Media ignore memo from U.S. Embassy on deteriorating situation in Iraq

On June 18, The Washington Post published a cable sent from the U.S. Embassy in Iraq that detailed the deteriorating conditions observed in Baghdad in recent months. Despite the clear significance of the document, the media have almost entirely ignored its publication.

On Page B1 of its June 18 edition, The Washington Post published a cable sent to Washington, D.C., from the U.S. Embassy in Iraq that detailed the deteriorating conditions, increased sectarian tensions and heightened dangers observed in Baghdad in recent months. The cable appeared to have been approved by Zalmay Khalilzad, the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, and was dated June 12*, five days after the killing of terrorist leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and one day before President Bush's surprise six-hour visit to the country, during which Bush touted the progress there. But despite the clear significance of the document -- and the contrast it presented with Bush's upbeat comments -- the media have almost entirely ignored its publication.

The June 12 cable, addressed to the U.S. secretary of state, focused on the firsthand experiences of the embassy's Iraqi employees and, as Post columnist Al Kamen wrote, outlined “the daily-worsening conditions for those who live outside the heavily guarded international zone: harassment, threats and the employees' constant fears that their neighbors will discover they work for the U.S. government.” Indeed, the document painted a dire picture of daily life in Baghdad and elsewhere in the country, at one point citing an Iraqi newspaper editor's assertion that “ethnic cleansing ... is taking place in almost every Iraqi province.” Following are several examples from Editor & Publisher's list of the other “troubling reports” included in the cable:

  • One embassy employee had a brother-in-law kidnapped. Another received a death threat, and then fled the country with her family.
  • Iraqi staff at the embassy, beginning in March and picking up in May, report “pervasive” harassment from Islamist and/or militia groups. Cuts in power and rising fuel prices “have diminished the quality of life.” Conditions vary but even upscale neighborhoods “have visibly deteriorated” and one of them is now described as a “ghost town.”
  • Two of the three female Iraqis in the public affairs office reported stepped-up harassment since mid-May.... “some groups are pushing women to cover even their face, a step not taken in Iran even at its most conservative.” One of the women is now wearing a full abaya after receiving direct threats.
  • Embassy employees are held in such low esteem their work must remain a secret and they live with constant fear that their cover will be blown. Of nine staffers, only four have told their families where they work. They all plan for their possible abductions. No one takes home their cell phones as this gives them away. One employee said criticism of the U.S. had grown so severe that most of her family believes the U.S. “is punishing populations as Saddam did.”
  • The overall environment is one of “frayed social networks,” with frequent actual or perceived insults. None of this is helped by lack of electricity. “One colleague told us he feels 'defeated' by circumstances, citing his example of being unable to help his two-year-old son who has asthma and cannot sleep in stifling heat,” which is now reaching 115 degrees.
  • “Another employee tells us that life outside the Green Zone has become 'emotionally draining.' He lives in a mostly Shiite area and claims to attend a funeral 'every evening.'”
  • Fuel lines have grown so long that one staffer spent 12 hours in line on his day off. “Employees all confirm that by the last week of May, they were getting one hour of power for every six hours without.

The U.S. Embassy's depiction of the situation on the ground in Iraq provides a stark contrast to Bush's account of his brief experience in the country. On June 14, one day after returning from his brief trip to the country, Bush held a press conference in which he described himself as “inspired to be able to visit the capital of a free and democratic Iraq.” Bush also noted that the “progress is hard to see” and cited the “sense of hopefulness” he had observed there. He said of the Iraqi people, “I did have a strong sense that they're really happy to get rid of Saddam Hussein, to a person. They believe he wrecked their country in more ways than one. It was clear he wrecked their infrastructure. And it is clear that he wrecked a lot of lives. But I didn't have that great sense of people being so bound up in bitterness that they weren't willing to think positively about the future.”

On the same day that the Post published the cable, White House press secretary Tony Snow made the rounds on the Sunday news talk shows and discussed the issue at length. On the June 18 edition of CBS' Face the Nation, host Bob Schieffer asked him about the kidnapping of two U.S. soldiers and whether the White House believes Iraq is at a “turning point.” In response, Snow played down the report of the kidnapping, stating, "[I]t's a funny war because ... that becomes the big story, rather than the fact that you've got almost 60,000 forces on the ground going after bad guys. We've apprehended hundreds of bad guys since Zarqawi died." But despite Snow's repetition of the common White House argument that the media have ignored the progress being made in Iraq, Schieffer failed to mention the Khalilzad cable.

Likewise, in an interview on the June 18 edition of Fox Broadcasting Co.'s Fox News Sunday, Snow criticized the media's failure to cover the “incremental progress” being achieved in Iraq. He said, "[S]omebody can blow up a car in a marketplace in Baghdad and get headlines the world over. ... And that suddenly becomes the perception of everything that's going on in the country." Snow went on to highlight “electricity generation, what's going on with the sort of supplies and basics” as other “metrics you can use to measure progress.” But at no point did host Chris Wallace note the U.S. Embassy's dire portrait of the conditions in Iraq, which had not simply highlighted the ongoing violence and kidnappings, but also described problems relating to the cost and availability of fuel, the scarcity of electricity, and the increasing social restrictions.

Further, in his remarks on Iraq during the June 18 edition of NBC's Meet the Press, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-GA) commended Khalilzad's work as the former U.S. envoy to Afghanistan following the U.S. invasion of the country in 2001. But host Tim Russert failed to take the opportunity to note Khalilzad's current appraisal of the spiraling conditions faced by Iraqis.

By contrast, during an interview on CNN's Late Edition, host Wolf Blitzer challenged Snow's criticism of the war coverage by noting the June 12 cable, which he described as “very, very grim” and “a pretty damning indictment of the current situation.” Blitzer said, “I know that many have complained that the news media is only focusing in on the negative, but here the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad paints a pretty stark picture of what's going on right now.” In response, Snow argued that the embassy's account was outdated. “Well, that's taken in mid-May,” he said. “Here we are, a month later, and I just told you, you've got 50,000 Iraqi troops that are now focusing on those problem areas in Baghdad.”

The near absence of coverage extended to print outlets as well. A Lexis-Nexis search of U.S. newspapers and wire services failed to turn up a single follow-up story on the Post's publication of the memo, nor a mention of it in the numerous June 19 articles on Iraq.

The original version of this item incorrectly stated that the memo from the U.S. Embassy in Iraq was dated June 6, one week before President Bush's Baghdad visit. In fact, the memo was dated June 12, one day before Bush traveled to Iraq.