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Afghan Rumors Unnerve US Officials - 2001-11-06

The Pentagon is not just fighting a real war inside Afghanistan. It is also involved in a war of words, of claims and counter-claims, in the news media.

Call it "the claim game." The Taleban says something happened, like a U.S. helicopter being shot down with American casualties. The Pentagon then denies it.

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld often tries to make light of what Pentagon officials describe as the Taleban's disinformation efforts, as he did in this exchange with a reporter Tuesday:

Rumsfeld: "Four service members were killed?"

Reporter: "It was reported that four..."

Rumsfeld: "Could it have been another Taleban report?"

Reporter: "I don't know. I'm hoping you can clarify..."

Rumsfeld: "They are very busy, those folks [Taleban]."

Reporter: "Right. And has there been any..."

Rumsfeld: "They must have a hot line right into the media all across the globe."

Yet, Mr. Rumsfeld also has a serious charge to make in rejecting such claims. He urges reporters to consider the source. "I think," he said, "it is very important, when you read claims or you hear claims like that, to recognize that the people making them are the people who are using mosques for ammunition storage."

"They're using mosques for command-and-control centers," added Mr. Rumsfeld. "They are viciously putting their military equipment in close proximity to hospitals and to schools and to residential districts for the very purpose because they know, and hope, and pray that they will be the safest there. And they're perfectly willing to put at risk the people who populate those residential areas and those hospitals and those schools."

"And one ought to have a good deal of pause about those claims, it seems to me, after all the evidence that has been accumulated," said Mr. Rumsfeld."

Pentagon officials privately accuse some news organizations of acting irresponsibly in reporting Taleban claims before first checking with U.S. officials for their response. The Pentagon cites scores of examples, including reports of downed U.S. aircraft and Americans being held captive.

Mr. Rumsfeld said it is all fiction. "You know, one way to think about this is that when we have a helicopter that goes down, no matter for what purpose, we tell you," he added. "And these other things are not happening. They are fiction. The idea that the two Predators [helicopters] were shot down by the Taleban, the idea that helicopters have been shot down, it's just not so. The idea that Americans are captured and they're currently being detained is not so."

But the Pentagon's problem with claims involves more than just those emanating from inside Afghanistan. Some U.S. reports are unnerving officials, like one this week in the New Yorker magazine by veteran investigative journalist Seymour Hersh. He says U.S. commandos who staged the only major ground assault of the Afghanistan campaign ran into stiff Taleban resistance and suffered far more casualties than acknowledged by the Pentagon.

In this case, the Pentagon has now admitted a few more minor injuries, including a broken finger. But officials remain adamant that there was no stiff Taleban resistance that contributed to serious American injuries.