The challenges of embedded war reporting

Journalists struggle with what can and cannot be reported.

By Rebecca Lamarche

Journalists embedded with the Canadian Forces struggle with what can and cannot be reported.

By Rebecca Lamarche

Armoured vehicles, including a Leopard I tank, at Canadian Forces Base Wainwright. (Photo: Rebecca Lamarche)

On September 22, 2007, Michael Hornburg spent 25 minutes speaking with his son, Cpl. Nathan Hornburg, on the phone.  Michael was wrapping up his day in Calgary as Nathan was drinking his morning coffee in Afghanistan.  When the phone cut out unexpectedly Nathan immediately called back so his father wouldn’t worry.  Their conversation ended with a nine-word exchange: 

“I love you, son.”

“I love you too, Dad.”

Two days later, Michael received the devastating news that his son had been hit and killed in a mortar attack while repairing a Leopard 2 tank.

“I envisioned a great big cannon exploding beside him and just destroying his body.”

The media was given the same information; all major news organizations reported that Nathan died outside the tank.

A few days later, the Canadian Forces told Hornburg the truth. His son was inside the tank. 

Hornburg explains that a Leopard 2 is reinforced with extra armour, designed to be impenetrable to mortar fire. A mortar round hit Nathan’s tank at an angle, shearing off a bolt attaching the armour, and blasted the bolt into the tank.

“The bolt went right through his body armour into his heart,” says Hornburg. “It was the bolt, it wasn’t the shell or anything else.”

The media was deliberately misinformed and, as a result, so were Canadians.

“I was not supposed to say that he was inside his tank,” Hornburg says. “They didn’t want the Taliban to know that they could pierce a Leopard 2 … All the sudden I had [a] secret that I had to keep.”

A media archives search of stories published by Canada’s major news organizations reveals no corrections or updates regarding the initial story. Hornburg knows of none either. Nathan’s regiment, the King’s Own Calgary Regiment, still reports that he was replacing a track outside of the tank, without acknowledging that he was killed while inside the tank.

This is just one example of the Canadian Forces’ control over the public record.  Facts omitted, altered, and withheld have distorted the public’s understanding of the ten-year war in Afghanistan.

The reason that Canadians aren’t getting the whole story is because journalists face limitations while reporting on military operations. Journalists are banned from revealing information that the enemy could use against Canadian and NATO allied forces.  

In order for a journalist to have access to Canadian Forces in the field, he or she must be admitted into the Canadian Forces Media Embedding Program. Afghanistan’s 2012 program admits a maximum of 16 journalists at a time.

To be part of the program, journalists must agree to report chiefly on the activities of the Canadian Forces and Canadian government. Embedded journalists must also sign ground rules giving the Forces the right to restrict the release of information, images or videos gathered through the program, both during and after the journalist’s tour.

This binding document allows for the release of “generic” information described in “general terms”.

It also protects operational security – a vague but all-encompassing term covering “any other information the task force commander orders restricted for operational reasons.”

Journalists who break the rules are subject to “immediate removal” from Joint Task Force Afghanistan.

 

The senior defence correspondent at the Canadian Press, Murray Brewster, spent 15 cumulative months in Afghanistan. He fought to expose and break down the Forces’ communication barriers, including their silence about wounded soldiers.

Brewster says that over the course of his time in Afghanistan, the embedding agreements expanded from “a few pages of dos and don’ts” to a far thicker list of caveats.

He says the Forces became increasingly tight-lipped about wounded soldiers.

“At the beginning of the war,” Brewster says,  “journalists were always told when troops were fighting and if there were injuries.”  He discovered through access to information requests that in 2007 military officials in Ottawa decided to minimize reports on wounded soldiers.

“In 2007 something called the Strategic Joint Staff – which is sort of like the military’s brain centre here in Ottawa – decided that it wasn’t a good idea to report on wounded. Because they thought that it was giving too much away to the enemy, which in my estimation is an absolute crock.”

By 2009, Brewster says, ground commanders “just stopped telling us when there were troops in contact.”

Instead of telling embedded media when soldiers were wounded, the Department of National Defence chose to report on wounded soldiers by annually releasing statistics only if requested. This presents “a skewed view of the war,” says Brewster. “If you don’t talk about the human cost of war, then the Canadian public gets the impression that it is a bloodless conflict.”

Another hurdle journalists faced when reporting on the war were operational securities restrictions. Brewster says the military was frequently using the restrictions indiscriminately.

“The definition of what was considered (operational security) became like a moving yard stick throughout the whole war – and it was ridiculous.”

Brewster cites a 2008 incident where Capt. Richard Leary of the Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry was killed while patrolling on foot. The task force commander refused to allow journalists to report where firefights took place, even if a soldier died, for fear of showing the Taliban where they hit us and where it hurt.

Brewster pushed the system.

Embedded media knew that Leary was killed in Zangabad.  Brewster chose to sidestep the Forces’ restrictions by reporting that the Canadian military couldn’t say where Capt. Leary was killed, but the Taliban said that they fought Canadian Forces in Zangabad.

To avoid the catch-all phrase “operational security” and the increasing amount of withheld information, tenacious journalists opted to challenge the program. 

On May 15, 2011, embedded Canadian Press journalist Colin Perkel survived a Chinook helicopter crash. That day he tested the limits of the embedding program by breaking the story before all of the wounded soldiers’ families had been informed.

It was Perkel’s sixth collective month in the program and he says that no Forces member told him to wait or gave him permission to publish. However, he didn’t ask.

Perkel wanted to report the crash to keep the Taliban from taking false credit.

“The enemy propaganda machine got in play pretty quickly afterward,” Perkel says, “trying to claim that they had shot the thing down, which was not the case.”

