Journalists covering the Afghan war rely heavily on coalition forces to gain access to a hardscrabble backcountry populated by Taliban militants. So the reaction was far from muted when the news broke last week that the Defense Department was paying a controversial private firm to profile reporters seeking to accompany — or "embed" — with troops. Reporters quickly complained that it was tantamount to building a blacklist and that the U.S. military was deliberately working to sideline journalists critical of its mission.
Stars and Stripes, the independent, Pentagon-funded newspaper, reported that the Department of Defense had hired the Rendon Group to assess whether the prior work of reporters asking to be embedded was "positive," "negative" or "neutral." The newspaper highlighted one journalist profile that said its purpose was to "gauge the expected sentiment of [the reporter's] work while on an embed mission in Afghanistan." Military officials in Afghanistan quickly downplayed the charges, explaining that the profiles were not an attempt to rate reporters or news outlets but rather a way to gain background information to better equip officers for interviews and help public-affairs officers gauge likely areas of interest. Rendon said the same in a statement. Access has never been denied based on previous reporting, it insisted. Nevertheless, Rendon's contract will be terminated as of Sept. 1.
However, journalists who have had frustrating experiences trying to gain access suspect that the profiling may have played a part. A freelance TV producer for al-Jazeera who asked to remain anonymous says he applied for four different embeds with U.S. forces in early February. After multiple delays over the course of several months, three of the requests were canceled. The fourth was finally approved a half a year later, but only when he bypassed military public affairs and directly contacted the officer in charge of the unit he wished to embed with. According to reports, the Rendon Group was originally hired in 2001 to track the reporting of the Doha-based network, which has been a fierce critic of U.S. policy in Iraq and Afghanistan and accused of bias by U.S. officials. Although he has never seen his profile, the producer suspects he was blacklisted because of his affiliation.
He has yet to see his background profile. But I have seen mine. I recently applied to embed with U.S. Special Forces to cover a new initiative to raise and train civilian militias in Taliban strongholds. After waiting for more than a month for a response, I was accidentally copied on an e-mail sent by the public-affairs department to the presiding officer who would give or deny approval. A color-coded pie chart showed that 47% of my stories were deemed negative, 47% neutral and 6% positive. In a section titled "Key Takeaway Points," it was mentioned that my stories have been lengthy, with plenty of context and sources. It was added, however, that "most notably, he tends to quote experts" from a British think tank "which has been critical of the coalition mission and the Afghan government." A day after the e-mail — which included the Rendon analysis — was sent to the officer, my application was rejected without explanation.
A U.S. military spokeswoman in Afghanistan, Lieutenant Commander Christine Sidenstricker, acknowledged that public-affairs officers in "a couple of instances" had been found to have interfered with embed applications and were "corrected immediately." To her knowledge, she says, this has never happened in Afghanistan. "A cursory review of Afghan coverage completely disproves" the notion that it's a policy, she says, pointing out that reporters who are deeply critical of U.S. forces have been allowed to embed multiple times. The Rendon Group's media analysis, she went on, was part of a broader one-year, $1.5 million contract to ease some of the workload borne by coalition forces in the country — "perfectly normal" in a wartime context.
Several journalists were less troubled by the Pentagon's vetting process than its choice of the Rendon Group, which was instrumental in forming the Iraqi National Congress, a CIA-funded opposition group that went on to provide the Bush Administration with bogus information on Iraq's alleged weapons of mass destruction that was the groundwork for the 2003 invasion. Journalist Nir Rosen (who reported for TIME in Iraq) blogged that there "should be a tension between the media and the government. We are not on the same team." He praised an Army colonel for allowing him to embed despite a Rendon assessment that was highly critical of his reporting. Another journalist, P.J. Tobia, who has embedded with U.S. forces in Afghanistan and also obtained his profile, called the profiles "creepy" in a blog post. But he was most troubled, he said, by Rendon claims that such reports did not really exist.