Russert allowed Gen. Pace to mislead on Meet the Press

››› ››› JEREMY SCHULMAN

On NBC's Meet the Press, Tim Russert failed to challenge several misleading claims made by Gen. Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, in support of his assertion that the Iraq war is "going very, very well."

On the March 5 broadcast of NBC's Meet the Press, host Tim Russert failed to challenge several misleading claims made by Gen. Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, in support of his assertion that the Iraq war is "going very, very well." Pace characterized the February 22 bombing of the al-Askariya shrine in Samarra, one of the holiest sites of Shiite Muslims, as a sign that "[t]he terrorists are becoming so desperate ... that they destroy one of their own most sacred shrines." In fact, media accounts have noted that "Sunni extremists" -- who have frequently targeted Shiites in Iraq -- are widely suspected in the bombing. Pace also claimed that the Iraqi police and armed forces "have maintained good calm" in the violence that followed the bombing. In fact, the Associated Press reported that rather than actively working to maintain public "calm" in the aftermath of the bombing, "Iraqi forces did not engage the rioters waiting until clerics had calmed the situation before taking to the streets." Finally, Russert allowed Pace to accuse the media of distorting the situation in Iraq, failing to note that escalating violence is largely to blame for limited reporting about the war.

On Meet the Press, Pace portrayed the Askariya shrine bombing as a sign that "[t]he terrorists are becoming more desperate -- so desperate that they destroy one of their own most sacred shrines in an attempt to cause civil war and strife." Russert did not challenge this claim. But while no organization has taken responsibility for the attack on the Askariya shrine, the AP reported on February 22 that "suspicion fell on Sunni extremist groups such as al-Qaida in Iraq led by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi." The Sunnis and the Shiites represent two distinct Islamic faith communities in Iraq. In a March 5 Los Angeles Times op-ed, Yitzhak Nakash, a Brandeis University associate professor of Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies, described the bombing as "an act attributed to Sunni jihadists." Pace's claim even contradicted statements by Gen. John Abizaid, commander of U.S. Central Command. On March 4, the AP reported that Abizaid "blamed Al-Qaeda terrorists for the blast."

Russert also failed to challenge Pace's dubious assertion that in the wake of the bombing, "[t]he Iraqi police, the Iraqi armed forces have maintained good calm." In fact, the AP reported on March 2 that despite U.S. officials' portrayal of Iraqi security forces as a "silver lining" in the recent violence, "[f]or the most part ... Iraqi forces did not engage the rioters":

U.S. officials have hailed the performance of Iraqi security forces as the only silver lining in the spasm of violence after the shrine bombing. For the most part, however, Iraqi forces did not engage the rioters waiting until clerics had calmed the situation before taking to the streets.

[...]

But most of the credit goes not to Iraqi forces but to top Shiite clerics -- including anti-American firebrand Muqtada al-Sadr, who called back his militiamen, responsible for many if not most of the attacks on Sunni sites in Baghdad and Basra.

Attacks did persist after the clerics' appeal for calm - but at much lower levels.

Rather than confront angry mobs, most Iraqi forces filled a security void after the worst of the violence had passed. Aided by daytime curfews and a vehicle ban, they manned checkpoints in Baghdad and patrolled the streets to prevent major violence from flaring again. Even so, some sporadic attacks continued.

In the first critical hours after the Feb. 22 shrine bombing in Samarra, the streets in much of Baghdad and Basra belonged to freelance gunmen and black-clad militiamen of al-Sadr's militia, the Mahdi Army.

They roamed the capital in pickups and cars seemingly without fear of facing down either Iraqi or American forces. Few bothered to wear masks to hide their identity.

This same article described the performance of the Iraqi security forces as "mixed," adding that, in Basra, "police fled areas around some Sunni mosques before they were attacked, suggesting they had been tipped off in advance":

The performance of Iraq's soldiers and police was mixed.

There were no reports of units disintegrating, even though most of them are heavily Shiite. Sunnis and Shiites in mixed units did not turn against the comrades from the other sect. Nor was there any indication that significant numbers of soldiers refused orders or that large numbers of them stripped off their uniforms and joined in the violence.

Had the clerics not intervened, however, the challenge facing those newly trained army and police units would have been far greater - and the outcome uncertain.

There are signs that police in some areas would not, or could not, have coped.

In Basra, the country's second-largest city and scene of some of the worst violence, police fled areas around some Sunni mosques before they were attacked, suggesting they had been tipped off in advance.

Residents, speaking on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals, said many of the attackers appeared to be al-Sadr militiamen. The Sadrists wield power in Basra along with other Shiite militias since the Shiite religious party Fadhila took control of the province after the January 2005 election.

