While watching the tapes of U.S. Army Special Operations warriors parachuting into Afghanistan on a dangerous raid, I felt a great surge of pride for the skill, professionalism and daring of our raiders.

What I didn't know was that before our troopers had completed their mission, The Washington Post and other members of the U.S. press had rushed to tell the world that our Rangers and Green Berets were operating in Afghanistan on a highly secret hit-and-run mission.

Had this happened on June 6, 1944, when the 82d and 101st Airborne Divisions jumped into Normandy, Ike would've pulled the guilty parties' press credentials and put them on the next boat home. In chains.

Fifty-seven years later, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld was all bark and no bite when he blasted the Pentagon types who leaked the story and the reporters who colluded with them. In his tongue-lashing he rightly said that they had violated "federal criminal law" and that they had no regard "for the lives of the people involved in the operation." But that was as far as it went.

Fortunately, our brave men accomplished their mission without taking any lumps. But the Pentagon snitches, much of the press and the retired brass -- recycled as TV rent-a-pundits -- are putting our warriors in jeopardy. We don't need loose lips telling our terrorist opponents what's going down. Bet your boots that whether they're hiding in caves in Afghanistan or somewhere in our country, they are tuned to TVs and are working their cell phones.

The war against the Taliban and al Qaeda isn't another Desert Storm. We're not fighting Iraq, where most of the opposing generals attended U.S. military schools and knew the drill, and where almost nightly Stormin' Norman could and did tell the world what his troops had done on D plus 1 and what was going down on D plus 42.

The difference between Desert Storm and the War Against Terrorism is that this time around, we're slugging it out with an unconventional opponent, and most of the tactical advantages are his. The terrorist is like the audience in a darkened theater, while we're the actors on the lighted stage. He sits shrouded in darkness, checking out our weaknesses and strengths, and when his attack plan is perfect, as on Sept. 11, he strikes when his target is the most vulnerable and then runs. To help defeat him, both press corps and pundits must shut off the stage lights and stop telegraphing our plans to the enemy.

Not only are they giving classified information to our enemy, the press is too often relaying Taliban propaganda under the guise of "This is an unconfirmed report, but U.S. bombers struck a hospital in Afghanistan." If it's unconfirmed, then it must be handled responsibly and not treated as headline news until it's checked out. I find it mind-boggling that the networks and so many reporters are letting Taliban spin masters use them this way.

The mindless hemorrhage of secrets and these propaganda coups are driven, of course, by the insatiable appetite of 24-hour cable TV, which must be constantly fed by reporters and editors desperate for breaking news and bent on scooping the competition and maybe winning an Emmy. But that doesn't make it smart.

The media argues that the First Amendment gives them the right to keep the American people informed. But they need to remember that those brave men and women who defend America -- some of whom jumped onto an airfield in the dark of an Afghan night -- are the very Americans guaranteeing that right with their very lives, and then censure themselves accordingly.

I talk to hundreds of members of the armed forces every week and usually have a fair idea of the Big Picture. But I keep this info to myself when, in my judgment, I'd be endangering lives or giving away bits and pieces of a complicated game plan. The press needs to show the same common sense and caution and stop aiding and abetting the enemy's spymasters and spin machine.

Retired Col. Ben Willis, a combat-veteran paratrooper, says, "It's the people's right to know versus the soldier's right to live."

We citizens don't need to know every detail of every military operation in this new kind of war. Nor should the media tell us and hence our enemy.

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(c) 2001 David H. Hackworth
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