We are seeing an orchestrated media campaign by the administration and a psychological operation aimed at the insurgents in Iraq. The success of this campaign can be measured by recent articles in The Washington Post and The Christian Science Monitor.
Looking at the nearly 100 other press reports in the five days since Saddam's capture, one theme is clear: Saddam Hussein was captured, and the United States is on the verge of breaking the Iraqi insurgency.
But is it really?
As a former instructor at the National War College, Air War College and Naval War College, I am familiar with the pattern of using the press to conduct psychological operations against internal audiences in Iraq. The technique is straightforward: plant stories or persuade media outlets to slant the news in a way that debilitates your enemy. And so far, media reports on the intelligence significance of Saddam's capture have followed that pattern to the letter.
President Bush's interview with ABC News on December 16 heralded the debut of the military's post-capture media strategy. In it, Bush stated that he believed that the arrest of Saddam Hussein "will encourage more Iraqis to step up." The capture was styled as a major event, a turning point.
The groundwork for this media and psychological operations had already been laid that day when Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Richard Myers and Lieutenant General Ricardo Sanchez, the US military commander in Iraq, gave a press conference:
Question: General, how involved was Saddam Hussein in the insurgency? What have you been able to find out over the past 48 hours?
General Myers: I think there will be some intelligence that we get from the capture of Saddam Hussein. That will be analyzed and worked over time. And I think right now it's inappropriate to speculate on what we might find in terms of his involvement. But, of course, there will be intelligence value to the fact that he is now in coalition hands.
Question: General, is he --
General Myers: Let me -- just a minute. Let me -- let me --
Question: -- is he inside the country at the moment? Can you tell us where Saddam is?
General Sanchez: Let me add my part to your question. As I've always stated, repeatedly, our expectation was that Saddam was probably involved in intent and in financing. And so far, that is still my belief. And more to follow from the interrogations. At this point, we have nothing further.
What we see here is General Myers giving the answer probably closer to the truth. He thinks there will be some intelligence that the US will get from the capture of Saddam Hussein. General Sanchez, however, interrupted his superior before General Myers could complete his answer.
Sanchez says the media and psyops theme: Saddam Hussein has been involved in the insurgency. Sanchez is very careful not to lie. He said "expectation" and "probably." He protects himself, but gets out the message.
Subsequent interviews with key players in the Saddam capture followed the same strategy: give the impression that there was some important intelligence, but without stating concretely that there was.
General Abizaid, the Commander of Central Command told media: "I don't want to characterize it as a great intelligence windfall . . . But it's clear that we have gained a greater understanding of how things work as a result of capturing him . . ."
Asked by reporters if US intelligence had found links between Saddam and the resistance, Colonel James Hickey, the brigade commander of the unit that found Saddam Hussein said: "There are links. There are so many links I don't have time to go into them. My estimate is he was, but I don't know for sure."
These remarks are a long way from stories published in The Washington Post and Christian Science Monitor on Dec. 17 and 18. Both stories reveal the windfall of a successful psychological operations thrust.
The December 17 Washington Post story was headlined "Hussein Document Exposes Network." The article described how a document found during the raid has enabled U.S. military authorities to assemble detailed knowledge of a key network behind as many as 14 insurgent cells.
On December 18, The Christian Science Monitor carried the finds to another level. Their article described how documents (now plural) revealed key details about guerrilla cells and appears to have allowed the U.S. to make quick progress rolling up "parts of the insurgency as a whole."
We've come full circle back to the president's message.
Adding to the themes, unnamed officials are also giving interviews to the press. One such official told the AP "that the guerrillas displayed no signs of a strict command-and-control hierarchy in the conventional military sense, but said dozens of independent cells have received some guidance from above."
Is this the truth? For all the public statements hinting that such reports are fact, items found at Saddam's hideout strongly suggest otherwise.
Saddam's temporary shelter was a mess. The soldiers found dirty laundry, bare shelves, leftover rice in a pot, one can of 7-UP, two Mars candy bars, and stale bread. The place was littered with garbage. The toilet was a trench outside the hut. There are no reports of files, no reports of trunks with documents, and no pictures of documents. Importantly, no communication devices were found.
This was not a command center. It is hard to believe that it was anything more than what it appeared. It was one of the hiding places of an individual desperately on the run. This was not the center of an insurgency network. It is very hard to see how any guidance came from that hole.
The Washington Post and Christian Science Monitor have done a terrible job reporting this story. Why are so few real questions raised by reporters when they are confronted with the military's media and psychological operations campaign? Why aren't they helping us get to truth?
The author is a retired Air Force Colonel and has taught strategy and military operations at the National War College, Air War College and Naval War College. He was recently a visiting scholar at the Swedish Defence College. During the Gulf War II, he was a regular guest on the NewsHour with Jim Lehrer, BBC radio and television and National Public Radio.
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