Perkel’s photographs show the destroyed Chinook helicopter, but he says the Forces told the Canadian Press it was merely a hard landing.

The military’s spin on the event caused Perkel to feel justified in publishing the story when he did.

He endured the repercussions.

“You know what excommunication is? …Well that’s what happened to me essentially.”

According to Perkel, the Forces removed all support, grounding him at Kandahar Airfield. They wouldn’t take him out on patrols or to any other bases and withheld all operational information.

“Essentially they wouldn’t talk to me …. They claimed that I violated the embedding agreement.”

At that point, Perkel chose to leave the safety of the airfield.

“I had to basically leave the base on my own … Let’s say, with people I trusted and ended up living with them in Kandahar city.”

Perkel had no Canadian Forces or diplomatic protection. He was on his own. But he doesn’t regret his actions.

“What I regret is the reaction to the filing. It was my third tour. I’d done a lot of work with individual soldiers and the military, and I thought their reaction was over the top and unwarranted.”

The Forces tell families that if they hear of casualties on the news, it’s likely not their loved one. The military embargos such information until families are notified.

Back in Canada, Perkel’s story began to spread. At the same time as the military informed next of kin of their loved one’s conditions, other family members learned of the crash through news stories.

Lt.-Col Michael Vernon is a self-described anomaly. As a member of the reserves and a journalist, he went to Afghanistan wearing his uniform, holding his rifle, and shooting with his video camera.

Patrolling in hotter than 40° C weather while carrying approximately 55 lbs of gear, he shot the documentary Desert Lions, produced by the Canadian military. Vernon had been to Afghanistan before as a video journalist for the CBC.

“I had more creative leeway working with the Army than I ever had with the CBC,” he says. 

Desert Lions was produced and vetted by Lt.-Gen Peter Devlin, chief of the land staff.

“The commander of the Army watched an hour-long video and had one change to make,” Vernon says, “I mean, to me that’s incredible.”

Vernon speculates that this leniency was largely because of the lapse in time between shooting and distribution. The operational content wasn’t a threat because NATO troops had already left the outpost.  When he shot videos for the military’s immediate release, he says more than half of the content was cut when held to the standard of the embedding agreements.

Though he respects the need to safeguard operational security, Vernon opposes the program’s fog over the images of wounded soldiers.  He says the restrictions prevent Canadians from seeing the human side of war.  Desert Lions shows wounded soldiers without their prior written consent. Had Vernon been embedded, these images would have been forbidden to be broadcasted.

Vernon worries that Canadians are receiving a sterilized view of the war and won’t ask questions before our troops are committed to the next war.

“Canadians deserve to see what their soldiers are doing and the price they’re paying,” says Vernon. “I think that’s critical because otherwise … people sort of have this sanitized, ritualized sense of what war is.” 

If Canadians only hear about fatalities and not wounded soldiers they receive a contrived version of the war. The number of Canadian soldiers wounded in action from 2002 to 2011 in Afghanistan is four times the death toll.

Capt. Robert Cooper of the Lord Strathcona’s Horse (Royal Canadians) commanded multiple combat operations in Afghanistan. Cooper agrees that Canadians have a fractured view of the war.  This, he suggests, is largely attributed to the 24-hour news cycle and the limited time journalists spend embedded. Cooper encourages journalists to participate for as long as their employers will permit.

Cooper also stresses the necessity of guarding operational information from the enemy. “We owe it to our troops to make sure that anything of an operational security matter isn’t leaked publicly,” he says, “because it almost guarantees that some bad stuff’s going to happen to you or your soldiers that wouldn’t happen otherwise.”

Listen to Capt. Robert Cooper explain the necessity of embedding journalists in the field:

[audio:http://kjr.kingsjournalism.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/10/AUDIO-CLIP-captain-COOPER.mp3]

Journalists agree that it is important to keep useful information from the enemy.  However, many also suggest that the embedding rules are there to protect the image of the Canadian Forces and the Canadian government. 

Lt.-Col Vernon says the military fought a similar battle in Canada as it did in Afghanistan, “fighting for the people’s hearts and minds, for their support.”

Back in Calgary, Michael Hornburg says the rituals that proceed a soldier’s death help to garner public support for war. Though the rituals are in place to honour the soldier, he says, “This mythology we’ve created … we’ve made them into heroes. It’s all part of a propaganda machine.”

If public support for the war were to decline, it could be catastrophic for the government’s military action plan. 

Here is an audio-clip of reporter Murray Brewster recounting his efforts to tell a Canadian story that he discovered during an interview in the ruins of Tarnak Farms, the former Al-Qaeda headquarters:

[audio:http://kjr.kingsjournalism.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/10/AUDIO-CLIP-Murray-Brewster.mp3]

As a journalist, Brewster says that if embedded story ideas aren’t the brain child of the government’s communications team, “your chances of getting a story were pretty remote … they didn’t try to communicate the war … the government tried to market it.” 

It’s unrealistic to expect full access, disclosure, and coverage when reporting on war. The information embedded journalists are privy to is powerful and can be dangerous to soldiers and the mission as a whole.

Still, Brewster says, “I can’t emphasize enough how political this thing was. It’s all about protecting the brand.”

Published Jan. 2013
 

Update  

Paragraph 59 corrected to clarify Capt. Robert Cooper’s activity in Afghanistan. Originally written as “Capt. Robert Cooper of the Lord Strathcona’s Horse (Royal Canadians) commanded multiple tours in Afghanistan”, the line was changed to “Capt. Robert Cooper of the Lord Strathcona’s Horse (Royal Canadians) commanded multiple combat operations in Afghanistan”. Changed: Feb. 22, 2013.