Adm. Leighton Smith Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

Shaping the U.S. Role in Peacekeeping Operations: Conversation with Adm. Leighton Smith; 4/1/97 by Harry Kreisler

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The Press

Tell us a little about your relationship with the press in this role in Bosnia, because it would seem that their picture of you and what you're doing becomes important for the support that you're going to have at home.

Well, we saw that and I must tell you that I enjoyed the relationship that I had with the press. I felt very comfortable with the press. There are some very, very professional people. I want to tell you a story about a rescue attempt. When we went into Bosnia, a major part of our planning was press relations. How were we going to establish an environment of trust? We wanted to make sure that the press knew, and in fact I told them, "If I know it you will know it unless giving it to you hazards the safety of the forces under my command. In that case I will not give it to you and I will do everything that I can to prevent you from getting it." But I knew the press was going to be all over Bosnia (they were probably placed before we got there), and we might be able to learn something from them. We wanted them to call us when they got a story, check it out with the professionals, the people who understood. What do you want to know, we will tell you. And we got that. We set up a daily briefing. It was not cheap. Basically we rented a large part of the Holiday Inn in Sarajevo, paid a ton of money for it, and every day we had operational briefings. As we moved through the military, we began to bring more and more of the civilians in so the civilians could say that this is what we're doing, this is how we're trying to integrate our efforts. Sure, there were times when there were bumps in the road and they got sort of angry with us because we didn't do this or didn't do that. But the fact is that over time, at least the seven months I was there, I felt that we had a very good relationship with the press. We needed that support.

Let me tell you a story about January 2. The Prime Minister of Bosnia now is a fellow by the name of Hasan Muratovic. At that time, in early January, Muratovic was the president or the chairman of the committee for cooperation with IFOR. He had basically been the chairman of the committee for cooperation with UNPRO-4 and then he was IFOR. I would not describe Muratovic as being cooperative by any way, shape, or form. In early January/late December, 16 Muslims were arrested in Serb territory. Some of these Muslims might have been there purposely to create an event, others of them may have been there honestly. Some of them may have been there snooping around, trying to do things that perhaps they shouldn't have been doing. I'm not making a judgment, but 16 of them got snatched. I didn't learn about it until January 2, and maybe there had been a delay; some of it was our own forces not reporting because they thought they could take care of it. But Muratovic started in on the IFOR the same way he did on UNPRO-4, trying to trash us in the media. And I called him up, and I called Foreign Minister Sasserby up, and I said, "The worst possible mistake you can make is taking on IFOR in the press. Let me tell you why. The mamas and papas in Kansas and Ohio aren't shot in the butt with their kids being over here taking care of your country. And if you trash public opinion, they're going to tell President Clinton to get their kids out of here and he will do it. You better shut the hell up. And they did.

I've got one more story to tell you about the press. In September, we mounted three separate rescue efforts to try to get the two French pilots. They were shot down on the first of September, 1995. The first one was from an aircraft carrier. On board that aircraft carrier was a media pool. I called out there and I talked to Commander Fallon because they saw all these helicopters going and I said, "For God's sake, go down and ask the media, please don't let that story go. We did not get the French pilots, we didn't get close to the place we wanted to go. We are going to go again and if the story leaks we are going to be in trouble, because we can't go." That story never saw the light of day until it was leaked out of the Pentagon about three weeks later. I went out the next day and talked to them. I said, "I want to thank you for this. We're going to go again tonight and we're going to go tomorrow night and I want to just ask you to hold and I promise you, if we get these guys, you will get the first crack at the story. I give you my solemn oath. But please hold this." And they held it.

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