There was no sign that police tried to confront the Basra militants, according to the residents. The only force trying to resist the attacks were private security guards protecting Sunni political and religious offices, the witnesses said.

Gunmen, officially described as "disguised as police," entered the Basra jail during the chaos, removed a dozen inmates believed to be Sunni militants and shot them dead.

As in Baghdad, the violence stopped in Basra only after al-Sadr ordered his militia to prevent attacks. No curfew was ordered in Basra.

Finally -- in response to Russert's citing CBS News polling data that found that most Americans believe the Iraq war is going badly and is not worth its costs -- Pace insisted that media coverage was largely to blame for public opinion about the war. Pace said that "back when the war began, we had 24-7 coverage" allowing Americans to "put together their own opinion of what's going on." Pace asserted that now, "[p]eople don't get a chance to see or hear about all the good things that are happening." Pace returned to this theme later in the show, saying that what the American people are "seeing is the same bomb going off every 15 minutes on television, as opposed to having an opportunity to see all of what's happening in Iraq. I believe that the American people who are able to see all that is happening in Iraq would understand much better that progress is being made."

However, Russert failed to note that according to many journalists, the deteriorating situation in Iraq -- and the escalating dangers faced by reporters there -- is the reason for increasingly limited coverage of the war. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), 64 journalists have been killed in the Iraq war. Citing numbers from The Freedom Forum, CPJ lists 68 journalists killed in World War II and 66 in the Vietnam War. In addition, CPJ reports that 23 "media support workers" have been killed in Iraq and 39 journalists have been abducted.

On January 31 -- following the wounding of ABC World News Tonight co-anchor Bob Woodruff and cameraman Doug Vogt, as well as the kidnapping of freelance journalist Jill Carroll, on assignment for The Christian Science Monitor -- the AP reported: "The increased danger has hampered newsgathering as reporters willing to leave the relative safety of Baghdad's fortified Green Zone either have to embed with U.S. or Iraqi forces or risk covering events on their own." The AP also interviewed CBS News correspondent Lara Logan, who said that in contrast to earlier in the war, security concerns now limit reporters' activities:

CBS News correspondent Lara Logan, a veteran of numerous reporting trips to Iraq and Afghanistan, confirms this view: "We definitely have become the target."

[...]

CBS' Logan says things are significantly different from the early days of the war, when she rushed to the Mansour neighborhood where a [sic] U.S. warplanes bombed a building thought to contain Saddam Hussein.

"These days if there's a car bomb in a bad neighborhood in Baghdad, if I went, I would get everyone with me killed," Logan said. "I've had to fight the instinct to rush to the scene of everything that happened."

In a January 30 Philadelphia Inquirer article about Iraq correspondents' views on their own safety, staff writer Ken Dilanian made a similar point:

In the few months after Baghdad fell in April 2003, Iraq was a reporter's dream.

The living was rough, and not without danger, but the payoff was huge: the exhilaration that comes with covering one of world's biggest stories.

The security climate wasn't anything like it is today. It's hard to imagine now, but in those early days of the occupation, many reporters stayed in hotels or houses with little or no security. They jumped into cars each day and went out with their translators to breathe in the chaotic, heady atmosphere of the newly liberated country.

This was before kidnapping and car bombings became routine. As long as you were prudent and had good local help, you could go almost anywhere and speak to almost anyone, even in the Sunni triangle.

That changed dramatically more than a year ago, and the serious wounding of ABC News co-anchor Bob Woodruff and cameraman Doug Vogt is just the latest example of how Iraq has become perhaps the world's most dangerous place for Western reporters, and Westerners period.

[...]

These days, dark complexion or not, many journalists are forbidden by their security consultants from leaving the confines of their hotels. Though not in the protected Green Zone, those hotels are surrounded by armed guards and concrete blast walls. Often, news organizations send their Iraqi employees to do interviews and gather information.

When they do go out, most Western reporters take elaborate precautions that range from armed escorts to security chase cars to disguises.

Reporters always have the choice to embed with U.S. troops, but when they do that they are left to cover one dimension of the story in one confined military sector.

In a January 26 Los Angeles Times first-person article on covering Iraq, staff writer Alissa J. Rubin described abandoning a story because of safety concerns after Carroll's abduction, writing that "fewer than 75" foreign journalists remain in Iraq -- "down from more than a thousand after the war."

In response to Pace's separate suggestion that National Review editor at large William F. Buckley Jr. -- a recent Iraq war critic -- should "take a trip over to Iraq and walk the streets," Russert asked: "Do you really believe it'll be safe for William F. Buckley to walk the streets of Baghdad?" Pace responded that Buckley would not, in fact, be safe in "all the places in Baghdad," but added that if "properly escorted," Buckley "would have a chance to talk to folks and see that the Iraqi people are positive about their future; that the Iraqi armed force and the Iraqi police are loyal to their government and are getting much, much better each day."

