Deconstructing Press Performance on the White Phosphorus Story

Why did the British press beat American news outlets on the story of white phosphorus use by the U.S. military against Iraqi civilians?

Propaganda is not a name we would lightly use to describe a documentary that purports to break news. But the half-hour program on Italian state television (RAI) claiming that U.S. troops in Iraq had used white phosphorus against civilians in the November 2004 battle of Falluja reeks of just that — propaganda. Maybe it’s the long opening that uses archival footage of bombs being dropped on Vietnam, or the iconic image of the naked little girl scorched by napalm in 1972, or perhaps the soundtrack of Arabic wailing that accompanies shots of blackened corpses burnt to the bone — but viewers had reason to be skeptical.

Perhaps for that reason, the program, which aired on November 8, was met with total silence in the American press. No U.S. paper even ran the Reuters story that contained the standard State Department denial. Ever since December 2004, when allegations of white phosphorus use first emerged, the government’s response has been the following: “U.S. forces have used [white phosphorus rounds] very sparingly in Falluja, for illumination purposes. They were fired into the air to illuminate enemy positions at night, not at enemy fighters.”

But while the American press decided to take a pass on the story, the British press grabbed on to it. The Independent took the lead, running a story on the day of the original broadcast headlined, “US Forces ‘Used Chemical Weapons’ During Assault on City of Falluja,” relying largely on the charges presented in the documentary.

Bloggers also took up the charge, and soon both clarified the initial RAI claims, making them more accurate and less bombastic — and also found much confirmation for the central argument that white phosphorus had been used as a weapon.

It quickly became clear that white phosphorus was not, by almost any definition, a “chemical weapon,” as claimed by the Italian documentary. A “chemical weapon” is one whose objective is to make the air toxic. White phosphorus, when used as a weapon and not just for illuminating the night sky, burns whatever it touches and starts fires. It could more properly be called an incendiary weapon. And though the use of these weapons, like napalm, has been widely condemned, the U.S has never signed the third protocol of the 1983 accord on conventional weapons that makes illegal the use of certain weapons against combatants and civilian populations.

But bloggers also found evidence that strongly threw into question the State Department’s claim that white phosphorus was never targeted at insurgents — a claim that was repeated again and again by government spokesmen in the days after the Italian film, including a vigorous denial by the American ambassador, Robert H. Tuttle, in a letter to the Independent, and military spokesman Lt. Col. Steve Boylan, who said on the left-wing radio show “Democracy Now” that ”I know of no cases where people were deliberately targeted by the use of white phosphorus.”

In the year between the battle and the Italian claim, there had, in fact, been many indications, from both news reports (we found a few just by searching LexisNexis) and eyewitness accounts, that white phosphorus had been used much more broadly than officially admitted. The most damning evidence came from the March/April issue of the Army’s Field Artillery magazine, an official publication, in which veterans of Falluja described using the weapon, “for screening missions at two breaches and, later in the fight, as a potent psychological weapon against the insurgents in trench lines and spider holes.” According to these accounts it was most effective in what was called “shake and bake” operations in which insurgents strongholds were fired upon with white phosphorus in order to “flush them out” at which point, out in the open, they were shot at.

On November 16, over a week after the initial Italian allegations, the Pentagon had to backtrack and admit that troops had used the weapon against enemy combatants. Though Pentagon spokesman Lt. Col. Barry Venable said that “suggestions that U.S. forces targeted civilians with these weapons are simply wrong,” he had to admit to the Financial Times “it would not be out of the realm of the possible” that civilians were also killed by the white phosphorus.

The Pentagon’s reversal might have been the result of pressure by the international press, the mounting attention by bloggers, or questions from Iraqi and American reporters at briefings in Baghdad — but it was definitely not the result of stories in the U.S. press. There weren’t any.

The first mention of white phosphorus in any American paper came after the November 16 Pentagon admission, and then only in the form of a short Reuters piece in the New York Times and a 222-word article in the Washington Post.

In the following weeks, the national papers all produced further stories, but, with the notable exception of the Los Angeles Times, they were mostly examinations of how the Pentagon had mishandled the damage control on the story, and not about the central questions: What were the implications of the military’s use of a weapon that has been internationally condemned, and to what extent had it affected civilians still living in Falluja, and did the troops on the ground know they were still in the city when it launched these incendiary bombs?

