On March 26, an Iraqi special-forces unit attacked a building on the outskirts of northeast Baghdad, where they had tracked a group of terrorists. They had good reason to do so, because three members of the unit had been kidnapped by the terrorists, and were savagely tortured and killed. Their fingers and toes were cut off, their joints were penetrated with an electric drill, and they were eviscerated while still alive. It later turned out that the terrorists were members of Moqtadah al-Sadr’s militia.
The attack was a rousing success. Sixteen terrorists were killed, and another 16 or so were captured. A hostage was freed, and a considerable weapons cache–along with the inevitable materials to manufacture IEDs–was uncovered. The special-forces team had only one casualty.
This first-hand account comes from an utterly reliable high-ranking Pentagon official who was visiting Baghdad, and invited by the Iraqis to watch their forces in action. He notes that not only did the Iraqis perform admirably, but they then carefully wrote down an extensive description of the action and took photographs of the scene. Why? “To protect themselves against terrorist claims of wanton U.S. and Iraqi armed-forces behavior,” he wryly remarks.
It wasn’t good enough. In less than an hour, 20 bodies were laid out in a mosque nearly two miles away, and American and Iraqi journalists were invited to see the “scene” of the “massacre.” A classic disinformation campaign was under way, which, at least for a while, was a more potent blow in the war than the special-forces’ operation. Initial press reports (and even comments from the usually careful and restrained Iraqi blogger Zayed) spoke of an American raid against a mosque, not an Iraqi assault against a terrorist haven, and the usual claims of random killings of civilians went out on wires and airways.
That disinformation dominated news coverage for more than a full day. Finally a U.S. Special Forces Lt. Colonel, Sean Swindell–a few of whose troops were integrated with the Iraqi special-forces brigade–provided the real story. But by then, the story had run away from him, and so, for example, the Washington Post reporters Jonathan Finer and Naseer Nouri rather uncharitably wrote:
Their version of events differed sharply from that of Shiite officials and Baghdad residents near the site of the raid, who for a second day voiced anger over the operation, saying U.S. and Iraqi troops targeted a Shiite mosque and gunned down innocent worshipers in the half-light of evening prayers.
“There was no resistance at all from the mosque. There were no weapons during prayers,” said Muhammad Ridha, 39, who works at the complex in Baghdad’s Shaab neighborhood. “The purpose of the raid was to kill Shiites.”
Once the lie about the “attack on a mosque” had been planted, it was seemingly impossible to convince those who had credited the original deception that they had been gulled by the terrorists. Yes, the Iraqi special operators had photographed something or other, but why should journalists believe those photographs, when they had seen twenty dead bodies just minutes after the event? And this conviction was reinforced by the locals; the Baghdad city council had by then demanded an immediate American withdrawal.
It’s always hard to convince someone that his own eyes are lying to him, and yet by now some of the journalists should have figured it out, and they should recognize that American officials in the field are required to fully document their statements before they talk to the press. But that is easier said than done, because it’s not realistic to expect a reporter to wait until American officials find it possible to speak, when the terrorists are flooding the international media with a story that certainly looks plausible.
The fault here is primarily with the Pentagon, which has behaved quite well on the military battlefield, but abominably in political combat, which is equally important. If the practice of taking along journalists in the first weeks of the war was so successful, why not do the same on operations like this one? It would have been invaluable to have had a top reporter see the real scene, and then the fabricated one a couple of miles away. Such a report would have been devastating to the terrorists, and would have done more to educate the American public than any subsequent briefing.
Moreover, in cases like this one–and there are lots of them–the Pentagon should fight with the same intensity as their soldiers on the ground, instead of patiently issuing bloodless statements and quietly briefing journalists who have already filed their stories. We have trained the Iraqis to document their actions. We know that lies are only moments away. Yet the Pentagon, over and over again, is simply unable to provide a timely account of events that would make the terrorists play catch-up. Secretary Rumsfeld constantly remarks on his department’s inability to communicate effectively with the public, but this is a tribute to a failure of leadership that ends on his own desk. If the people he’s chosen to wage this war can’t do it effectively, then let him find those who can, or turn his desk over to someone who has better ideas.
But the media have their own burden to bear in these matters. It is just outrageous to give the same standing to Mohammed Ridha as to Lt. Colonel Swindell, and to refer to Swindell’s account as simply “the American version” of events. By now, the press corps has the same eyewitness account as I do, and they know as well as I do that the source is excellent. They should tell the true story and alert their readers that, in this war, information is manipulated by our enemies and initial reports are often misleading.
Alas, as things currently stand, the only reporters who stay with a story long enough to get it right are the top bloggers, and the only citizens who have enough patience and attentiveness to wait before drawing conclusions are the readers of the blogs.
Which is why I read the dead tree media less and less, and spend more and more time in front of the damn monitor.