The Reign of the CPA

An effort to spin the war occasionally veered into the absurd

Patrick Cockburn
The Independent (London)

At a certain point, in 2003, I remember the exact moment the British had moved inside the Green Zone, and I remember going to see a senior diplomat who I actually knew quite well and who was actually quite intelligent. But because they were inside the Green Zone, they knew less and less about what was happening in Iraq, and what they did know was all second-hand. Now on this day, I was rather late to see this diplomat because there were enormous traffic jams all over Baghdad because there was a shortage of fuel, of gasoline.

So I was talking to him and I mentioned this to him and he said, “But I just looked at figures showing there’s plenty of gasoline.” Now everybody in the rest of Baghdad knew that there was a shortage of gasoline. The only people that didn’t were inside the Green Zone.

Jon Lee Anderson
The New Yorker
I returned before the end of June 2003 and stayed for the summer. Of course, this is when the insurgency really did pick up, when Paul Bremer, the CPA [Coalition Provisional Authority] administrator, was getting a grip on his job [the CPA served as a transitional government from April 2003 until June 2004]. And I wrote a long piece in The New Yorker, which appeared in August — I think the title was “Iraq’s Bloody Summer.” I did have an interview with Paul Bremer on my last night in the country, though I’d already filed my piece. And I came away pretty disheartened by what I saw as a very kind of imperious, closed-off Green Zone under the CPA.

I remember receiving e-mails that I think we all received, announcing civic action — little civic action jobs like “beanies for Baghdad,” handing out beanie toys — and all of this sort of bureaucracy that was setting up within the confines of Saddam’s old Republican Palace, and a real disconnect with what was going on outside the walls of the Green Zone, or what was then coming to be called the Green Zone. All the Iraqis I knew were going through various degrees of despair and some fled the country that summer; there were the first assassinations taking place, the influx of refugees coming back, the setting up of newspapers, political parties — it was a real Tower of Babel.

Alissa Rubin
Los Angles Times

Well, I always personally found [U.S. government briefings] valuable. I know many other people didn’t because if you looked at them in terms of objective truth, they weren’t very useful. But in terms of how the U.S. government wanted us to see things, they were quite useful. And it’s important to know what the government’s narrative is. Because in any conflict there are competing narratives, and our job, from my point of view, is to sort through them and provide a reality check on all of them.

Patrick Cockburn
The Independent

I went to some CPA briefings. I thought that they were very propagandistic. They were based in trying to prove and make a political point that the U.S. being in Iraq was and is fighting the war on terror. This meant continual emphasis on foreign groups, when there was in fact very little evidence for this. In fact, all the evidence was the other way. The insurgency was almost entirely Iraqi. And there might have been many insurgents who were formerly in the army but it was always presented as if this was somehow orchestrated by former senior officials around Saddam. Again there was no evidence for this. I found it interesting to know what was the official line being put out, but I thought it was the crudest propaganda and not useful in terms of actual objective information.

Jon Lee Anderson
The New Yorker
I remember going to a few of those briefings and seeing — especially in the Bremer period — the kind of almost shout-downs of journalists who dared to suggest that there was anything approaching an insurgency in Iraq. I still remember the date: it was August 7, 2003, and I suggested to [Bremer] that I wondered how he felt in terms of his access to — now, I said this very diplomatically; after all, he was the senior government official and I was a reporter — and I said in very diplomatic terms, “How do you feel in here, you have these big barriers” — they were erecting even more permanent barriers around the Green Zone — “How do you feel in here? I’m traveling outside and I see that you have to go out with armed escorts. How reliable do you feel your information is about the state of the country and the way people feel?” And he said, “Fine,” and I said, “Well, I’m hearing a lot of increasing anger by a lot of the Iraqis I know, and it has me worried,” and it did, and I said, “I wonder what you think about that.” And he got very angry with me. He became visibly testy and he said, “I don’t know who your sources are. I go all over this country and I don’t hear the things you’re hearing. I don’t know where you get your information.” And that was the end of that. I left the country in mid-August 2003, feeling really quite demoralized and upset and worried about what was going to happen in Iraq, because I thought there was a real divide between perception and reality. Speaking for myself, I found the CPA to be very much a kind of an American bureaucracy that almost immediately had isolated itself. And shrewdly, the insurgents, the early insurgents perceived that as well, and did everything they could to make the occupation of Iraq less a story of gradual reconstruction and pacification and one of counterinsurgency and one of occupation.

