Wash. Times editorial not convinced that soldiers appearing in Bush's Iraq teleconference were “coached”

In an October 17 editorial discussing the October 15 Iraqi constitutional referendum, The Washington Times criticized reporters for “fixat[ing] on reports that some of the soldiers who appeared had supposedly been coached by White House aides,” in reference to the October 13 teleconference in which President Bush spoke with soldiers stationed in Iraq. But notwithstanding the Times' skepticism over whether the soldiers were in fact “coached,” a pre-event rehearsal with deputy assistant secretary of defense for internal communications Allison Barber, which was accidentally broadcast, showed that the president's questions had been “scripted” in advance. The tape also showed some of the participating soldiers practicing their answers. And while Barber is technically not a “White House aide,” White House press secretary Scott McClellan said at his press briefing later that day that the White House “worked very closely with the Department of Defense to coordinate this event.”

As NBC's Andrea Mitchell reported on the October 13 broadcast of NBC's Nightly News, “The White House had said the exchange would be spontaneous, but there was something they did not expect you to see. The troops were coached on how to answer the commander in chief.” Mitchell described the preparations as a “rehearsal”:

BARBER (video clip): All right. But if he gives us a question that's not something that we've scripted, Captain Kennedy, you are going to have that mike, and that's your chance to impress us all. Master Sergeant Lombardo, when you're talking about the president coming to see you in New York, take a little breath before that so you can actually be talking directly to him. You got a real message there, OK?

MITCHELL: During today's rehearsal, Barber played the role of the president. Here's one of Mr. Bush's questions in the practice session.

BARBER (video clip): I'm interested in how your pre-election operations are going.

MITCHELL: And here is how it was repeated when the cameras were rolling with the president in place.

BUSH (video clip): Confident? I mean, how do you think feel like the operations are going?

MITCHELL: Here from the rehearsal is a soldier practicing his answer.

SOLDIER (video clip): We're working in northern Iraq right now with an operation that we call Operation Saratoga.

MITCHELL: And here's how it appeared on the broadcast.

SOLDIER (video clip): We're surging in an operation called Operation Saratoga.

The October 13 Associated Press reported part of Barber's pre-event exchange with the participating soldiers, indicating that the questions had been given in advance:

“I'm going to ask somebody to grab those two water bottles against the wall and move them out of the camera shot for me,” Barber said.

A brief rehearsal ensued.

“OK, so let's just walk through this,” Barber said. “Captain Kennedy, you answer the first question and you hand the mike to whom?”

“Captain Smith,” Kennedy said.

“Captain. Smith? You take the mike and you hand it to whom?” she asked.

“Captain Kennedy,” the soldier replied.

And so it went.

“If the question comes up about partnering -- how often do we train with the Iraqi military -- who does he go to?” Barber asked.

“That's going to go to Captain Pratt,” one of the soldiers said.

“And then if we're going to talk a little bit about the folks in Tikrit -- the hometown -- and how they're handling the political process, who are we going to give that to?” she asked.

Adding to the event's highly scripted nature, the White House failed to disclose that one of the soldiers in the teleconference, Master Sgt. Corrine Lombardo, is a public affairs officer.

From the October 17 Washington Times editorial, headlined "Positive News from Iraq":

In this context, one of the more positive, thoughtful assessments of the progress we are making in training Iraqis to defend themselves came from 1st Lt. Gregg Murphy, who addressed a White House teleconference Thursday morning. While the press fixated on reports that some of the soldiers who appeared had supposedly been coached by White House aides, they ignored the more substantive news about progress being made in training Iraqi soldiers. Lt. Murphy said that, in contrast to the January election, where coalition forces did all of the security planning, it was the Iraqi soldiers who were responsible for all of the security on Saturday. Given how well things went, that is positive news indeed.