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Iraq through a filter

The Bush administration's public optimism about the war on terror is at odds with more objective reports, including the defense secretary's confidential memo.

A Times Editorial
Published October 28, 2003

President Bush complains that the public is getting a falsely negative impression of the American occupation in Iraq because of the "filter" of the media. It is certainly true that even the most comprehensive and evenhanded reporting from Iraq cannot possibly provide a perfect reflection of events in such complex, chaotic circumstances. However, those who go to the trouble of seeking out a broad cross-section of media coverage from Iraq are receiving a generally accurate accounting of the successes, failures and continuing challenges in Iraq.

Instead, it is those who rely only on the Bush administration's propaganda - perhaps including the president himself - who are receiving a distorted picture of events in Iraq.

President Bush and other administration officials have been unfailingly optimistic in their public assessments of events in Iraq and in the broader war on terror. Yet Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's own confidential memo, made public last week, belies that public optimism. In the memo, Rumsfeld argues that U.S. forces aren't properly structured for the war against terrorism and raises the possibility that a "new institution" combining the assets of our military and intelligence services may be required. Rumsfeld writes that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan can eventually be won but will require "a long, hard slog."

The hard facts are that attacks against U.S. forces, friendly Iraqis and international institutions have increased in number, sophistication and deadliness. While progress is being made in many areas - schools are opening, electricity and other services are being restored, more Iraqi police and security forces are being put in place - conditions have deteriorated in other respects. Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz barely escaped injury Sunday in the bombing of Baghdad's Rashid Hotel, where an American colonel was killed. Monday's spate of car bombings across Iraq produced one of the deadliest days of the war.

The Bush administration has gone to considerable lengths to limit the American people's exposure to some of the most troubling realities of this war. It has barred reporters and photographers from chronicling the return of the caskets of U.S. soldiers. Unlike previous presidents during wartime, Mr. Bush also has not attended any funerals or memorial services for soldiers killed in Iraq or Afghanistan.

The administration's attempts to control information crucial to the war on terror extend to more substantive areas as well. The chairman of the federal commission investigating the Sept. 11 attacks, Thomas Kean, the former Republican governor of New Jersey, warned this month that the panel may be forced to issue subpoenas to compel the administration to turn over documents it has refused to produce. The disputed documents are said to pertain to threat assessments the White House possessed prior to the attacks. The administration also has been uncooperative with a congressional committee attempting to review the intelligence used to support the White House's prewar claims about Iraq's weapons of mass destruction.

Sometimes the president himself seems to be shielded from unpleasant news about the war on terror. During his trip to Asia this month, he expressed surprise at the level of opposition in the region to the U.S. role in Iraq. "Do they really believe that we think all Muslims are terrorists?" he asked his staff. He would have gotten a more intensely negative reception if his exposure to the public hadn't been so limited.

In response to Monday's deadly bombings across Iraq, the president said they were a sign that anti-U.S. insurgents are "desperate" because our forces are making so much progress. The American people can only hope that the president, like his defense secretary, expresses a more realistic view in private. U.S. security in the age of terrorism depends on the informed judgment of a president who says he doesn't get his news from the news media and instead depends on "the objective sources . . . on my staff who tell me what's happening in the world."

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