AP Issues Standards Memo: 'Combat In Iraq Is Not Over'

AP Issues Standards Memo: 'Combat In Iraq Is Not Over'

At some point in the last two weeks, you may have been told by someone in the news that combat operations in Iraq were over, and that the last combat troop had left the country. Well, the Associated Press is not having any of it, and in a memo from their standards editor, Tom Kent, the law in this regard has been laid down, in no uncertain terms: "To begin with, combat in Iraq is not over, and we should not uncritically repeat suggestions that it is, even if they come from senior officials."

If you recall, on August 18, 2010, NBC broadcast their world news exclusive report that the War in Iraq was over, and that the "last U.S. combat troops have pulled out of Iraq." The story got wall-to-wall coverage on MSNBC, Rachel Maddow reported from the Green Zone, and correspondent Richard Engel got to take a ride on a tank. And all of this exclusive coverage was possible because the Pentagon giftwrapped the story for them. Here's Brian Stelter of the New York Times:

Asked how the NBC broadcast constituted "an official Pentagon announcement," Steve Capus, the president of NBC News, said the broadcast was such a declaration because "the announcement that the last Stryker brigade was leaving Iraq had not been made" by the military.

David Verdi, an NBC News vice president, added, "The military had said, 'You are the ones who are going to broadcast it first.'"

And, lo, it came to pass that the "last Stryker brigade" containing the "last U.S. combat troops" left Iraq, war over, the end. Except that right from the get go, this wasn't true. Let's go back to Stelter:

Still, a White House spokesman reiterated Wednesday night that the combat mission in Iraq formally ends on Aug. 31. At that time, Operation Iraqi Freedom becomes Operation New Dawn, with troops serving as trainers for the Iraqi military, much as they have for several months already. More than 50,000 troops will remain in Iraq; they will be reclassified as trainers.

But this goes a little bit beyond distinguishing between "Combat Operations End Day (Observed)" and "Combat Operations End Day (Actual)." The truth is, "combat" is still going on in Iraq, and 50,000 American troops remain behind.

Over at Salon, Glenn Greenwald has the definitive critical look at what NBC reported -- and subsequently covered themselves in glory over having done so -- and what is actually reality in Iraq. As he notes, that reality momentarily broke through during MSNBC's coverage.

One of the few sour notes in this coverage came when Olbermann briefly interviewed McClatchy's Jonathan Landay, and asked him what the 50,000 remaining soldiers would be doing. Landay explained:

This is the great irony for me, Keith. The fact is that under the delusional plans that former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld had approved for the invasion of Iraq, they had intended to come down to 50,000 troops within three or four months of that invasion. . . . .That, for me, is the ultimate irony, is the fact that more than seven years later, we've now gotten down to the 50,000 troops that they thought they could get down to within three months of the invasion. . . . . [T]hose 50,000 men and women include special forces who will be going out on counter-terrorism missions with Iraqi forces. That, to me, is combat. They're armed. They're going into combat. There will be American, quote/unquote, advisers going out with Iraqi forces on regular patrols. That to me opens the door to combat.

So I don't think we're going to see the end of -- we are not going to see the end of combat for American forces I don't think in Iraq.

Tom Kent apparently agrees, and in his memo, writes:

Many AP staffers are producing content that refers to the situation in Iraq. It might be a local story about Iraq veterans, an international diplomatic story that mentions the Iraqi conflict or coverage on the ground in Iraq itself.

Whatever the subject, we should be correct and consistent in our description of what the situation in Iraq is. This guidance summarizes the situation and suggests wording to use and avoid.

To begin with, combat in Iraq is not over, and we should not uncritically repeat suggestions that it is, even if they come from senior officials. The situation on the ground in Iraq is no different today than it has been for some months. Iraqi security forces are still fighting Sunni and al-Qaida insurgents. Many Iraqis remain very concerned for their country's future despite a dramatic improvement in security, the economy and living conditions in many areas.

As for U.S. involvement, it also goes too far to say that the U.S. part in the conflict in Iraq is over. President Obama said Monday night that "the American combat mission in Iraq has ended. Operation Iraqi Freedom is over, and the Iraqi people now have lead responsibility for the security of their country."

However, 50,000 American troops remain in country. Our own reporting on the ground confirms that some of these troops, especially some 4,500 special operations forces, continue to be directly engaged in military operations. These troops are accompanying Iraqi soldiers into battle with militant groups and may well fire and be fired on.

In addition, although administration spokesmen say we are now at the tail end of American involvement and all troops will be gone by the end of 2011, there is no guarantee that this will be the case.

Our stories about Iraq should make clear that U.S. troops remain involved in combat operations alongside Iraqi forces, although U.S. officials say the American combat mission has formally ended. We can also say the United States has ended its major combat role in Iraq, or that it has transferred military authority to Iraqi forces. We can add that beyond U.S. boots on the ground, Iraq is expected to need U.S. air power and other military support for years to control its own air space and to deter possible attack from abroad.

Unless there is balancing language, our content should not refer to the end of combat in Iraq, or the end of U.S. military involvement. Nor should it say flat-out (since we can't predict the future) that the United States is at the end of its military role.

Greenwald notes something special about those 50,000 troops left behind in Iraq: "it's what [former Secretary of Defense Donald] Rumsfeld originally envisioned as the occupying force to be used three months after the invasion -- and it's inevitable that they will be in combat."

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