In a March 31 press conference, Air Force Col. John Atkins, deputy commander of the Joint Personnel Recovery Agency, at Fort Belvoir, Va., said that family members' remarks to the press could by used by the Iraqis to make life more difficult for American POWs.
"There's an old adage with interrogators, that to know you is to exploit you," Atkins said. "If the enemy knows things about the POW, they can and will use that against them."
Atkins advised that even basic information like names of the POW's family members, hometowns, hobbies or interests could be used against them by their captors.
Televised statements by family members could be particularly dangerous, as they can be electronically modified and presented out of context, said Atkins. "Any outbursts of emotion can be manipulated by the captors against the POW."
According to Atkins, the Department of Defense possessed evidence that Iraq had used such techniques during the 1990 Gulf War.
Keep family problems a secret
Colonel Atkins also warned family members against releasing information about their own personal problems to the media. Such information could only add to the stress already being suffered by the POW. "The POW is in captivity," he said. "There's nothing he can do about those things, so that only adds to his frustration and stress."
Help for POW family members
The U.S. military assigns casualty assistance officers to assist immediate family members of POWs. Among many other types of help, the officers advise family members in speaking to the media. Additional assistance is offered by military public affairs offices and officers.
Name, rank and serial number only
Under the Rules of Military Conduct, American prisoners of war are directed to divulge only their name, rank, serial number and date of birth, and to resist providing any other information "to the best of their ability."
Freedom of speech, with responsibility
In concluding his remarks, Colonel Atkins stressed that while Americans' freedom of speech does not go away during times of war, or when a loved one becomes a prisoner of war, the right must be practiced carefully in order to ensure the safe return of the POWs.
"With that freedom (of speech) comes responsibility, and it behooves all of us to know what our responsibilities are to the folks who are POWs now," he said.