What the media aren't telling you about the Iraq Study Group report

››› ››› JOSH KALVEN

Media Matters for America has identified six findings in the Iraq Study Group's report that major news outlets have largely overlooked. They include: that the Pentagon has significantly underreported the extent of violence in Iraq, that U.S. officials possess little knowledge about the sources of the ongoing attacks, and that the situation in Afghanistan has grown so dire that U.S. troops may need to be diverted there from Iraq.

In the 24 hours following the release of the Iraq Study Group report, the media reported widely on its recommendations for a new "way forward" in Iraq, held numerous discussions regarding its rebuke of President Bush's handling of the conflict, and interviewed the commissioners at length. But even with the extensive attention, major news outlets have largely overlooked numerous significant disclosures in the 100-page report.

Media Matters for America has identified six such findings. While most of the outlets included in this survey covered some of these disclosures while omitting others, The Wall Street Journal, CBS News, and Fox News failed to report on any of the six.

Pentagon's underreporting of violence in Iraq

Near the end of the ISG report, the commission wrote that there is "significant underreporting of the violence in Iraq" -- a finding that takes on particular significance considering Bush's repeated assertion that his Iraq policy is tied to the "conditions on the ground." According to the commission, the Department of Defense "standard" for recording acts of violence functions "as a filter to keep events out of reports and databases" and thus has inaccurately depicted the "events on the ground." From the report:

[T]here is significant underreporting of the violence in Iraq. The standard for recording attacks acts as a filter to keep events out of reports and databases. A murder of an Iraqi is not necessarily counted as an attack. If we cannot determine the source of a sectarian attack, that assault does not make it into the database. A roadside bomb or a rocket or mortar attack that doesn't hurt U.S. personnel doesn't count. For example, on one day in July 2006 there were 93 attacks or significant acts of violence reported. Yet a careful review of the reports for that single day brought to light 1,100 acts of violence. Good policy is difficult to make when information is systematically collected in a way that minimizes its discrepancy with policy goals.

The commission proceeded to recommend that the "Director of National Intelligence and the Secretary of Defense should ... institute immediate changes in the collection of data about violence and the sources of violence in Iraq to provide a more accurate picture of events on the ground."

Despite the pertinence of this disclosure to the ongoing policy debate over Iraq, numerous major media outlets have left it out of their coverage:

  • Print media: The New York Times made no mention of the Pentagon's "systematic[]" underreporting of the violence in any of its four December 7 articles on the subject. The front-page December 7 Wall Street Journal article (subscription required) on the commission's findings also ignored this finding.
  • Broadcast networks: On both the December 6 edition of the Evening News and the December 7 edition of The Early Show, CBS failed to report on this disclosure.
  • Cable news networks*: Neither CNN nor Fox News reported this finding.

Lack of knowledge regarding insurgency and militias

Buried deep in the ISG report is the commission's finding that "the U.S. government still does not understand very well either the insurgency in Iraq or the role of the militias." The commission went on to portray the intelligence community's degree of knowledge on these fronts as falling "far short of what policy makers need to know." From the report:

The Defense Department and the intelligence community have not invested sufficient people and resources to understand the political and military threat to American men and women in the armed forces. Congress has appropriated almost $2 billion this year for countermeasures to protect our troops in Iraq against improvised explosive devices, but the administration has not put forward a request to invest comparable resources in trying to understand the people who fabricate, plant, and explode those devices.

We were told that there are fewer than 10 analysts on the job at the Defense Intelligence Agency who have more than two years' experience in analyzing the insurgency. Capable analysts are rotated to new assignments, and on-the-job training begins anew. Agencies must have a better personnel system to keep analytic expertise focused on the insurgency. They are not doing enough to map the insurgency, dissect it, and understand it on a national and provincial level. The analytic community's knowledge of the organization, leadership, financing, and operations of militias, as well as their relationship to government security forces, also falls far short of what policy makers need to know.

So, after three-and-a-half years in Iraq, the United States does not have an adequate grasp on "the political and military threat to American men and women" stationed there. But several news outlets ignored this disclosure in their reporting on the ISG report:

  • Print media: The Wall Street Journal, the Los Angeles Times (here, here, here, and here), and USA Today (here, here, and here) made no mention of the U.S. intelligence community's reported lack of knowledge about the insurgency and militias.
  • Broadcast networks: Both CBS' and ABC's December 6 evening newscasts and December 7 morning shows ignored this finding.
  • Cable news networks: Neither CNN nor Fox News reported this disclosure.

Shift of troops from Iraq to Afghanistan

In a section of the report titled "The Wider Regional Context," the commission provided a dire assessment of the current state of affairs in Afghanistan. From the report:

[W]e must not lose sight of the importance of the situation inside Afghanistan and the renewed threat posed by the Taliban. Afghanistan's borders are porous. If the Taliban were to control more of Afghanistan, it could provide al Qaeda the political space to conduct terrorist operations. This development would destabilize the region and have national security implications for the United States and other countries around the world. Also, the significant increase in poppy production in Afghanistan fuels the illegal drug trade and narco-terrorism.

The huge focus of U.S. political, military, and economic support on Iraq has necessarily diverted attention from Afghanistan. As the United States develops its approach toward Iraq and the Middle East, it must also give priority to the situation in Afghanistan. Doing so may require increased political, security, and military measures.

The commission subsequently recommended that the United States "provide additional political, economic, and military support for Afghanistan, including resources that might become available as combat forces are moved from Iraq."

