Remember that Pentagon program, revealed last month, that fed talking points to supposedly objective military analysts to push the Bush administration's line on Iraq? The Department of Defense just released thousands of documents from the program, so we asked Government Executive correspondent and TNR contributor Alyssa Rosenberg to sift through the documents and see what she can find:
The Joke's On Us
Reading through the 8,000 pages of documents released last week by the Defense Department is like paging through a flip book from hell. Anyone who has watched cable news for more than five minutes over the past few years won't be shocked to find that the Bush administration used self-serving talking points to promote the war. But browsing through years of spin all at once, the thing that strikes me most is that anyone actually fell for the clunky attempts at minting catch-phrases and laughably convoluted logic the military and its mouthpieces were peddling, much less booked them for tens of thousands of television appearances.
In one of its early attempts at branding, the military's talking points from the summer of 2003 push the tin-earned euphemisms "dead-enders" and "bitter-enders" for Iraqis who continued to attack American troops. The terms quickly disappear from the briefings, but not before inspiring the classically petulant you-can't-make-me-Mom statement that "the dead-enders are not driving us out of anywhere." Cue generals kicking their feet on the floor.
The futility of such willful denial has become so clear today that even one of the war's staunchest defenders, John McCain, is needling the Bush administration about them; in a May 1 event in Cleveland, he admitted that these statements about "'a few dead-enders,' 'last throes'...were contradicted by the facts on the ground."
The Pentagon was clearly grasping for straws in trying to come up with any signs of success in Iraq for these memos. "The new Iraqi army will be a force for stability," the September 23, 2003 memo declares, citing the fact that "soldiers in the new army have sworn allegiance to the Iraqi people." On January 21, 2004, the talking points touted the fact that "in addition to learning fundamental fighting skills, soldiers are taught how to function as a member of a multi-ethnic team." Looks like that worked out really well.
One 2004 memo touted a program to release non-violent offenders that sounds like it comes out of a handbook for urban renewal in American cities, relying on the stabilizing role of ministers and community leaders. As long as insurgents "renounce violence; and have a guarantor, such as a prominent person in his community or a religious tribal leader who will accept responsibility for the good conduct of the individual being set free," they could go home. Great.
The ineptitude of the memos would be really funny if the joke wasn't on us. Stay tuned for more jewels from this document dump.
The Bush administration has never been shy about switching rationales for the war in Iraq: Weapons of mass destruction, democracy promotion, fighting terrorism. But it always seemed to me that the administration's most cynical move was to wave the flag of women's liberation in the Middle East, given its decision to re-impose the global gag rule, its threat to veto the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, or for that matter, its warm and fuzzy relationship with Saudi Arabia.
So it's downright creepy to read the anecdotes about women pushed in the DOD talking points released last week--especially when they're interspersed with terse updates on the U.S. military's attempts to rewrite its pathetic sexual assault policies.
When it comes to exploiting imagery of Iraqi and Afghan women, the talking points read like a combination of Pippi Longstocking stories and Lifetime movies. In a July 4, 2004 briefing, a group of peppy Afghan schoolgirls buttonhole Donald Rumsfeld on their way to sports camp (can it get any more girl-power than that?): "After being introduced, young Roia wasn't shy about sharing her feelings with the secretary. ‘Mr. Secretary, all the girls we are very, very happy and pleased to be here,' she said through a translator. ‘We have one message for you ... Please don't forget the Afghan girls and Afghan women.' Rumsfeld's answer was simple, but carried a lot of weight. ‘We don't,' he said. ‘You can count on it.'"
The DOD shamelessly hawked photos of Iraqi schoolgirls grinning and holding up new, Navy-bought chalkboards, of American soldiers tying an Iraqi girl's shoes on the first day of school. We see women graduating from Iraqi Army Basic Training and taking the test to become police officers--feel-good stories all.
Except for this one, from September 23, 2004: "Sally's children were taken away from her more than six months ago. Her husband beat her. Her brother threatened her life while holding a gun to her head. Her own father contracted her deal with a $5,000 reward. Sally, an Iraqi translator, lost everything by working to help Americans rebuild Iraq. Still, she feels her service with Americans is the right thing for her country. ‘I lost everything I have, but I have gained so much,' Sally said. ‘If I had to do it over again I would. I help the Americans help my people.'"
The anecdote is meant to be an illustration of how much Iraqis love their American liberators; but given how Iraqi translators have been abandoned by the Americans they helped, it's a grotesquely ironic PR ploy.
Almost five years after the Defense Department promoted Sally's story, domestic violence in Iraq is skyrocketing, female illiteracy rates are 10 times higher than they were in the 1980s, and in the past few months more than 40 women--and in two cases their children--have been murdered for defying dress codes. I wonder if Sally still feels like working for Americans was worth it.
One of our commenters on an earlier post joked about the "dangerous, bizarre and downright sadistic task" of going through 8,000 pages of DOD memos. The truth is, reading through these documents is more monotonous than anything else. The same statistics and stale phrases flash by my eyes page after PDF-ed page. And then something like this jumps out at me: "Talking Points on Mass Grave Sites in Iraq--May 30, 2003."
And for once they're not really talking points at all, just a sober plan for what must have been an impossible situation: How do you deal with families who are desperate to find their loved ones, even if only to confirm that they died and end an agonizing wait? And how do you allow them to resolve those questions while preserving evidence for war crimes trials? The answer seems to be that you fly in forensics experts who can conduct interviews, issue death certificates, and catalog the personal effects of the dead, and you work with community and religious leaders to explain to Iraqis why you hope they can prolong their searches and what you hope to find.
