Press pools and military-media relations in the Gulf War: a case study of the Battle of Khafji, January 1991

Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television
June, 1996
by David H. Mould

An Iraqi military communique described it as 'a lightning ground attack' in which 'our valiant forces crushed the armies of infidelity.' Baghdad Radio called it a 'splendid victory over the enemies of God, the enemies of the Arabs and Muslims' [1]. General Norman Schwarzkopf dismissed it as 'about as significant as a mosquito on an elephant' while the Saudi commander, Lieutenant General Prince Khalid bin Sultan, called it a 'suicide mission' [2]. The press corps was skeptical. 'How come the ground war began in the last days of January with an Iraqi attack?' asked Time magazine. At briefings in Riyadh, reporters wondered how underfed, lice-ridden Iraqi troops, who had been under aerial bombardment for two weeks, could advance into Saudi Arabia. In a cartoon in Le Monde, a soldier shooting at an Iraqi rebukes a television crew. 'You were told - the ground war is going to start later!' [3]

At the end of January 1991, two weeks after the beginning of the Gulf War, the Iraqis launched a series of cross-border attacks into Saudi Arabia. Allied air and armored units drove them back, inflicting heavy losses, but for 36 hours the Iraqis held the Saudi border town of Khafji. The battle raises fundamental issues in what has been called the second front of the Gulf War - the coalition's struggle to maintain domestic and international support through control of information [4]. It was not, as it turned out, the first battle of the ground war but no one - the allies, the Iraqis or the press - knew that at the time. From a military perspective, it was a defeat for Saddam Hussein. Thirty Iraqis were killed, another 37 wounded and 466 taken prisoner; at least seven tanks and nine armored personnel carriers were destroyed [5]. But it was an Iraqi propaganda coup, celebrated with banner headlines and street demonstrations around the Arab world; after two weeks of intensive aerial bombardment, Iraqi troops had emerged from their bunkers and gone on the attack. The battle of Khafji severely tested the coalition's elaborate media management system of press pools and military briefings. Under the pressure of fast-moving events on the ground, the system proved unequal to the task of providing quick, accurate information; the best coverage of the battle of Khafji came from journalists who, by choice or force of circumstance, were working outside the system. The Americans did not allow press pools into Khafji until after the town was retaken, so the only reporters who saw the fighting were these 'pool busters' or unilaterals - several print reporters, two French television crews and a team from Britain's Visnews. Television coverage of the Iraqi incursions, particularly in the early stages, was unreliable and sometimes openly speculative; faced with constant deadlines and the pressures of live coverage, reporters struggled to make sense of a very confusing situation. Print reporters, whose deadlines came less frequently, were generally able to provide a more thorough and perceptive analysis of the battle. In a war primarily mediated by television, the battle of Khafji was - with the exception of a few television reports - better covered in the print media.

In several respects, the battle of Khafji was a turning point in military-media relations. After the battle exposed weaknesses in its media management system, the military command moved swiftly to expand the pools and to improve the briefings. As a case study, Khafji provides an illustration of five of the principal factors that constrained information during the Gulf War - the nature of warfare, media technology, differing military and press priorities, coalition politics, and the press pool and briefing system.

The Nature of Warfare

Until the battle of Khafji, the Gulf War had been fought almost exclusively in the air over Iraq and Kuwait. Air warfare is, by its nature, less accessible to the media than land or even sea operations. Even in World War II and Vietnam, when reporters flew on missions, it was difficult to assess the significance of military targets or the accuracy of air strikes. In the Gulf War, there were no places for pool reporters on B-52s or F-15s; the media had to rely on the military for its facts, figures and footage. Through the briefings and the selective release of military video - taken by cameras mounted in aircraft or in so-called 'smart' weapons - the coalition was able to control not only what information went out, but how it was interpreted. Few reporters questioned whether a hit was a hit and, even if they did, they found it difficult to verify independently the official version. The only eyewitness accounts were from the pilots who claimed to have made the hits and completed their missions successfully. However, when the action moved from the air to the ground at Khafji, the story was more difficult to control because for a few days the war had a visible front. Despite roadblocks and official restrictions, the fighting was within driving distance for enterprising reporters. The confusing nature of the engagement made it difficult for the military to know what was going on. The briefers became tense and tight-lipped, further exacerbating the already strained relations with the press.

