BROOKE GLADSTONE: More than a hundred journalists -- among them many hardened war correspondents -- gathered this month to discuss the particular challenges they face in covering a prospective war in Iraq. They're all members of a newly-formed group called Military Reporters and Editors or MRE's. Washington Post MRE Tom Ricks was at the conference.
TOM RICKS: It really was a remarkable set of conversations -- really peer to peer, not a lot of theorizing; very practical -- how do you get access? How do you communicate? How do you cover this sprawling, complex and diverse institution called the U.S. military? And how do you do it in such a way that you can survive? We were actually just passing tips back and forth in one of the sessions, and it was stuff like when you're in a Third World country, wash your hands frequently -- [LAUGHTER] 5 or 6 times a day. And it was also theoretical stuff like go back and read Ernie Pyle's coverage of the U.S. Army in World War II to learn how to cover a unit in combat.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:But that hardly matters if you can't get anywhere near the action I would think. The, the Boston Globe recently quoted Air Force Colonel Jay DeFrank [sp?] as saying oh, we're committed to access, but it's probably not going to be the access you want.
TOM RICKS: It's going to be particularly difficult in this environment because you are looking at, at a battlefield in which there's a significant chance that chemical weapons will be drifting across the battlefield. There's also a possibility of biological agents. And so it's a very hazardous battlefield. It's going to be one in which it's difficult to operate independently. And so you really are dependent on, on the U.S. military for some sort of access to that environment.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And it seems that the U.S. military has some plans to jam satellite feeds.
TOM RICKS:I'm of two minds about that sort of thing. You could show an adversary your location, and the location of a U.S. military unit by making phone calls without being aware of that. So I think the military does have a right to protect itself. At the same time there are ways of having satellite communications that do not hazard the military -- for example by sending reporters 10 miles away before they, they file. That's the sort of thing that we would like to discuss now in a fairly calm, quiet environment in Washington rather than try to duke it out with some Army colonel on the battlefield.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: What other sorts of issues would you like to discuss now with the military?
TOM RICKS:One thing we've discussed already and-- I want to mention because I've been very critical of the Pentagon's restrictions on information --something they've done very well already is begin giving reporters training in things like mine awareness and chemical and biological protection. I took the U.S. Army's mine awareness training before I went into Bosnia in 1995, and it was extremely helpful! It's a gift that keeps on giving. Some of that training came back to me when I was in Afghanistan earlier this year. You owe it as a reporter to be at least minimally aware of what a mine field looks like, because if you get a leg blown off or worse, you're going to be a burden to them.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:The underlying assumption there is that they're going to let reporters, in bed, so to speak with the troops and, and there doesn't seem to be any indication that that is going to happen!
TOM RICKS: Well I would differ with you on that. We keep on getting promises out of the Pentagon that there will be some sort of imbedding; it's not clear what. In my experience, every single rifle company - that's, that is say about 150 troops - can have one reporter without causing any disruption. Whether that happens, I'm not sure though.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: If the Pentagon is so restricted, will it actually be easier to cover the Iraqi side than the American side?
TOM RICKS:It shouldn't come to that, because I think the American people do want to know what happens with their troops, their sons and daughters on the battlefield. It is true that during the Afghan war the best way to cover what was going on was not to try to get with American forces -- because they wouldn't let you at the outset, or to take information from the Pentagon because the Pentagon really didn't say anything about the war -- but to get with the Northern Alliance. And I think that's one approach that a lot of reporters will be taking here -- not so much to get with the Iraqi government, because they're not going to be helpful either, but perhaps to try to find U.S. allies who can be more open.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So-- there'll be a story. It may not be told from the American side if the Pentagon won't allow reporters in.
TOM RICKS:And the point about that is that if there is not sufficient access given by the Pentagon, reporters will go out and try to cover things independently -- unilaterally - and that is going to get some reporters killed.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Tom Ricks, thank you very much.
TOM RICKS: Thank you.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:Tom Ricks is the Washington Post Pentagon reporter and author of Soldier's Duty, a novel about American military intervention in Afghanistan.