Today’s the day we’ve all been waiting for. Starting today and continuing through the week, General David Petraeus and Iraq Ambassador Ryan Crocker will deliver their testimony to both houses of Congress about the progress of the war, and are scheduled to appear “exclusively” on Fox News as part of a larger White House-brokered PR push to buy more time for the “surge” to work.
Pundits, bloggers and politicians have been gearing up for the testimony, with Senators McCain and Lieberman taking to the pages of The Wall Street Journal this morning to spin as hard as they can to link 9/11 to the war in Iraq:
Whatever the shortcomings of our friends in Iraq, they are no excuse for us to retreat from our enemies like al Qaeda and Iran, who pose a mortal threat to our vital national interests. We must understand that today in Iraq we are fighting and defeating the same terrorist network that attacked on 9/11.
You read that right. The guys who attacked us on 9/11 are now in Iraq. While it can’t be argued that al Qaeda isn’t active in Iraq, it must be noted that they weren’t there before we invaded, no matter what the folks might have you believe.
Countering the increasingly desperate senators’ claims is a piece in this month’s Washington Monthly by former Stars & Stripes reporter Andrew Tilghman called “The Myth of AQI,” in which he argues that the presence of al Qaeda in Iraq has been grossly overstated, and that AQI has never had the numbers or influence that have been reported in the press over the past couple of years.
But all this is just the latest salvo in a skirmish that has been raging for at least a week about the accuracy of the numbers the White House and General Petraeus are using to claim that the “surge” is producing results—namely, decreased civilian casualties across Iraq. On Thursday, The Washington Post’s Karen DeYoung published a damning critique of the military’s statistics (which, it should be noted, are classified) that show that violence is down in Iraq, writing that “experts within and outside the government…contend that some of the underlying statistics are questionable and selectively ignore negative trends…,” and that intelligence analysts are wary of “how the military designated attacks as combat, sectarian or criminal, according to one senior intelligence official in Washington. ‘If a bullet went through the back of the head, it’s sectarian,’ the official said. ‘If it went through the front, it’s criminal.’”
The article created a firestorm in the blogosphere over the weekend, and led to some pretty serious scrutiny of other stories concerning the military’s numbers. One of the victims was The New York Times’ Michael Gordon. Greg Sargent over at Talking Points Memo’s “Horse’s Mouth” blog flagged Gordon’s piece in Saturday’s Times which relied exclusively on the military’s numbers, (showing that civilian death in Iraq are down), while ignoring the reporting DeYoung had done to call the numbers into question.
Josh Marshall called it “a remarkably credulous account,” and Sargent picked up on the theme, pointing to a September 2 story in the Times by James Glanz that reported that civilian deaths had actually gone up in August, as opposed to Gordon’s story that stated they had gone down. The discrepancy occurred because Glanz used figures provided by the Iraqi government, while Gordon relied on the American military’s figures. Who to trust?
For starters, it’s pretty hard to trust a paper that runs conflicting accounts of the same subject in the same week, without even the slightest nod to the fact that it is using two different sets of numbers. But this is all just prologue to the battles that are going to unfold this week over the general’s and the ambassador’s testimony, and their star turn on the White House’s favorite mouthpiece, Fox News.