The most striking aspect of the response to this story was the difference in how it was received here and in Britain.

Scott Shane, the New York Times reporter who wrote the paper’s only piece on the issue on November 22, said he was turned off initially by the Italian report which he thought was “crudely propagandistic and doesn’t strike you as an attempt to get at the truth.”

Shane also felt that if any mass killing had taken place embedded reporters present certainly would have noticed it. For these reasons, he said the story fell down on his list of priorities: “You bump it down a notch for the propaganda origins, [then] you bump it down a notch for the fact that if there was something huge here it’s highly unlikely that it would have escaped the attention of several hundred reporters.” Shane added that it fell “between beats” without anyone clearly responsible for covering it.

His story ended up being about the Pentagon response. “From a news point of view,” Shane said, “what actually happened here? I think the use of white phosphorus in Falluja is less remarkable than the bungling of the response to it when the charges were raised.”

This couldn’t have been further from the view of Andrew Buncombe, the Independent reporter who worked on many of that paper’s white phosphorus stories. He initially had the same skepticism about the Italian film, but rather than dismissing it out of hand, or placing his trust in eyewitness accounts by embedded reporters (who, he thinks, were probably too far away to see what was really going on), he relied on largely unsubstantiated eyewitness reports by by freelance journalists like Dahr Jamail, who has done work for the BBC and the Nation (and who has posted his extremely graphic photos of Falluja casualties online) for proof that the Pentagon’s initial denial of white phosphorus use could not be the truth. Buncombe acknowledges that he doesn’t have absolute proof of the claims of eyewitness Iraqis, but he says “that is what an examination of the evidence suggests.”

This willingness to believe eyewitness reports and to be less trusting of official Pentagon statements allowed British papers like the Independent and the Guardian to cover this story long before their American counterparts.

On this side of the Atlantic, only the Los Angeles Times explored the story fully, and then only on November 28. The Times article, “Use of Chemical in Iraq Ignites Debate,” seemed to back up much of what British journalists like Buncombe initially thought. It opens with an Iraqi describing the “dozens of burned bodies that he said were colored black and red” that he discovered after the fighting in Falluja, but also includes the account of an embedded Los Angeles Times reporter who said he saw white phosphorus used only for illumination purposes. The piece does a good job of presenting the issue in all its complexity. (The paper also ran two op-ed pieces debating the issue).

Mark Mazzetti, who co-wrote the Los Angeles Times piece, says he was also initially dubious of the Italian report — so much so that, at first, his skepticism distracted him from the story. Now that he has looked into it, he says that “[s]omeone getting something wrong doesn’t mean that it’s not a story.” When he began hearing of Iraqis actually affected by white phosphorus, he was convinced there was at least some truth to the initial claim. He then decided, along with one of the paper’s Iraq correspondents, to explore all the implications of the story. Mazzetti says, “There were a couple ways you could have handled it. You could have just written it as a story of a bungled U.S. government response. We thought it was a better story to take the allegations head-on, find out what we could find out about them, report what was accurate and what was not accurate about the initial Italian report. The government’s response was only part of the story.”

Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association, a nonprofit organization that researches nuclear issues, remains unimpressed. “What is disappointing is not so much that took so long for this to be reported on,” he says, “but that the reporting has not continued to investigate the questions that the use of this weapon raises.”

The complexities here — whose account to believe, how much to trust official statements, what level of skepticism to bring to outlandish claims — are ones journalists face with every story they write. But these difficulties are compounded when there are no journalists up close and personal to provide a definitive account of what happened. If the U.S.’s part in the Iraq war becomes more and more one of bombs being dropped from the sky, as Seymour Hersh has recently suggested will happen, then reporters will be increasingly put in a position to make these types of judgment calls: Were people killed, and how many, and were they civilians or insurgents?

In the white phosphorus story, it now seems clear, a healthy dose of distrust of the melodramatic, highly charged RAI documentary had to be balanced with an equally skeptical look at the Pentagon’s response, along with an open ear to eyewitness accounts. This would have served the press well.

By those measures, the Brits outperformed U.S. reporters on this one.

Correction: The above has been changed to reflect that freelance journalist Dahr Jamail is not an Iraqi.

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Gal Beckerman is a former staff writer at CJR.