The War Briefers

How Rumsfeld, Stufflebeem, and the rest defeat the press.

The Pentagon, which has been working since Vietnam to master the press, has outdone itself in the Afghanistan war. The Pentagon, citing not unreasonable worries about keeping secret operations secret, has virtually barred reporters from the theater. And the military has choked war news to a single source: the daily Pentagon briefing. (The White House and State Department briefings supplement the Pentagon with reports on diplomacy and policy.)

The briefings are achieving a kind of blank perfection: Rarely has so little been said about so much. The Pentagon briefings merge the Bush administration’s obsession with loyalty, the military’s obsession with silence, and both of their hatreds of the media: The result is an event utterly devoid of real content. Even by the standards of Washington, where saying nothing can be a full-time job, the briefings are remarkable. (Almost all substantive stories about the war have come through Pentagon leaks or on-the-scene reporting with the Northern Alliance, which doesn’t bar journalists from the field.) 

In Vietnam, the mendacious, preposterous press briefings were nicknamed the “Five O’Clock Follies.” Perhaps this war’s briefings should be called the One O’Clock Void. 

The briefings lack content, but that doesn’t mean they lack interest. They are compelling theater whenever the hilariously direct Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld leads them. And they are always educational. They ought to be taught in PR school, in a class on different techniques for stymieing the press: The Five Ways To Reveal Nothing and Win. Here’s a primer.

Style No. 1: The Authority

Practitioners: Gen. Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; Gen. Tommy Franks, commander in chief, Central Command; and Gen. Peter Pace, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

The Technique: The generals rely on the methods pioneered by Gens. Norman Schwarzkopf and Tom Kelly during the Gulf War. They look smashing in their uniforms and speak in exceptionally commanding, yet warm, tones. They don’t bother to duck or evade. They could answer the most sensitive questions, the reporters know they could, but they say upfront that they won’t. Many responses begin, “As you know, we won’t talk about …” What they won’t talk about includes ongoing operations, future operations, location of troops, numbers of troops, casualties, etc. They narrow the field of conversation to little but the weather, and even that’s classified sometimes.

The generals recognize that their no-commenting is unsatisfying, so they camouflage the nothingness with martial panache. They sometimes employ blunt or salty language. (Asked about the huge “Daisy Cutter” bombs, Pace first gave a technical description, then concluded: “They make a heck of a bang when they go off, and the intent is to kill people.”) The generals point at maps a lot and briskly narrate bombsight videos of direct hits. They sprinkle their speech with military acronyms, then patiently explain them. The combination of intimidation and charm overwhelms reporters, who ask them only respectful questions.

Attitude of Reporters Toward Them: Awed.

Style No. 2: The Punter

Practitioner: Rear Adm. John Stufflebeem, deputy director of operations for current readiness and capabilities, Joint Chiefs of Staff.

The Technique: “Boomer” Stufflebeem is the fellow the Pentagon wheels out when neither Rumsfeld nor the tip-top brass is available. Stufflebeem was a star punter for the Navy football team in the ‘70s. He plays the same position for the Pentagon. His job is to wear a clean uniform, avoid the rush, and boot the question out of danger.

Unlike Myers and Franks, who radiate knowledge and tell reporters they won’t share it, Stufflebeem doesn’t seem to know anything—or at least he pretends not to know anything. Each time he appears, I lose count of the number of times he says, “I honestly don’t know.” (It is a Washington rule that anyone who says the word “honestly” is lying, but Stufflebeem emits ignorance more than deceit. Still, I haven’t heard the word “honestly” so many times since Bill Clinton was in town.) One of Stufflebeem’s other favorite evasions is: “I think that’s a great question.”

In his first few briefings, Stufflebeem made the mistake of expressing feelings, notably that he was “surprised” the Taliban had held out so long. That show of sentiment got him whacked by Maureen Dowd, and he has since become the most frightful bore. He is reluctant to step beyond his note cards, and he never ventures an opinion, except to echo something one of his bosses said a day earlier.

 Attitude of Press Toward Him: Asleep.

Style No. 3: The Disser

Practitioners: Torie Clarke, assistant secretary of defense for public affairs (the Pentagon’s civilian spokeswoman); Ari Fleischer, White House press secretary.

The Technique: Fleischer and Clarke have the closest contact with reporters and principally serve to absorb journalistic rage. During the war (and in Fleischer’s case, before), they have proven extremely proficient at not knowing anything. President Bush says he keeps important information from Fleischer, who does not attend national security meetings. And Clarke had no military experience before she joined the Pentagon. They either don’t know very much or do a wonderful job pretending they don’t know.

Fleischer’s war briefings have been models of evasion. He rejects many questions by saying either, “I won’t get into hypotheticals” or, “I won’t get into specifics.” (Question: What else is there besides hypotheticals and specifics?) If those answers don’t work, he avoids with, “I reject the premise of the question” or, “We discussed that yesterday.” And if he gets desperate, he retreats to, “Let me get back to you” or, “I would just refer you to the president’s comments on that.” Whole weeks pass without a substantive answer. “My colleagues often comment that they feel like they know less after a briefing than they did before,” says one White House reporter.

Clarke delegates most of the talking to the generals and the secretary, but when she’s at the podium, she exudes vagueness. When a reporter asks for definitive information on a war event, she usually responds that the “situation is fluid.”

The most important responsibility for Fleischer and Clarke is taking flak so their bosses don’t have to. When reporters ask combative questions of other briefers, Clarke intervenes. Clarke is the person who conveys the bad news to reporters that they can’t accompany units in the field. Fleischer and Clarke play bad guys so the president, Secretary Rumsfeld, and the generals don’t have to.

Attitude of Press Toward Them: Irked, contemptuous.

Style No. 4: The Lawyer

Practitioner: Richard Boucher, State Department spokesman

The Technique: Boucher is a Clinton administration holdover. Unlike loyal Bush spokespeople, who generally share their boss’s detestation of the press, Boucher presents at least the appearance of helpfulness. Not that Boucher lets slip anything significant: He kicks all military questions to the Pentagon and skirts sensitive diplomatic queries.

But he can always be relied on for technical details: He’s a whiz with procedure. What are the exact rules of such and such a conference? When and where is such a meeting occurring? How exactly is the State Department routing its mail, post-anthrax? How is someone’s complicated name spelled? What’s his exact title? Boucher answers cheerfully. This information is useful only in the most pedantic way. It raises the prospect that it might lead to something more meaty. It never does.

Attitude of Press Toward Him: Ever hopeful.

Style No. 5: The Smug Boss

Practitioner: Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld

The Technique: Rummy, who’s running the war, puts on a great show. He’s cocky, sarcastic, bullying. He refers to Osama Bin Laden as “Osama Bin Laden comma mass murderer” and predicts that Mullah Omar won’t surrender because he’s a “dead-ender.” When asked whether the bombing disrupted Bin Laden, he replies, “We’d have to visit with him to know the answer to that question.” Rumsfeld shuns euphemism, calling a corpse a corpse.

All this makes Rumsfeld exceptionally quotable, though not especially substantive. Like his generals, he tells reporters directly that he’s hiding the real news. Asked to release some detail of the war’s progress, he replies, “I could, but I am not inclined to.”

Attitude of Press Toward Him: Cowed.