Disinformation Operations

Monday’s Washington Post featured an article written by Jonathan Finer and Doug Struck titled Bloggers, Money Now Weapons in Information War – U.S. Recruits Advocates to the Front, Pays Iraqi TV Stations for Coverage, of which my embed in Iraq was the subject of scrutiny as a military information operation.

There are three problems with this article which require a response: the use iof incorrect facts which could have been easily checked; the portrayal of my embed as an information operation; and equating U.S. military information operations with al Qaeda propaganda efforts.

The “Facts”

There are several factual errors in this story, all of which could have been easily verified by direct questions to me, by reviewing my “About” pages at either ThreatsWatch.org or The Fourth Rail, or by asking some questions within their own organization.

I conducted an email interview with Mr. Finer from Iraq. This interview consisted of a single email exchange, and never once were the facts below addressed in any follow up questions.

I am not a “retired soldier” , as that would have required me to serve in the military for twenty plus years. I spent four years on active duty and two years in the National Guard. The article also indicates that I am currently in Iraq and embedded with the Marines in Western Anbar. I am not. I returned home on December 20th.

I was not credentialed by the American Enterprise Institute. This would be impossible as the needed press credentials must be provided by a media organization. A friend suggested I approach the American Enterprise Magazine, which is a periodical published by the American Enterprise Institute. We were unable to work out an agreement, so I searched for an alternative.

Another friend suggested I contact The Weekly Standard. Richard Starr was happy to help and provided the necessary credentials to embed. Also, Rod Breakenridge of the Canadian talk radio show The World Tonight kindly provided documentation for credentials as well. The two letters allowed me to successfully embed, and there were no questions about my credentials in Baghdad or elsewhere.

The Weekly Standard or Mr. Breakenridge did not establish any preconditions for providing the credentials, nor did they fund my trip in any way. I wrote a single article for The Weekly Standard about Election Day in Barwana, and gave two phone interviews from Iraq to The World Tonight.

Finally, The Washington Post astonishingly misrepresents the entire embed process. Captain Jeffery Pool, the Public Affairs Officer for the 2nd Marine Division is quoted as saying “A thorough review of his work was taken into account before authorizing the embed.” Perhaps my work was reviewed before extending the invite to embed, of this I have no knowledge. However, the military has absolutely no authority to “authorize the embed” that I am aware of.

The embed process requires you to be credentialed by a legitimate media source; any citizen who obtains the proper press credentials can embed as a journalist. Once I obtained the credentials, I chose where and when I embedded, and the Public Affairs Officers merely provided assistance with facilitating the embed and movement to the different units.

The only approval required was for embeds that were of a potentially classified nature, such as a Special Forces embed, or requests to work with sensitive intelligence gathering platforms. That a media organization which must certainly deal with the embed process on a regular basis got this entirely wrong is stunning.

The facts mentioned above were easily crosschecked with additional inquiries to me, investigations via the web or some simple questions within their own organization. A media organization should pride itself on obtaining the facts, particularly when they are easily obtainable.

A Suggestion of Impropriety

In an email to Mr. Finer expressing my displeasure with being labeled a military information operation, Mr. Finer suggested I read the entire article. I assured him I did. The title and subtitle are not meaningless to the context of the article; it is implied I was a tool of the military, when in fact the military had no influence whatsoever in what I said from Iraq.

The details of my embed are then followed with a discussion on military information operations, the Lincoln Group’s activities in paying for positive articles to be published in Iraqi publications, and the military funding Iraqi radio stations. The implication is clear: a blogger embedding in Iraq must be part of a nefarious scheme by the military to influence the perceptions on Iraq.

The truth is far more mundane. I wasn’t paid a dime to report from Iraq by the Marines, nor was I influenced in any way in what I could or could not write about. I had full control over the where and when of my embeds. Never once was my work subject to the approval or review of the military. I wrote what I experienced, both the good and the bad.

The invitation to come to Iraq was an invitation only. The invitation to embed alone did not allow me entry. As mentioned above, proper media credentials were required. This invitation merely was motivation for me to take my coverage of Iraq to the next level; instead of reporting from afar, I could provide some first hand accounts from Iraq and assess the situation on the ground on my own.

