Michael's Dispatches

Al Sahab: The Cloud

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The Ubiquitous Car Bomb: scenes like the one depicted here, of soldiers responding to sectarian bomb attacks, are among the most common images of Iraq that Americans see represented in news coverage.

While many blame the media for the estrangement, part of the blame rests squarely on the chip-laden shoulders of some key military officers and on the often clueless Combined Press Information Center (CPIC), who don’t manage the media so much as manhandle it. While many if not most of the Public Affairs officers are professionals dedicated to their jobs, a few well-placed incompetents cripple our ability to match and trump al Sahab. By enabling incompetence, the Pentagon has allowed the problem fester to the point of censorship.

My experience both as a soldier and then as a writer and photographer covering soldiers has been overwhelmingly positive, and I feel no shame saying I am biased in favor of our troops. Journalistically worse, I feel no shame in calling a terrorist a terrorist. I’ve seen their deeds and tasted air filled with burning human flesh from their bombs. I’ve seen terrorists kill children while our people risk their lives to save civilians again, and again, and again, and again. I feel no shame in saying I hope that Afghanistan and Iraq “succeed,” whatever that means. Yet I would feel unbearable shame if I were to remain silent about our military’s ineptitude in handling the press. This subject is worthy of a book, yet more immediate are the portends of a subtle but real censorship.

Censorship is a giant among words. Not to be used flippantly. Censorship is a word like “murder”: Break Glass Only in Event of. . . . The word “censorship” is like a hand grenade so powerful that no arm can throw it far enough, and so a writer better be serious before pulling the pin. To understand the gravity, we must first clarify meaning. Censorship for reasons of operational security is acceptable, desirable and important, and so this writer does not cry censorship when the CIA denies a request for full access to its files, or when Delta Force will not permit an embed. Got it. No explanation needed. No cry of censorship. In fact, I have turned down offers to embed with other Special Operations forces on grounds that the limits on what I could write would not be worth the danger and expense.

“Censorship” may conjure images of pages with black marker redactions or movie studio censors measuring cleavage. But censorship occurs whenever authorities willfully limit information that citizens without security clearances can access. Certainly, redacting sensitive details from materials already produced is one form of censorship. But I would argue that preventing the material from ever being developed in the first place is another more egregious form. Further, whether we institute censorship as a prime directive or back into it “accidentally” through incompetence, the result is the same. And in either case, once the matter has been brought to the attention of the military and the Pentagon—which I have quietly done—and still the matter is not rectified, then it crosses a line.

For generations journalists have been allowed to “embed” with various military units such as our infantry. Infantry is perhaps the most dangerous, underpaid and unglamorous job on the planet. Infantrymen are called grunts, trigger pullers, cannon fodder and ground pounders. Long hours, low pay and death, death, death. If they survive, they get a welcome home party. Sometimes. And that’s it: Thanks. Since World War II, journalists were given wide latitude to travel with the infantry, though few can stand it for long. Up to last year, this war was no different. A journalist could stay out with the infantry for as long as he or she could take it. I spent most of 2005 in Iraq and most of that was with infantry units in combat.

I went to Iraq initially at the provocation of military friends who insisted that what Americans were seeing on the news wasn’t an accurate reflection of the reality on the ground. Two friends of mine died on two consecutive days. When the charred remains of one were strung from a bridge in Fallujah, I put aside a book I was writing to attend the funerals. In Colorado we laid to rest a Special Forces friend who’d been killed in Samara; then on to Florida for the funeral of the friend who’d been murdered and mutilated in Fallujah. A photo of the dangling corpse won a Pulitzer. April 2004 was a nexus month. Photos from Abu Ghraib were first published then.

It took the remainder of the year for me to purchase or borrow the equipment I needed and just as long for me to save up for a new camera, satellite phone and laptop. Like most of the people who would later be called “alternate media” I bore these expenses myself, including the flights to Iraq. I had no media affiliation. I went, saw, wrote and photographed. There was a dearth of information about the daily experiences of our troops in the US media and my work filled some of that void.

