Currently, no United States troops have been massed on the border of Kuwait and Iran. No buildings have been bombed, and no press conference has been scheduled announcing a U.S. invasion.
But the topic of a U.S. invasion in Iraq has, in recent weeks, taken on an air of immediate concern-the result of articles featuring unnamed government sources leaking potential invasion scenarios to The New York Times and non-invasion The Washington Post .
“It’ll be the most telegraphed maneuver in the history of mankind,” said retired Rear Admiral Stephen Baker, now a senior fellow with the Center for Defense Information. “The last three months of detail and discussion has been amazing. I was in Desert Storm, where you knew a lot. But I felt we had it pretty locked-down until that first night.”
Ed Rabel, a senior vice president at the Virginia public-relations firm McGinn Group and a former Pentagon correspondent for NBC News, was equally astonished. “I never, in my four years at the Pentagon, saw anything like this,” Mr. Rabel said. “I did see a fair amount of leaking going on, but nothing compared with this.”
It began on July 5, when The Times published news of a Pentagon plan that called for an invasion using as many as 250,000 soldiers in “air-, land- and sea-based forces” that would “attack Iraq from three directions-the north, south and west-in a campaign to topple President Saddam Hussein.”
The Times unveiled more of the plan in a July 10 article, which stated that Jordan could be used as a base for the attacks, citing unnamed officials.
Then, after The Washington Post reported on Sunday, July 28, that the U.S. might just stay the present course, The Times reported on July 29 about another option considered by Pentagon and administration officials, one that would “take Baghdad and one or two key command centers and weapons depots first, in hopes of cutting off the country’s leadership and causing a quick collapse of the government.”
The leaks and their subsequent reaction have only cemented The Times’ and The Post ‘s positions as conduits of confidential information for power brokers at the highest levels of state.
“They would never give something like this to NBC or ABC News,” Mr. Rabel, who covered the Pentagon from 1993 to 1997, said. “In the eyes of the people in the Pentagon, The New York Times and Washington Post are the only outlets that really matter. The White House reads them. They’re taken seriously by people in power.”
Bob Zelnick, the chairman of the Boston University journalism department, who covered the Pentagon for ABC News from 1986 to 1994, agreed.
“The networks have seasoned reporters on that beat,” Mr. Zelnick said. “But there’s no way to approximate the depth of The New York Times . People that leak to The Times and The Post know the networks will pick up a story they leak to one of the papers. They’re going to get more mileage from their leak.”
Thomas Ricks, who covers the Pentagon for The Post and wrote the July 28 story, disputed that assessment, saying, “I think if anything, it’s an area that’s extremely competitive on getting leaks. And TV’s produced a surprising number of leaks. I pay attention to the TV guys on my beat.”
However, Mr. Ricks acknowledged: “If you want to be sure to get attention, The Post or The Times is the only surefire way to do it.”
(Though, as Jack Shafer pointed out in Slate on July 30, The Times in its second story acknowledged that the existence of the plan in the July 5 paper had been discussed in a Los Angeles Times op-ed on June 23.)
There is, of course, history here. In 1971, after former Defense Department analyst Daniel Ellsberg tried peddling the Pentagon Papers to all three networks, it was The Times and-following a restraining order from the Nixon administration- The Post that provided him platforms for disseminating the damning report on the Vietnam War.
Nobody doubts that the leaks, and the stories based on them, have been effective-or, at the very least, provocative. On Aug. 1, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee was set to discuss the administration’s plans for invading Iraq.
Mr. Ricks said the Bush administration’s own hold-down-the-fort mentality may be working against them.
“This administration,” Mr. Ricks said, “plays its cards extremely close to its chest. That makes leaks harder to get. But it also provides a competitive advantage to well-sourced reporters.”
What’s less clear is the intentions behind it. Why release sensitive military information? What can be gained by letting the general public in on invasion plans?
One reporter who covered military actions in the Gulf War, Panama and Somalia felt the reasons for the leaks were obvious enough.
“The generals think they’re the experts on fighting wars,” said the source. “And, probably, they are. They feel slighted by the defense eggheads and politicos who think slamming Saddam is easy. If the operation fails, it’s their careers and lives that are on the line. That’s why the post-Vietnam military has always been more cautious than the political appointees-look at the first Gulf War and Bosnia. Most of the generals-and a lot of the spooks-want the public to know that if we’re going to fight a war against Iraq, it will take time, money and lives. Most would prefer that he get toppled in a coup.
