Secretary of Defense (Public Affairs) Victoria Clarke
Interview with Howard Kurtz of CNN
October 27, 2001
6:30 P.M. EDT
KURTZ: Welcome to Reliable Sources, where we turn a critical lens on the media.
I'm Howard Kurtz. The press and the Pentagon are increasingly at odds as U.S.
air strikes over Afghanistan continue. And the person caught in the middle is
the Pentagon spokeswoman, Torie Clarke. We'll talk with Clarke in her first
television interview since September 11, and we'll get the media perspective
from two veteran defense correspondents. We spoke with Torie Clarke earlier
about her role and whether the Defense Department is providing enough information
to reporters about this new kind of war.
KURTZ: Torie Clarke, welcome.
CLARKE: Thank you very much.
KURTZ: Journalists are writing over and over again that this is the most secretive
military campaign in U.S. history and that getting information from you and
your colleagues is like pulling teeth. What's your take?
CLARKE: My take is, and I just brought a little evidence of it here, is that
to the extent possible, we're putting out as much news and information as we
possibly can about what is a very unconventional war. As Secretary Rumsfeld
and the President have said repeatedly, there will be things in this war, from
the military standpoint, that you'll see, there'll be things that you won't
see, there'll be a fair amount of special operations activity, which by its
very nature, you don't see. So it's very hard to cover.
But just before I came down today, I wanted to take a look at what we've done
thus far since, say, September 11. And we really consider the first day of this
war was September 11, when the World Trade Center and the Pentagon were attacked.
And this is not a complete tally, but it's just a brief list of the number of
news briefings that Secretary Rumsfeld and Chairman Myers have had at the Pentagon
for everybody and anybody from the Press Corps. It's now close to about two
dozen -- dozens of others who have come down to brief almost every single day
for the last three or four weeks.
We have put out images, both maps that give a lot of definition about where
the strikes are occurring, what kind of strikes, where the humanitarian relief
is. We also put out, on a pretty regular basis, just about daily, images of
what is actually happening over there on the ground, what is the result of the
KURTZ: But through all those briefings -- and you've certainly been on camera
-- why the steady drumbeat of media dissatisfaction about the level information?
Are reporters being whiny?
CLARKE: One, I'd push back on you. I don't think there has been quite such a
steady drumbeat. If you talk to reporters, the regular Pentagon Press Corps
who cover the place day in and day out, the regulars -
KURTZ: They're not happy campers.
CLARKE: Well, I think some of them are pretty happy campers; at least they come
and tell me that. I think we're all getting used to the fact that this is a
very, very unconventional war. What I'm struck by is that we have the same goals.
We at the Pentagon, at the administration, want to put out as much news and
information as we can, because we want the American people informed. The more
informed they are, the more educated they are about what's going on, the more
they'll be engaged and they'll support what is a very important effort. That's
The goal of the media, obviously, is to put out news and information. That's
the business. So we have very similar goals. How we get there is the challenge.
KURTZ: Well, part of the goal of the media is to have more reporters out with
the troops and not just on the aircraft carriers. Why has that not been possible?
CLARKE: Well, as a matter of fact, we've had several dozen reporters and media
outlets on aircraft carriers, we've had them in bombers, we've had them in strike
aircraft, we have had them in countless places. And since October 7 -- and I
continue to see reports every single day, in newspapers, on TV, reports from
those very aircraft carriers. So they are getting a fair amount of access.
What's really hard to show, and that's where some of the frustration comes in,
is the special operations activity. By its very nature, you don't get to see
a lot of that. And we aren't going to do anything that is going to in any way
compromise operational security. We're not going to do anything that is going
to put some service member's life at risk.
KURTZ: And on that point, you came under fire, media fire that is, at a briefing
this week after the Taliban had claimed that they had shot down a U.S. helicopter,
denied by the Pentagon, and then you eventually revealed that the helicopter
had not been shot down, but had been damaged. Let's take a look at that exchange.
Reporter: Why did it take so long for them to get this information? What does
that say about the flow of information to the defense secretary and the chairman
of the joint chiefs?
CLARKE: It says that the people in the helicopter were focused on what's important,
which was getting out of there. Secondly, what we're really focused on right
now is the military operations, to go after the Taliban, to go after the terrorists,
and this was not information that came forward until recently.
KURTZ: Could you have, should you have put out that information sooner about
the damaged helicopter?
CLARKE: Oh, in many instances, you want to try to get out the information faster.
We can always communicate, probably, in a better, more efficient fashion. It's
one of the common expressions around the Pentagon: ground truth is hard to come
by. In that case, the operation was last Friday, it was the first night of the
special operations, and a helicopter coming out of Afghanistan hit a barrier,
lost some of the landing gear in the wheels, it got back safely to where it
was going, which is what is important.
It wasn't until the following week, I think, Monday or Tuesday, that we all
saw some images. We were talking to the folks at central command, trying to
get the information. It wasn't the absolute priority. We knew our helicopters
were back, we knew our people were safe, we know it was not the number one priority
to find out exactly what that was.
KURTZ: But it feeds a perception that you're quick to put out good news, video
of successful raids, and not so quick on the bad news.