Borzou Daragahi
Los Angeles Times

I just remember having this feeling like — this is a very political exercise, and they’re a product for the media at this point. What would be really horrible is if [the CPA] actually believe this crap. And I remember thinking that from the very beginning: I hope they don’t believe this stuff, I hope they’re not consuming this stuff themselves. And pretty soon it started dawning on me — No, they’re not just BSing us because we’re the public, they actually believe this stuff. My God, are we in trouble!

Rajiv Chandrasekaran
The Washington Post

The military was far easier to deal with, and, in some ways, far more understanding of what we were doing than the CPA. Their press office was headed by Dan Senor, Bremer’s spokesman. Their press office was packed with Republican Party loyalists, people who were hired for their political views, not because they possessed a great degree of expertise in public relations or expertise in the Middle East or in post-conflict reconstruction. They were the ones who had put people on blacklists — they were just incredibly sensitive about anything that might not project the CPA in the most favorable light possible. Reporters were seen as either sympathetic and on their side or those who didn’t get it. And if you didn’t get it, either you were perhaps granted some interviews so that you would get it or you would be written off as a lost cause.

Patrick Graham
Freelance writer

One really interesting thing was to sit down with people who were either in the insurgency or close to it and watch the [CPA] briefings on Al-Jazeera or Al-Arabiya. I did that a lot, and that was really interesting because what happened was Dan Senor or [Brigadier General Mark] Kimmitt [Bremer’s spokesmen] would basically insult the insurgency, either by calling them small criminals, or really demonize the Sunni minority.

I think those briefings were one of the reasons that the Sunni minority became so anti-American, because they were aimed for an American domestic audience, and the contempt that Kimmitt and Senor heaped on the Sunnis and the people that were fighting — “dead-enders” and “criminals,” “weak and coward-like,” and all the insults that he used — really got the back up of the people. Those briefings were key to making the Sunni minority realize that they would not be part of the new Iraq. I think that Senor and Kimmitt were one of the major forces in making the country fall apart. They were very effective in their propaganda for journalists and for Americans who didn’t know what was going on, but in Iraq it was a disaster. Even the Shia couldn’t believe what they were saying, they were just so dishonest. That was my reaction. The briefings — this may work in New Jersey, but in Iraq it’s a disaster.

General Abizaid went to Fallujah — I think it was Ramadan, it was around November 2003 — and his convoy was attacked, and I was sitting with a group of people who had family members in the insurgency, and the question for Kimmitt was, “Do you think that it was an organized attack?” And he said, “No, no, this was just nothing … it’s just a group of criminals attacking the” — I can’t remember exactly — “this group of criminals in Fallujah who are very unpopular.” And the group of people sitting with me were laughing. They thought the insurgency had intelligence that Abizaid was there, that it was a very coordinated attack, the people were very, very pleased by it — it was the exact opposite of the way it was being portrayed. It was actually an example of how strong and well-organized the insurgency was. And Kimmitt’s denial of it and his contempt for it was completely misleading to an American audience. And just made the Iraqis that I was with laugh at him.

Luke Baker

The people within the U.S. military that dealt with the press in Baghdad were quite intimidating toward us at times; they felt that we asked too many questions when Reuters had people detained, for example, after the incident in Fallujah [in January 2004]. These were Iraqi employees of Reuters, cameraman and soundman and a driver, who were shot at when they were trying to film an incident after a U.S. helicopter had been brought down. And they were filming at the scene; they were shot at by U.S. troops. They then jumped in their car and left because they were worried that they were being fired upon. The U.S. troops chased them down, helicopters chased them down, firing on them, and then detained them. [The military] said that they were basically terrorists posing as journalists at the scene, who fired on U.S. troops — I mean it’s absolute fantasyland. But they were detained, held, abused, put in stressful positions, sort of threatened, stripped, made to do obscene things, and eventually they were released, and that’s when we called for an investigation.

