It is one thing when the talk-show bullies who shamelessly smeared the last president, even as he attacked the training camps of Al Qaeda, now term it anti-American or even treasonous to dare criticize the Bush administration. When our Pentagon, however -- a $400-billion- a-year juggernaut -- savages individual journalists for questioning its version of events, it is worth noting.
Especially if you're that journalist.
Last week, this column reported the findings of a British Broadcasting Corp. special report that accused the U.S. military and media of inaccurately and manipulatively hyping the story of U.S. Pvt. Jessica Lynch and her rescue from an Iraq hospital. The column was also informed by similar and independently reported articles and statements in the Toronto Star, the Washington Post and other reputable publications.
Expected -- and received -- was a hysterical belch of outrage from the right-wing media, led by Rupert Murdoch's Fox empire, which has already committed a huge book advance to the telling of this mythic tale. A fiery and disingenuous response from the Pentagon, however, was quite a bit more sobering.
Calling the column a "tirade," Assistant Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs Victoria Clarke wrote in a letter to The Times that "Scheer's claims are outrageous, patently false and unsupported by the facts."
"Official spokespeople in Qatar and in Washington, as well as the footage released, reflected the events accurately," the Pentagon letter continued. "To suggest otherwise is an insult and does a grave disservice to the brave men and women involved."
Actually, what is a grave disservice is manipulating a gullible media with leaked distortions from unnamed official sources about Lynch's heroics in battle. That aside, it would have been easier to rebut the Pentagon if its spokeswoman had actually questioned any of the facts the BBC or this column reported. In particular, the Pentagon turned down the request by the BBC and other media to view the full, unedited footage of the rescue.
Perhaps Clarke is frustrated that in the days since the BBC report, several major publications such as the Chicago Tribune and the London Daily Mail have independently verified much of the BBC's disturbing account of what the broadcasting corporation called "one of the most stunning pieces of news management ever conceived."
The distortions concerning Lynch began two days after the rescue with a front-page Washington Post story by veteran reporters Susan Schmidt and Vernon Loeb. They cited U.S. officials as the source of their information that Lynch "fought fiercely and shot several enemy soldiers, firing her weapon until she ran out of ammunition" and that she "continued firing after she sustained multiple gunshot wounds." The Post quoted one of the unnamed U.S. officials as saying "she was fighting to the death. She did not want to be taken alive."
Despite their current defensiveness, Clarke and other Pentagon honchos had to know that the story attributed to U.S. officials was false because Lynch had at that point already been rescued and examined by U.S. military doctors, who found no evidence of a single gunshot wound, let alone multiple gunshot wounds. Yet they did nothing to challenge the Post story, which was carried worldwide and quickly became the main heroic propaganda myth of the U.S. invasion of Iraq.
It was only last week, after the BBC-initiated brouhaha, that the Pentagon finally launched its own investigation of what actually occurred when Lynch was taken prisoner. According to the Washington Times, the investigation came about after top Pentagon officials cast doubt on the Lynch battle-scene account, of which she has no memory.
However, the Pentagon investigators were not asked to look into the circumstances surrounding Lynch's subsequent rescue. Much of the BBC's account has now been supported by other media investigations, which confirm that a U.S. attack on an unguarded hospital was spun into the stuff of Hollywood heroics.
The Tribune's Monday story, for example, provided new details of how slickly a tale of derring-do was created, enhanced for television by that five-minute Pentagon-supplied night-vision video. The Tribune also added details supporting the BBC account that hospital staff members had placed Lynch in an ambulance and tried to deliver her to a U.S. checkpoint before being turned back by random American fire.
What is particularly sad in all of this is that a wonderfully hopeful story was available to the Pentagon to sell to the eager media: one in which besieged Iraqi doctors and nurses bravely cared for -- and supplied their own blood to -- a similarly brave young American woman in a time of madness and violence. Instead, eager to turn the war into a morality play between good and evil, the military used -- if not abused -- Lynch to put a heroic spin on an otherwise sorry tale of unjustified invasion.
The truth hurts, but that's no excuse for trying to shoot the messenger.
Robert Scheer writes a weekly column for The Times.