Inconvenient News,
       by smintheus

Monday, March 19, 2007

  Pentagon propaganda gets retooled

Three months ago when the last quarterly report on Iraq appeared, I called it blatant propaganda. Released on December 18, the day that Gates took over as Defense Secretary, the report ignored so much information about the deterioration of Iraq, while downplaying, obscuring, and misrepresenting other evidence, that it seemed an insult to the gravity of the situation. Clearly, Bush & Co. still refused to get serious about Iraq. The shallow news coverage the document received also showed that few journalists had bothered to read it.

I anticipated that the very same things would be true of the newest quarterly report, released on the eve of the 4th anniversary of the invasion. To my surprise, however, this report makes rather a show of candor. The results are far from perfect, and certainly disingenuous in some important respects. But, still, it presents a striking contrast to every other Pentagon report to date on the situation in Iraq.


From an archaeological point of view, it would be interesting to dig back through these artifacts, quarter by quarter, to examine and catalogue advances in administration propaganda. But I have little time or patience for that, so I'll take you back directly to the very first report dating from July 2005.

It was such a monstrosity that Senate Democrats produced a response to the Pentagon quarterly report: 'Measuring Stability and Security in Iraq': Report Fails to Level With American People. This DPC response addresses the basic question "whether the Administration is finally providing straight answers" about the situation in Iraq. It's an important point of reference for assessing the Pentagon's attitude, under Rumsfeld, toward these Congressionally mandated reports.

Congress directed that this report be delivered by July 11, 2005. On July 21, after the Senate was forced to pass additional legislation calling for its completion, the Department of Defense (DoD) finally delivered the report.

So much for the DoD respecting its duty to report to Congress on its activities.

The report submitted by DoD included both an unclassified document and a classified annex. The Department claims to have augmented the unclassified document by providing more specific analysis and more detailed metrics than in the classified annex; however, the Department's failure to include this critical information in the unclassified document means that the American people continue to lack essential information about operations in Iraq, and Congress is prevented from having an informed debate on the matter without violating classification security protocols.

It's a cute trick, you have to admit. But the DoD has plenty of more direct ways to suppress information.

Missing content. Congress dictated precise requirements for the content of the report in order to ensure that the Bush Administration was as specific as possible in its analysis of the situation in Iraq. The conference report directed that, at minimum, the Secretary's report should include "the primary indicators of a stable security environment in Iraq, such as number of engagements per day;" "the estimated strength of the Iraqi insurgency;" "the key indicators of economic activity that should be considered as most important for determining the prospects of stability in Iraq, including...hunger and poverty levels;" the estimated total number of Iraqi battalions needed for the Iraqi security forces to perform duties now being undertaken by coalition forces;" and "an assessment of U.S. military requirements, including planned force rotations, through the end of calendar year 2006."

Unfortunately, the unclassified report did not provide nearly the specificity envisioned by Congress. Not a single one of the criteria listed above were addressed in the DoD's report. Instead of a more specific and useful statistic on daily hostile engagements, the report attempts to obscure the ongoing security challenges by reporting an average number of engagements per week measured over several months. And, instead of including any discussion on poverty and hunger levels in Iraq, the DoD chose to include the "healthy rates" of cell phone subscriptions as a more important indicator of economic stability.

Down to the end of the Rumsfeld era, the Pentagon maintained this level of arrogance about excluding some required information and repackaging other evidence in deliberately unhelpful ways. You may recall that I highlighted several such things in my commentary on the December 2006 quarterly report.

In her comments on my post, shirah drew attention to another important aspect of Pentagon legerdemain—misleading metrics. Here in fact is what Senate Democrats had to say about this very aspect of the first quarterly report from July 2005:

In addition to ignoring the directions of Congress to include certain key indicators, many of the performance standards set forth by the Bush Administration in the DoD's report set the bar so low as to be ineffective as metrics by which to judge U.S. success.

The Democrats then list a series of necessary metrics that the Pentagon report either omits or grossly trivializes, for example...

Security standards fail to provide a baseline by which to judge:

  • The size and strength of the insurgency

  • The effectiveness of their attacks

  • Civilian casualties

  • Development of new terrorists

  • The extent of militia operations

The rest of the Democratic response addresses the failure of the quarterly report "to Provide Honest Analysis of On-The-Ground Realities". It catalogues to "several claims that are at odds with independent reports regarding conditions on the ground in Iraq." The observations are acute, for example...

Despite nominal adherence to an artificial political timeline, the security situation on the ground remains grave and, increasingly, involved parties are expressing concerns about civil or sectarian conflict...And while reports of all-out civil war may be premature, it is clear that the insurgency continues to pose serious security challenges without any tangible sign of diminished strength. Another troublesome development: the CIA now believes that Iraq is the world's number one haven and training ground for international terrorists. (Washington Post, 1/14/05) This report leaves this issue unanalyzed -- a glaring and fundamental omission.


A year and a half later, nearly all the complaints raised by Senate Democrats about the first DoD quarterly report on Iraq remained relevant. Indeed last December, unaware of that 2005 response from Senate Democrats, I voiced similar objections about the latest installment of Pentagon double-talk.

The new Secretary of Defense, by contrast, evidently thinks he needs at least the appearance of credibility. His first quarterly report, rather strikingly, addresses several critical subjects excluded from earlier reports. It is much more detailed. Above all it seems vastly more candid than Rumsfeld's reports, and in some ways it is.

As you would expect, all this candor and the appearance of candor is harnessed to some Bush administration goals. It's a subtle balancing act that Gates has performed in the quarterly report. In another post tomorrow I'll explore what his Pentagon is doing differently, and what the object of retooling its propaganda appears to be.

crossposted from Unbossed

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