Fog of WarMistakes Cloud bin Laden Coverage

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(600 words)

The White House’s mishandling of the details of commando raid that killed Osama bin Laden has undermined the effectiveness and credibility of the military action.

When a big, positive news story is impending, there is a tendency for communications professionals to rush it without taking the time to ensure the accuracy of what is being reported.   Eventually corrections will need to be issued and these may overshadow the original news narrative.

A corrected story often isn’t an updated version of the original narrative, but rather a new story entirely that focuses on the errors.  In addition, a news analysis story may appear that focus on the errors, explaining what happened and why.  Meanwhile, the original story gets pushed back into “yesterday’s news.”  Simply stated, a corrected story becomes the story with twice the coverage.

In the case of the bin Laden raid, the White House could have announced the basics of the raid without offering details, but it quickly lost control of the story, with  several versions floating around simultaneously.   One spokesperson ensures consistency, but in this case, with the military and other agencies involved, quotes were flying everywhere.

The focus should have been on a daring, successful raid, which despite trouble with one helicopter, had met surprisingly little resistance considering the profile of the compound’s residents.  The enemy had been caught off guard and overwhelmed quickly.

Instead,  we were soon entirely focused on the corrected details: bin Laden hadn’t participated in a shootout and hadn’t he used a woman as a human shield.  She was not killed, but she was his wife.  And, oh yes,  his luxurious mansion quickly became austere headquarters for directing terrorism.

Bin Laden had first been reported as participating in the shooting, which is why there is now excessive focus on whether he was armed at all.  As Brian Till points out, if bin Laden had been hit with a bomb, as Pres. Obama considered before approving the commando strike, there would be no discussion of whether he was armed.

The U.S. military has made up stories before (Pat Tillman) and so these recent errors inevitably bring up longstanding questions about the military’s veracity and undermines trust in even the basic details of the raid.

Other mistakes:

White House spokesman Jay Carney used the phrase “fog of war” to explain the contradictory stories.  This was not his phrase – it was offered by a reporter.   This phrase was the title of a book by Robert S. McNamara, U.S. Secretary of Defense during the Vietnam War, and more notably a documentary by Errol Morris about McNamara, and carries negative connotations of the military disinformation campaigns of the era.  While a phrase may seem useful, it can come back to haunt you.  This is why spokespersons are trained to answer in their own words.

Whether to releasing photos of bin Laden’s body should have been decided in advance, or at least, very quickly.  Some conspiracy believers will not be persuaded by photos anymore than others are not impressed by a long-form birth certificate.  They are not interested in evidence.  The only question that the White House needed to be answer was whether the release would prove useful.

Right tone:

The White House did one thing right – tone.  The ceremonies commemorating the victims of 911 were warranted, but there was no “Mission Accomplished, I’m the Commander-in-Chief” posturing.  Making too much of Bin Laden’s death, just as making too much of  his life, is to once again raise this terrorist beyond what he deserves and give him the status that he so craved and was so willing to kill for.