Facts, Fudge & FOIA

President Bush is smack in the middle of another Iraq public-relations blitz, citing the city of Tal Afar as a success story. In the April issue of The Atlantic, journalist Robert Kaplan touts one US Army unit's work in Mosul as a qualified triumph. I have not traveled to Tal Afar, nor have I been to Mosul, but I am skeptical to the bone of both stories, particularly the President's, given what I have read about these places and what I have witnessed on three trips to Iraq.

From my experience, I know that US military units often suppress violence and sometimes even install the beginnings of a reconstruction effort. The Marine Corps' Battalion Landing Team 1/2 did just that last year in Babil province. They accomplished a similar job this year in and around Hit, a city in Anbar province.

But such successes are often fleeting. Insurgent violence is usually just displaced to other towns by one unit's aggressive "kinetic operations". And anti-US guerrillas, as brutal as they can be, are a patient lot. They tuck away their weapons when one US unit gets rough, but they resume vicious attacks when it leaves. That's what happened in Hit, a city of 30,000 souls, after Marines turned it over to the Army a little over a month ago. Guerillas launched an all-out attack on the new unit with small-arms and rocket-propelled grenades just hours after the main body of Marines rolled out.

Another example: Sectarian guerillas went on a killing spree last February right after BLT 1/2 turned over its Babil province base to a Mississippi National Guard unit. Yes, the Pentagon sent the Guard, weekend warriors, augmented with a smattering of full-time soldiers, into what the US media calls the "Triangle of Death." A few days after the Marines left, a car bomb detonated at a police checkpoint in Musayyib, a key city in Babil. It killed 18 people.

In July 2005, a suicide-bomb blast in Musayyib killed more than a 100 people, all Iraqi. I knew the spot, an intersection in the city's center. I had walked or driven through it a dozen times with grunts from the BLT's Bravo Company. There's a beautiful mosque right at the crossroads. On the day of the attack, a fuel tanker was parked near it. The blast ignited the fuel inside the truck, turning what might have been a sadly typical tragedy into mass slaughter. In November 2005, bombers attacked the same mosque, killing 20 and wounding 64.

Violence in Musayyib continues: Earlier in March (that's March 2006) guerillas blew up a pipeline that connects to the Musayyib power plant, which supplies electricity to Babil province and Baghdad.

But I'll stop playing He Said-He Said with folks whose Iraq War stories differ from mine. Instead, I'd like to suggest something: Let's raise the bar on the Iraq occupation/war debate.

I'll explain: Supporters of the war accuse anti-war types and the "liberal media" of harping on bad news. "You never report the good things we do," a polite but frustrated Kuwait-based US soldier complained to me. (He had never crossed the border into Iraq, I must add.) Anti-war folks hammer supporters for cherry picking choice bits of news from an irredeemably dismal tale. Perhaps both camps have a point. It's not fair to extrapolate from one city or one incident to the rest of Iraq.

So let's call the bluffs of know-nothing partisans. No more self-righteous, ideology-fueled finger wagging or tunnel-vision reporting. We need hard answers to specific questions about particular places in Iraq.

Military commanders talk about "metrics". What are the metrics of success in Iraq? Not body counts or weapons caches seized or even suspected "insurgents" detained. Vietnam's Five O'clock Follies taught us that such statistics are meaningless and subject to endless fudging and faking. So what questions might an engaged (or enraged) citizen ask of our leaders to compile a meaningful set of Iraq War metrics?

For starters, on the military and security side of the house: Are US combat forces adequately trained to function, both tactically and personally? What is the nature of that training and how much are they getting? What are the rules of engagement and rules for the use of force? Are the troops in Town X following them? What happens to them when they don't? Have civilians been killed or wounded by US forces in their operations? Under what circumstances? What are the names of the dead?

What programs are in place to train the Iraqi police? How many have been trained and fielded? What's the retention rate? How have the cops performed? How many US trainers are there? How much does the program cost?