CLARKE: Oh, I can find you plenty of reporters who actually came to us a couple
times and said, we're going to commend you. Because we'd been out there at the
podium on several occasions, myself included, not only talking about things
that have gone wrong, but showing images of things that have gone wrong. We've
been quite forthcoming about that.
KURTZ: Your boss, Don Rumsfeld, was pretty outraged, or so he seemed, when word
leaked about the first U.S. ground forces in Afghanistan. Now, the Washington
Post reported the presence of U.S. ground forces a week ago Friday, but not
the specifics of those first raids. And the Post says the Pentagon never asked
them not to publish the story. Is that true?
CLARKE: Well, what I'll tell you is we got lots of questions and inquiries days
leading up to last Friday. What Secretary Rumsfeld was trying to do was underscore
a message he's delivered before, that he considers the leaking, the trafficking
in of classified information a very, very serious offense. He wasn't focused
on any particular outlet, he wasn't focused on any particular story. He's had
this concern, as he should, for some time, well before September 11. He just
found an opportunity to underscore it again.
KURTZ: I'm told that CBS's David Martin held that story for some hours. So was
there any unhappiness with CBS or NBC, or The Washington Post?
CLARKE: You know, we were so busy on Friday. A bunch of us, with the secretary,
were out at Whiteman Airforce Base, and then all night Friday night, we were
spending a good bit of time preparing footage from the special operations activity
that night to be shown in the Pentagon briefing room on Saturday morning. Which
again, if you want to talk about access to this war, I have asked repeatedly,
and most people come back to me and say, we have never before in history seen
footage of special operations activity. We brought it back for the world to
see, so we were focused on that. I honestly don't know what the sequence of
KURTZ: I raise the question about leaks because a lot of people have the impression
that journalists are much more interested in scoops than they are about national
security. There have been instances, I believe, this year, when the Pentagon
has asked news organizations to hold back details that could jeopardize -- Is
there any instance where a news organization has refused to do that?
CLARKE: Not on my watch. I actually am one of the ones who goes out and repeatedly
says, the overwhelming majority of the time, the media, especially the media
we deal with, which is the Pentagon Press Corps, is extraordinarily responsible.
And I have had reporters come to me on several occasions and say, I've gotten
hold of this information, and here's what I'm thinking about doing: would this
in any way compromise an operation; would this in any way put somebody's life
at risk. And this has happened before September 11 as well.
And if we said yes, that would be of concern, they don't go with it. The overwhelming
majority of the media, I believe, are extraordinarily responsible about this.
And Secretary Rumsfeld's comments are always very carefully crafted to say he's
talking about the men and women in government, for whom leaking classified information
is a very, very serious offense. He always makes a point of specifying to whom
he's speaking when he says that.
KURTZ: Understood. You're relatively new to the Pentagon culture, you've been
in corporate-public relations, you've been in political campaigns. Have you
found that there is among the military people you deal with a lingering distrust
of the press, perhaps because of Vietnam?
CLARKE: I wouldn't generalize that much. I think there are different people,
both civilians and military. It's not just -- you know, we have the civilian
and the military working there. I find that sometimes some of the civilians
are the least eager, if you will, about working with the media. But what's really
important is that the senior leadership, from Secretary Rumsfeld to Chairman
Myers and the other senior leaders, with whom I work, understand how important
it is. They understand that the main means -- that's why I go back to our conversion
goals -- the main means of communicating with the American people is the media.
That's why we want to do it, that's why we do do it, that's why I lose sleep
every night trying to figure out, how do I work with your colleagues in the
media so we can get this news and information out without ever compromising
an operation or ever putting somebody's life at risk.
KURTZ: Do you find at these briefings that you're involved in just about every
day that there's an awful lot of journalistic impatience now about, why haven't
we captured Osama bin Laden, why haven't we won this war yet; let's see some
progress? Does that bother you at all?
CLARKE: Actually, I think most people -- and again, I can talk primarily about
the Pentagon press corps, I can talk primarily about what we sense, and feel,
and hear from the American public that checks in with us pretty regularly. I
think most of them understand this is a very unconventional war. It is going
to be long, it is going to be sustained; it's not just about military operations.
It's economic, it's diplomatic; it's financial. They understand it will be very
hard. They understand that there will be casualties. They understand it's not
like things we've seen, some of us have seen in the last 10, 20, 30 years. You're
not going to see thousands of troops coursing across deserts, you're not going
to see night after night of missiles in the air.
KURTZ: But journalists have been impatient.
CLARKE: Well, maybe some of them. Again, I just talk about the ones that I deal
with on a regular basis. I think they understand just how different this is.
We're all getting used to that. I fully admit, we're all getting used to the
fact that we're on new turf here, and we're trying to find the new rules of
KURTZ: We've got about 20 seconds. You're caught between the two sides, the
Pentagon and the press. What exactly is it that you like about this job?
CLARKE: Oh, you're involved in something that is so important. I think this
is one of the greatest challenges in the last 50, 60 years, and probably for
the next 50, 60. And being involved in that, it's just a terrific honor.
KURTZ: Torie Clarke, thanks very much for joining us.