Maybe presidents shouldn't be permitted to watch movies--at least not in times of military crisis.

During the Vietnam War, Richard Nixon's favorite film was Patton, a movie about the daring Army general who overcame all odds in World War II by rescuing American troops trapped in the Battle of the Bulge. Time and again Nixon made his top advisers sit through Patton--even during a four-hour cruise aboard the presidential yacht Sequoia--before invading Cambodia. Things got so bad former National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger later quipped, "If I have to see that movie once more, I'll shoot myself."

Last month George Bush asked Paramount Pictures to send him an advance copy of Flight of the Intruder, a film that reportedly inspired the president and was released only days after his declaration of war in the Persian Gulf. This latest example of revisionist history, Flight of the Intruder offers an easy explanation of why America lost the Vietnam War. In synch with current thinking at the Pentagon, the Intruder suggests we lost the war because our elected officials refused to unleash the full power of our aerial arsenal on the enemy. We also lost, so the theory goes, because of the antiwar protests--and the media's coverage of domestic dissent. Richard Nixon is the invisible, if not unlikely, hero of Intruder, the movie George Bush watched as he sent us to war. For Nixon was the president in 1972 who, after saturating himself in the lore of Patton, bombed Hanoi and mined Haiphong.

In his first week at war, Bush has surpassed many times over the bombing campaign launched by Nixon, his political benefactor, in Vietnam. But unlike Nixon in Vietnam, the Bush Administration has given us no comprehensive picture of the results. In the first 24 hours, it told us of our phenomenal successes. The next day, the president warned us--not surprisingly, blaming the press--against being "overly euphoric." Now the administration is withholding estimates of civilian casualties and bomb damage because of "inadequate information."

There is a reason we are riding a seesaw of elation and despair in this war--the government is hiding the ball, manipulating the news, as it tries to guard against "another Vietnam." If you're wondering why there's so much confusion and uncertainty, so many unconfirmed and speculative reports, you might ask the administration why it butchered the ground rules for the media's coverage of this war.

You might ask what it has to hide.

Earlier this month a coalition of newspapers, magazines and writers filed suit in New York against the president, Department of Defense and administration officials over their "policy, pattern and practice" of obstructing the news gathering and First Amendment rights of the press. The federal suit was lodged January 9 by such alternative journals as The Nation, Harper's magazine, L.A. Weekly, Mother Jones, and the Village Voice, as well as authors E.L. Doctorow and William Styron. Former New York Times correspondent Sydney Schanberg, who covered the war in Southeast Asia and now writes for Newsday (which is not a party to the suit), also joined the action. None of the major television networks or daily papers now covering the Gulf war has sued.

A look at the complaint reveals the administration's unprecedented attempt to hamstring and bamboozle the media in their coverage of the current conflict. Among other things, the Department of Defense has issued rules excluding U.S. journalists "from areas where American military forces are engaged in overt operations . . . ." Apart from access restrictions, the government also has given some reporters fewer rights than others by setting up "pool arrangements" for their coverage of the operation.

These pool arrangements are the principal weapon of the military press officers, who, according to the British Economist, "have had plenty of time to organise things so that too much bad news does not get out." Only those reporters who have enlisted for the mobile reporting team (MRT) will be allowed to accompany troops. They must pass basic training tests and wear uniforms. Significantly, they must allow their news articles to be censored for security purposes before being pooled for the use of all other journalists.

The power to decide when and where the MRTs will go rests with the military information machine. Military press officers retain the right to censor bad news, or even stories that suggest "military incompetence." As the Economist recently discovered, the United States has created only two eighteen-member MRTs for our entire ground forces. That's only four reporters per division (as compared with the customarily more secretive British, who will have more than three times as many reporters accompanying their one division).

So what's all the fuss, you ask?
As The Nation's lawsuit shows, these rules are unprecedented in the history of American combat. From our earliest military struggles until 1983, the American press retained wide access to our forces and battlefields. Even during World War II, when censorship was last formally invoked, correspondents "flew on bombing missions, rode destroyers, went on patrols [and] accompanied assault troops in the first stages of battle in numerous invasions," including North Africa, Sicily, Guadalcanal, the Philippines, Normandy beaches on D-day, and Iwo Jima.

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David J. Bodney