Friday, July 16, 2010

Make of this what you will . . .

From today's NYT . . .

Speak No Evil: A Post-McChrystal Press Clampdown

BAGHDAD – On Tuesday night at an air base in Baghdad a unit of soldiers from the Second Brigade of the 10th Mountain Division waited for a flight that would take them first to Anbar Province, then to Germany, then to Fort Drum in upstate New York.

The soldiers were going home, this time for good.

Reporters were invited to visit, to speak to soldiers and take pictures of packed rucksacks and troops boarding the plane, images that would convey the military’s message that the United States is leaving Iraq. The press was told that the waiting area was theirs to work in.

So I started to chat up soldiers. Just as I had finished the formalities of name, age, rank and hometown with a young private from Michigan, I was interrupted by an officer who explained that a handful of soldiers had been chosen to speak to the press, and that the remainder of the group was off limits.

He pointed to a group of four or five soldiers, who awaited media interviews.

The Pentagon’s new dictum to control news coverage, issued in the wake of the controversy over a Rolling Stone article that resulted in the dismissal of Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal as the top NATO commander in Afghanistan, seems to have reached the lower levels of the chain of command in Iraq.

The United States military is drawing down its forces in Iraq and is still eager to engage with the press to show that President Obama’s promise to reach 50,000 troops by the end of August will be met. Gen. Ray Odierno, the top commander in Iraq, held a briefing with reporters this week. The military opened a prison transfer ceremony to reporters on Thursday. And embeds with units are still available.

But there appears to be a clamping-down on spontaneous interactions between soldiers and the news media.

Recently my colleague Steven Lee Myers visited Forward Operating Base Mahmudiya, which the Americans transferred to Iraqi control on Thursday, and was told he could not interview soldiers during his visit because the chain of command had not authorized “formal interviews” with the soldiers there, part of the First Brigade of the Third Infantry Division.

The company commander at the base explained that his superiors wanted the focus of the visit to be on the process of the transfer — principally with only photographs and video — and not on the soldiers. (An Iraqi lieutenant colonel who showed up with trucks to haul away the detritus of KBR’s operations there also declined to be interviewed or to allow photographs.)

A civilian spokesman for the brigade, Tom Conning, later apologized, saying that the visit to the troops at Mahmudiya had not been properly organized.

In June I was embedded with a unit in northern Iraq when the McChrystal news broke. The soldiers who I was encamped with in the desert, on a mission to search for insurgents, were eager to talk about most anything: the war, the vicious fighting in prior tours, buddies killed, women back home.

But a question about the Rolling Stone article that resulted in President Obama firing General McChrystal was met with silence.

“How about the World Cup?” said an officer with the Third Squadron, Seventh Cavalry Regiment of the Third Infantry Division’s Second Brigade.

The reason for the reticence: a gag order had come down from division headquarters, the soldiers said, forbidding them from speaking about General McChrystal.

See also the At War post See No Evil, about the difficulties photographers have working under the restrictions imposed by the Iraqi government.

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