case of retired U.S Army General Barry McCaffrey at NBC, help decide how to deploy personnel in a war zone.

Yet for people used to giving orders and often ingrained with a suspicion of the press, it's sometimes an awkward role.

``If you're in the world of journalism, people will say, `what have you heard?''' said Clark, who retired in May 2000 as the supreme NATO commander. ``The answer is, well, nothing. I'm listening, too. If you go the military, it's like, `if I say something to you, are you going to use it on the air?' You fall between the two worlds.''

Most of the analysts say they don't even bother reaching out to former colleagues for secret details on what's going on so they won't even be tempted to say something they shouldn't on the air.

``You have to know to hold back sensitive material and your employer has to respect that,'' Clark said. ``You cannot become a reporter.''

Shortly after he began working for CBS in 1990, retired U.S. Army Col. Mitch Mitchell found the network had been slipped a battle plan for the Gulf War two days before the operation was launched. He was pleased to see that the network, without debate, suppressed the information so people weren't endangered.

He's never since been asked for information that might compromise national security, he said.

The retired military officials work on a consultant basis for the networks, on call when they're needed. The networks wouldn't say how much they're paid. ABC has about a dozen experts in the military, terrorism, the Middle East and aviation on salary, a spokesman said. CBS has five military consultants.

``The experts provide our viewers with extraordinary knowledge and insights into military strategies and warfare,'' said Barbara Levin, NBC News spokeswoman.

Mitchell, for example, told CBS viewers how the opening stages of the bombing campaign is designed to take out the eyes and the ears of the enemy, targeting radar sites and communications facilities.

He doesn't describe the composition or expected tactics of special operations forces, but says that ``they will not be seen or heard at all, but felt by the enemy in ways that they don't expect.''

Retired Air Force Gen. Charles Horner, who led the air war in the Persian Gulf, said that when he's on the air for ABC, he tries to explain military technology and strategy. He translates, and doesn't try to predict or second-guess.

``Sometimes I can present arguments that would be presented in the council of war, the pros and cons of a particular action,'' Horner said. ``But again, you have to be careful there. I don't have all the information available of the people making decisions. All I can do is talk in generalities.''

The former military officials vary in their willingness to criticize their old business. McCaffrey, the former national drug czar, has been outspoken in saying the United States underestimated the terrorist threat. Retired U.S. Army General George Joulwan, former Allied commander in Europe now working for Fox News Channel, said he criticized the lack of a ground war plan when the U.S. was in Kosovo.

Of the current conflict, Joulwan said, ``I haven't seen anything that I'd be critical of right now.''

``You can never question what the commander decides to do,'' CNN's Clark said. ``Once you've been on the inside and realize how much information he has, you've been educated the same way he has and trained the same way he has, you'd probably do the same thing if you saw the information he has.''

They all acknowledge a deep-seated hostility toward the press within the military. But each of the high-level officers said they had found it best to work with the media. Clark, for example, said he would encourage the Bush administration to provide better media access to the war's operations.

``We're a team and the media is part of that team,'' Joulwan said. ``That doesn't mean we all have to be in lock-step. I think the ones that I've talked to realize that we're all in this together and we all have roles to play.''

Horner, who has been working for ABC for three years, said he has a new appreciation for journalists now that he's seen their work from the inside.

``I really like working with the young people who produce the stories and line up everything that makes the talking heads look good,'' he said. ``They really are hard-working. They work under tremendous pressure and extraordinarily long hours. And they don't get paid a hell of a lot, either.''