US Information War - Analysis

By William Thomas

Though Bush's tanks are just a day's drive from Baghdad, America's Commander-In-Chief is losing the war that matters most - the information war.

It wasn't supposed to go like this, reporter Linda Diebel writes in today's Toronto Star. "On the weekend, these weren't supposed to be the television images of Operation Iraqi Freedom: frightened U.S. prisoners-of-war being held in Iraq; a grainy still of slain American soldiers lying on a floor; reporters explaining friendly fire incidents like the downing of a British warplane; and the stark image of a 101st Airborne soldier on the ground, taken prisoner by his own troops after grenades were tossed into officers' tents in Kuwait with deadly results.

"These grim, morale-destroying images weren't supposed to be there because the Bush administration thought it could control media war coverage."

In his decision to overrule Pentagon generals and "embed" 529 media personnel with advancing U.S. and British troops and put tough restrictions on their reporting, Bush urged White House spin-doctors to get out the news "in a coordinated way that reflects our efforts."

Despite their best efforts, they are.
On a Sunday that mauled Washingtons hopes for a quick, clean war, CNN finally decided to show a still photograph of dead Americans with their faces blocked out. But other networks spent crucial ratings hours yesterday debating how to handle images hotter than hand grenades tossed into a crusaders' tent.

Acting more like a Reichmarshall then Secretary of Defense, Rumsfeld furiously warned it would be "unfortunate" for U.S. networks to air footage of American prisoners of war - even as the same images were being relentlessly beamed to the 95% of the world living outside U.S. borders.

Almost desperately, Rumsfeld repeatedly urged Americans not to believe what they were seeing with their own eyes. "The images on television tend to leave the impression that we're bombing Baghdad," he said. "The coalition forces are not bombing Baghdad."

At scripted press briefings at the White House, where America's top "journalists" read pre-approved questions, stern-faced government minders are shown on FOX News checking off each recited sentence on clipboards. But in Qatar, the U.S. Central Command has sought a wide mix of reporters, from Al-Jazeera and European networks to the Rolling Stone.

Big mistake.

In a detonation that stunned American viewers with its preview of questions to come, a reporter who neglected to identify himself for potential reprisals asked why the U.S. military was bombing the people it claimed to be liberating.

Having learned from another war the power of televised images of American corpses to turn American public opinion against administration policies, during the last Bush bombing of Iraq in 1991, truth became the first and last casualties of a war that was really a one-sided slaughter.

It was not difficult. With reporters confined to a Saudi briefing room, cross-haired video images of bombs taking out occupied office buildings lent themselves to "sanitized" daily Pentagon box scores totaling the number of enemy machines knocked out.

Even those official numbers of "destroyed" Scuds and ancient Russian tanks turned out to be wildly overstated - while attacks that killed hundreds of thousands of Iraqi children, women and elderly went unmentioned. 

At least in America.

This time around, the addictive, edgy excitement of televised massive mechanized mayhem is causing revulsion among viewers as burned out as Iraqi tanks. Attempts by warring U.S. networks to turn the front-lines carnage of this latest Bush conflict into a spectator sport are not playing well in the American heartland.

"I feel very uncomfortable watching this, and I have a nephew fighting over there," Washington hotel worker, Madeleine Dorth said yesterday. "It's like a ratings game or something, and I find it's very wrong."

Instead of cheering crushing American firepower, or plucky Iraqi defenders opposing gigantic tanks with the equivalent of slingshots, many viewers just want the killing to stop. The quest for information quickly turns to disgust and outrage when excited U.S. announcers breathlessly announce another barrage to drop on an "enemy" defending their homes with suicidal rushes and hand-to-hand fighting.

"Ohhhh," gushed a breathless CNN announcer as fellow Americans prepared to blow up other human beings near Umm Qasr. "I'm feeling tense. And I'm here in Atlanta, Georgia."

Despite images censored by military minders and nervous networks, a rattled Rumsfeld has acknowledged, "We're having a conflict at a time in our history when we have 24-hours-a-day television, radio, media and Internet, and more people in the world have access to what is taking place."

But this unrestricted access to myriad straight-from-the-source footage and commentary is skewering White House "spin" controllers, who are whirling like dizzied dervishes in a desperate bid to make sure Americans do not see the images jolting the central nervous system of an increasingly appalled and angry world.

Keeping journalists away from the action seemed like a workable plan. Launched by aide Karen Hughes during the 2001 bombing of Afghanistan, Bush Jr.'s "war communications plan" kept U.S. atrocities reported widely in Britain and Europe from piercing the American news bubble.

Hughes still works around-the-clock with the Pentagon, State Department and National Security Council. Diebel describes how a White House "Global Communications Team" fills each 24-hour news cycle with a "message of the day" intended to dominate American attention.

"The idea is to present their view of what is happening, and make it the only view," says William Lutz, a Rutgers University English professor and expert on 'doublespeak' told . The Star. "They cloak it with authority... "People think, `Hey, the government has more information than I do, their view must be more informed than mine.'"

Not to worry. Global Communications Team head Tucker Eskew solemnly promised the Dallas Morning News that his highly paid government news managers are not selling propaganda or disinformation.

But the Internet knows better. With its instant access to hundreds of alternative and foreign news sources - as well as eyewitnesses reporting directly from within embattled Iraqi cities - White House errors, lies and distortions parroted by complicit reporters are being exposed and corrected within minutes.

