(Interview with Nic Robertson, CNN International. Participating were Bryan Whitman, deputy assistant secretary of defense for public affairs (media operations), and John Kampfner, BBC.)
Q: It’s a script straight out of Hollywood and the story that gave America an injection of patriotism. A raid in the dead of night under enemy lines where US soldiers daringly rescued one Private Jessica Lynch held captive in an Iraqi hospital. But a BBC reporter here in Britain is challenging the Pentagon’s version of the story.
(Statements by some interviewees.)
Q: Well the reporter of that program John Kampfner joins me now and at the Pentagon Bryan Whitman, deputy assistant secretary of Defense.
John, I saw parts of your documentary. The part on Jessica Lynch appeared a bit of indictment. How exactly do you believe the Pentagon misrepresented her rescue?
Kampfner: Well what we are saying, what the purpose of this film was, was to paint a picture of how the whole war media strategy was managed, as managed by Washington, was managed by London, and was managed by Central Command in Doha. The whole idea was to give us a holistic approach.
The Jessica Lynch affair was one of only several examples we cited of this incredibly sophisticated media management.
Q: That’s true but you very strongly suggested the Pentagon lied in its representation of the Jessica Lynch rescue.
Kampfner: What we were saying was not that in any way the military, the American military, acted in any untoward fashion.
And then two points need to be said of the outset. It’s the job of any military to get its soldiers out of beyond enemy lines, it's the job of any military, and that might may well include a hospital. It’s also the job of a military to prepare for any worst-case scenario and that means when you are planning any kind of raid, any kind of mission, you should expect the worst. We would never have suggested or nor did we suggest that the military should have gone in there in civilian clothes with their hands up and say could we please have Jessica Lynch back.
Our contention however, and what the doctors in the Iraqi hospital were saying to us was, that after the event the Pentagon should have said rather than portraying this as a great act of heroism, soldiers in great danger coming under fire, they should have said that is what we expected, that is the information that we were led to believe before the raid, but actually we could have just gone in there opened the door. They spent two hours in the hospital, the American forces having gone in there. They did not encounter any form of hostile action whatsoever.
Voice: Bryan Whitman your response.
Whitman: Well there’s a lot to respond to there. First of all it sounds as if John might be backpedaling a bit, but let me tell you that this was a courageous mission that these troops went on.
They went into a contested area in combat, in a hostile environment. They did receive fire going into that area, and this was a mission that was very well planned, excellently executed and accomplished its mission of being able to bring out one of our POWs. And the insinuation, well there are many allegations in John’s piece, I guess the most egregious insinuation or inference is that we would’ve conducted this operation for anything other than the intended purpose of bringing home one of our own.
Kampfner: There are various responses to that. First of all we are not backpedaling in any shape or form. We stand by the story. The reaction we’ve had to our story has been very passionate on both sides but the journalism in this story is something we stand by completely.
Our only question to the Pentagon is simply this. The mission itself was conducted in a way that it should have been done, the way it should have been. But what the Pentagon should have said afterwards was we didn’t come under, you may well have come under fire outside the hospital but the doctors inside the hospital, I don’t think anybody is even disputing this version, treated Jessica Lynch well. She was in good hands, two doctors and one nurse. There was no sense that she had been beaten, that she had been mistreated in any way once the Fedayeen had left the hospital. There was not danger to the American forces and what the Pentagon should have said afterwards was, we prepared for a bloodbath, the bloodbath did not happen, this was a clean safe rescue mission and there was no hostile encounter whatsoever.
So what I’m trying to say is that there was no particular heroism, there was a professional mission but it should have been basically spun in a low-key fashion.
Q: Bryan it seems to me he is suggesting that Pentagon exaggerated to create heroes at a time when America needed heroes. What’s your response?
Whitman: Well first of all I don’t think that America needed heroes. There are certainly heroic acts that were done throughout this campaign. But John again is just ignorant of the facts here, and the facts are that U.S. forces came under fire when they went into that compound area. That’s an indisputable fact, and it’s also – let me finish please, please let me finish give me the same courtesy.
It’s also indisputable that on the following day when the media asked about this at a briefing in Qatar, General Brooks specifically indicated that U.S. forces did not come under fire inside the hospital but that they did come under fire in the surrounding compound and from buildings around the hospital.
Furthermore, he went on to detail exactly what the intelligence had shown about this facility and that it was being used by the Saddam regime as a command post. There were ammunition, mortars, maps, terrain models that showed positions of U.S. forces in the basement. So let there be no doubt that this was a facility that was hostile and could have potentially had a lot more resistance than what was encountered.
Kampfner: Well if I can just come in there. The Fedayeen had been, let’s get the tenses right. The Fedayeen had been, Saddam Hussein’s special militia, had been in the hospital, and American special forces who had been reccying (sic) the hospital had ascertained 24 hours before the raid that they had left in anticipation of an American advance. The doctors when they were there told them there is nobody here so they may well have been some sort of in the approach to the hospital some perception among the Americans that there was a hostile encounter. When they got to the hospital there was no hostility whatsoever.
Q: Bryan let me ask you in a larger sense do you think the British and the European media tried to stick it to the United States throughout their coverage of this war?
Whitman: No not at all, I think the problem is that people are ignoring the facts here and you know we want to make truth an issue in this campaign and we have tried to be as careful as we can with all the facts. And just to go back to John for a minute, it was not established fact that there was no longer Fedayeen operating out of that hospital. We know that the Fedayeen was not in uniform all the time, that there were enemy combatants that were in civilian clothes. And I have to tell you that you would not expect the U.S. military to go in with any other kind of force other than that which your assessment would ensure that you would be successful and that would ensure that you would minimize casualties, both friendly civilian casualties as well as your own casualties.
But you know I don’t think that anybody is out to get anybody in the press. I think that truth needs to be an issue though, and these allegations just are in complete disregard of the facts.
Kampfner: Nor are we out to get anybody and we are as much in search of the truth as anybody else. The BBC has a long established history and reputation for that, and that is something we stand by and that is something that all the BBC executives completely stand by that point as well.
What the Pentagon might well have said when it was presenting this raid afterwards was, we went in there, we anticipated hostile encounter, none was forthcoming, we are very relieved and grateful for that, and we are particular thankful to the two Iraqi doctors for looking after her to the best of their abilities in the hospital in the middle of war, we salute their courage, end of story. That was not the version the Pentagon came out with.
Q: Bryan Whitman at the Pentagon, I’m sorry we’ve run out of time. Bryan thanks very, very much. John Kampfner from the BBC, thanks very much.