Friday, March 2, 2007

"The enemy lies, we have to tell the truth"

I was immediately skeptical when I saw this article in the military paper Stars and Stripes (Mideast edition): Facts spin wildly in Iraq’s information war: All factions in Ramadi rush to get their versions of a bombing out to sway public opinion by Monte Morin 03/001/07.

Stars and Stripes is a Pentagon paper, but it's not like the CENTCOM happy-face news site. Stars and Stripes actually reports real news, though you can scarcely expect the kind of skeptical report we might desire in an independently-owned paper.

So when I started reading this article, it sounded like they were defending the official version against something that the press had gotten wrong.
Jamail Hussien and the AP and the rightwing blogs foaming at the mouth again? The second paragraph in Morin's report certainly could make someone think that:

One widespread report - that 16 children were killed by a car bomb while playing soccer in downtown Ramadi - was offered up by Iraqi police sources and local tribal leaders. According the U.S. military, it is entirely false.
Actually, it reads more like the opposite.

Morin succeeds in conveying that idea that the various accounts could be genuinely confusing. One problem may have been that accounts and rumors of two separate bombings got conflated. As he reports, "Ramadi lacks any formal newspapers, television stations or even a cellular phone network". Ramadi is a Sunni stronghold. And in the anniversary month of the invasion four years ago, the city has no "newspapers, television stations or even a cellular phone network". So people have to rely on word-of-mouth news like in a pre-Gutenberg century. Wow!

Anyway, there was what seems to be an insurgent car bombing on Monday which wounded some people, though Morin's article gives few details, not even the number. The Tuesday bombing (which is confusing because Morin's initial description makes it sound like it also occurred Monday), this was the situation:

What did happen, they said, was that 31 men, women and children were injured when U.S. bomb disposal technicians conducted a “controlled detonation” of seized explosives and propane tanks and misjudged the size of the blast. The blast occurred around 5:30 p.m., and all but one of the injured were civilians.
Thirty civilians wounded due to what appeared to be carelessness on the part of the Americans. Wow! again.

According to Morin's report:

There is also the possibility, however, that the false reports of a soccer field bombing were a calculated lie, the result of a breakneck news cycle increasingly used as a weapon in an information battle between militants, tribes and the U.S. military.

Initially, government and tribal leaders in Ramadi said the bombing occurred on Tuesday, at roughly the same time as the controlled detonation conducted by U.S. forces. When the U.S. military denied the claim, some Iraqi officials changed the story.
He reports that the Americans were ready to fess up to the mistake:

On Tuesday when officers learned of the controlled blast incident, information and public affairs officers immediately swung into action.

They wrote up press releases, contacted local officials to apologize and assured them that the U.S. military would pay compensation to those injured. ...

Speed was key, they said, as the enemy would also seize on the incident and spin it as an attack on city residents.
But somebody was spreading the soccer-bombing rumor, which (coincidentally?) made the insurgents rather than the Americans the bombers:

What the officers didn’t expect was that local police officials and sheiks would tell reporters that the insurgents had killed 18 people, mostly children, in a car bombing.

While the facts may not be true, the officers felt some satisfaction in seeing local Iraqi officials waging their own information campaign. The story, as the saying goes, had legs.

Among other things, the false report highlighted a very real rift between local Sunni Arab tribes in Iraq’s west and Islamic fighters connected to al-Qaida in Iraq.
The article isn't explicit on this point, but it sure sounds like the Army was perfectly willing to have the phony story spread around. You have to wonder how that fits with this part of Morin's article:

U.S. officials are quick to produce press releases for the media and handbills for local residents detailing insurgent atrocities or clarifying incidents of collateral damage.

In today’s military parlance, such efforts are known as “information operations.”

“The difference is, the enemy lies,” said Marine Capt. Paul Duncan, a public affairs officer. “We have to tell the truth.”
So, what happened in this case? Assuming Morin has his facts straight, there was an insurgent bombing on Monday that injured Iraqi civilians. Then on Tuesday a controlled American detonation wound up wounding 30 Iraqi civilians. But somebody started a rumor that apparently converted the American accident into an insurgent attack on children playing soccer. Which the American press picked up. Which may or may not have some benefit as an "information operation".

Still, Capt. Duncan's statement, "The difference is, the enemy lies.We have to tell the truth," actually is a good information strategy if the goal is to win a target group's confidence over the long run. But after all the phony claims from senior administration and military officials in the Iraq War, it sounds now like "too little, too late".

This is one piece of a large and important issue. "Information operations" against an enemy army to deceive them about troops movements and other information directly affecting military operations is a necessary thing. But when the military defines "information operations" to include broader manipulation of the news media in foreign countries, that is a qualitatively different level of deception. And in today's media environment, false stories planed in foreign news agencies or papers can easily be picked up by the media from which Americans at home get our information.

And when the generals get caught lying to the public - which is bound to happen in a war that drags on for years if they aren't being very careful to be both accurate and discrete in their public statements - it generates a credibility gap. Which they are then sorely tempted to blame on The Media and war critics supposedly being "anti-military". Which they are then tempted to remedy by trying to manipulate media coverage even more aggressively. It's not a healthy cycle.

Other coverage:

No bombing of Ramadi soccer field, U.S. says by Tina Susman Los Angeles Times 03/01/07

Car Bomb Near Soccer Field Kills 16 Children, 2 Women in Ramadi by Ernesto Londoño Washington Post 02/28/07

Local Sheik In Ramadi Adds Detail On Attack by Ernesto Londoño and Naseer Mehdawi Washington Post 03/01/07

Ramadi Blast Details Diverge by Kasia Anderson 02/28/07

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