On the reconstruction/rebuilding end: How much money has been invested in particular projects -- schools, water pumps, sewage plants -- in a given area? How many of these projects are operating at full capacity? Less-than-full capacity? Why? How many have been destroyed or damaged? Who are the contractors and the subcontractors working on them? What does their accounting look like? Are they keeping corruption at bay - or at least within manageable limits?

Personally, I wanted to find out exactly what had been built and rehabbed in places I had visited - al Iskandariyah, al Musayyib, al Haswa, al Seddah. These are places where people I knew - and many I did not - died horrible deaths. Others were grievously wounded. I needed to ask my government what their blood had bought the people of Babil province.

To get answers to some of my questions, I filed half a dozen Freedom of Information Act requests with the US Agency for International Development, the State Department, the Marines, and the Army between May and July 2005.

I asked USAID for documents on reconstruction in Babil. Eight months and more than a dozen follow-up phone calls later, I have received nothing. Nothing except a December 2005 letter, which reads:

"This is in response to your several inquiries regarding the status of your request and specifically your request of today. We are encountering delays in the processing of your request. Processing has been delayed because of a severe backlog due to our inundation of Iraq requests."

Perhaps some of folks who work on USAID's glossy up-with-people "Iraq Reconstruction Weekly Report" - "the Iraq Investment Promotion Agency opened for business last week," trumpets the current issue - should be reassigned to the FOIA division.

I am especially interested in probing USAID because of a curious and upsetting visit I had with one its officers and two Marines in the summer of 2004. The USAID rep had just returned to the State Department's regional headquarters in the city of Hilla after a few weeks of leave. She had a problem, she told her visitors (and me). The budget for the temporary employment program she funded in Babil had swelled inexplicably from $200,000 to $400,000 during her absence, possibly because higher-ups had decided to up funding without speaking to her.

She couldn't investigate whether the program was actually working because USAID and State Department staffers were prohibited from traveling to the area. It was too dangerous. The officer didn't trust the Iraqi subcontractor hired to run the program to tell her truth. So she asked the overtaxed Marines to take a peek at her project. Major Tom West, a Marine civil affairs officer, couldn't promise her anything. West, an earnest USMC reservist and real-life Beverly Hills, CA, cop, was the Corp's pointman for civil-affairs work in Babil. He had more than a plateful of his own initiatives.

So the USAID officer said something startling: She told us she might simply cancel the project. Or, she ventured, she might just let it run, corrupt or not. The Marines offered no opinion, but West, not the most stunnable guy, looked as shocked as I felt. If the project is actually putting food on Iraqi tables, I thought, then her summary decision could starve people. But if the program is lining a Babil fat cat's pockets and she lets it continue, American taxpayers will get screwed - and Iraqis will become even more cynical about the US occupation. Weeks later, I asked her via email what she had done. She wouldn't tell me. I couldn't get an answer from a Washington, DC-based USAID public affairs officer, either.

The State Department is just as bad. I FOIAed State in June 2005 for documents about their International Police Liaison Program, State's great push to train Iraqi cops to take over security from the US. Earlier in 2005 at the Marine base in Babil, I asked one of State's cop trainers how many of his number were assigned to the province. Five, the gentleman told me. FIVE American cops to rebuild Iraqi police forces in a swath of the country with 950,000 people, and with more than a dozen separate police forces. The absurdity of this blew me away. Five? That's not even a token effort; it's a joke. (The current police-training flavor-of-the-month is the US Army's program to embed Military Transition Teams with Iraqi police forces, a policy settled on after news broke that rogue Shi'a police units were allegedly acting as death squads.) More than nine months after FOIAing documents on the liaison program and a dozen-plus follow-up calls, I have received nothing from State. The FOIA department is horribly backlogged and in disarray, I am told.

It's tragic: the very information that might help Americans determine whether Bush Administration promises are being kept is either being withheld or, if I accept USAID's explanation, is stuck in the clogged FOIA pipeline.

