Press overuses anonymous military sources in Phillips' rescue

Many folks like a good shoot-’em-up Tom Clancy novel, filled with supersecret spy stuff, technologically amazing weapons, and daring young men and women outfitted in black with killing gizmos of all kinds. So, too, do some folks like movies that show ultra-military sophistication and operations, many adapted from those same Clancy novels.

In novels and movies, presumably, no one really dies if fictional operational details are revealed.

But should we be reading details of real, life-at-risk military operations, such as those found in The Washington Post and The New York Times and other press outlets regarding a kidnapped merchant marine captain? Especially when those stories carry not a single named source?

In today’s Post, reporter Ann Scott Tyson details how Navy SEALs killed three Somali pirates and rescued Capt. Richard Phillips, whose Maersk Alabama had been attacked by pirates. Ms. Tyson’s story is based solely on interviews with “military officials,” “the officials,” “a senior military official,” and “the official.” There is no named source in the story.

There is this, though, about “the senior military official”: He “spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the matter on the record.” [emphasis added]

The Times story by Robert D. McFadden and Scott Shane — in the section specific to Capt. Phillips’ rescue — quotes only “senior Navy officials” and “the officials.” Similarly, the rescue portion of a CNN story only quotes “a military official” and “the U.S. military.”

Somali pirates, of course, have threatened revenge. “From now on, after the killings by the U.S. and France, we will add some harsher steps in our dealings with hostages, particularly American and French hostages,” said Ali Nur, a Somali pirate quoted by CNN.

No doubt pirates could figure out what happened to their three fellow felons and who did it, even without news reports.

But if any detail of a military operation in an anonymously sourced news report leads to the death of a hostage held by Somali pirates, surely the family of that sailor would like to know the name and rank of the “officials” whose tongues wagged too loosely.

If senior military officials are going to release details of a military operation, then they ought to attach their names — and reporters ought to hold them to that, deadline or “breaking news” be damned.

6 replies »

  1. Maybe some of that reflexive, gratuitous secrecy is a holdover from the Bush administration, which carried secrecy to ridiculous extremes.

  2. I’m guessing that everything was leaked out in a timely, condoned manner. Everything was leaked after it all went down and I’m assuming that those doing the leaking are high enough up to give themselves permission if they wanted to. I figure they wanted to give the public notice about about what happened as soon as they could so they could buy themselves time to put all of their ducks in a row for a public statement. (Some of the earlier reports I heard seem contradictory.)

  3. “The killing of our boys was aggression, and the U.S. will see what they get from their operation,” he said…….”

    This has all the humor of hamas and hezbollah. They attack someone then when the country responds they claim THEY need revenge. It is almost funny, if it was not so deadly serious.

    So, pirates hijack ships, but tell us we are aggressive? These people are just to stupid to be allowed to live! They are a danger to themselves.

  4. I concur with Djerrid. The DoD and the administration want the story out…killing people is how we express pride here in America after all.

  5. Agreed– unless of course they were so senior they simply forgot their name.

    Seriously though — Ms. Tyson should have insisted on the name for her source, but I can imagine her there, quote in hand in the middle of the unfolding drama, thinking about the message rather than the messenger.


  6. So would the anonymous sources be appropriate if there was an explanation as to why the sources wished to remain anonymous? Or were there just too many that wished to remain anonymous?