This time, someone really does have to be fired. The revelation that Defense Department money, not even authorized by Congress for the purpose, has been outsourced to private interests and then used to plant stories in the Iraqi press is much more of a disgrace and a scandal than anyone seems so far to have said.
- It helps discredit free media in Iraq at a time when that profession is very new and very hazardous (and one of the unarguable moral gains of the original intervention). In a situation already dominated by rumor and conspiracy-mongering, and in a country rife with death squads, it exposes every honest Iraqi reporter to the charge that he or she is an agent of a foreign power. Who at the Pentagon could possibly have needed to have this explained to them?
- It comes on the heels of a credible report about a threat, from President George W. Bush, to bomb the Qatari headquarters of Al Jazeera. The British government, from whose inner circle the relevant memo has been leaked, might have taken credit—in that Tony Blair appears to have dissuaded Bush from this course of criminal insanity—but instead has threatened to use the Official Secrets Act against the newspaper that published it, thus somewhat strengthening the supposition that the story is true. Since certain people and places associated with Al Jazeera have been hit in the past, it appears more plausible than ever in retrospect that some deliberate "targeting" may have been involved.
- It follows the deaths, at the hands of American soldiers, of several Iraqi journalists in "friendly fire." I wrote about this for Slate in July and pointed out that a British general had warned American commanders that these tactics might be quite an easy way of losing the war.
- It is not just a matter of lying to the Iraqis and to neighboring countries, bad as that would be. The feedback must also have been intended to deceive the American taxpayers whose money was used for the fraud in the first place.
You may say: Why strain at this gnat while a huge controversy about more consequential "lies" is in progress? Stupidity and propaganda are inseparable from even the noblest war, but this consideration cannot be allowed to excuse everything. One expects that commanders at home and in the field will talk up their successes, play down crimes and errors on the ground that such information is useful to the enemy, do black propaganda in the enemy camp, and try to get their own version into the public record. But sometimes a whole new line is crossed and "propaganda" corrupts the whole process by becoming a covert operation against one's "own" side. The worst violation so far has been the spreading of a falsified story about the death of Pat Tillman in Afghanistan. Not only was he slain by "friendly fire" instead of by the foe—which is a tragedy in far more ways than just as a setback for recruitment—but the family and friends of this all-American hero were purposely deceived about what had really happened. It would be trivial to add that they were also pointlessly deceived (how long do the geniuses at DoD imagine that such a thing can be kept quiet?) except that it greatly added to the callousness of the thing, and except that this same pointlessness and moral idiocy are now apparent in the "good news" scandal in Iraq.
I remember reading, decades ago, of a moment when Richard Nixon had made some desperate speech from his bunker and had then arranged for telegrams of support to be sent to the White House. And I wondered—did he eagerly tear them open and turn moistly to his aides, saying, "See: You can always count on the horse sense of the American people"? Was he, in other words, utterly and happily insulated and yet alarmingly insane?
I mean, just picture the scene for a moment. An Iraqi family living in, say, Anbar Province, picks its way down the stoop to collect the newly delivered newspaper. This everyday operation is hazardous, but less so than going down to the corner to pick it up, because there are mad people around who do not believe that anything should be in print, save the Quran, not to mention nasty local potentates who do not like to read criticism of themselves. Further, the streets are often dark and littered with risky debris. The lead story, however, reports that all is well in the Anbar region; indeed, things are going so well that there is even a slight chance that they will one day get better. Who is supposed to be fooled by this? The immediate target is, one supposes, the long-suffering people of Iraq. But over time, the printing and dissemination of cheery reportage must have been intended to be picked up and replayed back into the American electorate. If done from state coffers, that is probably not even legal.
It is, anyway, not so much a matter of fooling people as of insulting them. The prostitute journalist is a familiar and well-understood figure in the Middle East, and Saddam Hussein's regime made lavish use of the buyability of the regional press. Now we, too, have hired that clapped-out old floozy, Miss Rosie Scenario, and sent her whoring through the streets. If there was one single thing that gave a certain grandeur to the change of regime in Baghdad, it was the reopening of the free press (with the Communist Party's paper the first one back on the streets just after the statue fell) and the profusion of satellite dishes, radio stations, and TV programs. There were some crass exceptions—Paul Bremer's decision to close Muqtada Sadr's paper being one of the stupidest and most calamitous decisions—but in general it was something to be proud of. Now any fool is entitled to say that a free Iraqi paper is a mouthpiece, and any killer is licensed to allege that a free Iraqi reporter is a mercenary. A fine day's work. Someone should be fired for it.