I questioned Captain Pool about journalists being invited to embed with the military. He assured me that journalists have been invited to embed prior to operations, and Mr. Finer himself was invited at one point in time, which he declined. My invitation to embed with the Marines was neither unique nor special under these circumstances.

In the past, the established media has paid Iraqi stringers that have turned out to be insurgent or al Qaeda operatives. And they have provided cover for Saddam’s brutal regime in order to maintain a Baghdad office. Never have these improprieties caused the media to question the motivations of their counterparts as the motivations of my embed have been questioned.

Any suggestion the trip was funded by a single entity, such as those being hurled by the left-of-center bloggers, is both laughable and easily disproved as I kept meticulous records of those who kindly donated to assist in defraying the costs. This could have been easily confirmed by the reactionary pundits by a mere inquiry. Instead, it is easier to hurls insults, innuendo and rumor about my means and motivations to go to Iraq than to get to the truth.

I organized the trip without any outside assistance, save that of a few trusted friends and my wife. It was funded entirely by donations from my readers. Well over 700 of my readers donated approximately $33,000, plus equipment and services, including plane tickets, a bullet proof vest, and other items. The average donation was about $50. The number of readers that donated $200 or more can be counted on the digits of my four limbs, the number of $500 donations can be counted on one hand, and a single donor contributed $2,000. This was an individual, and not an organization or corporation.

Influence vs. Propaganda

Perhaps the most disconcerting theme of the article relates not to my embed, but to the greater issue of military information operations and equating these efforts with al Qaeda sponsored propaganda efforts in Iraq. Cori Dauber at RantingProfs neatly summarizes the difference:

On the one hand, finally, there’s a recognition that the enemy is engaged in information operations, that there needs to be some critical reflection regarding what they do and how they do it, that there’s a strategy underlying their behavior. On the other hand, that’s treated with equivalence to information ops American forces engage in. The difference is American forces are trying to influence the way articles are placed by, you know, influencing the way articles are placed, while the enemy are trying to influence the way articles are placed by staging events — meaning by killing people.

It ain’t quite the same thing.

Equating military information operations with al Qaeda propaganda efforts is a form of moral equivalence of the worst sort. The U.S. military is conducting an influence campaign to draw attention to the news which is missed by the media on a daily basis. Their belief (and one that I share) is the portrayal of events in Iraq do not reflect the actual situation on the ground. While the articles may be viewed as “favorable” to the Coalition, the question is, are they accurate and factual? The Washington Post does not address this issue, nor does it provide evidence that the military is running a disinformation campaign.

Richard Fernandez describes the difference between reporting and propagandizing as such: “The clear mark of a propagandist is one who consistently misrepresents events, allowing for occasional errors which every human being must make. Track record matters.”

al Qaeda is running a sheer disinformation campaign which uses human beings as props in events such as beheadings and execution styled killings. It manufactures events, such as the faux uprising in Ramadi in the beginning of December. The truth is not relevant to al Qaeda’s propaganda operations, only results matter.

Critics of my writings on Iraq have every right to criticize, but in fairness they should judge the accuracy of my analysis and reporting. Those who question what I witnessed in Iraq can, with some effort, contact the soldiers and Marines I talked to and wrote about to confirm the events took place as I describe. The test of time will show if my reporting from Iraq was truthful reporting or propaganda.

A review of my analysis of operations prior to embedding in Iraq will show I was able to predict the timing and order of operations in Western Iraq over the late summer and fall of 2005. At one point during Operation Steel Curtain I halted my predictions out of fear I was compromising operational security. I did this out based on my own concerns for compromising operational security, not by the request of the military, despite the fact that being “right” would have enhanced my credibility. Some things are more important than reputation.

The information I used in my analysis didn’t come from inside or classified sources, but from a careful study of the situation in Anbar province and the political and military situation, which included the growth of the Iraqi Army, the importance of the Euphrates Ratline to al Qaeda and the insurgency, and the desire of the Iraqi government and U.S. military to put a dent into the most dangerous and deadly elements of the insurgency.

Perhaps Messrs. Finer and Struck should have asked Colonel Stephen Davis why he extended the invite to embed. It was the analysis of the operational situation which prompted the invite from the Marines. The rest of the embed was of my own doing, and my opinions and experiences were entirely my own.

Bill Roggio is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Editor of FDD's Long War Journal.

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