Media Technology

The rapid advances in media technology in the 1980s allowed television news organizations to enter the Gulf War with a large and sophisticated arsenal of camcorders, portable editing facilities, and satellite uplinks and downlinks. The capacity to transmit images and information instantaneously was unequalled; content was another matter. Most of the media technology was in hotels in Dhahran and Riyadh, hundreds of miles from the Kuwaiti border. Only the British allowed their television pools to use portable satellite uplinks; American pool crews had to rely on military couriers to transport their tapes, and some were delayed or mislaid. At the same time, the technological advances had created an almost insatiable demand for coverage and analysis. Television reporters had to go on the air with incomplete or misleading information; with little opportunity to check facts, it was inevitable that mistakes were made, particularly on a confusing and fast-breaking story such as Khafji.

Military and Press Priorities

At the risk of stating the obvious, the military and the press have different objectives, which often lead to different assessments of the same events. This was graphically illustrated at Khafji. The battle coincided with what, from a military perspective, was a much more significant achievement - the establishment of coalition air supremacy. Control of the skies meant that the coalition could sever transportation routes and cut off arms and supplies to the Iraqi forces in Kuwait, hastening the end of the war. The brief Iraqi incursion, while an embarrassment, was of no long-term military significance. The press, however, saw it differently, and briefers faced awkward questions about how a supposedly battered and demoralized army had been able to launch an offensive. As a military venture, Khafji may have been a suicidal gamble, but it gave Saddam Hussein a brief propaganda advantage, particularly in the Arab world. The press was quick to see that what appeared to be military folly made political and diplomatic sense.

Coalition Politics

A consistent theme in information policy was that the war was being fought by a United Nations-sponsored coalition which included Arab and Muslim states. Although the Western powers, particularly the United States, played the dominant and most visible role, the military stressed the contributions of the Arab allies. Several Arab and Muslim countries sympathized with Iraq, at least unofficially; even in coalition members such as Egypt and Syria, there was significant domestic opposition to the war. Giving credit to the Arab allies - albeit out of proportion to their military investments - helped to counter claims that the war was a Western crusade against Arabs and Muslims. The battle of Khafji gave the coalition the opportunity to put Arab coalition forces in a highly visible role - as the counter-attacking force. Khafji was in the Saudi sector of the front; it was important for inter-coalition politics to show that the Saudis were a capable military force so, with troops from the Gulf state of Qatar, they were given the leading role in retaking the town. This led the military to downplay the support provided by the US 1st Marine Division, and to proclaim the retaking of the town as a victory for the Arab forces.

The Press Pool and Briefing System

The Gulf War provided the most serious test yet for a system of information gathering that the military and media had been attempting to work out for almost a decade. The pool system was devised by the Pentagon after complaints from news organizations that they were prevented from covering the American intervention in Grenada in 1983. In Fall 1990, when war seemed likely in the Gulf, Pete Williams, Assistant Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs, met with the bureau chiefs of the major television networks, newspapers, magazines and news agencies to work out a pool system. On several occasions, Williams said that the Pentagon did not want to make the pools permanent or issue an extensive set of rules on coverage. 'We want to go unilateral as soon as possible,' he said, indicating that the pools would be a stopgap until full coverage was feasible. However, in mid-December Williams issued an elaborate list of guidelines. Some minor changes were made after news organizations complained, but the pool and escort system remained [6].

