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Press overuses anonymous military sources in Phillips’ rescue

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Many folks like a good shoot-’em-up Tom Clancy novel, filled with supersecret spy stuff, technologically amazing weapons, and daring young men and women outfitted in black with killing gizmos of all kinds. So, too, do some folks like movies that show ultra-military sophistication and operations, many adapted from those same Clancy novels.

In novels and movies, presumably, no one really dies if fictional operational details are revealed.

But should we be reading details of real, life-at-risk military operations, such as those found in The Washington Post and The New York Times and other press outlets regarding a kidnapped merchant marine captain? Especially when those stories carry not a single named source?

In today’s Post, reporter Ann Scott Tyson details how Navy SEALs killed three Somali pirates and rescued Capt. Richard Phillips, whose Maersk Alabama had been attacked by pirates. Ms. Tyson’s story is based solely on interviews with “military officials,” “the officials,” “a senior military official,” and “the official.” There is no named source in the story.

There is this, though, about “the senior military official”: He “spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the matter on the record.” [emphasis added]

The Times story by Robert D. McFadden and Scott Shane — in the section specific to Capt. Phillips’ rescue — quotes only “senior Navy officials” and “the officials.” Similarly, the rescue portion of a CNN story only quotes “a military official” and “the U.S. military.”

Somali pirates, of course, have threatened revenge. “From now on, after the killings by the U.S. and France, we will add some harsher steps in our dealings with hostages, particularly American and French hostages,” said Ali Nur, a Somali pirate quoted by CNN.

No doubt pirates could figure out what happened to their three fellow felons and who did it, even without news reports.

But if any detail of a military operation in an anonymously sourced news report leads to the death of a hostage held by Somali pirates, surely the family of that sailor would like to know the name and rank of the “officials” whose tongues wagged too loosely.

If senior military officials are going to release details of a military operation, then they ought to attach their names — and reporters ought to hold them to that, deadline or “breaking news” be damned.

xpost: Scholars and Rogues


Written by Dr. Denny Wilkins

April 13, 2009 at 2:44 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

One Response

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  1. This article from the Times supports your suggestion that fellow pirates have figured out what happened to their late contemporaries:
    I empathize with the commanding officer – the person whose lips spoke “fire” – because assessing the level of peril facing the ransomed captain amidst negotiations that surely cycled between progression and regression added difficulty to the task of debating the loss of life, and whose life or lives it would be. But what now?
    What now of the 17 vessels and 300 seamen currently ransomed by pirates? While our victory in this crisis does indeed incite chest-thumping, whooping and hollering patriotism and military pride, what has become of the negotiation process?
    Pirates seize millions of ransom dollars annually – millions gladly given by shipping execs eager to save lives – on the basis of negotiation. The U.S. changed the negotiation process, and timeline, for all nations now.
    The following poses no solution but asks a question.
    Consider the similarities between this rescue and the situations in Iraq and Afghanistan (and you thought we’d go a week without those names making news). The U.S. entered to save, to make a statement, to deter terrorism. The U.S. ended by making a statement that arguably increasing terrorism potential. Our initial successes jeopardized future successes and framed our future attempts at international diplomacy with the lingering intimation of “well, sure we’ll ‘listen,’ but keep in mind that we could just shoot you – we are America after all.” One might believe negotiation more successful when one doesn’t tap his gun on the bargaining table throughout discussion.
    I think this question poses the same question you ask about accountability, albeit differently. Though I’m not sure naming sources will eliminate the sour of those families that may lose ransomed relatives to increasingly hostile pirates, the question of accountability to those families certainly lingers.
    We should consider this successful rescue, in the grand scheme of things, just as successful and prophetic as we have come to view the infamous “Mission Accomplished” sign, once hung across a U.S. sea vessel.


    April 15, 2009 at 4:15 pm

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