WASHINGTON - National security adviser Condoleezza Rice has asked TV networks not to go live with unviewed, prerecorded videotapes of messages from Taliban and al-Qaeda leaders, worried that they could be sending signals to terrorists around the world.
The charge of censorship was immediately denied by the White House, which pointed out that Ms. Rice was asking for voluntary cooperation and "responsibility" from the networks.
She did not request that networks refrain from airing all statements from Taliban or al-Qaeda leaders or not do their own interviews. But she asked that prepackaged videos that might have been produced with an ulterior motive be reviewed first. In a rush to bring viewers the latest developments, networks have frequently aired such tapes without first watching them.
A few U.S. officials noted that when Osama bin Laden was shown in a prerecorded video Sunday, he was wearing a U.S.-style camouflage jacket and a Timex Ironman Triathlon watch. The officials are worried that the jacket and watch might have been a signal to co-conspirators around the globe.
Networks watching the tape before airing it might or might not have chosen to zoom in on bin Laden's face rather than showing the full frame.
White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said yesterday there were no specific reasons to believe signals had been sent to terrorists, but that with communication increasingly difficult from Afghanistan because of aerial bombing, such a scenario could not be disregarded.
"Osama bin Laden's message is propaganda, calling on people to kill Americans,'' Mr. Fleisc
her said. "At worst, he could be issuing orders to his followers to initiate such attacks.'' He emphasized that Ms. Rice asked the networks to exercise their judgment in airing the messages of Taliban and al-Qaeda spokesmen. "She stressed that she was making a request and that editorial decisions can only be made by the media,'' Mr. Fleischer said.
The five major networks - NBC, ABC, CBS, Fox, and CNN - pledged to watch pretaped feeds before putting them on the air. CNN, which is watched throughout the Middle East, was the first network to say it will not put prerecorded videotapes from Taliban or al-Qaeda spokesmen in their entirety on the air without review.
Secretary of State Powell said, "I think it's responsible on the part of CNN to shade that a little bit so that we don't have it coming full force at us and with the potential of perhaps conveying some kind of message.''
Mr. Powell said State Department analysts pored over the videotape of bin Laden released Sunday after U.S. and British planes began bombing.
They were struck that the video had been made in daylight, before the attacks began, and that bin Laden was wearing a Timex watch and an American-military-style camouflage jacket over his traditional clothing.
There has been widespread public speculation that one reason he might wear such obvious symbols of the enemy he hates would be as a preset signal for further terrorism.
It has become clear this week that bin Laden and his network are using videotapes broadcast by al-Jazeera, an Arabic-language satellite television channel based in Qatar, to make naked appeals for Muslim support. For example, bin Laden has begun championing the Palestinian cause on his videotapes.
The Bush administration, starting with Secretary Powell, has begun to question al-Jazeera's journalistic credibility, complaining that a Western viewpoint is lacking. They also noted that bin Laden's tapes have been broadcast over and over without a counter opinion.
Bush administration officials have accused al-Jazeera of pedd|ling "inflammatory rhetoric'' and giving too much time to "vitriolic, irresponsible'' statements by al-Qaeda militants.
A spokesman for al-Jazeera said yesterday, "We are no mouthpiece for anyone. We do try to get our facts right. We try to give our viewers as comprehensive coverage as possible.''