FORWARD MARINE BASE, Afghanistan Late Wednesday evening, a Marine spokesman approached reporters preparing to leave the Marine base in Afghanistan known as Camp Rhino and announced that American servicemen injured near Kandahar were at that very moment arriving and being treated less than 100 feet away.

Another Marine spokesman read aloud from his computer a Defense Department news release about a “friendly fire”incident in which a U.S. B-52 bomber had dropped ordnance near Americans and Afghan anti-Taliban forces, inflicting dozens of casualties.

The journalists, confined to a warehouse, sprang to their feet.

Could a photographer take pictures of the wounded arriving? No.

Could print reporters just stand to the side and observe? No.

Could reporters talk to Marine pilots who had airlifted the wounded to the base? No.

Could they talk to doctors after they finished treating the wounded? No.

Could they talk to injured Afghan fighters who also had been transported to the base? None spoke English. No.

The spokesmen eventually relented after reporters protested long and vigorously, even leading them on a stumbling run in pitch darkness to an airstrip where the bodies of two Americans who had been killed were said to be arriving in a helicopter. But the bodies were already in a morgue, which reporters were not permitted to visit

In every war, there is an innate tension between the military and the journalists who want to cover battles up close and capture the poignant and horrific reality of combat. With American troops in southern Afghanistan, however, reporters have operated under limitations even more restrictive than those imposed on pools during Desert Storm in 1991, when reporters traveling with troops had their stories read and cleared by military escorts.

In Washington, Victoria Clarke, assistant secretary of defense for public affairs and the Pentagon”s primary spokeswoman, issued a memo to news organizations yesterday saying “we owe you an apology”for the “severe shortcomings” in the way Pentagon has handled the news media. She pledged that “we intend to provide maximum media coverage with minimal delay and hassle.”

Also, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said he was “committed to the principle that the media should have access to both the good and the bad in this effort.”Those responsible for having kept the reporters out of sight of the casualties, he said, “acknowledged that they have not handled the matter perfectly, and they”re in the process of reviewing their procedures.”

The incident in Afghanistan provoked an outcry in part because it came after seven weeks of unusually tight control of information by the Pentagon. In other conflicts, such as the Gulf War, the Vietnam War, the Korean War and World War II, reporters have been permitted to “embed”with military units and cover their daily operations. But that has not been in the case in this war. For example, more than 1,000 regular infantry troops from the Army”s 10th Mountain Division have been in Uzbekistan for nearly two months, and in Afghanistan for at least two weeks, but no reporters have been allowed to cover them.

Almost all information has been released from the Pentagon, far away from the conflict, and much of it has been dated and vague. The extremely restrictive policy toward the release of military information was set by Rumsfeld, who has argued that the new constraints are made necessary by the nature of the war against terrorism. “Because the nature of this conflict is so different from previous ones, I suspect that old models won”t work,”he said in October. Rumsfeld has pointedly noted in several statements that defense officials who leak information may be in violation of federal criminal law.

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