From the March 5 broadcast of NBC's Meet the Press:

RUSSERT: What's going on in Iraq?

PACE: Well, what happened in Iraq was, you have the extremists who see that the Iraqi people are going to the polls and voting for their own freely elected government. The terrorists are becoming more desperate -- so desperate that they destroy one of their own most sacred shrines in an attempt to cause civil war and strife. The Iraqi people -- the Kurds, Sunnis, and Shia -- have walked up to that abyss, looked in, and said, "That's not where we want to go." The Iraqi police, the Iraqi armed forces have maintained good calm, and the Iraqi people themselves and their leaders are saying, "Let's remain calm and let's figure this out together."

RUSSERT: If you were to be asked whether things in Iraq are going well or badly, what would you say? How would you answer?

PACE: I'd certainly say they're going well. I wouldn't put a great big smiley face on it, but I would say they're going very, very well from everything you look at, whether it be on the political side, where they've had three elections, they've written their own constitution, they're forming their own government. You look at the military side where this time last year, there were just a handful of battalions in the field, Iraqi battalions in the field, now, there are over 100 battalions in the field. They had no brigades -- that's about 3,000 men each -- now, they've got about 31 brigades. No matter where you look at their military, their police, their society, things are much better this year than they were last.

RUSSERT: The American people were asked that exact same question, how things are going in Iraq, and here's how they responded: well, 36 [percent]; badly, 62 [percent]. Why do you think there's such a disconnect from your view and that of the American people?

PACE: I don't think we're getting the goodness out to the American people the way we should. Somehow, we need to find a way to have balance in the amount of reporting that we're able to get out. If you remember back when the war began, we had 24-7 coverage: Folks could watch television, they could read newspapers, they could read magazines, and they could put together their own opinion of what's going on. Now, the amount of coverage from the war zone is much less than it used to be, and understandably, the coverage, then, that comes out is the bombings and the things like that. People don't get a chance to see or hear about all the good things that are happening.

[...]

RUSSERT: William F. Buckley, conservative writer, said this, this week. "One can't doubt that the American objective in Iraq has failed. ... Our mission has failed because Iraqi animosities have proved uncontainable by an invading army of 130,000 Americans." And he put forward two postulates. "One of these postulates, from the beginning, was that the Iraqi people, whatever their tribal differences, would suspend internal divisions in order to get on with life in a political structure that guaranteed them religious freedom. The accompanying postulate was that the invading Iraqi army would succeed -- American army -- would succeed in training Iraqi soldiers and policymakers to cope with insurgents bent on violence. This last did not happen. And the administration has, now, to cope with failure." That's William F. Buckley.

PACE: Mr. Buckley would probably do well to take a trip over to Iraq and walk the streets and talk to Iraqis, and talk to Iraqi government, talk to Iraqi army, talk to Iraqi police. I believe that what is happening there is very, very positive with regard to the training of the army, the training of the police, the loyalty of that army and police who were -- performed exceptionally well during this most recent crisis. This is not a failure. This is a very, very difficult situation, putting together a democracy inside of a country that for the last multiple decades has known nothing but tyranny. This is not going to be easy to do, but it is coming along and is coming along with good progress.

RUSSERT: Do you really believe it'll be safe for William F. Buckley to walk the streets of Baghdad?

PACE: I think not all the places in Baghdad, no, but I do believe that if he had a chance to get over there, properly escorted -- I would want to be escorted myself -- but properly escorted, that he would have a chance to talk to folks and see that the Iraqi people are positive about their future; that the Iraqi armed force and the Iraqi police are loyal to their government and are getting much, much better each day.

[...]

RUSSERT: Again, let me show you the views of our fellow Americans. The war in Iraq: Is it worth the cost? Yes, 29 [percent]; no, 63 [percent]. Can you keep an army at war without the support of the populace?

PACE: No, you cannot, and therefore, it's very important -- as we talked about earlier in the show already -- that we get more of the entire picture to the American people. What they're seeing is the same bomb going off every 15 minutes on television, as opposed to having an opportunity to see all of what's happening in Iraq. I believe that the American people who are able to see all that is happening in Iraq would understand much better that progress is being made. It is not a great smiley picture, nor is it a disaster. What it is, is a very tough environment that still has a lot of work to be done, but one in which we're making very, very good progress and one of which the American people can and should be very, very proud.

Posted In
National Security & Foreign Policy, War in Iraq
Network/Outlet
MSNBC, NBC
Person
Tim Russert
Show/Publication
Meet the Press
Stories/Interests
Iraq Army Capability
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