News organizations sent more than 750 staff members to Saudi Arabia to cover the war, but most were what John Fialka later rather unkindly referred to as 'hotel warriors' - based in Riyadh or Dhahran, dependent on military briefings and reports from their colleagues in the pools for information [7]. Journalists, noted Time, had been 'griping about the pool system since before the war started' [8]. Reporters who protested were frustrated; the Pentagon said changes could be made only with approval of the military command in the Gulf while the briefers in Riyadh referred complaints to the Pentagon. There were only 126 slots in the American pools but even this number was misleading, because many were taken by photographers, videographers and technicians. Less than 30 were assigned to cover the six Army and two Marine divisions on the Kuwaiti and Iraqi borders. Several pools, said R. W. Apple, 'have done little but sit around hotels in Dhahran and Riyadh, while others have visited only airbases far behind the lines or ships in the Persian Gulf' [9]. Colonel William Mulvey, head of the Joint Information Bureau in Dhahran, promised to increase the number of pools and improve access, but cited problems - the unwillingness of some commanders to accept reporters, a shortage of helmets and flak jackets, and difficulties in transportation and communication. Mulvey, according to the New York Times, 'has lost the confidence of the press corps as the days have rolled by with no major change, and questions have mounted about the fairness of the entire system.' Some American divisions had no pool reporters and 'several middle-ranking field commanders, eager for publicity, have told correspondents that they are welcome if they can find some means to get around the pool system and ground rules.' Military officials said the pool system was intended to provide access while avoiding the nightmare of hundreds of journalists trying to reach the front lines at once. 'Having reporters running around would overwhelm the battlefield,' said Mulvey [10].

However, for some journalists, running around seemed to be the only way to get the story. 'Hampered by a pool arrangement that restricts them largely to specified trips arranged by military officials,' said Time, 'correspondents grew restless - and reckless.' By the end of the second week of the war, journalists based in Hafer Al-Batin in northwestern Saudi Arabia were driving out to reach American, British and Arab units operating in the border area. 'Increasingly', wrote John Kifner of the New York Times, 'frustrated journalists who are unable to get a spot in the pools . . . have started "freelancing" - driving out independently in rented vehicles outside pool guidelines in hopes of hooking up with troops or seeing action' [11]. Some painted military insignia on their vehicles and wore military uniforms; although this helped them get through military road blocks, it also increased their chances of being mistaken for combatants by the Iraqis. Not that the Iraqis posed the only physical threat. One veteran news agency photographer spent more than six hours in the desert surrounded by six armed Marines who threatened to shoot him if he left his car. 'We have orders from above to make this pool system work,' one of the officers explained. Some US soldiers at road blocks were ordered to remove a wheel from journalists' cars until Saudi security forces arrived to take them away. In another incident, the Alabama National Guard blindfolded and held a photographer for 30 hours, and challenged him to name the Governor of New York, among other questions, to prove he was not an Iraqi spy. Although there were no formal penalties for defying the pool system, US military officials reported offenders to the Saudi authorities, who temporarily revoked press credentials and visas. When Chris Hedges of the New York Times, who had been detained for five hours after trying to obtain an interview at an American military hospital, showed up to recover his press credentials, he was told: 'You have an attitude problem' [12].

The most celebrated instance of freelancing occurred on 21 January when CBS correspondent Bob Simon and his three-man crew strayed across the Saudi-Kuwaiti border and were captured and held by the Iraqis until the end of the war. The incident seemed to support the military's contention that the pool system was necessary to provide protection for journalists in a vast area of few roads and fewer road signs where Iraqi patrols might be operating. Although the experience of the CBS crew was seen by some as a sober warning to play by the rules, other journalists continued to go unilateral. 'The last thing Bob Simon would want,' said John King of the Associated Press, 'is for us to stop covering the war because he disappeared' [13]. King was true to his word; he was one of the few journalists to evade restrictions and witness the fighting in Khafji.

The Battle of Khafji: confusion in the military and press corps

The principal problem for both the military and the media at Khafji was the confusing nature of the action. Indeed, it was not until several days after the fighting ended that the basic elements of the battle became clear. Over a three-day period, from Tuesday 29 January to Thursday 31 January, Iraqi troops, tanks and armored vehicles crossed the Saudi border at several points between Khafji and Umm Hujul, 50 miles to the west. It was not known whether these were probing attacks, designed to discover the disposition of allied forces, or the start of a full-scale Iraqi offensive [14]. By the weekend, it became clear that the attack on Khafji was merely part of a larger operation. Along the entire Saudi-Kuwaiti border, Iraqi forces had been testing the strength of the coalition's defenses. Field commanders reported that a force of Iraqi troops, initially estimated at 60,000, was massing at Al-Wafra, 37 miles to the west of Khafji, and allied planes bombed armored brigades and supply columns moving south [15]. As Philip Taylor notes, the major confrontation at Wafra was 'the "hidden" battle, fought ferociously but far away from the television cameras which were focusing on the comparatively small skirmish at Al-Khafji' [16].

