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Reporters push Pentagon to let journalists embed with U.S. troops in Europe

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Pentagon and White House reporters are pushing the Biden administration to allow journalists to embed with U.S. troops heading to Eastern Europe, arguing the lack of access does a disservice to Americans, particularly those whose loved ones serve in the military. 

The Pentagon Press Association sent a letter to Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan on Wednesday asking that journalists be allowed to embed with U.S. troops who are deploying to Eastern Europe. Another group, the Military Reporters and Editors Association, had already requested access. 

“The public in a democratic society deserves independent media coverage of their sons and daughters in uniform, and that cannot be provided today without first-hand, on-the-ground reporting of troop activities in Europe,” the Pentagon Press Association Board of Directors wrote.  

American journalists have had access to U.S. troops overseas since at least World War II. In the Vietnam War, which the American public grew to view negatively, the Pentagon believed some of the reporting undermined the war effort and troop morale. That in turn had a chilling effect on the access commanders gave journalists. 

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FILE PHOTO: Troops on standby for deployment to Eastern Europe from Fort Bragg
FILE PHOTO: Military personnel with the 82nd Airborne Division load a HMMWV aboard a C-17 transport plane for deployment to Eastern Europe amid escalating tensions between Ukraine and Russia, at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, U.S., February 6, 2022.

BRYAN WOOLSTON / REUTERS


In the 1991 Gulf War, American journalists were assembled in press pools. But reporters were often far from action, and their material was often reviewed by the government before it aired, with graphics appearing on screen to say the content had been censored. 

The embed program as it’s now known by modern journalists was adopted by the Bush administration. Bush administration officials wanted to help the public understand what the military was doing leading up to the invasion of Iraq, and thought embedding journalists with fighting military units would help with public opinion behind the war effort. By embedding with military units, journalists could join troops in ground attacks and other action, as the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press described in 2001 when the Bush administration was weighing implementing an embed program. 

The embed program became of less interest as interest in the wars fell off. The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq eventually were fought largely by special operators who are hard to embed with. 

Pentagon press secretary John Kirby is the person charged with the decision to allow embedded reporters  since he is the Assistant to the Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs. 

“I’m the one responsible for decisions that are made about media access to our operations and to our people,” he said earlier this week. “So, to paraphrase the famous Harry S. Truman, the buck stops with me on this.”

Kirby said Wednesday the Pentagon was still working through the request. He told reporters he’s heard them and respects the request, but said the department can’t provide access at this time. Kirby told reporters in Wednesday’s Pentagon briefing that any decision to provide media access to troops, or to withhold access from troops, is a “decision that we take seriously.” 

The Biden administration announced last week that 3,000 U.S. troops would move to Eastern Europe to bolster NATO allies, as Russia continues to build up forces on Ukraine’s borders. Troops have started moving to Poland and Romania and a small group is headed to Germany. 

In addition to the 3,000 troops already moving to help NATO allies, the Pentagon has said several thousand more are on heightened alert for potential deployments to Eastern Europe. Some of those would be committed to the NATO Response Force if NATO decides to activate it. 

The White House Correspondents Association and White House journalists also pushed back on the Pentagon Wednesday. 

“We in the @WHCA agree with our colleagues at the Pentagon – it’s essential to good governance and accountability for the American people to have their eyes on what is being done in their name with their money,” tweeted WHCA President and CBS News correspondent Steven Portnoy. 

Asked if the White House supports allowing journalists to embed with U.S. troops generally speaking, as has been done in the past, White House press secretary Jen Psaki on Wednesday said, “That has been our overarching approach.” 

Meanwhile, the Biden administration is strongly advising Americans still in Ukraine to leave the country. 

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