CBS Pentagon correspondent David Martin this week offered a candid public explanation about why he pulled a story on Improvised Explosive Devices, or IEDs, in Iraq. Basically, it was because a senior military officer asked him to. And since it was very close to deadline, he did. Martin tells Brooke why, in certain cases, the military deserves the benefit of the doubt.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: On CBS Public Eye, the website where CBS viewers and CBS news staff can talk to each other, Pentagon reporter David Martin this week posted a candid explanation of his reasons for holding a story on Improvised Explosive Devices, or IEDs, in Iraq. Basically, it was because a senior military officer told him to, and since it was very close to deadline, he did. But it's more complicated than that. In fact, Martin says it's usually more complicated than that.
DAVID MARTIN: It is. For one thing, the senior military officer didn't outright say I want you to hold that story. In fact, he said what you do is your decision, but I'm telling you that story has information which we don't want the enemy to have. I had come up with a story which identified a problem that the Pentagon was having in trying to defeat these IEDs and what the Pentagon was doing in an effort to correct that problem. We were planning on it being the lead story one night last week, and, late in the afternoon, this officer's aide came to me and said he'd like to talk to me. And I told him, you know, your argument does not exactly overwhelm me. I mean, he wasn't making a clear-cut case. You put that in a story and the enemy will do this, and that will kill American soldiers.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: But you decided to give him the benefit of the doubt.
DAVID MARTIN: I did. There's a war on, and part of my job is to go out on a fairly regular basis to Walter Reed Army Medical Center and do stories about the wounded. Whenever you walk into the physical therapy room at Walter Reed, it is filled with young men missing limbs, thanks to IEDs, and you know you just don't want to have anything to do with anything that would contribute to that. And that's why it really was not a hard decision for me, or for the broadcast, to give the military the benefit of the doubt on this.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So then how do you decide that a story contains sensitive information that shouldn't see the light of day and when do you decide to go against the advice of military authorities?
DAVID MARTIN: Well, I like to say that it's kind of like pornography. You can't come up with a definition that fits all cases, but you know it when you see it. In this case of the IED story, this is not like warrantless eavesdropping or secret CIA prisons. I didn't see any larger issue here that would justify any level of risk.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You say you've gone with the advice of military officials over the years and held a story, and almost every time, you write, it's turned out that going with the story wouldn't have caused any harm. Do you have regrets about holding a lot of those stories?
DAVID MARTIN: Well, sure - I mean, regrets that you could have had a real good story, but compare that regret to a regret you would have if you reported something that arguably got someone killed. In 1983, the U.S. was making a lot of noise about a Caribbean island called Granada - [ [BOTH AT ONCE]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: [LAUGHS]
DAVID MARTIN: - where Soviets were allegedly supporting what the Reagan administration called sort of a Communist bastion in the Caribbean. And there was a case in which some American medical students on that island were being held hostage. I reported that an aircraft carrier and a Marine amphibious group had been sent down there to go in and rescue these students. I had no idea that we were about to invade Grenada. I reported that on Friday, and on Monday we invaded Grenada, and I was subsequently told that the Cubans had sent reinforcements to Granada to help organize their defenses over the weekend and that the way the Cubans had found out that the aircraft carrier and the Marine amphibious group was going down there was from my story.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So fair enough - once burned, twice shy, or more than twice shy. But do you feel that you've ever been had, or, to make it less personal, do you feel that the audience was sometimes cheated of important news as a result of your following military advice that really didn't, in the end, hold water?
DAVID MARTIN: No, I don't feel that I was had, because it's not like these are cases where they're trying to argue that I should cover up a scandal. They're simply arguing that I should hold a story on a military operation. And if I end up erring on the side of caution, so be it.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: David Martin is the Pentagon correspondent for CBS News.
BOB GARFIELD: Coming up, while Iraq burns, reporters there burn out - and Al-Jazeera comes to America.