We're Losing the Infowar

For nearly four years, U.S. military officials have briefed the Baghdad press corps from behind an imposing wooden podium. No longer. Last week U.S. military spokesman Maj. Gen. William Caldwell relaxed with reporters around a "media roundtable." He replaced the cumbersome headset once used for Arabic translations with a discreet earpiece. He cut short his opening statement, allowing for more back-and-forth banter. Yet even as Iraq emerged from the deadliest month in 2006 for American soldiers, Caldwell maintained the relentlessly upbeat patter that has come to characterize the briefings. "The key difference you're going to see in 2007," he said proudly, "is this is truly the year of transition and adaptation."

Another year, another message. In the United States this week, President George W. Bush's speech laying out his new strategy for Iraq will be scrutinized for its specifics--the numbers of an anticipated troop surge, the money for reconstruction and jobs programs. But at least as critical to success may be whether Bush is convincing. A draft report recently produced by the Baghdad embassy's director of strategic communications Ginger Cruz and obtained by NEWSWEEK makes the stakes clear: "Without popular support from US population, there is the risk that troops will be pulled back ... Thus there is a vital need to save popular support via message." Under the heading domestic messages, Cruz goes on to recommend 16 themes to reinforce with the American public, several of which Bush is likely to hit: "vitally important we succeed"; "actively working on new approaches"; "there are no quick or easy answers."

What's even more telling is that the iraqi messages--the very next section--are still "TBD," to be determined. Indeed, the document so much as admits that despite spending hundreds of millions of dollars, the United States has lost the battle for Iraqi public opinion: "Insurgents, sectarian elements, and others are taking control of the message at the public level." Videos of U.S. soldiers being shot and blown up, and of the bloody work of sectarian death squads, are now pervasive. The images inspire new recruits and intimidate those who might stand against them. "Inadequate message control in Iraq," the draft warns, "is feeding the escalating cycle of violence." (A U.S. Embassy spokesperson claims the document reflects Cruz's personal views, not official policy.)

Sunni insurgents in particular have become expert at using technology to underscore--some would say exaggerate--their effectiveness. "The sophistication of the way the enemy is using the news media is huge," Lt. Gen. Peter Chiarelli, the former commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, told NEWSWEEK just before he returned to the United States. Most large-scale attacks on U.S. forces are now filmed, often from multiple camera angles, and with high-resolution cameras. The footage is slickly edited into dramatic narratives: quick-cut images of Humvees exploding or U.S. soldiers being felled by snipers are set to inspiring religious soundtracks or chanting, which lends them a triumphal feel. In some cases, U.S. officials believe, insurgents attack American forces primarily to generate fresh footage.

Guerrillas have always sought alternative technologies to undermine their better-equipped enemies. What's different now is the power and accessibility of such tools. Production work that once required a studio can now be done on a laptop. Compilation videos of attacks on U.S. forces sell in Baghdad markets for as little as 50 cents on video CDs. Advancements in cell-phone technology have made such devices particularly useful. Their small video files--the filming of Saddam Hussein's hanging took up just over one megabyte--are especially easy to download and disseminate. "Literally, it's only hours after an attack and [the videos] are available," says Andrew Garfield, a British counterinsurgency expert who has advised U.S. forces in Baghdad. "You can really say it's only a cell-phone call away."

What the insurgents understand better than the Americans is how Iraqis consume information. Tapes of beheadings are stored on cell phones along with baby pictures and wedding videos. Popular Arab satellite channels like Al-Jazeera and Al-Arabiya air far more graphic images than are typically seen on U.S. TV--leaving the impression, say U.S. military officials, that America is on the run. At the extreme is the Zawra channel, run by former Sunni parliamentarian Mishan Jibouri, who fled to Syria last year after being accused of corruption. (Jibouri says he's being persecuted for political reasons, and can return to Iraq whenever he wants.) Since November the channel has been spewing out an unending series of videos showing American soldiers being killed in sniper and IED attacks. The clips are accompanied by commentary, often in English, admonishing Iraqis to "focus your utmost rage against the occupation." Among Sunnis and even some Shiites, Zawra has become one of the most popular stations in Iraq. "I get e-mails from girls in their 20s from Arab countries; some of them are very wealthy," Jibouri boasts. "Some offer to work for free, some offer money."

The U.S. military's response, on the other hand, usually sticks to traditional channels like press releases. These can take hours to prepare and are often outdated by the time they're issued. Lt. Col. Barry Johnson, director of the military's press operations in Baghdad until this past September, complains that all military-related information has to be processed upward through a laborious and bureaucratic chain of command. "The military wants to control the environment around it, but as we try to [do so], it only slows us down further," he says. "All too often, the easiest decision we made was just not to talk about [the story] at all, and then you absolutely lose your ability to frame what's going on."

An even bigger problem, say other U.S. officials, may be the message itself. The videos on Zawra are powerful precisely because they confirm the preconceptions many Iraqis have about the occupation. Col. William Darley, editor of the influential Military Review at the Combined Arms Center in Fort Leavenworth, Kans., argues that merely changing podiums in the briefing room misses the point. "You can cook up a kind of shrewd, New York City-style advertising campaign for a candy bar, and if the candy bar tastes lousy, you can't sell it," says Darley. "If Iraq has no electricity, spotty medical care, no security, then [we] cannot succeed."

The consequences of losing the propaganda battle are real. "One of these videos is worth a division of tanks to those people," says Robert Steele, a former U.S. Marine Corps intelligence officer. Not only do the insurgent videos draw recruits and donations, they don't give ordinary Iraqis much incentive to cooperate with the Americans. Videos put out by sectarian death squads, like the one shown to NEWSWEEK by the watchdog SITE institute in which a Sunni militiaman saws the head off a Shiite prisoner with a five-inch knife, enrage the targeted community. The release of the ghoulish video of Saddam's hanging prompted thousands of Sunnis to protest in Anbar province. Residents of Fallujah--the target of a multimillion-dollar hearts-and-minds campaign--renamed the city's main thoroughfare the Street of the Martyr Saddam Hussein.

The damage goes beyond Iraq. Al Qaeda's media arm, As-Sahab ("The Cloud") has similarly improved the quality and frequency of its videos; the group, says former State Department adviser Philip Zelikow, uses "the Internet to provide a sense of virtual identity" now that its Afghan training camps have largely been destroyed. The question is how to fight back, when today's most powerful technologies--the Web, cell phones--are better suited to small, nimble organizations. Back in the 1930s national leaders could almost wholly control the framing of their messages, says Donald Shaw, a professor of media theory at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill who has written about reforms for military public-affairs officers. But now, "the podium has lost its influence." For those who once stood behind it, that message at least is very clear.

Join the Discussion