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Jewish World Review Oct. 1, 2001 / 14 Tishrei, 5762

Bob Greene

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The ominous new
power of loose lips -- THEY did it with scissors.

According to newspapermen who covered the European front in World War II, that is how military censors often made certain that copy sent back to the United States by war correspondents contained no information the U.S. government did not want made public: The censors literally cut the offending passages out of the typed-up pages before the stories were transmitted back home.

As the U.S. enters into these uncertain days, there is a lesson in that. Because the world itself has been utterly transformed technologically since those "Loose Lips Sink Ships" years. Loose lips do, indeed sink ships -- and bring down fighter planes. Military forces hope to approach enemy targets in secrecy.

Which is going to be immensely difficult in the battles to come. In each war, secrecy has been incrementally harder to maintain. Vietnam was often called the first television war -- and even though the pictures were not live, the immediacy of film footage had an enormous effect on the public's feelings about the war. Americans saw warfare and death through a TV camera lens. They didn't like it.

Which was no surprise to the government. In World War II, U.S. military censors routinely banned American newspapers and magazines from showing photos of dead soldiers. It was only after Life magazine convinced the government that to publish a particular photo of American soldiers who had been killed on a beach would help readers back home understand exactly what was at stake that the censors relented.

In the Gulf War, many old-time veterans were outraged that the U.S. military command was giving regular, internationally televised briefings. If the American people could hear and see what the generals were saying, so could the enemy. It didn't seem to matter -- that war was concluded quickly.

Now, though, we are in new territory. Putting aside the question of whether 21st Century reporters can be persuaded to hold back information, there is an unprecedented complication.

(If the concept of reporters holding back information is foreign to you -- if you assume reporters would never do that -- then you only have to look back to the 1930s and 1940s, when the American people did not know that Franklin D. Roosevelt used a wheelchair. Press photographers did not shoot pictures of him in the wheelchair; print and radio reporters never referred to the fact. Try to conceive of that now: a president spending much of his time in a wheelchair, and the public does not know because of a gentlemen's agreement among the press corps.)

But the new complication has nothing to do with any gentlemen's agreement. It has to do with the Internet -- and its ramifications for troop movements.

Even if all accredited war correspondents were to agree to keep their mouths shut about troop movements, much of the world today is hooked up to the global computer network. You may have noticed that President Bush, in his address to the nation last week, referred to a Web address where relief donations could be sent. Think about the newness of that: a president, preparing his people for war, giving out an Internet address with the implicit knowledge most of the public would understand it, and be able to use it.

And the U.S. troops aboard the ships heading for foreign waters and possible battle -- some of the troops, in interviews as they left their bases here, said that they planned to stay in touch with loved ones by using e-mail. Just that quick.

So . . . in our very different world, how does the Pentagon -- or the military command of any of our allies or enemies -- make certain some private citizen somewhere in the world does not notice warships or warplanes, notify someone somewhere who is deeply interested in just such information . . . and give away secrets that can cost lives and lose battles? Put the traditional press aside for a moment -- how do commanding officers keep anything silent in a universe where instant communication is a keyboard tap away? Where anyone with a laptop computer can get the news out faster than Edward R. Murrow could ever count on?

Scissors aren't going to be of any use this time around. Loose lips have a potential power they never did before.

JWR contributor Bob Greene is a novelist and columnist. Send your comments to him by clicking here.

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