A Tennessee newspaper reporter said yesterday he played a role in organizing the highly publicized exchange in Kuwait between Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and a soldier who...

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A Tennessee newspaper reporter said yesterday he played a role in organizing the highly publicized exchange in Kuwait between Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and a soldier who asked him about the lack of armor on vehicles.

The question from Spc. Thomas Wilson of the Tennessee Army National Guard at a town-hall meeting during Rumsfeld’s visit Wednesday was applauded by soldiers and appeared to throw the defense secretary off balance.

In the exchange, Wilson asked, “Why do we soldiers have to dig through local landfills for pieces of scrap metal” to armor vehicles “and why don’t we have those resources readily available to us?”

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Rumsfeld replied that “you go to war with the Army you have … not the Army you might want or wish to have at a later time.”

Edward Lee Pitts, a Chattanooga Times Free Press reporter embedded with Wilson’s unit, claimed credit for the question in an e-mail to colleagues yesterday.

“I was told yesterday that only soldiers could ask questions so I brought two of them along with me as my escorts,” Pitts wrote. “… Beforehand we worked on questions to ask Rumsfeld about the appalling lack of armor their vehicles going into combat have.”

Pitts wrote that he “found the Sgt. in charge of the microphone for the question and answer session and made sure he knew to get my guys out of the crowd. … One of my guys [Wilson] was the second person called on.”

Pitts, who last week wrote a story about what he terms “hillbilly armor,” boasted about his role, according to the e-mail. “I have been trying to get this story out for weeks,” he wrote.

Pitts, who graduated from Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism in 2002, did not respond to an e-mail yesterday. The Chattanooga newspaper and the Tennessee National Guard also said they could not reach Wilson, 31, to verify Pitts’ account.

Conservatives and military advocates accused the reporter of attempting to set up Rumsfeld.

“It was sneaky, it was slimy and he should be fired for it,” said L. Brent Bozell, president of the Media Research Center, a conservative watchdog group.

“It strikes me that the question is legitimate,” said Drew Davis, a brigadier general in the Marine Reserves and an early proponent of the embed program. “But I think it’s unconscionable that this reporter set up a soldier the way he did. One of the intents of the embed program was to build mutual trust between the military and the press, and an incident like this goes in the opposite direction.”

But Tom Griscom, publisher and executive editor of the Times Free Press, said Pitts did nothing wrong.

“Lee was trying to pursue a story,” he said. “If he couldn’t ask Rumsfeld the question, then clearly he said to the soldiers, ‘This is something you should talk about.’ But they decided to ask the question. … That response from the troops was a clear indication that this is an issue on their minds.”

Tom Rosenstiel, director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism, agreed.

“I think this is different from planting a question,” he said. “Even if it was the reporter’s idea, if the soldiers said, ‘Hey, that’s a good question,’ that doesn’t mean it’s illegitimate.”

Kelly McBride, a member of the ethics faculty at the Poynter Institute journalism school, said she did not fault Pitts for persuading Wilson to ask the question but described the failure to include that information with his story as “dishonest with his readers.”

“I think he should have been more transparent with his readers,” she said. “I suspect some people would see it as manipulative. I suspect Rumsfeld felt manipulated.”

Griscom said today’s edition of his paper will carry an explanation of Pitts’ role.

President Bush and Rumsfeld said yesterday that they welcomed the pointed questions Wednesday and that the concerns they raised were being addressed.

Bush said he thought the questions were legitimate. “We expect our troops to have the best possible equipment,” he said. “And if I were a soldier overseas wanting to defend my country, I’d want to ask the secretary of defense the same question.”

Rumsfeld said in India that it is “good for people to raise questions.”

He said he found his session in Kuwait “a very fine, warm, enjoyable meeting.”

Congressional Democrats, however, kept up their fire. “I think the secretary’s comments [in Kuwait] were more dismissive than thoughtful and reasonable,” said Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., a member of the Armed Services Committee.

Pentagon officials are working to address the problem. The Pentagon is preparing the largest supplemental budget request ever — close to $100 billion — to pay for operations in Iraq and Afghanistan and for gear to replace equipment worn out in the fighting. That request would come on top of other, smaller supplemental appropriation bills.

Still, some commanders in Iraq said Wilson is correct in that the Pentagon was broadly unprepared for the war it is fighting.

One officer compared the Army to a sprinter trying to run a marathon: designed to prevail in short, sharp, high-tech wars but fighting a counterinsurgency campaign against a poorly understood enemy.

Compiled from the Chicago Tribune, The Washington Post and The Associated Press.