Embedded Frustrations: Does the Military Know How to Win the Media War?

March 29th, 2007 11:00 AM

If you are a journalist or blogger who wants to embed in Iraq, good luck making it through the PAO system. As a pair of prominent bloggers tell us on the record, getting into Iraq can be all but impossible thanks to obstacles put in place by the U.S. military's Pubic Affairs Office, and once there, the PAO seems to delight in making the life of an embed a living hell.

I wrote last week about embedded journalist Michael Yon being threatened with expulsion from Iraq by U.S. Army General Vincent Brooks, in a post called The Silencer. If the history I cobbled together is correct--and I believe it is--Brooks has held a grudge against Yon since 2005, when Brooks was the lead PAO (Public Affairs Officer) for the war, and a former spokesman for U.S. Central Command known as the "the face of the U.S. military" during his tenure in that position.

Brooks seems to have several points of irritation with Yon.

The first was a dispatch Yon published called Proximity Delays, in which Yon criticized the arcane and seemingly arbitrary censorship of Yon's writing by the military PAO system, which would ask him not to write about events, only to see that same PAO system release information "mangled into meaninglessness" to the world's media outlets. As a result, Yon was ordered not to write about an event that became his most famous individual dispatch, "Gates of Fire."

During a firefight in Mosul, LTC Kurilla was shot three times and CSM Robert Prosser was engaged in hand-to-hand conflict when Yon picked up the M4 carbine Prosser had dropped, and violated embed rules by engaging in combat, an event chronicled in words and pictures in Gates of Fire. After the battle was over, Yon described his debriefing thusly:

When I came back into the TOC, Major Michael Lawrence - who I often challenge to pull-up contests, and who so far has beat me (barely) every time - looked me square and professionally, in the direct way of a military leader and asked, "Mike, did you pick up a weapon today?" "I did." "Did you fire that weapon?" "I did." "If you pick up another weapon, you are out of here the next day. Understood?" "Understand." "We still have to discuss what happened today."

Writers are not permitted to fight. I asked SFC Bowman to look at the photos and hear what happened. Erik Kurilla and CSM Prosser were witness, but I did not want the men of Deuce Four who were not there to think I had picked up a weapon without just cause. I approached SFC Bowman specifically, because he is fair, and is respected by the officers and men. Bowman would listen with an open mind. While looking at the photos, Bowman said, "Mike, it's simple. Were you in fear for your life or the lives of others?"

"Thank you Sergeant Bowman," I said.

For the combat soldiers of the Deuce Four Stryker Brigade, that others had their lives potentially hanging on the actions of someone intervening was enough. Senior Army officers, including Brooks, thought otherwise, and Yon discussed last week:

The first time the Army threatened to kick me out was in late 2005, just after I published a dispatch called "Gates of Fire." Some of the senior level public affairs people who'd been upset by "Proximity Delays" were looking ever since for a reason to kick me out and they wanted to use "Gates of Fire" as a catapult. In the events described in that dispatch, I broke some rules by, for instance, firing a weapon during combat when some of our soldiers were fighting fairly close quarters and one was wounded and still under enemy fire. That’s right. I'm not sure what message the senior level public affairs people thought that would convey had they succeeded, (which they didn't) but it was clear to me what they valued most. They want the press on a short leash, even at the expense of the life of a soldier.

These events where Yon bent or broke the PAO's diktats were possible grounds for expulsion, to be sure, but these authoritative decrees were arbitrary, and made little sense on the battlefield. Did the PAO stifle Yon purposefully so that they could bask in the attention of releasing the capture of the Zarqawi letter? Would the PAO system rather that Yon stood by and watch American soldiers die than intercede?

With two seemingly arbitrary strikes against him already, Yon once again found conflict when the Army.

On May 2, 2005, Yon took a photo of U.S. Army Major Mark Bieger cradling an Iraqi girl named Farah who was wounded by a car bomb. The photo became the iconic photo of the war to date, and was selected as Time magazine's website readers as the most important picture of the year with almost 70% of the vote.

Yon agreed to let the Army use the photo for internal publication, but was shocked when the Army violated Yon's copyright, and released the photo to the world through the PAO, unattributed and unauthorized. After a seven-month stalemate with Army lawyers, attention from the media and the resulting blogswarm embarrassed the Army into having a more senior Army lawyer review and later settle the case.

The senior officer involved in this embarrassing case of copyright infringement? None other than then Chief of Public Affairs, Brigadier General Vincent Brooks. Ironically, Yon thanked him at the time.

