As US troops approached Baghdad last spring, their commanders sought to win the surrender of enemy forces by orchestrating media coverage of staged events, military officers said this week.
At a three-day military-hosted conference on the media’s role in Operation Iraqi Freedom, officers said the Army arranged for an embedded US television crew to film airborne troops embarking in the desert in the hope that Iraqi commanders would realise how far north US forces had advanced.
And when false Iraqi government claims that American troops were pinned down hundreds of miles from Baghdad appeared to stiffen Iraqi resistance, an Army tank commander rounded up journalists for a televised “thunder run” through the city to prove that the US force – and not Saddam Hussein – was in charge.
“I just wanted them to report what happened. If having the media report accurately is using them, then they were used,” said Col. David Perkins, who as commander of the 3rd Infantry Division’s 2nd Brigade had organised the tank foray into Baghdad specifically to garner publicity for the US advance.
“The main intent … was to get the story out,” he added. “I don’t know why anyone would want anything other than that.”
“I was keenly aware that I was getting only one side of the story”
This week’s conference at the US Army War College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, about 190 km northwest of Washington, included combat officers and some of the journalists who travelled with them in a discussion of the Pentagon’s embed programme.
All told, 527 journalists travelled into Iraq with Army, Marine and British ground forces during the six weeks of major combat operations that were declared over by President George Bush on 1 May.
The scheme drew a divided verdict from media critics who welcomed the coverage but worried about possible self-censorship among reporters dependent on the US military for their safety.
Journalists, who agreed to abide by a set of military ground rules, produced up to 6000 articles a week, including many that Army officers described as “positive” contributions to the military’s IO, or information operations, effort.
“If it was indeed an experiment, it was very successful from the standpoint of the military,” Army Lt. Gen. William Wallace, who was V Corps commander during major combat operations, told an audience of over 100 military officers and representatives from media outlets including Reuters.
Reporters said the revelation that some military operations were designed to help achieve publicity aims was disturbing but not entirely unexpected.
“I was keenly aware that I was getting only one side of the story,” said Steve Komarow, a USA Today correspondent who was embedded with Wallace.
Many officers lamented the loss of embedded reporters since the news of the military campaign gave way to daily coverage of guerrilla attacks, political turmoil and crime.
“What we’re seeing now in Iraq is a loss of the IO campaign because we’ve lost the embeds,” complained Marine Col. Glenn Starnes, who derided current reporting out of Iraq as fraught with “sensationalised news.”
But others said openly that the programme had scored important public relations victories before 1 May, when President George Bush said major operations had ended.
They pointed to publicity over early elections in the northern Iraqi city of Mosul, which they said were calculated to drive home America’s interest in democratic reform.
“As a war fighter, I am going to leverage information. I’d be foolish not to”
Major Gen. James Thurman,
“We’ve turned the media into a mechanism for communicating information from the action to the consumer including the enemy,” said Army Brig. Gen. Vincent Brooks of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. “What we don’t engage in is deception or manipulation.”
Major Gen. James Thurman, who was chief operations officer for the land war command, said a crowning achievement of the embed programme was live television coverage of US soldiers toppling a flag-draped statue of President Saddam Hussein after the fall of Baghdad.
“I felt chills in my body,” Thurman recalled. “The signal that sent, it’s powerful,” he added. “We did that as a team.
“As a war fighter, I am going to leverage information. I’d be foolish not to,” he said. “The power of information – it is phenomenal.”
Some media critics have said the scene gave the misleading impression that US soldiers were removing the statue at the behest of crowds of cheering Iraqis.