In Clunky Newscasts, NBC News Decrees Iraq In 'Civil War' [Transcript Included]

On this morning's Today show, as first noted here, NBC News officially declared Iraq to be in a state of civil war as Today co-host Matt Lauer greeted viewers with the following announcement: "As you know for months now the White House has rejected claims that the situation in Iraq has deteriorated into civil war and for the most part news organizations like NBC have hesitated to characterize it as such but after careful consideration NBC News has decided a change in terminology is warranted. That the situation in Iraq with armed militarized factions fighting for their own political agendas can now be characterized as civil war. We're gonna have more on the situation on the ground in Iraq and on our decision coming up."

Later in the 7am half hour Lauer elaborated on the policy with General Barry McCaffrey: "We, we should mention we just didn't wake up on a Monday morning and say, 'Let's call this a civil war.' This took careful deliberation, we consulted with a lot of people. You were one of the people we talked to. Why did you weigh in on the side of calling this a civil war?"

In addition to pitting themselves at direct odds with the White House, NBC News' decision to declare Iraq in a state of civil war made for a clunky newscast, especially for newsreader Ann Curry. In her hourly news updates on Iraq Curry was forced to add variations of "what NBC News has decided to now call a civil war in Iraq."

First Curry at 8:02am: "Just days after returning from Asia, President Bush is on his way overseas again today. The President has a crucial meeting on Wednesday in Jordan with the prime minister of Iraq. They will discuss what NBC News has decided to now call a civil war in Iraq. Though the White House maintains while the situation in Iraq is serious it has not disintegrated into civil war. The President goes first to Estonia then to a NATO summit in Latvia."

Then at 9:01 am Curry repeated the awkward phraseology: "In the news this morning today President Bush is on his way to Europe with Iraq getting the most of his attention. He is heading first to Estonia then to a NATO summit in Latvia. On Wednesday he goes to Jordan to meet with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki to talk about what NBC News is now calling a civil war in Iraq."

The following is the entire transcript of Lauer's interview with Barry McCaffrey on the November 27th Today show:

Matt Lauer: "So is the situation in Iraq a civil war or is it something else? Retired General Barry McCaffrey is a military analyst for NBC News. General, good morning to you."

Gen. Barry McCaffrey: "Yeah, hi Matt."

Lauer: "We, we should mention we just didn't wake up on a Monday morning and say, 'Let's call this a civil war.' This took careful deliberation, we consulted with a lot of people. You were one of the people we talked to. Why did you weigh in on the side of calling this a civil war?"

McCaffrey: "Well Matt, to be honest I've been calling it a civil war, low grade conflict, for 18 months. Now it's on the verge of spinning out of control. We clearly, without question, have massive levels of violence. Thousands are being killed each month and, and it's a struggle without question between two factions, in this case Shia and Kurds, who have separate political agendas. It's a fight for power and therefore survival in the world Iraqis expect to encounter after we withdraw, which, which they now believe is gonna happen in the coming year or so."

Lauer: "Alright let me go into these criteria a little bit more. So we've got warring groups coming from the same country. I'm going into the definition of civil war here. Must be at least two clearly defined and unified groups and we talk about the Sunnis and the Shia. We've got groups using violence as a means to gain political supremacy and we've got a government in place that's unable to control the violence and protect not only the Sunnis and Shia from each other but innocent civilians as well. Any of that bother you in terms of the criteria?"

McCaffrey: "No, not at all."

Lauer: "Alright so, so, so the question is we have some other situations. For example there aren't just two groups here. Not just the Sunnis and the Shia there are other groups as well. Does that complicate the situation?"

McCaffrey: "Well I think there's also a foreign jihadist element, which is struggling, you know jihad to establish the caliphate. There's also a breakdown of governance on the part of a very dysfunctional Maliki administration where criminality is rife throughout the country. These other phenomena are also there. But the central reality is survival in the post-U.S. Iraq between Shia and Sunni."

Lauer: "As we mentioned the White House objects to the terminology that NBC News is now using and here's part of the statement they released. 'While the situation on the ground is very serious neither Prime Minister Maliki nor we believe that Iraq is in a civil war.' It goes on to say, 'The violence is primarily centered around Baghdad and Baghdad security and the increased training of Iraqi security forces is at the top of the agenda when President Bush and Prime Minister Maliki meet later this week in Jordan.' What about that idea, General, that the violence is primarily centered in Baghdad? That the country hasn't erupted into all out civil war?"

McCaffrey: "Well I think a lot of that's nonsense. Baghdad is 25 percent of the population of the country. It's the central battlefield but most of the contested areas involve anywhere, where there are mixed populations. They are fighting for Kirkuk, Mosul, even in Basra. There are 300,000 Sunni down there, put down there as settlers by Saddam-"

Lauer: "Right."

McCaffrey: "-and there are also refugees fleeing the country."

Lauer: "Let's look at history here. When you look at the history of civil war, conflicts like this around the world they are rarely if ever, settled, until a military force or a government sides with one of the groups fighting. So where does that leave us? Is this a situation where the U.S. military or another government forces gonna have to side with either the Sunnis or the Shia to make this come to an end?"

McCaffrey: "Well that's the sad part of it. I think civil wars do end up being settled by violence. In this case the preponderance will be a Shia and Kurd majority and the question is how will it play out in the coming 12 to 24 months. We won't stay and suppress an urban civil war. The Iraqis are gonna have to do it. We have not resourced this effort adequately in particular with equipment, light armor, helicopters, an air force. These people are not prepared to maintain internal order so we won't be able to withdraw without seeing a huge conflagration go up immediately."

Lauer: "General Barry McCaffrey. General, thanks for your time this morning, I appreciate it."

Geoffrey Dickens
Geoffrey Dickens
Geoffrey Dickens is the Deputy Research Director at the Media Research Center.