Back in Iraq in a different role (deputy commanding general - support for Multinational Division-Baghdad), Brooks apparently still harbors his grudge, sending Yon an an email threatening to kick him out of Iraq.

Last night, Yon posted RUBS (Raw, Unedited and Barely Spell-checked) #2, in which he notes continued attempts by the Army to make his reporting as difficult as possible:

Generals with billions of dollars at their disposal gild their own MOCs (Media Operations Centers) with space-tech broadcasting gear, allowing them to bounce down live to America and the world, while journalists are not permitted to hook their computers into the unsecure "NIPR" internet lines. Public Affairs officers stagger like sway-backed mules with shifting excuses for why media have no secure places to live and work at the major bases, and why every solution for communications is ad hoc.

Journalists are welcome to come here and report. Sort of. On Camp Victory, celebrity media passing through might get star treatment at the Joint Visitors Bureau on the lake by the palace, but others get a cot in the KBR tents where itinerant men – not soldiers usually – often stay for a day or two before shipping off to parts unknown around Iraq, or the world. The tent-mates are Americans, Iraqis, Indians and others. In a tent where I recently stayed, MPs handcuffed one giant of a man, an American, before he could make good his threat to "stomp the liver out" of one of the tent-mates. In this jailhouse atmosphere, some men's eyes dart crow-like to shiny objects, and a journalist with expensive gear is reluctant to even take a shower or to eat without a way to secure the crow bait. If a five minute shower or twenty minute trip to a mess hall is unwise, the idea of going on a five or ten day combat mission, leaving non-essential gear behind, is out of the question. As is lugging it along.

Senior officers know this. I made sure. But when I told one senior ranking man about my concern for the expensive gear, his response was "I don't care."

Apparently unable to find a legitimate excuse to throw Yon out of Iraq, senior army officers at the PAO (many of which are still friendly with a threatening Vincent "The Silencer" Brooks) seem intent on making it as difficult as possible for Yon to do his job. They apparently want him to quit and leave Iraq.

At least he got in.

Michael Fumento another highly-regarded embedded journalist and blogger with three al Anbar embeds under his belt, can't get back into the country, once again thanks to U.S. military Public Affairs:

I asked for two embeds in the Baghdad area or one in Baghdad and one in Diyala, a hotspot on the Iranian border. These would allow the reporting I specialize in, which isn't "war" generally but combat. I like to report on the men doing the fighting (see this and this, for example). One person said of my “New Band of Brothers” article, it’s "Great stuff with a great unit in a very tough neighborhood!" That was General David Petraeus, now commander of coalition forces in Iraq...

...During this time I corresponded with high-ranking Public Affairs Officers who tried to make me out to be the bad guy because I didn't want to travel eight time zones on my own dime and write about nothing. One essentially told me that a good journalist can make lemonade out of lemons. The saying, of course, is to make lemonade "When life gives you lemons," not "When we give you lemons." They might as well have said, "Hey baby, just relax and enjoy it."

Fumento told me via email last week that since releasing that post on March 3, he appears to have been "blacklisted."

Since that piece appeared, NO PAO in all of Iraq will respond to my e-mails. That includes the Marines in Anbar who earlier made it quite clear they were very eager to have me back. CPIC blacklisted me. So while I don't know the particulars yet of why Yon is on the s--t list I certainly agree that CPIC has its head up its butt in catering to every little whim of MSM reporters who are stabbing our troops and the war effort in the back even as it blocks the efforts of citizen embeds who pay out of their own pockets to get down and dirty with the troops and make every effort to report what's really going on in Iraq.

Yon and Fumento aren't the only experienced embeds I spoke with that criticized the capricious, arbitrary and vindictive nature of the military PAO system, a system that doesn't understand the importance of embedded journalists and bloggers in getting information to the public, and simultaneously seems intent on destroying that which it doesn't understand.

As Fumento closed in his post Why I'm Not Embedded in Iraq: The Army isn't Helping Win the War at Home:

In a guerrilla war, perception is more important than reality. For example, the Tet Offensive saw the Viet Cong crushed, but the media converted it into an incredible communist victory. When CPIC caters to reporters who put headlines before facts, who want to portray the war as hopeless, and who show the military in as bad a light as possible and then proceeds to shunt aside reporters with a track record for veracity and supporting the troops, it shows utter ignorance of this truism. Somehow I don't think this was part of Gen. Petraeus's plan.

From what I've read of General Petraeus, he has an excellent conceptual grasp of how to fight and win a military campaign against an insurgency.

I sincerely hope he can come to understand the importance of using embeds to win the media war against the insurgency as well.

Cross-posted at Confederate Yankee.