Psy-Ops and News
The Los Angeles Times’s Mark Mazetti writes about a US military psy-ops campaign against the guerrillas in Fallujah in mid-October, in which military spokesmen convinced CNN that an attack on the city was imminent and got this “news” broadcast so as to observe how the guerrillas in the city reacted to it.
I remember getting a lot of messages from readers in mid-October intimating to me that the Fallujah operation was set to go any minute. They were hearing this from their contacts among servicemen in Iraq. I told them that it was impossible, that Karl Rove would never have let Bush launch a major and possibly bloody operation like that just before the election. (Can you imagine? The marine mosque shooting of a wounded guerrilla would have immediately entered into the presidential campaign.)
People in the news business are victims of psychological operations tricks all the time. It has come out that the rogue Rockingham Group in British military intelligence placed false news items about Iraq in US newspapers in an attempt to help provoke the war. Ahmad Chalabi and Iyad Allawi purveyed all sorts of nonsense to US and UK newspapers, who swallowed it hook line and sinker.
Why didn’t hardened, professional journalists have more sense about all this? First, reporters are rewarded for scoops, so they have an incentive to get a juicy story into print. Second, for things like a military operation or the situation inside Iraq, they can’t double check their sources very easily. If a reporter had called a US officer he knew and asked if a Fallujah operation was imminent in mid-October, the officer would probably have lied to him and said yes. Likewise, how would you double check Chalabi’s lies inside Saddam’s Iraq? You couldn’t.
So there are these peculiar archipelagoes of opaqueness in the world of news, where journalists are at the mercy of single sources that appear solid. It is very dangerous for the US cable news channels to depend so heavily for analysis of things like Iraq and the war on terror, on retired military officers and on well-connected cyphers like Walid Phares. (Hint to cable news personnel departments: if an academic has a spotty publication record and is at some small place or doesn’t have a proper university post, but you get a call pushing him from some rightwing think tank in Washington or from the Benador Agency, be suspicious).
Where they cannot get corroboration from insiders, or where corroboration seems suspicious, journalists should reach out to outsiders more often. Independent outsiders like genuine academics have some advantages as sources. They are most often not interested parties. They aren’t under any pressure to adopt positions that contradict common sense. And they often have long-term expertise in a country that gives them a bullshit meter that a journalist just parachuted into a story hasn’t had time to develop. Depending on the Think Tank talking heads alone will just amplify the psy-ops.