Even as allied forces close in on an ancient city that could become an Arab Stalingrad, satellite television and a worldwide web threaten to enmesh Earths most powerful army in the immobilizing embrace of an even bigger Superpower: public opinion.

While Americans remain squeamish over viewing the results of their unprovoked attack on Iraq, in this information hyper-war Al Jazeera's candid cameras are already inflicting heavy casualties on U.S. credibility. 

Just yesterday, Arab television footage of purported dead American GIs was followed by interviews with five U.S. prisoners after Pentagon officials confirmed at least 10 soldiers had been killed and up to 12 were missing following ambushes near the key southern city of Nasiriyah.

Despite repeatedly displaying dispirited Iraqi prisoners of war on American channels, Arab broadcasts showing American POWs are being denounced by Bush and coalition commanders as "violations of the Geneva Convention".

But while Arab, British and European news stations continue to highlight debate over the wars illegality, U.S. anchors more mindful of their paychecks and perks than journalistic integrity are careful not to point out that American cluster bomb attacks on heavily populated cities absolutely violate internationally agreed rules for the conduct of war.

While American networks continue to censor un-American imagery, millions of Middle Eastern viewers are watching transfixed as clips show each American prisoner speaking into an Iraqi Television microphone. The four men and a woman were asked where they were from and why they had come to Iraq.

"I follow orders," explained a soldier from El Paso, Texas.

"I was told to come here. I just follow orders," said another.

"Why do you fight Iraqis?" he was asked.

"They shot at me first, so I shoot back," he said. "I don't want to shoot anybody."

The African-American prisoner identified herself as coming also from Texas. Her voice shook as the camera panned back, showing a white bandage wrapped around her ankle.

Apparently from a maintenance unit, the five American soldiers were captured during fighting around Nasiriyah, a key Euphrates River crossing northwest of Basra. Another nervous captive, who found himself a long way from Kansas, was also asked what he was doing in Iraq. Eyes darting back and forth between the interviewer and an unseen person off-camera, he replied, "I come to fix broke stuff."

He could be well employed in Basra and Baghdad, where heavy air attacks have left plenty of wreckage in Iraq's former and current capitols. 

While Americans wonder what is really happening in a distant desert, the Qatar-based satellite news network continues to beam images of mutilated Iraqi corpses and injured children into homes and government offices throughout the Middle East.

Unlike the "other CNN", Al Jazeera yesterday aired footage of a decapitated child and a dead Iraqi soldier lying in a trenchSnext to a white flag. In contrast to the Arab coverage, a photo of the same incident appeared on the BBC website - with the "explanation" that the slain child and soldier had apparently tried too late to surrender.

Images like this, and Arab commentary cheering the spirited defense of a sanctions-shattered country that was not supposed to greet its "liberators" with gunfire and human wave attacks, is inspiring calls for Holy War throughout the Middle East..

In Yemen's capital, riot police in armored cars failed to prevent 30,000 anti-Bush demonstrators from marching on the U.S. embassy last Friday. When water cannons and tear gas gave way to live ammunition, an 11-year-old boy and at least one other protester were killed.

In Amman, Jordan, where police removed two imams from a mosque for delivering fire-breathing sermons against America, the Muslim Brotherhood urged Palestinians to drive car bombs across the border and martyr themselves among the American aggressors.

Unless the Bush-Cheney-Perle-Rumsfeld-Wolfowitz Gang of Five can find a way to neutralize Al Jazeera and the Internet, their Christian crusade could ignite the apocalypse they are said to seek.

Like fire through biblical chaff, the nightmare many warned against is already beginning. In Cairo over the weekend, Muslim clerics called on Arabia's biggest city and nation to join in the fight "to support and defend the people of Iraq." Police used truncheons and water cannons to beat back more than 10,000 demonstrators chanting, "With all our heart and soul, we sacrifice ourselves to Islam."

Meanwhile, in the West Bank, where stepped-up Israeli forces are taking advantage of the Iraq distraction to launch tank attacks on suspected terrorists embedded among Palestinian families, a shop owner told Agence France Presse he was selling hundreds of Iraqi flags every day. Flags of countries that have taken a stance against the war - Germany, France, Russia, China, Canada and others - are also flying off the shelves.

Travelers take note.
In this new "hyper war" of simultaneous assaults, firefights and news coverage, front-lines television and streaming digital downloads may prove even faster and more devastating than Depleted Uranium rounds.

Every few minutes, another burst of satellite imagery and Internet information impacts among an interactive global audience. Ambushed by info, U.S. military commanders confident in their overwhelming firepower are increasingly expressing concern that the "velocity of information" is spinning out of their control.

But the "virtual reality" presented by U.S. networks could prove even more disastrous if it succeeds in shaping American opinion and decision-making. Far from frightened POWs and a TV-inflamed Arabia, Bush appeared to be speaking from another reality when he told reporters after attending church at Camp David yesterday that he prays for "our efforts to make the world more peaceful and more free."

This is real news in Basra, where bombarded Iraqi people have reportedly approached American troops asking, "Have you come here to steal our oil?"

William Thomas is the author of All Fall Down: The Politics of Terror and Mass Persuasion and Bringing The War Home. See also his award-winning documentary, 'Eco War'.



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