Loose Lips Float Ships!

I was the initial Department of Defense spokesman in Los Angeles during the 1992 riots. My “public affairs guidance” from the Pentagon was simple: They said, “We want to turn CNN on and see Marine and Army units rolling into Los Angeles.” Our target audience was the rioters and looters on the streets of Los Angeles. The news media were notified of the route and time the Marines would leave Camp Pendleton for Los Angeles. As the convoy of about 1,200 Marines made the 90-mile journey to staging areas in Orange County, media helicopters provided live coverage. As Marines arrived at staging areas at bases at El Toro and Tustin, media provided live coverage.

We purposely had Marines begin practicing their riot-control formations in the blimp hangar at Tustin. Originally, the commander of the unit was going to have them get some rest. I asked him to do the training for a half-hour for the benefit of the media. Reporters interviewed young Marines who were about to engage in combat on the streets of Los Angeles. They said what you would expect any young American with any passion or love for another American to say. It was not something they wanted to do but, if the president so directed, it was something they were ready to do. The staged event sent the message that the president was serious about using federal troops to restore order to the city.

I was asked, on camera, who could authorize the Marines to fire their weapons at the rioters and looters on the streets of L.A. To the surprise of the reporter, I said it was the young 19-year-old Marine Corporal who was a fire-team leader. Although that was a stretch, it was the truth. According to the rules of engagement, if the Marines took fire and their lives were threatened, they could protect themselves. I didn’t want anyone in L.A. to think they had a free shot at our Marines. I used the media to get that message out.

As the public affairs officer for the combined task force and its commander, I used the media again as an offensive weapon during Operation United Shield—the final withdrawal of United Nations forces from Somalia in January 1995. This time we “used” the Somali press, and our target audience was the people of Mogadishu. Lt. Gen. Anthony C. Zinni, the commander of the seven-nation combined task force, wanted to make sure the warring factions in Mogadishu understood that our only purpose for being there was for the safe withdrawal of U.N. forces. We used the Somali media to counter propaganda from the warring factions that we were supportive of a particular warlord; we weren’t. Our message was basically this: “We’re not taking sides. Don’t shoot at us and we won’t shoot at you.” For nearly two weeks we were aboard ship off the coast of Mogadishu before the operation began. Each day I went ashore and met with the Somali press. Each night I returned to the ship and met with a group that included our operations officer and our psychological warfare officer to coordinate our information management campaign.

I was also responsible for a 24-member Department of Defense Media Pool that embarked with us to cover the withdrawal, as well as briefing the more than 100 “unilateral” or independent reporters in downtown Mogadishu.

Operationally speaking, the media pool and the unilateral reporters were not an integral part of our military objective on the battlefield. For them, our objective was to give full access to satisfy their role as a free press. Of the 100 unilateral journalists from around the world that had been covering Somalia, 60 accepted our ground rules and joined us inside our perimeter prior to the start of the withdrawal effort. To join us they had to agree to withdraw with us. Once they came into our perimeter, they could not go back to the city. Their incentive to be “embedded” with us was the assurance that they could get out of the country safely and would have access to our briefings. By doing so, they gave up the opportunity to cover the story from both sides. Some news agencies decided to have some of their reporters with us and have others take their chances and stay behind in downtown Mogadishu.

The day before the task force landed, we briefed the media pool and the newly embedded journalists on the withdrawal plan. Following the briefing, they actually walked the route and picked camera positions that would be used once the withdrawal started. We specifically talked about avoiding the “media circus” Navy SEALS first experienced when they landed on the beach in Somalia “under the cover of darkness” on December 9, 1992—when they were met by CNN’s klieg lights. The media accompanying us this time, particularly the American media, remembered the backlash: Americans were irate at the media for endangering American lives by exploiting a military operation for ratings. It worked. No flash bulbs and no flood lights during this landing.

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