Pentagon under fire for blocking journalist embeds around Ukraine

Associated Press/Czarek Sokolowski

The Biden administration is under fire for refusing to allow journalists to embed with U.S. forces outside Ukraine as the threat of a Russian invasion looms. 

Pentagon press secretary John Kirby was grilled multiple times this week by reporters in the Pentagon’s briefing room and on television over the decision, which he claimed was to make room for diplomacy between Western and Russian officials, an effort that has so far faltered.  

“There’s a lot of factors that go into deciding how we handle media access. Some of these decisions are very difficult to make. We take it very seriously, and right now we’re trying to balance a lot of factors in terms of the time and space for diplomacy,” Kirby told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer on “The Situation Room” late Wednesday.

But with more than 100,000 Kremlin troops already placed at Ukraine’s border, including roughly 2,000 more added in the past 24 hours, a full-scale invasion could come in a matter of weeks, according to U.S. officials. 

With such an impending threat, journalists argue, it’s imperative to have reporters placed alongside the 3,000 U.S. troops being sent to Eastern Europe to ensure full transparency. 

“U.S. journalists, Pentagon reporters have been embedded with military troops … during all these recent conflicts in recent years. I don’t understand why you don’t want some transparency,” Blitzer said to Kirby. 

Blitzer is not the only journalist to press the issue. 

Earlier on Wednesday, the Pentagon Press Association sent a letter to Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and national security adviser Jake Sullivan asking that reporters be allowed to embed with U.S. troops sent across the Atlantic, a move that is especially important for those Americans whose loved ones serve, they argued.  

“The public in a democratic society deserves independent media coverage of their sons and daughters in uniform, and that cannot be provided today without first-hand, on-the-ground reporting of troop activities in Europe,” the association’s board of directors wrote. 

The same day, The National Press Club and multiple outlets — including The New York Times, ABC News, Time, Stars and Stripes and the Military Times — also pressed the Defense Department “to permit access for journalists so that they can rightfully keep the American public and families of our troops informed.” 

The Military Reporters and Editors Association made a similar, formal request to Austin last week.

“By allowing reporters and photographers to show what life is like for U.S. troops on the ground, in the air, and at sea, the Pentagon will allow the American public to understand the responsibilities and sacrifices that both service members and their families make,” the group wrote. 

The Biden administration earlier this month announced that some 3,000 U.S. troops would be sent to Poland, Romania and Germany to bolster NATO’s eastern flank as the Kremlin amasses well over 100,000 of its forces on Ukraine’s borders with Russia and Belarus.  

Western nations fear Russia’s continuous military buildup — along with joint wargames with Belarus that began this month — signals an invasion into Ukraine in the coming weeks, similar to its move into the Crimean Peninsula in 2014. 

With American troops heading into the region and several thousand more on heightened alert for potential deployments, White House and Pentagon reporters are seeking specific reasons for the embed block. 

Asked on Wednesday why the Pentagon has yet to commit to media embeds, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said she would “have to dig into this a little bit further” but that it has “been our overarching approach” to support allowing journalists to embed with U.S. forces, generally speaking. 

At the Pentagon the same day, Kirby — the official charged with the decision to allow such embeds — deflected multiple questions as to why he has not given the go ahead to place reporters alongside troops. 

“Any decision to provide media access to our troops … is a decision that we take seriously,” Kirby said. “There’s lots of factors that go into that. … But we’re still working our way through what sort of coverage is best suited for this particular mission.” 

“I’m having a hard time understanding how less transparency reflects the national security interests of a nation that promotes freedom of press worldwide,” Wall Street Journal national security correspondent Nancy Youssef said to Kirby later in the briefing.  

Asked Thursday whether the Pentagon has made any changes to its stance, a Pentagon spokesman told The Hill they could not offer “anything more at this time aside from what Mr. Kirby said.” 

American journalists have traveled alongside U.S. forces into conflict since at least World War II, but the level of access has varied greatly over the years. 

During the Vietnam War, reporters got considerable access to deployed troops and their operations until some officials began to think the coverage — which showed the true, unending nature of the battles — was undermining the conflict. 

Then in the 1990s, the modern embed program, created under the George H.W. Bush administration, assembled reporters in press pools but usually kept them away from action. 

In the lead-up to the March 2003 invasion of Iraq, however, as many as 775 journalists were traveling with units that would see action, an effort to help sway public opinion in support of the war.  

On Wednesday, when journalists pointed out that war correspondents were sent alongside troops prior to the Iraq invasion — a conflict before which diplomacy was also emphasized — Kirby said it was not a fair comparison.  

“This is a modest number of forces that are … relocating to provide reassurance to allies,” he said of the current situation. 

Tags embedded journalists Jake Sullivan Jen Psaki John Kirby Journalism Lloyd Austin Russia Ukraine

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