But this assessment -- that the situation in Afghanistan has so deteriorated that U.S. troops currently in Iraq may have to be diverted back there -- has been widely overlooked by the major news outlets:

  • Print media: The Wall Street Journal, the Los Angeles Times, and USA Today ignored the recommendation entirely in their December 7 coverage. While The New York Times and The Washington Post also made no mention of this part of the report in their various December 7 articles, both newspapers did publish the report's executive summary, which included the recommendation.
  • Broadcast networks: None of the three network news outlets -- on either their December 6 newscasts or their December 7 morning shows -- reported on this particular recommendation.
  • Cable news networks: Neither MSNBC nor Fox News reported the commission's suggestion that U.S. troops be diverted from Iraq to Afghanistan.

Lack of Arabic speakers

In cataloguing the various deficiencies of the ongoing U.S. efforts in Iraq, the commission repeatedly pointed out the lack of fluent Arabic speakers among U.S. personnel. From the report:

All of our efforts in Iraq, military and civilian, are handicapped by Americans' lack of language and cultural understanding. Our embassy of 1,000 has 33 Arabic speakers, just six of whom are at the level of fluency. In a conflict that demands effective and efficient communication with Iraqis, we are often at a disadvantage. There are still far too few Arab language -- proficient military and civilian officers in Iraq, to the detriment of the U.S. mission.

But in their coverage of the ISG report, few news outlets brought up this disclosure:

  • Print media: The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, the Los Angeles Times, USA Today, and the Associated Press (here, here, and here) all ignored the severe need for more U.S. personnel fluent in Arabic.
  • Broadcast networks: Neither the CBS Evening News nor NBC's Nightly News mentioned this disclosure.
  • Cable news networks: Both MSNBC and Fox News failed to report this finding.

That there are so few Arabic speakers in the U.S. military in Iraq might be explained at least in part by the fact that, in enforcing the military's policy on gay service members, the Army has discharged dozens of soldiers with some proficiency in Arabic, as the Government Accountability Office established in a 2004 report. In a December 7 post on his abcnews.com weblog, ABC News senior national correspondent Jake Tapper highlighted White House press secretary Tony Snow's response to this part of the ISG report -- "You don't snap your fingers and have the Arabic speakers you need overnight." In response, Tapper cited the Arabic-speaking sergeant who was removed from the Army in 2005 because he is gay.

U.S. considering extending National Guard and Army reserves deployments

In its examination of the Iraq war, the commission devoted considerable attention to the conflict's detrimental effect on "Army readiness." Noting that this situation will likely lead to "undesirable changes in its deployment practices," the commission disclosed that the Army is "now considering breaking its compact with the National Guard and Reserves that limits the number of years that these citizen-soldiers can be deployed." From the report:

[T]he long-term commitment of American ground forces to Iraq at current levels is adversely affecting Army readiness, with less than a third of the Army units currently at high readiness levels. The Army is unlikely to be able to meet the next rotation of troops in Iraq without undesirable changes in its deployment practices. The Army is now considering breaking its compact with the National Guard and Reserves that limits the number of years that these citizen-soldiers can be deployed. Behind this short-term strain is the longer-term risk that the ground forces will be impaired in ways that will take years to reverse.

Of the print media, broadcast networks, and cable news networks included in our survey, Media Matters did not find a single mention of this disclosure.

Spending on Iraq war is subject to little scrutiny

As an example of how "the public interest is not well served by the government's preparation, presentation, and review of the budget for the war in Iraq," the commission highlighted the administration's persistent use of emergency supplemental appropriations requests to "[c]ircumvent[] the budget process." It recommended that "[c]osts for the war in Iraq should be included in the President's annual budget request, starting in FY 2008." From the report:

[M]ost of the costs of the war show up not in the normal budget request but in requests for emergency supplemental appropriations. This means that funding requests are drawn up outside the normal budget process, are not offset by budgetary reductions elsewhere, and move quickly to the White House with minimal scrutiny. Bypassing the normal review erodes budget discipline and accountability.

[...]

[C]ircumvention of the budget process by the executive branch erodes oversight and review by Congress. The authorizing committees (including the House and Senate Armed Services committees) spend the better part of a year reviewing the President's annual budget request. When the President submits an emergency supplemental request, the authorizing committees are bypassed. The request goes directly to the appropriations committees, and they are pressured by the need to act quickly so that troops in the field do not run out of funds. The result is a spending bill that passes Congress with perfunctory review. Even worse, the must-pass appropriations bill becomes loaded with special spending projects that would not survive the normal review process.

While it is billions of taxpayer dollars that are passing through Congress "with perfunctory review" and being diverted to "special spending projects," numerous news outlets failed to inform their readers and viewers of this finding:

  • Print media: The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, USA Today, and the Associated Press all ignored that the commission strongly criticized the Bush administration's handling of the Iraq spending requests. The Los Angeles Times also ignored this part of the report in its December 7 news articles, but highlighted in an editorial that the commission "call[ed] out the Bush administration for its excessive reliance on supplemental appropriations bills."
  • Broadcast networks: None of the three network news outlets -- on either their December 6 newscasts or their December 7 morning shows -- reported on this recommendation.
  • Cable news networks: Both CNN and MSNBC made no mention of this finding.

* Media Matters examined the prime-time December 6 coverage (4 p.m.-11 p.m. ET) on both MSNBC and Fox News and the full December 6 coverage on CNN.

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