In military terms, the battle for Khafji was, indeed, comparatively small, but in information terms it took on a larger significance. Here for the first time, Iraqi ground forces were engaged with allied troops. It was essential for the coalition to achieve a quick, decisive victory with minimal casualties. The allied commanders had always maintained they would launch the ground war when they were good and ready to do so; it was important to regain the initiative and, perhaps, preempt a wider ground offensive. 'There was some embarrassment,' noted BSkyB News correspondent Aernout Van Lynden. 'The American commanders have kept on saying to us that they were not caught off guard ... but they haven't been able to explain how such a large number of Iraqis were able to get into Khafji' [17]. In fact, the initial force which took the town on the night of 29 January was fairly small - a battalion of between 400 and 800 men with about 45 vehicles - although the Iraqis sent in more troops and armor the next day. Nonetheless, the military had to explain why the Iraqis were able to enter and take the town with so little resistance.

R'as al-Khafji, seven miles south of the Kuwaiti border, was, according to Rick Atkinson, an unpretty border town with a small port, an oil refinery, and the misfortune of lying within range of Iraqi field guns in southeastern Kuwait' [18]. The Iraqis had shelled the town on the first day of the war, 17 January, forcing its 15,000 inhabitants to flee. The allies had observation posts in the area but the main force - the 1st Marine Division's Task Force Taro and Arab troops - was at Al-Mishab, 30 miles to the south and out of artillery range. Since the beginning of the war, there had been sporadic clashes across the no man's land of barbed wire and minefields. On 29 January, US surveillance teams noted increased movement across the border, including the repositioning of tanks and armored personnel carriers. The Iraqis had assembled several battalions in the so-called Wafra Forest, an area of fields and orchards 25 miles west of the Gulf, and at 20:30 an American observer spotted the lead platoons emerging from the trees. Within 15 minutes, he counted nearly a hundred vehicles in column on the road paralleling the border. The Marines tried to call in an air strike, but all available pilots had been diverted further west where another Iraqi force was attempting to break through. The Marines and Saudi border troops and national guardsmen fell back to Khafji. From a water tower, Marine observers watched Iraqi T-55 tanks and armored personnel carriers cross the causeway leading into the town. When the Iraqis began spraying rooftops and upper windows with machine gun fire to suppress snipers, the Marines raced south out of the town. However, two six-man Marine reconnaissance teams were cut off by the Iraqi advance. One had been in Khafji nearly a week, watching for infiltrators and providing early warning of Iraqi Scud and rocket attacks. With their vehicles concealed and a machine gun in place over the compound gate, they opted to stay, hoping the Iraqis would not discover them [19]. The two Marine teams were ideally placed to direct air and artillery strikes and were to play a crucial role in the allied counteroffensive [20].

The presence of the Marine observers was not revealed at the time - rightly so, because to do so would have put their lives in danger and deprived the allies of their eyes and ears in Khafji. However, the military command, although aware that the Iraqis had occupied Khafji, was saying nothing. Indeed, the first news of the attack came not from Riyadh or Washington but from Baghdad - a report from the French news agency, Agence France Presse, on Wednesday, 30 January quoting an Iraqi military communique which announced that a 'massive land offensive has been launched against Al-Khafji.' CNN attempted to confirm the French report, but over the next few hours the situation remained confused. Shortly after 14.00 CNN quoted Baghdad Radio's claim that Iraqi troops had moved 12 miles into 'the kingdom of evil of Saudi Arabia,' occupying Khafji [21]. At a hurriedly called briefing in Riyadh, US Lieutenant Colonel Mike Gallagher would say only that clashes had occurred at three places along the border the previous night, and that 'contact was broken off' early in the morning. The Iraqis, he said, had suffered heavy losses. He gave no indication that fighting was continuing and did not mention Khafji [22].

