Did the Times Get Taken in by a Military Propaganda Campaign?

The military's propaganda program largely has been aimed at Iraqis, but seems to have spilled over into the U.S. media.
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On Sunday, Thomas Ricks reported in the Washington Post that the US military has been conducting a propaganda campaign to "magnify" the role of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the leader of Al-Qaeda in Iraq. The goal, Ricks reported, based on a review of military documents he had obtained on the program, is "to turn Iraqis against [Zarqawi], a Jordanian, by playing on their perceived dislike of foreigners." A number of intelligence officials told the Post that they were concerned that the propaganda campaign had overstated Zarqawi's importance and helped the Bush administration tie the war in Iraq to the terrorist attacks on September 11th (a connection we now know to be nonexistent).

But Iraqis were apparently not the only ones subjected to this campaign:

The military's propaganda program largely has been aimed at Iraqis, but seems to have spilled over into the U.S. media. One briefing slide about U.S. "strategic communications" in Iraq, prepared for Army Gen. George W. Casey Jr., the top U.S. commander in Iraq, describes the "home audience" as one of six major targets of the American side of the war.

That slide, created by Casey's subordinates, does not specifically state that U.S. citizens were being targeted by the effort, but other sections of the briefings indicate that there were direct military efforts to use the U.S. media to affect views of the war. One slide in the same briefing, for example, noted that a "selective leak" about Zarqawi was made to Dexter Filkins, a New York Times reporter based in Baghdad. Filkins's resulting article, about a letter supposedly written by Zarqawi and boasting of suicide attacks in Iraq, ran on the Times front page on Feb. 9, 2004.

Leaks to reporters from U.S. officials in Iraq are common, but official evidence of a propaganda operation using an American reporter is rare.

The story Filkins wrote presented the letter as evidence that Al-Qaeda was trying to provoke a sectarian war in Iraq by attacking Shiites and prompting counterattacks by Sunnis. The letter also portrayed Zarqawi as fearful of the US military's supposedly increasing power ("Our enemy is growing stronger day after day, and its intelligence information increases.") and concerned that once Iraqis started electing their own leaders, they would no longer support the insurgency ("The Americans will continue to control from their bases, but the sons of this land will be the authority," the letter states. "This is the democracy. We will have no pretexts."). If this letter was authentic, it should come as no surprise that the military would want to put it in circulation, since all three of its major points rather conveniently corroborated claims that the military was making at the time and continues to make to this day. Needless to say, however, knowing that this letter surfaced as part of a military propaganda program that may have been spreading misinformation, we must now wonder whether the Times's story was based on a fabrication. Notably, Ricks's article does not claim that the military was actually spreading false information and documents, but it is quite natural to suspect that a propaganda campaign would involve more than selective leaking of accurate information, and Ricks is smart enough to use language in his piece indicating as much (e.g., "a letter supposedly written by Zarqawi").

Filkins, who won a well-deserved Polk award for his 2004 reporting on the battle of Falluja, told the Post by e-mail that he had not known about the military's "psychological operations" (read: propaganda) campaign, that no restrictions had been placed on his use of the letter, and that he had tried to confirm the document's authenticity with non-military officials. The officer who served as the military's spokesman when the propaganda campaign began, in 2004, said that there had been no effort to, in his words, "manipulate the press" and that they simply gave Filkins a "good scoop." The military also says that any spillover of its efforts into the US media was accidental, a claim rendered very suspect by the listing of the "home audience" as one of the campaign's targets, as well as by the dissemination of the Zarqawi letter to a newspaper whose primary audience is very much not Iraqis.

As Editor and Publisher notes, the Post's story is actually somewhat generous to the Times. Filkins's story took eight paragraphs to raise any doubts about the letter's authenticity -- at which point the article suggested that the letter had not been written by Zarqawi but rather another insurgent who had exaggerated Zarqawi's role -- and then went right on to quote an intelligence official as saying, "I know of no reason to believe the letter is bogus in any way." Days later, as E&P goes on to say, the Times's own conservative columnists, William Safire and David Brooks, were using the letter in their op-ed pieces. Christopher Dickey and Rod Nordland of Newsweek were, to their credit, skeptical about the letter's authenticity, but the questions they raised were not enough to stop the Times from citing the letter in many subsequent articles: On October 10, 2004, the paper published a Week in Review profile of Zarqawi that discussed the letter; on January 14, 2005, the letter was cited as evidence that recent attacks on Shiites might have been the result of Zarqawi's efforts to start a civil war; on February 20, 2005, the letter was used as corroborating evidence for a similar claim; and on December 18, 2005, the letter, this time said to be authored by Zarqawi "or whoever it was who wrote it," was used in an article suggesting that insurgents were fearful their "employment prospects" would be diminished in the wake of recent elections (sorry, all links are to TimesSelect). In evey single one of these articles, the letter was used to support a view of the insurgency that the administration had been actively promoting. Perhaps less consequentially, Mark Danner also used the letter in a September 11, 2005, piece for The New York Times Magazine that was highly critical of the administration's prosecution of the war, and on April 9, 2006 -- this past Sunday, the day before Ricks's article was published -- William Safire used it in an "On Language" column for the magazine. Keep in mind that these are only the internal references; I have made no effort to document what other news organizations did with the letter, but one can safely assume that a story about it in the paper of record had a huge impact.

Remarkably, though, now two days after the Post's article, I have yet to see a correction or any other note from the Times indicating that Filkins's original February 9, 2004, piece was the result of a leak that was part of a coordinated military propaganda campaign -- let alone that the letter may have been a fabrication that irretrievably tainted the original piece and contaminated every subsequent article that cited it. It should be said that Filkins, who as a reader and admirer I have taken to be an adept, hard-working, and conscientious reporter, appears at this point not to be guilty of anything more than taking the military's claims at face value and being made into an unwilling participant in the propaganda program.

Several weeks ago, the Times was taken in (along with several other news organizations) by a man claiming to be the hooded prisoner from the infamous photo taken at Abu Ghraib, and a week later, the paper issued a correction and explanation. Perhaps the paper is taking some time to conduct an investigation (possibly trying to talk to the officials who leaked Filkins the letter or, this time around, to independently verify its authenticity), but I fail to see how this prevents the paper from telling its readers that such an inquiry is underway and that they will be apprised of its results at the earliest possible time. If such an investigation is not underway, it most certainly should be, or the Times should issue some sort of note indicating that there is now even more reason to believe than at the time of the original article's publication that the letter was a fraud. The fact that the original article is two years old should not lead the paper to believe that this incident is one that can be ignored.

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