A Sorry Mess

Baghdad still isn't secure? The Bush administration blames the press.

It's two years and two months since we invaded Iraq to bring down its dictator, Saddam Hussein. Our military quickly rolled into Baghdad, sent the government oppressors fleeing, and shortly thereafter, on May 2, 2003, President Bush, in a shiny new flight suit, with a huge "Mission Accomplished" banner behind him, announced from the deck of an aircraft carrier that "major combat operations have ended." As we now know, that was premature declamation. Or worse, just fodder for his re-election campaign.

The latest war news is an announcement that 40,000 Iraqi troops backed by 10,000 U.S. soldiers are surrounding Baghdad to seal it off, clean out the insurgent nests that are all over the place, and make the city safe. Two years and two months after the mission was accomplished, the capital city itself is still not secured.

The Bush administration says the press has hurt its mission by telling too much truth. That's why every time the press makes a mistake, the White House celebrates and demands apologies and retractions and atonement. Yet the president and his people—who made deadly mistakes and misrepresentations to cheerlead the country into war—have never allowed any contrition or apology to get close to their lips.

I submitted a single question to six of these officials by fax today, starting with the president. The question was (in various wordings, depending on the official): "Given subsequent events and information, do you wish to retract or apologize for or amend any mistakes or statements you have made in relation to the Iraq war—from the preparation for the war to the present?" Their responses, should they come, didn't make the Voice's early holiday deadline for this issue. But I will keep you posted.

Newsweekretracted and apologized for its recent flawed item about interrogators desecrating the Koran at the U.S. prison at Guantánamo Bay. Nothing like that ever comes from the White House or the civilian leaders of the Pentagon.

The Bush White House has demanded that the press stop using any information from unidentified sources, yet insists it has no equivalent obligation. The government frequently assigns officials to feed information and give briefings to the press, on the condition that the officials' names or their specific jobs not be revealed. That's a different species of anonymity entirely, says White House press secretary Scott McClellan. The difference? The press's sources, McClellan explains, are usually critical of the government. My oh my, what on earth could they possibly be critical of?

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld was quick to offer his wisdom on the Newsweek incident. "People need to be careful what they say," he offered, "just as people need to be careful what they do." On both counts, he's right. It brought to mind his visit on December 8 to Kuwait, where he held a "town meeting" with a gathering of troops who were readying to move into Iraq.

Specialist Thomas Wilson, a scout with the Tennessee National Guard, asked the Pentagon chief why his unit's battle vehicles were not properly armored: "Why do we soldiers have to dig through local landfills for pieces of scrap metal?"

Rumsfeld told the soldier he had missed part of the question: "Could you repeat it for me?" Maybe Rumsfeld needed a few extra moments to gather his thoughts?

"Yes, Mr. Secretary," replied Wilson. "Our soldiers have been fighting in Iraq for coming up on three years. A lot of us are getting ready to move north [into Iraq] relatively soon. Our vehicles are not armored. We're digging [up] pieces of rusted scrap metal and compromised ballistic glass that's already been shot up, dropped, busted, picking the best out of this scrap to put on our vehicles to take into combat. We do not have proper armament vehicles to carry with us north."

Rumsfeld told him: "As you know, you go to war with the Army you have. They're not the Army you might want or wish to have at a later time." It was a complete put-down. Until that moment, I don't think Specialist Wilson knew that he was cannon fodder.

Rumsfeld's failed plans for Iraq were founded more on ideology and wishful thinking than on the experience of history. In the lead-up to the war, battle-seasoned Pentagon generals told him that more troops and equipment were needed for the Iraq undertaking. He brushed them aside.

A defense chief in Japan, to avoid disgrace, might have committed ritual suicide for such blunders and arrogance. Rumsfeld, however, has never apologized publicly to the country, or to Specialist Wilson. And he still has his job.

Yet it's the press that the Bush entourage continually wants to hold responsible for its failures. Rumsfeld, at a recent speech to the World Affairs Council of Philadelphia, said that a globalized press in this digital age can instantly spread damaging information. He lamented "a global Internet with universal access and no inhibitions, e-mails, cell phones, digital cameras wielded by anyone and everyone," and "a seemingly casual disregard for the protection of classified information, resulting in a near continuous hemorrhage of classified documents, to the detriment of the country."

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