Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf's climactic briefing on the eve of victory this week raised the idea that one weapon in the allied arsenal may have been overlooked: fooling the enemy by deceiving the American media.
"The chart (of the allied assault) you showed there," a reporter told Schwarzkopf during the briefing, "was almost the exact reverse of what most of us (in the media) thought was happening."
Did the military follow an organized plan to lie to the press in order to deceive the enemy? And did the media buy it, aiding the American military effort without meaning to?
A close review of press coverage of the war, and discussions with Pentagon officials involved in handling the press, reveal that in large part the answer is no.
There were some incidents of military officials misleading and even lying to the press--especially foreign news agencies. The military also relied heavily on the notion that television grossly exaggerates anything with pictures to dramatize exercises for the Marine amphibious landing "Imminent Thunder"--which never happened.
But more significant to protecting military security, U. S. officials concede, is what the media held back from the American public voluntarily.
In particular, some key members of the media--notably CBS, NBC and the Washington Post--actually figured out the American battle plan, but they never reported it.
The Pentagon's primary effort at controlling the press--its system of keeping reporters in organized pools with military escorts--was designed not so much to deceive the press as keep it away from the action.
But as it turned out, the most potentially damaging security leaks were those allowed by military censors. "We are guilty of contributing to the release of some very important information that could have been very helpful to the enemy," said one high-ranking military official instrumental in trying to manage the press at the Pentagon.
Potentially most devastating, military officials admit, was the approval a censor gave to a pool account written by a Los Angeles Times reporter on Jan. 23, which mentioned near the bottom that allied engineers were working in the western Saudi Arabian town of Rahfa.
To CBS Pentagon correspondent David Martin, the story was a dramatic signal that the allied troops were secretly migrating much farther west than anyone was expecting. Rahfa is 200 miles away from where most experts expected the assault.
"When I was there in December they (the troops) were not going out that far," Martin said.
By reading subsequent pool reports and talking to their military sources, Martin and NBC correspondent Fred Francis eventually figured out the secret objective of the allied military's surprise "Hail Mary" rush north into Iraq--Nasiriyah, a town near the Euphrates River, where the allies eventually cut off the Iraqi retreat.
"Nobody (in the media) understood the full weight of the western swing," said one key military official. Nevertheless, after Martin's questions of his sources made it clear he understood a good deal of the plan, a Pentagon official recalled, the military appealed to Martin "to not emphasize the activity you are seeing in the West."
Not only did Francis and Martin keep that information to themselves to protect national security, at one point, Francis even warned his network against revealing the plan inadvertently after one of its expert commentators speculatively pointed on a map to Nasiriyah. The Washington Post also knew and protected the broad outline of the battle plan. In addition, military officials contacted two expert network commentators warning them against emphasizing certain points that could betray the plan.
One of the most significant ways in which press coverage helped the allies, Schwarzkopf said in his briefing, was that in the early days of the operation last fall, the press gave the allies credit for more military strength than it had. "That gave me quite a feeling of confidence that we might not be attacked quite as quickly as I thought," the general said.
Military briefers insisted in those early months that they had the troop strength to protect Saudi Arabia. "In retrospect, that was proably not really truthful," said Michael Ross, a Los Angeles Times correspondent in that first press pool.
But the press also helped knowingly. A senior military official held a briefing for some members of the initial press pool and told them "we are going to be vulnerable for a while, and you would do a great deal of (harm) if you focus on that weakness."
The reporters, the Pentagon official said, agreed, and "deliberately and consciously protected the vulnerability of the force."
Outright deception also occurred. In particular, the military planted false reports, or disinformation, of Air Force landings in Kuwait and Iraq, one senior military official said, in the Saudi and Kuwaiti news agencies.
"The targets were native news agencies, and this was handled by our Psychological Operations" people in the region, said a military official.
Yet American reporters were actually warned against believing these reports, military officials said.
The most organized act of deception of Iraq involving the American press was not disinformation. It just involved playing off the press' tendency to exaggerate when it has pictures.
The project was to convince the Iraqis that the Marines would launch an amphibious landing in Kuwait or Iraq. To help, the military invited the press to amphibious exercises, gave it a code name, "Imminent Thunder," and always mentioned the possibility of the amphibious landing when discussing the battle plan in hypothetical terms.
The press knew it all might be a feint, and the Pentagon never said the attack would definitely occur.
"But it was also known that in a news-starved environment, with little else going on to take pictures of, it would be blown out of proportion on American television," said a Pentagon official. "We merely invited you to cover the exercises and you guys did the rest." The Los Angeles Times also wrote a story outlining how the proposed amphibious landing would work.
The cases of real deception were smaller, though they were common, Pentagon officials now concede privately. Usually, they involved allowing reporters who were testing hypothesis to draw false inferences. They did not involve planting erroneous stories or events in the media, the officials insist.
One example was a Washington Post story Feb. 15 that said the main allied attack would include 70,000 U. S. soldiers. In fact, the troop strength was twice that size.
"He asked me if it would be a corps size. I said yes," said a senior military official who was an unnamed source on the story. "He didn't ask me if there would be two corps."
The Los Angeles Times was similarly misled two days later in a story that led the paper. While the main point of the story, which said that the allied troops were now ready to invade, was correct, the reporter was misled on where the invasion might occur.
Rather than refusing to answer the question that might give away secrets, the Pentagon official who was a key source for the story told the reporter that the western flank of the invasion would occur along the Kuwaiti border, about 200 miles from its actual location.
"I allowed him to draw or infer conclusions that were untrue," the source said in an interview after the cessation of hostilities. "I told him this was a hypothetical," the source said, and then drew a map of the battle that was inaccurate.
"That was widespread, that sort of thing," the official said.
But in many other cases the Pentagon was hardly so cagey. "There are a lot of people with good sources who talk too much," said one military officer.
When Francis reported last Monday that allied troops were now 150 miles from Baghdad, a Pentagon official rushed down to Francis' office in the Pentagon and began pointing to maps, trying to convince him his story wasn't true.
"I don't know anything about that, I'd be careful with that," Francis recalls the official saying. But the report was true, and Francis felt that with the battle nearly done, the story did not jeopardize national security.