Even as Gallagher was making his announcement, it was contradicted by pool reports which revealed that 'contact' was far from over. This was the first sign that the information machine was beginning to falter under the pressure of fast-moving events on the ground. There was as yet no video from Khafji - CNN, Britain's BSkyB News and the American networks were still showing stock footage of the town shot earlier in the week - but newspaper pool reporters were filing copy. These reports, which were cleared by the military's Joint Information Bureau in Dhahran, were at odds with its own official position. In Riyadh, CNN's Rick Sallinger said: 'We were told by the US Central Command here a short time ago that the ground fighting had stopped as of three o'clock this morning. However reports from the scene paint a quite different picture. We understand that the fighting goes on ... with perhaps several thousand Iraqi troops still in the area.' CNN's Charles Jaco, in a live report from Dhahran, quoted a Gannett News Service pool report in which the Marines claimed to have destroyed 20 Iraqi T-55 tanks in fighting along the border; at least eight men had been killed and two armored personnel carriers destroyed in what Marine Lieutenant Colonel Cliff Myers called 'hellacious' fighting. The Iraqis were still in control of Khafji, but Saudi and Qatari forces were counterattacking, with artillery support from the Marines who had established blocking positions south of the town. Although the pool report had been filed several hours earlier, it indicated that the fighting was more intense and prolonged than Gallagher was saying [23]. Saudi and US officials, said Jaco, 'really aren't sure what the situation is up there. Obviously, somebody knows but they're not talking right now.' Indeed, there wasn't much at all he could say about military matters. When a burst of engine noise interrupted his live report, he wryly remarked: 'Now behind me you hear a jet of some sort taking off - or landing - I'm not allowed to say which' [24].

Military Defeat or Propaganda Victory?

The reluctance to admit that fighting was still going on let alone that the Iraqis had occupied Khafji - gave the initial propaganda advantage to Baghdad. For Saddam Hussein, it was important to convince sympathetic and neutral Arab governments and their peoples that, despite two weeks of air bombardment, Iraq's military strength and will to fight were undiminished. The border attacks showed that the Iraqi army could come out of its deep defenses and engage the coalition forces on the ground. Baghdad Radio reported that Saddam Hussein had travelled to the front to meet his field commanders and had personally planned the advance which it heralded as the start of 'the long awaited ground offensive.' Iraq's Ba'ath party newspaper called the attack on Khafji the prelude to a greater battle, 'the sign of a thunderous storm blowing over the Arabian desert,' and a military communique claimed that 'the corpses of American soldiers are littering the battlefield' [25]. The news was greeted with rejoicing and demonstrations in the Arab and Muslim world. In a rally called by the pro-Iraqi Islamic Front in Algeria, 60,000 people marched in the rain shouting 'Victory to Islam and the Muslims' [26]. In Jordan, 3000 people took to the streets shouting support for the Iraqi offensive; in Yemen, demonstrators fired on the residences of the American, Japanese and Turkish ambassadors; the Pakistani press claimed that Iraq had won a major land battle against allied forces. Coalition member Egypt, with 45,000 troops in the Gulf, kept its universities closed to avoid protests [27].

The Western media was not slow to grasp that what appeared to be military folly made sense on the propaganda front. While military commanders 'have a tendency to dismiss political goals in war, viewing them as distractions from the serious business of combat,' noted the New York Times, the Iraqi President 'has other goals, mostly political and politico-military, and they were very well served by his troops' success in pushing into Khafji and hanging onto it for a day.' Time agreed: 'Saddam Hussein may have figured it right if he was calculating that he could win on the Arab street even while losing in the skies and the sands of the desert. Each day that the allies throw their best punches at him and leave him standing, Saddam's prestige among ordinary Arabs grows.' French television correspondent Jean-Luc Mano in Riyadh said the Iraqis hoped to 'score some spectacular hits that would give them the opportunity to claim victory, even if they were ephemeral.' The Times, quoting Arab analysts, said the episode 'could win Saddam a place in Arab folk legend,' and noted in an editorial: 'The Iraqi attack on Khafji, militarily doomed as Saddam Hussein knew it must be, well illustrates the difficulties of a land war against a dictator for whom the desired mix of political and military outcomes is so different from that of the allies. What mattered to Saddam about this first ground battle was not how it ended, but how it would seem to the world' [28]. On CNN, military analyst Richard Jupa noted: 'Remember, Saddam is playing hero-victim to the Arab peoples ... I do think this is a sacrifice of major proportions [but] it is not necessarily viewed in the Arab world the same way it is to Western audiences.' BBC Defense Correspondent David Shukman said that by capturing Khafji, if only temporarily, Saddam Hussein gained a 'political advantage, giving his supporters an image of resistance' [29].

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