(Courtesy of Thoughts on the Eve of the Apocalypse)
By Daniel Schulman
Columbia Journalism Review
When the United States launched Operation Iraqi Freedom in March 2003, Sam Gardiner, a sixty-four-year-old retired Air Force colonel, was a regular on The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer on PBS, where it was his job to place the day’s events in context. As the campaign wore on, and he monitored the press coverage and parsed the public statements of military and administration officials, he at first became uneasy, then deeply concerned.
A longtime Defense Department consultant who has taught strategy at three of the military’s top war colleges, Gardiner had participated throughout the 1990s in a series of war games that simulated attacks on Iraq. He was familiar with Iraq’s military and was therefore surprised to hear officials, such as the Army Brigadier General Vincent Brooks, the deputy director of operations of Central Command’s headquarters in Qatar, tell the press of ongoing operations to eliminate “terrorist death squads.” The allegation struck Gardiner as odd. Matter-of-fact and precise in their speech, military officers would not typically refer to irregulars as “death squads.” More important, as far as Gardiner knew, in 2003, when the invasion began, Iraq had no “terrorist death squads.”
Gardiner believes that this formulation, which first entered the official vernacular a week after the invasion began, was a skillful execution of a classic propaganda technique known as the “excluded middle.” The excluded middle is premised on the idea that people, provided with incomplete but suggestive information, will draw false assumptions — in this case that Saddam Hussein had ties to terrorism and therefore to Al Qaeda (a connection that administration officials actively pushed during the run-up to the war).
As Gardiner further analyzed the coverage in the early days of the invasion, he saw what he believed was a pattern of misinformation being fed to the press. There was the report, carried by The Associated Press, CNN, and The New York Times, among many other news outlets, that Iraq was seeking uniforms worn by U.S. and British troops (“identical down to the last detail”) so that atrocities carried out on Iraqis by Saddam’s Fedayeen could be blamed on the coalition. There was the claim that prisoners of war had been executed by their Iraqi captors, and there was the announced surrender of Iraq’s entire Fifty-first Division. Government officials eventually eased off the POW assertion, and the story of the uniforms was never corroborated and soon disappeared. As for the Fifty-first Division, on March 21 a cascade of news stories, citing anonymous British and American military officials, reported its mass surrender. “Hordes of Iraqi soldiers, underfed and overwhelmed, surrendered Friday in the face of a state-of-the-art allied assault,” the AP reported. “An entire division gave itself up to the advancing allied forces, U.S. military officials said.” Unnamed “officials in Washington” told The Washington Post that the division had been taken “out of the fight for Basra.” Days later, however, coalition troops were still clashing with units of the Fifty-first there. And two days after it was reported that General Khaled Saleh al-Hashimi and the 8,000 men under his command had surrendered, the general was interviewed in Basra by Al Jazeera. “I am with my men . . . . We continue to defend the people and riches” of this city, he told the network. Was this the fog of war or was something else at play?
Gardiner believes that the story of the Fifty-first’s mass capitulation may have been part of a psychological operation, its goal to “broadcast to the other units in Iraq that troops were giving up en masse and very quickly, so there was no reason to resist,” he said. “That’s a valid psychological operation. But it was directly entered into a press briefing.” Gardiner eventually concluded that the flow of misinformation to the press was no accident. It was a well-coordinated campaign, intended not only to confound Iraqi combatants but to shape perceptions of the war back home.
Throughout the summer of 2003, Gardiner documented incidents that he saw as information-warfare campaigns directed both at targeted foreign populations and the American public. By the fall, he had collected his analysis into a lengthy treatise, called “Truth from These Podia,” which concluded that “the war was handled like a political campaign,” in which the emphasis was not on the truth but on the message.
As his paper circulated among government and military officials that fall, Gardiner says he received a call at home one night from a spokesman for the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. He told Gardiner that his conclusions were on target. “But I want you to know,” the spokesman added, “that it was civilians who did this.”