Faces of the Future: Iraqis place a high value on education, and getting schools running again was often the most urgent post-invasion request. Perhaps suggesting a common interest for many Americans, this picture of young Kurdish schoolgirls is the most frequently viewed photograph on my website.

My military background helped me navigate the system, and most importantly it provided me with the critical context that informed all my observations. I didn’t need to be told when to duck, or what not to photograph. I believe now as I did then: the government of the United States has no inherent right to send our people off to war and keep secret that which it has no plausible military reason to keep secret. After all, American blood and taxpayer money is being spent. We have a right to know how our soldiers are doing, and what they are doing while wearing our flag. The government has no right to withhold information or to deny access to our combat forces because that information might anger, frighten or disturb us.

By allowing only a trickle of news to come out of Iraq, when all involved parties know the flow could be more robust, the Pentagon is doing just that. Although some of the conspicuous media vacuum is likely due to this being the most dangerous war in history for journalists—more dangerous than Vietnam or even World War II when journalists were allowed to land on D-Day—some of the few who will risk it all are being systematically denied access for no apparent reason.

This blockade is occurring simultaneous to the Pentagon’s efforts to shape the news by outsourcing millions of dollars to public relations firms to buy favorable words. This hackneyed effort has the unintended consequence of putting every reporter who files a positive story under scrutiny as a possible stooge. A fraction of those dollars spent on increasing transportation support might persuade many more reporters to request an embed, if they had a reasonable expectation of being able to get to the units and get stories filed on time instead of wasting days, sometimes weeks stranded in logistics limbo.

The media people I encountered in Iraq were not looking for four-star accommodations. They new full well what to expect from a war zone. They just didn’t want to be stuck on the sidelines unable to do any part of their jobs, held up for reasons that almost never have anything to do with combat. With the level of risk and expense, is it such a wonder that so many never bother going back?

There’s little comfort in the supposition that this mess might be more the result of incompetence than censorious policy toward media. After all, what does it matter whether the helicopter crashed because it ran out of gas or because someone didn’t tighten the bolts on a rotor?

Our country possesses supremely one-sided air and weapons superiority, but this is practically irrelevant in a counterinsurgency where the centers of gravity for the battle include public opinion in Iraq, Afghanistan, Europe and at home. The enemy trumps our jets and satellites with fantastically one-sided media superiority by maintaining an organic “embed” system with “journalists” spread all over Iraq and Afghanistan to publicize their deeds. The lowest level terror cells have their own film crews. While al Sahab hums along winning battle after battle, the bungling gatekeepers at CPIC reciprocate with ridiculous and costly obstacles for the embedded media covering our forces, ultimately causing harm to only one side: ours.

In September, when the popular “blog conglomerate” Pajamas Media reported there were only nine embedded journalists in Iraq, readers lashed out, blaming a cowardly media. But the reality is convoluted. The Pentagon is permitting an extremely limited number of journalists access, while denying other embed requests that would have been permitted only a year ago.

Researching this op-ed, I contacted a Marine officer in charge of tracking media in Iraq. In mid-September, USMC Major Jeffrey Pool was tracking only nine embedded reporters. Three were from Star & Stripes, one from the Armed Forces Network, another from a Polish radio station who was with Polish forces, and one Italian reporter embedded with his country’s troops. Of the remaining three, one was an author gathering material for later, leaving two who might report to another important center of gravity: the American citizens.

Although this number is in constant flux, on the day of Major Pool’s report there was approximately one independent journalist for every 75,000 troops. Most embeds last for a matter of days. So, how are our troops doing in Iraq? Afghanistan? Who knows?

The balance of media comes mostly from the “Baghdad News Bureaus”—who because of the fantastic danger generally gather information from the safety of the Green Zone by using Iraqi stringers,—and from the media advisories generated by CPIC.

The Dangerous Unknown: the outcome of the mission in Iraq, and to a large extent that of Great War on Terror, depends largely on strength of a people we know little about.

But there are people who would go to war and report on our troops. Walt Gaya, a highly skilled photographer who received two Purple Hearts last year as an infantryman, recently got two invitations to embed with combat troops. The first invitation came from the 4th Infantry Division, and the second was from Brigadier General Dana Pittard to embed with military training teams. I’ve had invitations from countless outfits. Yet, when Walt and I requested embeds, Lieutenant Colonel Barry Johnson, the Director of the Combined Press Information Center in Baghdad who controls all Iraq embeds, dismissed both requests out of hand.