I have, however, had little FOIA successes. US Third Army (Central Command) sent me a copy of a video briefing US troops receive after entering the Iraq theater. Helpful tips contained therein: "Do not stare at the women," "shake hands firmly," and "punctuality is not necessarily their priority."

Third Army/Central Command denied my request for a copy of the Rules of Engagement under which US forces operate. Of course, I already had both the ROE and the rules for the use of force, which are printed on green and white cards, respectively. Newly arrived troops get them as soon as they deplane in Kuwait. As if the "insurgents", who study US forces every day, don't know from experience exactly what the ROE are. Most "insurgents" probably have hard copies, anyway: I found a pair of the cards in a mud puddle on the Marine base in Babil, a base that was open to Iraqis with proper ID when I was there.

Second Marine Division supplied me with a handful of preliminary investigation reports into civilian casualties at the hands of Marines during the BLT's 2004-05 deployment. There are two constants in the reports: no disciplinary or judicial action is recommended against Marines who mistakenly injure or kill civilians, and no Iraqi testimony is included. Some of these shoots may have been "righteous," as the grunts would phrase it - justified or understandable. But some might not be. We'll never know, and we'll probably never hear the Iraqi side of the story.

The Corps also turned over heavily redacted paperwork I requested on five Marines killed in action during that tour. Only one of five documents contains information I hadn't already read in public sources or learned from my own reporting. "Purple heart is recommended," each report concludes. The Marine Corps denied my request for more detailed documents covering the circumstances of their deaths because, in the USMC's words, releasing such reports "could result in an affront to the sensitivities of surviving next of kin." This information is therefore exempt under FOIA, the letter states.

I have no desire - none whatsoever - to insult or further injure loved ones of these Marines. I knew some of these men. I have visited with the families of two of them. But information about how they died, I believe, is information we are entitled to as citizens in whose name this war is being prosecuted. Citizens are entitled to know certain things about their deaths - did they die as a consequence of faulty equipment or insufficient armor, for example. And, yes, I need to know whether my government is telling the truth. Remember Pat Tillman?

So now, a humble recommendation: It's time for a FOIA blitz. Not to deluge the already stressed workers in understaffed FOIA offices, but simply to demand what is ours. This information is ours. We are entitled to Iraq facts, particularly those on the reputed success stories currently being waggled in our faces - Tal Afar and Mosul. Let the chips fall where they may once we get the answers.

We can blog the results of our searches - or post reports of bureaucratic intransigence if we get no response. We can send copies to our senators and Congressfolk and ask them what THEY'RE doing to retrieve such vital information for us. And we can hammer the folks around the water cooler with the naked truth when they start gassing off about Iraq.

Here's some helpful FOIA contact information:

Headquarters, Third United States Army
United States Army Forces Central Command
Coalition Land Forces Component Command
1881 Hardee Avenue, SW.
Fort McPherson GA 30330-1064
ATTN: C1/FOIA Manager

Information & Records Division
Office of Administrative Services
U.S. Agency for International Development
Room 2.07C, RRB
Washington DC 20523-2701
Email: foia@usaid.gov

Office of Information Programs and Services
U.S. Department of State SA-2
Washington DC 20522-8100
Website: foia.state.gov

FOIA requests of the Marine Corps usually must be targeted to the parent Marine Expeditionary Force or Division of the unit about which you wish to inquire. For II MEF units:

Commanding General
ATTN: Staff Judge Advocate - FOIA Officer
PSC Box 20080
Camp Lejeune NC 28542-0080

Each agency has its own guidelines, but FOIA is law, so it applies the same to all of them. Also, one can only FOIA documents, NOT facts or bits of information, so a little pre-FOIA research about what you want to know goes a long way.

A great FOIA resource is the Department of Defense Freedom of Information Act Handbook (1.6 MB). "This document provides basic information about the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) Program within the Department of Defense."

The truth is out there. Let's go get it.