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Generals, reporters learn each other's code of honor


WYE -- Deep in the woods of the Eastern Shore, in a modern conference center, there sat around a horseshoe-shaped table enough generals, admirals and Defense Department officials to start -- or end -- World War III.

I counted three commanding generals of the Army, two rear admirals of the Navy, and two Air Force major generals. The civilians titles were not too shabby either: The men and women had phrases like "Strategic Offensive Forces" and "International Security Affairs" and "Plans & Policy/National Security Agency" attached to their names.

You would not recognize the names of these people even if I printed them. These are not people who hold press conferences.

Which was partly the point. Twice a year, the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard gathers two dozen or so top Department of Defense personnel to concentrate, I was told, "on the dynamics of decision making in the government with a focus on external relations."

I have no idea what that means. But I was told that these people would like to see some reporters in the flesh. And if I would drive VTC out to the Aspen Institute Wye Center on the Eastern Shore, I could, along with two other reporters, sit around and talk about myself for half a day.

For me, this was pretty tough to pass up.

"Consider it," the moderator told everyone, "an exercise in social anthropology."

So, at the mouth of that horseshoe table were three swivel chairs for the reporters. We were The Other Side -- the side that asked dumb questions at those Pentagon press briefings during the Persian Gulf war and who were parodied as traitorous nitwits by "Saturday Night Live" to the delight of the White House and the American public alike.

The moderator lead the three of us through a little fictional exercise, the point of which was to reveal how far we would go to get a story. Would we lie? Cheat? Steal? Ruin a life?

There was a lot of emphasis on this last point. Would we print a story if a person would be hurt? Have his career or marriage ruined?

Yes, I said. If the story were true and of legitimate public interest.

And what if printing a story would lead to the death of someone?

A very tough call, I said. But, in general, if we are to make mistakes in this profession we should make mistakes on the side of printing. We exist to reveal things to the public, not to join in conspiracies to conceal things from the public.

An Air Force officer brought up the real world. "Over in England," he said, "the relatives of English servicemen killed by American pilots in a friendly-fire accident in the gulf war want to know who the American pilots were. The U.S. Air Force is keeping those names secret. If you found out those names, would you print them?"

Yes, I said. Newspapers print the names of police officers who shoot people. So why not pilots who shoot people? Being an Air Force pilot is not a secret profession is it?

The officer shook his head: No.

So why shouldn't I print the names?

He shook his head again: No.

We broke for lunch. Would you lie to a reporter? I asked that to the group at my table. If it helped the United States and was going to save lives, would you lie to a reporter?

No, they all said. Never.

I was shocked. Why wouldn't they lie? Was it a violation of the military code of conduct? Or some Pentagon rule?

"No," an officer said. "It is a matter of personal honor."

"Unless, of course, the reporter knew about the lie and was cooperating," another officer said.

How does that work? I asked.

"Well, sometimes you will go to a reporter with a false story and tell him that it is false but has a sound military purpose, and he will cooperate and print it," the officer said.

It was my turn to shake my head.

"You wouldn't do that?" an officer asked.

No, I said.

"Even if it helped your country?" he said.

I don't think I could ever justify lying to my readers, I said.

"Why not?" he asked.

It would break the most sacred bond that exists in journalism, I said. And remember what you said before about personal honor? Well, we have some of that in my profession, too.

I am not saying anybody's mind got changed, but by the end of the day we had learned a little about each other. And if that is what social anthropology is, I am all for it.

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