Johnson, who has been described as “the most quoted man in Iraq,” was quoted saying, “We don’t turn down embeds at all. When we get a request, it may be very specific or broader. We go to the unit involved. They manage their own embeds. We don’t force them to take anyone; we’re not going to force anyone to interact with media. We may offer advice and talk to them about their reasoning. In the end, we respect the wishes of the unit.” Walt and I both had requests, and in each case the commanders had put their wishes in writing. In both cases, Johnson denied the embeds. Somebody is not telling the truth. Either Walt and I are lying, or LTC Barry Johnson is. The documentation is clear.

After issuing his terse denial, LTC Johnson was pressed for an explanation during a radio interview. He said something about being worried about me because I have no insurance. Listening to the tape of Barry Johnson’s radio interview, I wondered, “How would Johnson know whether I have insurance? He never asked.” Johnson told the interviewer that he had been in communication with me. This was sort of true. But not in the way he implied, because the only words Johnson ever sent my way were in an email he sent to me on 18 July 2006, where he wrote:

Classification: UNCLASSIFIED

Mr. Yon;

I do not recognize your website as a media organization that we will use as a source to credential journalists covering MNF-I operations.

LTC Barry Johnson
Director, CPIC

Had LTC Johnson made his concerns known to me, he would have learned that before Walt Gaya attempted to embed, Walt and I had approximately a dozen phone conversations about his insurance policy in regard to covering his time in combat—even though CPIC never requested anything about insurance before, during, after or since. Johnson was lying when he said that his decision was based on insurance status.

At the same time Walt and I were being given the brush, a blogger named Chad Hunt was heading for an embed in Afghanistan. (These slots are not controlled by Johnson.) When I asked Hunt if he had insurance, he replied, “Do you think I need it?” No one had asked him about insurance, which didn’t surprise me because it is not part of the standard process during which all embeds sign a detailed Hold Harmless agreement covering matters of injury, dismemberment and/or death.

Johnson’s denial (printed above) was unconditional and not couched with a request for more information. And even if Johnson failed to recognize my online magazine as a media outlet he was willing to work with, this still didn’t address the fact that the VFW had also agreed to publish Walt Gaya’s work. Is Johnson claiming he doesn’t recognize the VFW magazine with its approximately 1.8 million subscribers? Or is something else clouding his judgment?

Once Johnson pulled that insurance card on radio, I checked back with Chad Hunt about insurance on 20 August and asked if the PAO had asked him about his insurance arrangements. Hunt’s email response, “Nope. What is that?” Hunt headed for Afghanistan, and on 3 September I emailed, Did you get insurance?” “Yes, I’m here and no insurance.” Chad Hunt, like most alternative media, paid his way to war. As he explains on his website:

“I have paid for the cost of the plane ticket, body armor, kevlar helmet, ballistic glasses and all the other gear. I never expected to make money off of this and I even had one agency tell me that they would not back me ‘because embedded images don’t sell.’”

LTC Johnson, “the most quoted man in Iraq,” has repeatedly gone on record decrying the lack of press coverage in Iraq, all while alienating the last vestiges of any press willing to spend month after month in combat with our people. Meanwhile, Johnson has become a major media source while squeezing out nearly all other voices. Instead of courting the media in an attempt to win the war for “hearts and minds,” the trend seems to be stiff-arming it at the expense of our troops and their families. LTC Barry Johnson may be winning all his petty personal battles but he is losing the media war. The Pentagon has been notified but has failed to rectify the situation.

Other PAOs, such as USMC Major Jeffrey Pool and Army LTC Stephen Boylan, do not fit the pattern described here. As I stated at the outset, many PAO officers are extremely hardworking and dedicated. Unfortunately for Major Pool and the rest, all their hard efforts seem to disintegrate at the same point in the system where LTC Barry Johnson exercises an arbitrary veto power in what has become his fiefdom in Baghdad, and his bosses do nothing to fix their sinking ship.