And if they can't wait anymore, you let them dig.
"At sites such as al Hillah where extensive digging has already begun," the briefing reads, "Military ... will help inform the families of the importance of careful exhumation, and provide them with water, shade, plastic bags, gloves and masks.... At sites that have not been subject to extensive digging, [the Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance] will hire local Iraqis to guard the graves, and deploy humanitarian response teams to meet with families who appear at the sites to explain the problems with uncoordinated exhumation and inform them of ORHA's plans to assist in identification and reburial of remains."
The talking points present no clichés, no pictures of grieving widows, no stories of Iraqis who were finally able to learn the truth. They don't try to encompass the full horror of the graves with statistics or catch-phrases, or to build a case for the military's accomplishments. The bulleted sentences just tell the reader what the military was trying to do in one situation, and it works. Nobody wins in an exhumation of a mass grave, but this simple list of actions makes a convincing case for the appropriateness of American decisions, at least in this case, in trying to deal with what must have been Iraqis' unfathomable fear and grief.
Two products of the War on Terror are a large number of prisoners, and a series of iconic--but depersonalized--images of those detainees. It's been incredibly difficult to get information about who America's prisoners are, what they're charged with, or where they're being held. So I was interested to read the personal details about the Guantanamo detainees the Defense Department included in two batches of documents about the military analysts' trips to Guantanamo.
Most of those details are included to demonstrate how dangerous and committed to destroying the United States the prisoners are. The memos present a number of quotations attributed to the detainees expressing their desire to continue killing Americans, their opinion that killing Jews is not sinful, and their belief that terrorism will defeat the United States government. (I say "attributed" only because the detainees are not precisely in a position to complain if they were misquoted.)
The briefings tout the inmates' high level of education--ticking off a list of degrees in aviation fields, computer mechanics, and even petroleum engineering--to suggest that the prisoners are prepared to sabotage planes, shoot jihadist video, and blow up pipelines. But if only 10 percent of the detainees have degrees (as the memos claim), they don't exactly sound like a group of scheming criminal masterminds holed up in Cuba for our own safety. It's hard to imagine that the prisoner who "studied English at the University of Texas in Austin" used his degree to "threaten guards" or is the reason that he "[enjoys] terrorizing Americans." I guess we should also be afraid that "Agatha Christie and Harry Potter books in Arabic are very popular" among the inmates (though, don't worry, the Gitmo librarians apparently put stickers over Christie's picture to avoid offending the prisoners).
Included in the document dump are the schedules of these military analyst fieldtrips. We don't get any details about what happened on the excursions, but you can see how rigidly structured the briefing program was, with both the trips and the meetings timed, in some cases, down to the minute. Presentations were short: 15 minutes on "Iraq's Transition to Sovereignty" in March 2004, half an hour on "Military Commissions Procedures." Time for substantive Q&A did not seem to be a priority.
Who Needs Ethics?
The U.S. government defines "Psychological Operations (PSYOPS)" as "planned operations to convey selected information and indicators to foreign audiences to influence their emotions, motives, [and] objective reasoning." These propaganda strategies, however, are not allowed to "target U.S. citizens at any time, in any location globally, or under any circumstances," on the directions of Executive Order S-12333.
All this makes me wonder: Did the military analysts program--which The New York Times describes as efforts "to exploit ideological and military allegiances"--constitute an illegal psychological operation against the American public? There is a thin line between disseminating legitimate information (the function of any government public relations office) and conducting a psychological operation. But given the lack of disclosure about the program and the pressure placed on analysts to provide favorable coverage or lose access to sources and information, I'd say the program veers into murky territory.
The answer probably lies partially in the intentions of Defense Department officials (which are likely beyond the reach of anything but a subpoena) and partially in the morass of documents released by the military to The New York Times. But the administration's attempts at information control aren't just clear in the talking points, but also in the way they were released.
One of the letters responding to the Times document request explains that "Ms. Allison Barber, an Initial Denial Authority for the OASD (PA), has determined that some of the redacted information is exempt from release," including "inter- or intra-agency communications protected by the deliberative process privilege."
Barber is also Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Internal Communications and Public Liaison, who is presumably the same Allison Barber who received memos about the military analysts' briefing sessions and welcomed them on board flights to Guantanamo. She also organized--and choreographed--an infamous 2005 teleconference between Bush and U.S. troops stationed in Tikrit that was designed to demonstrate high levels of military support for the president's war policies. That track record would seem--under normal standards of ethics, which don't seem to be the bar here--to disqualify her for reviewing Freedom of Information Act requests, especially for information concerning her own activities.
The DOD touts the fact that it "declassified and posted on the Internet highly sensitive memoranda on interrogation techniques" to prove it has nothing to hide. But if this 8,000--page document dump--a maze of duplicated memos and organizational charts, fat packets of favorable press clippings and redacted names, vetted by the very people whose actions and careers it concerns--taught me anything about the Defense Department's approach to the war in Iraq, it's that when you're looking for the truth, sometimes it's not what you have, but what you don't have that counts.
Alyssa Rosenberg is a staff correspondent at Government Executive and a regular contributor to National Journal.
By Alyssa Rosenberg