Information Operations, Anyone?
Like many in the blogosphere, I've been following the latest examples of false news stories from Iraq. As you've probably heard, it turns out that Iraqi Police Captain Jamil Hussein, the favored source for many AP reports from Baghdad, isn't a member of the police force at all. Or the Interior Ministry. Or the Iraqi government's public affairs operation.
As always, the indefatigable Michelle Malkin has a comprehensive summary of this developing scandal. Meanwhile, the Associated Press continues to claim that Captain Hussein is an employee of the Iraqi government, despite proof to the contrary. Why, the AP says that their reporters have met with him at an Iraqi police station for more than two years! Of course, the AP won't say where the mysterious Captain Hussein works, or why the wire service uses him as a source so frequently. By Glenn Beck's tally, Hussein has been a primary source for as many as 15 major AP stories so far this year, most of them gruesome accounts of escalating violence in Iraq. I sent the AP an e-mail, asking if Captain Hussein has a co-worker named Lucy Ramirez, but I haven't received a response.
Kudos to the various bloggers who've exposed yet another Iraqi myth. But there's another issue at work here, one that cuts to the very heart of our media problems in Iraq. Why does it fall on the blogosphere to highlight these journalistic frauds, and the false stories they often generate? Curt over at Flopping Aces was among the first to question the authenticity of Captain Hussein and his claims. After that, coalition public affairs officers came forward and confirmed that Hussein is not a member of the Iraqi police force.
And, just last week, Patterico discovered a little problem with a Los Angeles Times' account of an airstrike in Ramidi that reportedly killed 39 civilians. Trouble was, it never happened.
When queried by Patterico, CENTCOM public affairs confirmed that there had been no coalition airstrikes in Ramidi on the day in question.
See a pattern here? In both cases, the PR flacks (U.S. and Iraqi) were forced to play catch-up, and responded only when bloggers pointed out obvious problems with media reports and/or their sourcing. Unfortunately, by the time the public relations machine lurched into gear, the damage had already been done. Ask someone who's even mildly interested in Iraq about the six mosques that were recently torched and those worshippers supposedly dragged into the streets and set afire. Or that airstrike that killed those innocent civilians. Most Americans who claim some knowledge of those events will tell you they actually happened--and sadly, most have not heard the damning evidence that disproves MSM accounts. In other words, the damage has already been done, despite yeoman work by bloggers and (belatedly) our PR folks in Iraq.
Coalition forces have long had a Strategic Effects Division in Iraq. One of its missions is to "get out" the story of what's going on in that country. The organization holds daily press briefings in Baghdad, maintains an informative web site, and conducts other functions associated with a public affairs operation. The division's director, Army Major General William Caldwell, is one of the most recognizable military officers in Iraq; he leads the daily press briefings and his comments are often included in press reports from the region.
Personally, I think General Caldwell has the toughest job in Iraq. Trying to get the message out--through a hostile press corps--is a near-impossible task. And, I believe the public affairs officers, NCOs and other staffers who serve under General Caldwell also work very hard, under conditions that are demanding by any measure.
But sometimes hard work isn't enough. It doesn't take a PR genius to see that our information strategy in Iraq has essentially failed. False claims and downright lies often circulate unchallenged, creating an exaggerated image of conditions in Iraq. It's a deliberate, effective strategy by the terrorists, aided and abetted by Iraqi stringers, who feed their information to MSM journalists "reporting" from their hotel or the Green Zone. Osama bin Laden has said that the war with the infidels will be won, in large part, through our own media, and that technique is on display every day in Iraq.
So what's the answer--fire General Caldwell? At this point, I don't think that would solve anything. A better answer, I believe, is developing a more aggressive information strategy (and you'll notice, I didn't use the word "media). As we've noted before, allowing misleading or false stories to go unchallenged in the media age is simply unacceptable. It is simply unfathomable that the mysterious Captain Hussein was allowed to peddle his stories for more than a year, with nary a peep from our own media "experts" in the military. More incredible is the fact that his lies were exposed by bloggers, far removed from the battlefield.
In fact, our media operation in Iraq could take a page from the Clinton playbook, and establish its own version of the "War Room," which could quickly respond to any dubious media report or claim. Those efforts should also be linked to our over-arching "information operations strategy," aimed at combating the enemy across the entire media spectrum, including cyberspace. Additionally, the folks in the effects division need to build stronger ties to their friends in the new media, including the blogosphere and embeds. Unfortunately, much of our current information operation smacks of Saigon, circa 1969, where the "message" revolves around press relases and the daily media briefing. It's a reactive approach, glacial in its pace, and totally unsuited for the age of the internet.