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Trusting the News


(Photo of soldiers on patrol in Baghdad by Erik de Castro via Reuters and Yahoo News.  Note the textbook formation of the soldiers entering a hostile zone, with all four facing a different angle to cover the whole group.  You tell me — flowers and candy or hostile landscape?  — CHS)

Every Friday afternoon, commenters at Firedoglake (and likely other blogs) speculate about what embarrassing or disturbing news story will be revealed just before the weekend, when many Americans turn their attention to other concerns. It seems there's always something that fits the type, and it has happened so often that it is hard not to become cynical about the coincidences. One candidate is Friday's revised story about the deaths of five soldiers in Iraq.

Last week, following one of the worst days in Iraq for US casualties, a group of armed men dressed in US Army uniforms, some of them speaking English, drove an armed escort official-looking caravan into a compound in Karbala in which US civil affairs officials were meeting with Iraqis officals about security arrangements. As soon as they gained unimpeded entrance to the compound the men began shooting American troops and tossing grenades. At least five US troops were killed "repelling the attack," according to the first reports.

The initial reports focused not only on the tragic death of five more Americans but also on the audacity of the attack. In the past, we'd seen stories of attackers dressed in Iraqi uniforms (with the likelihood they really were members of sectarian militia within the Iraqi security forces), but I don't recall attackers using US uniforms, carrying US weapons and speaking English. Larry Johnson discusses the ominous implications of this new development in a post at TPM.

The original version of the story claimed that the US soldiers had been killed repelling the attackers, implying that their deaths had occurred at the site of the initial attack. But yesterday's revised version from AP disclosed that the orginal version was false. The US command now reveals that four of the soldiers were actually captured by attackers, who then escaped and drove some 25 miles away, where they executed the Americans with shots to the head. By the time Iraq/US troops arrived at that scene, three of the four Americans were dead and the fourth died from his wounds on the way to a hospital. He too had been shot in the head at close range.

Followup reports in the McClatchy papers and Boston Globe add further details. From the McClatchy report:

The inaccurate accounts of how the four men died recalled the controversy surrounding the death of former NFL player Pat Tillman, who was killed in Afghanistan in 2004. The Pentagon initially said Tillman had been killed by Taliban insurgents. Only later did they say that he'd been shot by fellow American soldiers.

Friday's statement quoting Bleichwehl on details of the abductions and executions was released only after the Associated Press distributed a story quoting Iraqi police officials and two unnamed U.S. officials.

Iraqi police officials in recent days have portrayed the Saturday raid as a major breach of security. A police official in Hilla told McClatchy Newspapers on Monday that one of the vehicles used in the attack carried a license plate stolen from a car of Iraq's minister of trade.

And from the Boston Globe’s front page story this morning:

The confirmation came after nearly a week of inquiries. The US military in Baghdad initially did not respond to repeated requests for comment on reports that began emerging from Iraqi government and military officials on the abduction and a major breakdown in security at the Karbala site.

We can only guess at why the original report was incorrect, as the US command has apparently not yet explained the changed story. All we know is that in the past, when US troops (or American contractors) have been captured, the stories of their capture and eventual fates have received considerable attention in the US media.

All last week, the White House tried to focus attention on the President's request in his State of the Union address that Congress support not only the troops in Iraq but "those on their way," a phrase that drew applause from both sides of the aisle. On Thursday we heard Vice President Cheney tell CNN's Wolf Blitzer that there has been "enormous progress" in Iraq. On Thursday, General Petraeus won unamimous Senate confirmation to take over the US command in Iraq. And all week the WH worked to dilute Congressional efforts to oppose the President's escalation plans and convince doubters that this plan could work. So this was not a week in which news about four captured and murdered US soldiers would have been helpful to the Administration's efforts.

In a time of war, it is imperative that a country be able to trust its military leaders and their Commander in Chief. We all understand that military necessity and the safety of our troops and others may often require that news of battle conditions be withheld until all are safe. But we no longer trust this Commander in Chief or any of his closet advisers to make those decisions about what we are told and why. And that is a tragedy. All we know is that all too often this crowd likes to withhold unpleasant news as long as they can and then if forced, quietly release it on Friday afternoons.

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John has been writing for Firedoglake since 2006 or so, on whatever interests him. He has a law degree, worked as legal counsel and energy policy adviser for a state energy agency for 20 years and then as a consultant on electricity systems and markets. He's now retired, living in Massachusetts.

You can follow John on twitter: @JohnChandley