“If it comes to war, they want to make sure it will be an overwhelming victory,” the source said. “Their nightmare is another Desert One-the Iran rescue operation that failed so abysmally, tarnished so many careers, and made everyone wary about using the military, at least until Grenada and Panama.”
If it’s a reaction the leakers wanted, they’ve certainly gotten it. Indeed, the recent stories have seemed to give Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld an entirely new mission.
In a July 12 memo leaked to The Los Angeles Times , Mr. Rumsfeld railed against leakers saying they were “putting America at risk.”
But just how much such information would hurt the chances of the United States remains to be seen. “These, as best as I can see, are position papers at best,” said James Hoge, the editor of Foreign Affairs . “They’re very early plans. They haven’t hurt national security in a way that I can see.”
Recalling his own time within the halls of the Pentagon, Mr. Zelnick said, “Can you give me one single example where an American newspaper or report has actually put a person at risk? I used to walk through the halls asking that to people in the military, and I never got an answer.”
Beginning later this year, The New York Times will begin an extended series examining the place of the United States in the eyes of the rest of the world.
According to sources at The Times , the series will focus on how America is viewed by people in other countries (read: why they hate us) and will follow in a vein similar to its series “How Race Is Lived in America,” which was awarded a Pulitzer Prize in April 2001. According to sources, the series is set to begin in late 2002 and will carry into 2003.
Based primarily out of the foreign bureaus, the series will have some involvement on the domestic front, including a contribution from the sports desk.
When asked about the matter, a Times spokesperson said: “It would be inappropriate for us to discuss coverage or story ideas that we might be considering.”
Jann Wenner owns three magazines. Two of those magazines- Rolling Stone and Us Weekly -have new editors. Now, Mr. Wenner might be ready to pluck one for the third.
As reported by WWD on July 26, Mr. Wenner has begun to talk with people about finding a replacement for current Men’s Journal editor Sid Evans. Mr. Evans, the fourth editor in the 10-year history of Mr. Wenner’s outdoor-adventure and fitness magazine, is less than two years into his tenure, after returning to the Wenner fold from GQ to replace Mark Bryant, who resigned in December 2000. Earlier, Mr. Evans-then a senior editor at Men’s Journal -left for GQ after Mr. Wenner tapped Mr. Bryant in November 1999.
“It’s a shame,” one source told Off the Record, “Sid Evans is a good editor. Sid Evans has done everything Jann’s asked him to do. It’s more that [Mr. Wenner]’s just restless.
“It’s spring cleaning for him,” the source continued. “He’s obsessive-compulsive. He couldn’t do two and leave a third alone.”
Mr. Wenner’s flirting shouldn’t come as a great surprise. After all, the arrivals of Bonnie Fuller at Us Weekly and Ed Needham at Rolling Stone have been a publicity boon for his company.
And perhaps as a sign of things to come, Men’s Journal in recent weeks has resembled a leaky canoe, with executive editor Jack Wright, senior writers Alex Bhattacharji and Devin Friedman, and deputy photo editor Tom Alberty all leaving the masthead.
Mr. Evans declined to comment about his own status, but of the staff defections, he noted that until recently, Men’s Journal hadn’t lost anyone in “over a year and a half.”
“We haven’t had any staff defections in over a year and a half,” Mr. Evans said. “I feel like we have an incredible staff here. I’m not surprised people were trying to snap them away. We have had a raise freeze here for over a year. Eventually, that’s going to catch up to you.”
Certainly, the temptation to be at the helm of Men’s Journal holds a certain appeal. But the well-known travails of working for Mr. Wenner might be too much for some people … even Michael Caruso. According to sources, Mr. Wenner had reached out to Mr. Caruso, the former editor in chief of Details and the now-defunct Maximum Golf , who reportedly is also being considered as the next editorial director of Playboy . Mr. Wenner, according to sources, went so far as to offer the job to Mr. Caruso in July, but Mr. Caruso turned it down. When reached, Mr. Caruso declined to comment.
Meanwhile, a Wenner spokesperson denied that Mr. Wenner had a wandering eye.
“We’re not looking,” the spokesperson told Off the Record. ” Men’s Journal is doing very well. It’s at its highest circulation ever, and we’re getting ready to celebrate our 10th-anniversary issue.”