Press Box

Newspaper War

Why do our Iraq battle plans keep showing up in the New York Times?

Three times in the last month, the New York Times has excerpted secret Pentagon plans to invade Iraq and crush Saddam Hussein on Page One. All of these stories have given rise to charges of reckless reporting and treason from the conservative press and military analysts. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld himself fulminated against the leaks in a July 12 memorandum to the Pentagon’s top brass, insisting that they stop blabbing.

“The disclosure of classified information is damaging our country’s ability to stop terrorist acts and is putting American lives at risk,” the secretary wrote. The memo was promptly leaked to and published by the Los Angeles Times.

The first question to ask about these stories is whether Rumsfeld is right: Are the leaks—and their publication by the Times and other papers—endangering American lives? But beyond that issue, readers must be wondering why these conflicting plans—which would appear to tip our hand to the enemy—keep showing up in the damn newspaper. Do these stories simply reflect the conflicting preferences of different military officials? Or is the Pentagon using the Times to confuse the Iraqis about the impending attack as part of an “information operation” (formerly “disinformation”) campaign? More sinisterly, is the Times partnering with the Pentagon to bamboozle the Iraqis?

The first Times Iraq “scoop,” published July 5, cited an “American military planning document” that called for an elaborate air, land, and sea attack on Iraq by up to 250,000 U.S. troops from allies’ bases to the north, south, and west (“U.S. Plan for Iraq Is Said To Include Attack on 3 Sides,” by Eric Schmitt). The second, “U.S. Considers Wary Jordan as Base for an Attack on Iraq,” arrived on July 10. Also written by Schmitt, it provided new details from the Pentagon planning document, describing air and commando raids into Iraq from Jordanian bases.

The third, “U.S. Exploring Baghdad Strike as Iraq Option,” by David E. Sanger and Thom Shanker, was published yesterday, July 29. If the 250,000-troop invasion is a five-course meal with wine pairings served on Limoges porcelain, the “Baghdad Strike” option is a 7-Eleven dash for a Slurpee and a polish sausage in which the United States would “take Baghdad and one or two key command centers and weapons depots first, in hopes of cutting off the country’s leadership and causing a quick collapse of the government,” the Times reports.

What is a befuddled reader to think about the cascading war plans? And what does the Times want us to think?

First, no American servicemen were harmed—or will be harmed—by the Times stories. The defense press corps routinely asks official Washington two questions when covering stories like these: Is the information accurate? And does the story endanger the operation’s security? If the Pentagon convinces the press that it’s inaccurate, they withdraw it. If the Pentagon says it endangers the operation, the press holds off or pares the story back. (At least one of the Timesinvasion stories were vetted in this way, says a Defense Department source, and it’s a safe bet that all of them were.) In a 1986 “Outlook” piece, Washington Post Executive Editor Benjamin C. Bradlee wrote that in the first five months of 1986, the Post withheld national security information from stories a dozen times at the government’s request, seemingly par for the course. National security and military stories such as the Iraq invasion pieces are give-and-take collaborations between the press and the government. Very few national security stories have been published over the government’s objections in the last three decades, and if any of them resulted in the death of a U.S. soldier, that would be news to me.

To interpret what the disclosed plans really mean, one must understand that the Pentagon is a plan-happy enterprise. If it was in the bridal business instead of the war business, the Pentagon’s strategizers would have plans to cover every contingency from shotgun weddings to stadium-marriage orgies of the sort staged by the Rev. Sun Myung Moon. Plans to invade Mexico, drop the bomb on European allies, and perhaps even fight Martian invaders currently gather dust on Pentagon shelves. The existence of a plan is not a sure predictor that it will be used. And, as one Washington reporter explains it, not all “plans” are created equal. Some of the plans being bandied about might be old war games pulled down for review or “concept of operations”—essentially riffs on a military theme that aren’t excruciatingly detailed, as a real war plan is.

No doubt, the plans to attack Iraq are fresher and more varied than options for the conquest of Mexico because the event is more likely. And, as casual newspaper readers know, administration and Pentagon officials have been bickering with one another on how best to tame Saddam, hence the proliferation of war plans. (See Thomas E. Ricks’ account of the debate in this  July 29 Washington Post piece, “Some Top Military Brass Favor Status Quo in Iraq: Containment Seen Less Risky Than Attack.”)

The Times acknowledged in its first invasion story that its single anonymous source was using the paper—he hoped to scuttle the plan by publicizing it. He wanted, the Times reported, to express his “frustration that the planning reflected at least in this set of briefing slides was insufficiently creative, and failed to incorporate fully the advances in tactics and technology that the military has made since the Persian Gulf war in 1991.” Give the Times credit here for being transparent about the leaker’s motives.

The leaker of the first story only described the highly classified plan, “CentCom Courses of Action,” to the Times. He doesn’t seem to have given the actual document to the paper’s reporter, Eric Schmitt. In the follow-up of July 10, the paper further detailed the “CentCom Courses of Action” plan disclosed in the first story but left out the context that the leak came from a dissident who sought its ruin. Fie on the Times for not repeating the source’s motive.

It’s possible, but unlikely, that these leaks represent an authorized deception effort by the Pentagon—though to believe that, you’ve got to accept that Donald Rumsfeld is a huge liar. But whether these stories are information or disinformation, nobody can accuse the Times of partnering with the Pentagon to fool Saddam until it publishes totally original leaks. News of a massive invasion plan made it into print twice before the Times wrung out its details. The Post’s Thomas E. Ricks wrote of an abandoned plan to invade Iraq with 200,000 troops on May 24, 2002, as well as an “airstrikes and Special Operations” attack designed to decapitate Saddam’s regime. A June 23, 2002, Los Angeles Times op-ed by military analyst William M. Arkin tells of a plan for a 250,000-troop invasion of Iraq from Kuwait. Like the fellow who leaked what may have been the same plan to the New York Times, Arkin finds the invasion script wanting, writing that it “does not represent the kind of audacious thinking the problem requires. …” (Better late than never, the second New York Times invasion story nods to the competition in its final paragraph: “The existence of the military planning document was first reported in an op-ed article in The Los Angeles Times last month.”)

But in another way, the Times clearly is misleading its readers about U.S. battlefield intentions. Both the headlines (“U.S. Plan for Iraq Is Said To Include Attack on 3 Sides,” “U.S. Exploring Baghdad Strike as Iraq Option”) and the sensational opening paragraphs are designed to make feel as if you’re ringside with the president in the war room—but you’re not.

By placing the stories on Page One, the paper commits the unpardonable sin of commanding reader attention that’s not really warranted. By the Times’ own admission in paragraph 15 of yesterday’s story, neither of the invasion scenarios so lovingly hyped is likely to unfold. “It’s easy to rule out both ends of the spectrum,” one senior Defense Department official told the Times. “We are looking at the three or four options in between.”