31 July 2015, Committee to Protect Journalists: In times of war, Pentagon reserves right to treat journalists like spies
June 2015, DOD: Office of General Counsel: Law of War Manual (PDF)
2012, Army: Judge Advocate General's Legal Center and School: International and Operational Law Department: Law of Armed Conflict Deskbook (PDF)
AUG. 10, 2015
The Pentagon's Dangerous Views on the Wartime Press
By THE EDITORIAL BOARD
The Defense Department earlier this summer released a comprehensive manual outlining its interpretation of the law of war. The 1,176-page document,  the first of its kind, includes guidelines on the treatment of journalists covering armed conflicts that would make their work more dangerous, cumbersome and subject to censorship. Those should be repealed immediately.
Journalists, the manual says, are generally regarded as civilians, but may in some instances be deemed "unprivileged belligerents," a legal term that applies to fighters that are afforded fewer protections than the declared combatants in a war. In some instances, the document says, "the relaying of information (such as providing information of immediate use in combat operations) could constitute taking a direct part in hostilities."
The manual warns that "Reporting on military operations can be very similar to collecting intelligence or even spying," so it calls on journalists to "act openly and with the permission of relevant authorities." It says that governments "may need to censor journalists' work or take other security measures so that journalists do not reveal sensitive information to the enemy."
Allowing this document to stand as guidance for commanders, government lawyers and officials of other nations would do severe damage to press freedoms. Authoritarian leaders around the world could point to it to show that their despotic treatment of journalists -- including Americans -- is broadly in line with the standards set by the United States government.
One senior Pentagon official, who was asked to explain when a journalist might be deemed an "unprivileged belligerent," pointed to the assassination of the Afghan military commander Ahmad Shah Massoud in September 2001. That example is preposterous because Mr. Massoud was killed by assassins who posed as television journalists and hid explosives in a camera. They were not, in fact, journalists.
The manual's argument that some reporting activities could be construed as taking part in hostilities is ludicrous. That vaguely-worded standard could be abused by military officers to censor or even target journalists.
Equally bizarre is the document's suggestion that reporters covering wars should operate only with the permission of "relevant authorities" or risk being regarded as spies. To cover recent wars, including the civil war in Libya in 2011 and the war in Syria, reporters have had to sneak across borders, at great personal risk, to gather information. For the Pentagon to conflate espionage with journalism feeds into the propaganda of authoritarian governments. Egypt, for instance, has tried to discredit the work of Western journalists by falsely insinuating that many of them are spies.
Even more disturbing is the document's broad assertion that journalists' work may need to be censored lest it reveal sensitive information to the enemy. This unqualified statement seems to contravene American constitutional and case law, and offers other countries that routinely censor the press a handy reference point.
Of the 61 journalists killed last year, 59 percent died covering wars, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists, which published a critical analysis  on the Pentagon's new manual.
In earlier documents on the law of armed conflict, the American military has offered more sensible guidance on the treatment of journalists. A guidebook published in 2012  by the United States Army Judge Advocate General's Legal Center and School says that journalists should be protected as civilians "provided they take no action adversely affecting their status as civilians."
A spokesman for the National Security Council declined to say whether White House officials contributed to or signed off on the manual. Astonishingly, the official pointed to a line in the preface, which says it does not necessarily reflect the views of the "U.S. government as a whole."
That inane disclaimer won't stop commanders from pointing to the manual when they might find it convenient to silence the press. The White House should call on Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter to revise this section, which so clearly runs contrary to American law and principles.