But what I was going to say is that when we asked questions about that in press conferences, and I would go to the press conferences in Baghdad, the general that was the main spokesman, General Kimmitt was very dismissive of us, threatened us, asked us not to ask more questions. [Before] one press conference he asked me, “Are you going to ask me any more obnoxious questions?” and I said I might, and he said, “Well, why don’t you ask me them now?” I said, “Well I’d rather ask you on the record in the press conference.” And he said, “Well,” tapping the gun at his side, “You’ve gotta watch out.” Joking, but tapping the gun at his side.

Caroline Hawley

We had the most difficulty with the CPA when Paul Bremer was in power. He had given an interview to a BBC program called Panorama that was quite a hard-hitting interview, and I don’t think he was used to that. And certainly after that we had a difficult time getting access to Paul Bremer. I understood there were threats that we might be barred from embeds as a result. That actually didn’t happen, but there was certainly a kind of air of nastiness, and I had it reported back to me from one coalition official that other coalition officials were accusing me of being able to smell sewage in a bed of roses.

Jon Lee Anderson
The New Yorker

I do fault the CPA and the coalition for having done its best to keep bad news away from the public, and there’s been a number of ways they’ve done that. There is now this notorious writ that no American coffins can be photographed; Bush’s decision never to appear at the funeral of a soldier. This, in addition to the daily playing down of bad news, from Bush all the way down to the field command level, over a very crucial period of time, has confused the public, made journalists’ jobs much more difficult, and to a certain degree I regard this huge propaganda effort as also pernicious and having been extremely dangerous to us.

Because, for instance, months before people began writing about how dangerous the Baghdad airport highway was, the Americans and the Brits — I’m speaking of the military — stopped using the road. They stopped using the road. They didn’t announce it; they choppered to and from the Green Zone. Did they admit openly that that road had become Suicide Alley? There was one particular series of months, I think it was the fall of 2004, in which there had been forty-four suicide bombings along the road, just that little stretch of road.

A few months before Marla [Ruzicka, an aid worker and activist] was killed [April 16, 2005], there was a willfulness about the way Baghdad, the war, Iraq was being presented, the security situation, which I think also led a great number of people to Iraq who were subsequently kidnapped and killed, who should have known better but didn’t, because of the nature of the place [and] the idea that “Oh, only six out of the sixteen provinces are dangerous,” that kind of language. I think that this made it very difficult.

Elizabeth Palmer
CBS News

It was cognitive dissonance to sit in those press briefings, and it became funny, because inevitably there’d be a new reporter at the press briefing of the day who’d — we’d hear the spin and how everything was terrific and they’d repaired water plants and restored power and so on, and then the newcomer would put up his hand and say, “’Scuse me, but what I’m seeing out on the streets has nothing to do with what you’re describing and I’m wondering if you could explain the discrepancy” [laughing]. And everybody in the press corps would smile because it really was the fresh eye, the freshly realized, the total disconnect, you know?

James Hider
The Times (London)

In Fallujah [the Americans had] dropped some bombs [in late February 2004], some five-hundred-pound bombs showing the Iraqis that they were still here. I think they call it “dissuasive fire” or something like that. And we went to this little house just outside Fallujah, and we met these people — the bomb had landed fairly close to their house. It hadn’t hit anything, it just landed in the desert, and the people said, “Our neighbor, his wife had a miscarriage from the shock of the bomb. What were they bombing? We’re innocent people, just peasant farmers.” You know, they were very confused about why this bomb had been dropped. Apparently, as far as I could tell, it had been dropped to dissuade the guerrillas from chancing their arms — because they had just attacked a police station a week before or something. So it was a show of force.

And I went back to the Green Zone and [Lieutenant] General [Ricardo] Sanchez [commander of coalition ground forces] was doing a press conference, and I had this completely surreal exchange with him. I said, “I’ve just been out in Fallujah and you’ve bombed a field, a woman’s had a miscarriage, what were you trying to do?” And he said, “We hit what we were aiming at.” And I said, “What were you aiming at?” And he said, “What we hit.” And I started laughing and everyone started laughing at this bizarre exchange, and I think he thought they were laughing with him. But I think they were laughing at this bizarre rhetoric of the Green Zone that had no relation really to what was going on around.

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The Editors are the staffers of Columbia Journalism Review.