Saturday, August 20, 2005

Proximity Delays

Mosul, Iraq
During radio interviews, listeners sometimes call in with questions for me. People who follow the war closely and read my dispatches might ask about events covered by mainstream news but about which I've posted few details, if any. Thousands of emails pour in.

"Did you know about the letter to Zarqawi?" (Yes, I was in the Deuce Four daily briefing when it was first displayed and read, about a week before the media learned about it. The letter was captured minutes down the road from here.)

"Did you know about the Chemical Weapons Plant?" (Yes, and probably more than most readers care to know. Turned out to be nothing of consequence. The "Plant" was minutes down the road from here.)

"Did you know about the 'super secret spy plane' that crashed in Mosul?" (Yes, I was on a mission in Mosul at the time. It was flying over Mosul in support of operations.)

"There was a report that three terrorists were shot down in Mosul the other day. Did you know about that?" (Yes, I was in the TOC when the blood first started pumping through their skulls. Credit was given to the Iraqi police, but American forces actually conducted the ambush minutes down the road from here.)

Then comes the question: "Why didn't you write about that?"

The answer is simple. Often I am asked to withhold information due to the immediate sensitivity. And so, I never release the slightest hint. But then somebody in Baghdad - three steps removed from the action here in Mosul - releases it to CNN and the rest of the world. What is seen on television and in the papers is practically always inaccurate, or is at least poorly framed. But I rarely waste a breath trying to correct the information. It's too late. Life is busy here.

The greatest paradox I have seen in this war results from "proximity delay." The proximity delay for me is caused by being embedded so closely with Deuce Four soldiers that I often see things unfolding before they happen, and then I am in the thick of events as they occur. But then I am asked not to write about events.

Much of the censorship is self-imposed because I will not write anything that jeopardizes US, Iraqi or Coalition forces or civilians. This is not a game of who gets the scoop; I am not per se a journalist. On some missions I've been the first to spot the enemy. On others, I've been so close to the action, my face gets smacked by flying shell casings. I come away with information and details no other writer could possibly have.

I've refused to write about incidents countless times, even when soldiers have asked me to publish the details. My time traveling the world, following scent trails and navigating on snippets of information has taught me that a person with a seasoned imagination can coax a great deal of information from seemingly innocuous tidbits. This enemy is smart and also reads the news.

Just why the military considers some information "classified" while other information gets the "go ahead, write it" shrug, is not based on logic, science, or even one of those absurd but ironclad rules that codify so much of the military. Many explanations for the military's requests not to publish certain information, do not hold up well to scrutiny.

For example, our soldiers capture or kill top terror figures in Mosul routinely. Sometimes in stunning operations that display split-second timing. The "higher ups" often say, almost reflexively, that they don't want the enemy to know about these kills or captures.

Sounds reasonable. But whether soldiers sleek through dark allies with silenced weapons, slipping over walls with padded ladders, snatching sleeping terrorists from their beds before they can fully waken; or, whether they engage in a gunfight at a busy intersection and drag terrorists from behind the wheels of their cars - these are not anonymous men. Families notice when daddy's gone missing.

If we aren't keeping it secret from the enemy - and we can't keep it secret from them - who do we protect by keeping quiet? These are not illegal operations. These are examples of the effectiveness of our forces. In Mosul alone there are daily events where the Coalition gets things right, that I never write about.

The "proximity delay" seems to be bi-directional. The higher-ups also seem to have a disconnect with what the media eventually does with Coalition successes. I kept silent for days on the Zarqawi-letter dispatch, ready to post what was probably the single most important piece of insider information to drop into our hands in quite some time. I requested clearance several times per day, each time being asked to hold back. I complied.

But then, without even giving the leaders at Deuce Four a heads-up, a typically enthralling military press release went out to major, mainstream, media outlets. We all learned of it on CNN. The Zarqawi-letter story was almost unrecognizable. Because, in the hands of a network that hasn't had a body in the field in Mosul long enough to get their bearings, the best the media could do is paraphrase the military press release. So what should have been a front page banner headline story ended up buried on page 6.

Even CNN couldn't grasp the importance of the letter. They ended up giving more coverage to the impending E-Bay auction of Jennifer Aniston's old love letters than to the missive in which the top Al-Qaeda leader in Mosul writes to the second most wanted man in the world, and describes in amazing detail the weaknesses and impending collapse of the terrorist network in Mosul and surrounds. Only then did the military ask if I wanted to write about the letter.

Everyone, even a "higher up" deserves the benefit of the doubt, and should be entitled to one mistake. But how many times, and how many major stories have to be mangled into meaninglessness before someone connects the cables and lets the information flow in a direction other than down the mainstream media drain?

Meanwhile, by the time you read this, the US Army and the ISF will have launched offensive operations in Mosul and I will be in the middle of it. Maybe this time I will be able to write about matters while they still matter.

Post Script: The operation has begun. The Commander of Deuce Four, LTC Erik Kurilla, was shot three times in combat yesterday in front of my eyes. Despite being seriously wounded, LTC Kurilla immediately rejoined the intense and close-quarter fight that ended in hand-to-hand combat. LTC Kurilla continued to direct his men until a medic gave him morphine and the men took him away. I was right there. When I returned to base, I was actually "ordered" not to write about the fighting until given clearance, and was told that my phones could be confiscated. I will ignore such "orders" at my own discretion. I am preparing a dispatch now.