The weaponization of information is not original to the war in Iraq, nor is it unique to any military engagement during what has come to be known as the information age. Journalists have always encountered wartime spin, they have been the targets of propaganda and selective leaks, and, on occasion, have been used for purposes of deception (which has resulted, in certain cases, in saving the lives of American soldiers). In The Art of War, which remains an influential text among military strategists though it was written during the sixth century B.C., the Chinese general Sun Tzu writes: “All warfare is based on deception. Hence, when able to attack, we must seem unable; when using our forces, we must seem inactive; when we are near, we must make the enemy believe that we are far away; when far away, we must make him believe we are near.”
In Iraq then, and indeed in the broader war on terror, it is not the use of information as a weapon that is new, but rather the scale of the strategy and the nature of the targets. Increasingly, the information environment has become the battlefield in a war that knows no boundaries, its offensives directed not just at the insurgents in Iraq and the Taliban in Afghanistan, or at regimes that take an adversarial posture to U.S. policy, but at the world at large. Technological advances, meanwhile, have made access to information instantaneous and ubiquitous, erasing longstanding barriers, legal and otherwise, that in the past have protected the American public and press from collateral damage in propaganda campaigns.
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Truth from These Podia: Summary of a Study of Strategic Influence, Perception Management, Strategic Information Warfare and Strategic Psychological Operations in Gulf II
By Sam Gardiner, Colonel, USAF (Retired)
Information Clearing House
My intent was not to do this myself. The work had to be a combination of the kind of research I was doing and investigative journalism. I could do the outside part. Someone had to talk to those inside. After my return from an information warfare conference in London in July, I began looking for interest in one of the major newspapers. I found that interest in Mark Fineman at the LA Times.
Mark had covered the war and previously had been bureau chief for the paper in Philippines, India, Cyprus and Mexico City. Although he had covered some of the stories I examined in my research, he saw very early the point I was making about the implication of their being seen as a whole, the strategic picture. We continued to exchange e-mails, talk by phone and met four times after our initial session. He shared information he was uncovering. I shared my developing research.
Mark Fineman died of an apparent heart attack while on assignment in Baghdad on September 23, 2003.
It was not bad intelligence.
It was much more. It was an orchestrated effort. It began before the war, was a major effort during the war and continues as post-conflict distortions.
The title of this study was difficult for me. When I began I thought it was going to be an analysis of Pentagon spin. I was going to call it, “Truth from this Podium.” That was to be a play on promises we were given before the war. The more I did, the more it became clear that it was not just the Pentagon. It was the White House, and it was Number 10 Downing Street. It was more than spin.
I though about calling it “Apparatus of Lies,” connecting to a title the White House gave a paper on Iraq’s decade of fabrication, mostly about weapons of destruction. Although lies were part of the effort, that title would have been off the mark because the story is more about aversion to truth rather than the open lie.
I also missed on the subject. I thought it was going to be about spinning the stories of the conflict. I was wrong. The real essence of what I found was a much broader problem. It is a problem about the future as much as the past. This problem became the story of the study.
This is one way of summarizing the study:
The United States (and UK) conducted a strategic influence campaign that:
…distorted perceptions of the situation both before and during the conflict.
…caused misdirection of portions of the military operation.
…was irresponsible in parts.
…might have been illegal in some ways.
…cost big bucks.
…will be even more serious in the future.
I know what I am suggesting is serious. I did not come to these conclusions lightly. Because my plea is for truth in war, I have tried to be very careful not to fall into a trap of describing exaggerations with exaggeration. I hope I’ve done that. I expect some will believe I have been guilty of the same sins. As long as we can have some discussion about truth in war, I accept the criticism.
You will see in my analysis and comments that I do not accept the notion that the first casualty of war is truth. I think we have to have a higher standard.
In the most basic sense, Washington and London did not trust the peoples of their democracies to come to right decisions. Truth became a casualty. When truth is a casualty, democracy receives collateral damage.
My plea is for truth. I believe we have to find ways to restore truth as currency of government in matters as serious as war. My story would be important if it were the last chapter of the book. It’s not. There is more to come. As the United States struggles with a post-conflict Iraq, distortions continue. Probably of more concern, major players in the game are working on ways to do it “better” in future conflicts.
In other words, it appears as if the issues of this war will become even more important for future wars. We have reason to be concerned.
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