The enemy knows that in modern-day counterinsurgency the media is an extension of the battle space. When Zarqawi began losing some of his media battles by broadcasting videos of hostages having their heads sawed off, Zawahiri scolded him in a note later recovered in raid:

“However, despite all of this, I say to you: that we are in a battle and that more than half of this battle is taking place in the battlefield of the media. And that we are in a media battle in a race for the hearts and minds of our Umma. And that however far our capabilities reach, they will never be equal to one thousandth of the capabilities of the kingdom of Satan that is waging war on us. And we can kill the captives by bullet. That would achieve that which is sought after without exposing ourselves to the questions and answering to doubts. We don’t need this.” [Translation: just shoot them, dummy.]

During the beginning of the war when some of us called an insurgency an insurgency, our patriotism was questioned. Is there any question now? Are those just a few “dead-enders” that we are “mopping up”? When I called a civil war a civil war a full year ahead of the media, out came the dogs. “Unpatriotic” was among the more charitable names hurled my way. When I predicted success in Mosul even while the guns were hot, many mainstream journalists thought I was hallucinating. But there was tremendous progress in Iraq in 2005, and I reported it, all while warning about the growing civil war that could undermine everything. I reported extensively on a unit that was getting it right, and I was mostly alone as a reporter in Mosul.

Early this spring, when I reported from Afghan farms about this year’s bumper opium crop (about six months ahead of nearly anyone else), people thought I was using that opium. Mark this on your calendar: Spring of 2007 will be a bloodbath in Afghanistan for NATO forces. Our British, Canadian, Australian, Dutch and other allies will be slaughtered in Afghanistan if they dare step off base in the southern provinces because practically nobody is screaming at the tops their media-lungs about the impending disaster. I would not be surprised to see a base overrun in Afghanistan in 2007. And when it happens, how many will claim they had no idea it was so bad and blame the media for not reporting it?

Exiting with Unanswered Questions: This photograph was taken as troops from the First ID began leaving Iraq in February, 2005. It was part of a dispatch entitled “Mission Impossible,” written after a soldier asked me “How much do the people at home know about the progress we have made over here?” That the answer is still such a disappointing “Not much” is a blunder the military needs to correct before attempting a counterinsurgency war.

The media does matter. Our troops are naked without it. Our people probably would still be driving down Iraqi roads in unarmored Humvees were it not for the likes of journalist Lee Pitts, who posed the now infamous “hillbilly armor” question through a National Guardsman to the Secretary of Defense.

Seven days a week I communicate with wounded service members and families of service members killed in action. They ask, “When are you going back?” They long to hear the details—good, bad or ugly—that bring them closer to their loved ones. Some get impatient and short with me, perhaps not realizing that LTC Barry Johnson has the final say and he doesn’t recognize my work as warranting an embed on his watch.

So here we are again. How many will read this and prepare to throw down over definitions like they have done before? To the list of words people fought over when they should have fought for the problems to be solved, let us now add “censorship.” I write here charging it, but I am really shouting “FIX IT!” We don’t have six months or a year to dither about definitions and whether this censorship is a product of incompetence or is some election season subterranean policy. Just fix it! Make it go away! Al Sahab is kicking Barry Johnson’s teeth in. Someone show the chump some mercy and call the fight before it’s too late.

Walter Cronkite probably said it best when he issued these words years ago: “I firmly believe in the necessity of military censorship but there is considerable danger to the democracy when in the guise of military censorship our government engages in political censorship.” There was a time when Walter Cronkite was the most trusted man in America, and America allowed Cronkite to deliver good news and bad without shooting the messenger. When the venerable veteran traveled to Vietnam he postulated that we would not win. President Johnson is said to have remarked to an aide, “If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost America.”

The current President of the United States should know today that if we lose the media, we will lose Iraq, Afghanistan, and the entire “war on terror.” If our military cannot win the easy media battles with writers who are unashamed to say they want to win the war, there is no chance of winning the hearts and minds of typical Afghans and Iraqis and both wars will be lost. And some will blame the media. But that will not resurrect the dead.


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