By: Greg Mitchell
A “striking lack of recollection” by White House and military officials prevented congressional investigators from determining who was responsible for misinformation spread to the media and public — and family — after the friendly fire death of Army Ranger Pat Tillman, a House committee said Monday.
The House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform Committee reported a similar lack of information relating to misinformation surrounding Pvt. Jessica Lynch, who was rescued from an Iraqi hospital after she was badly injured and captured in a 2003 ambush. The committee examined how the story of the ambush of her convoy was changed into a tale of heroism on her part.
The committee’s report includes a detailed account of how the press, especially The Washington Post, was spun, leading to the myth of Pvt. Lynch’s alleged exploits.
Here is an excerpt from the 48-page report released by the committee today.
The next morning [April 2, 2003], Brigadier General Vincent Brooks, another CENTCOM spokesman, gave his daily press briefing. During this briefing, he showed a four-minute video of the rescue operation and gave the following narration:
“[C]oalition Special Operations forces did stage an operation last night into the town of An Nasiriya. It was in the Saddam Hospital in An Nasiriya, a facility that had been used by the regime as a military post.
“We were successful in that operation last night and did retrieve Pfc. Jessica Lynch, bringing her away from that location of danger, clearing the building of some of the military activity that was in there. There was not a fire-fight inside the building I will tell you, but there were fire-fights outside of the building getting in and getting out.
“There were no coalition casualties as a result of this and in the destruction that occurred inside of the building, particularly in the basement area where the operations centers had been, we found ammunition, mortars, maps, a terrain model, and other things that make it very clear that it was being used as a military command post.
“The nature of the operation was a coalition special operation that involved Army Rangers, Air Force pilots and combat controllers, U.S. Marines and Navy Seals. It was a classical joint operation done by some of our nation?s finest warriors, who are dedicated to never leaving a comrade behind.”
On the same day, April 2, 2003, the Washington Post printed its first report (?Missing Soldier Rescued; U.S. Forces Remove POW From Hospital?) on the Lynch rescue. The front page story?s opening paragraph began:
“Jessica Lynch, a 19-year-old private first class missing since the ambush of an Army maintenance company 10 days ago in southern Iraq, has been rescued by Special Operations forces, defense officials said yesterday. CIA operatives in Iraq located Lynch in a hospital near Nasiriyah, where she was being held because of multiple wounds, officials said, and a helicopter-borne team of Navy SEALS and Army rangers rescued her about midnight local time.”
The story quoted Mr. Wilkinson, who said of Private Lynch, ?[s]he?s safe in coalition hands and happier than where she was.?
The April 2 story did not include any details about heroic actions by Private Lynch. But just one day later the Washington Post reported sensational new details. The April 3 front page story (?She Was Fighting to the Death?), written by Susan Schmidt and Vernon Loeb, began with a vivid battlefield account:
“Pfc. Jessica Lynch, rescued Tuesday from an Iraqi hospital, fought fiercely and shot several enemy soldiers after Iraqi forces ambushed the Army?s 507th Ordnance Maintenance Company, firing her weapon until she ran out of ammunition, U.S. officials said yesterday. Lynch, a 19-year-old supply clerk, continued firing at the Iraqis even after she sustained multiple gunshot wounds and watched several other soldiers in her unit die around her in the fighting March 23, one official said.”
The article quoted ?one official? as saying that at the time of her capture, Private Lynch ?was fighting to the death. She did not want to be taken alive.? The authors stated that according to this anonymous official, Private Lynch ?was also stabbed when Iraqi forces closed in on her position,? though there was no ?indication? that Lynch?s wounds were ?life-threatening.? The article also stated:
“Several officials cautioned that the precise sequence of events is still being determined, and that further information will emerge as Lynch is debriefed. Reports are thus far based on battlefield intelligence, they said, which comes from monitored communications from Iraqi sources in Nasiriyah whose reliability has yet to be assessed. Pentagon officials said they heard rumors of Lynch?s heroics but had no confirmation.”
On the same day, April 3, 2003, the Military Times ran a similar account with confirmation from Navy Captain Frank Thorp. At the time, Captain Thorp was a CENTCOM public affairs officer stationed at the command?s Qatar headquarters. He subsequently became the top public affairs official for General Myers and was promoted to Rear Admiral. According to this report:
“Thorp said Lynch ‘waged quite a battle prior to her capture. We do have very strong indications that Jessica Lynch was not captured very easily,’ he said. ‘Reports are that she fired her (M-16 rifle) until she had no more ammunition.'”
The dramatic story and video of Private Lynch?s rescue dominated the media for the next few days. In the words of one CENTCOM public affairs official, Lieutenant Colonel John Robinson, ?It was an awesome story.?
The story of Private Lynch?s rescue unfolded during a difficult time for the White House. An April 3, 2003, Washington Post story detailed the difficulties the Bush Administration was having at the time with communications about the war. The Post reported that the Administration?s plan ?did not allow for strong Iraqi resistance and overestimated the welcome allied troops would receive.? The story also noted:
“After nearly two weeks of discouraging news from Iraq, the White House viewed yesterday as an excellent message day. There were new details on the rescue of prisoner of war Jessica Lynch by U.S. Special Operations forces.”
Those new details, however, included an entirely fictional account of her capture. It is not uncommon for initial battlefield reports to have factual inaccuracies, since they are often written in difficult circumstances and under intense time pressures. Subsequent reports then correct the record. The opposite was true, though, in Private Lynch?s case. The initial reporting was accurate. It was the subsequent stories that invented new facts. This unusual situation raised concerns that the misinformation might be part of a deliberate propaganda strategy….
In a June 17, 2003, story, the Washington Post disclosed that Private Lynch did not engage the enemy, was not wounded by gunshots, and was rescued without significant resistance….
The Committee exchanged e-mails and interviewed now-Admiral Thorp about his knowledge of the capture and rescue of Private Lynch. In an April 2007 e-mail to Committee majority staff, Admiral Thorp described his statements to the Military Times reporter about Private Lynch. He wrote:
“As I recall, this was a short interview and media desperately wanted me to confirm the story that was running in the States. ? I never said that I had seen any intel or even intimated the same. ? I may have said I am familiar with ‘the reports’ meaning the press reports, but as you can see I did not confirm them. ? We did have reports of a battle and that a firefight had occurred. ? That is what I stated?”
Admiral Thorp told the Committee that he did not recall seeing classified battlefield intelligence reports about Private Lynch, and he said he did not remember if his remarks were based on such reports. When asked whether he knew at the time he spoke to reporters that Private Lynch had not actually fired any shots, Admiral Thorp replied: ?I would absolutely never, ever, ever, ever say anything that I knew to not be true.?
According to Admiral Thorp, the public affairs official who attended CENTCOM operational briefings was Jim Wilkinson, the Director of Strategic Communications for CENTCOM commander, General Tommy Franks. When the Committee interviewed Mr. Wilkinson, he said he was not a source for the story and that he was never familiar with the operational details of Private Lynch?s capture and rescue. He told the Committee: ?I still, to this day, don?t know if those details are right or wrong. I just don?t know. I don?t remember seeing any operational report.?
Neither Mr. Wilkinson nor Admiral Thorp said they knew the identity of the ?U.S. officials? cited in the April 3, 2003, Washington Post story. Neither could explain why initial news reports about Private Lynch?s capture and rescue were accurate, and subsequent stories contained significant errors.
Greg Mitchell’s new book, “So Wrong for So Long: How the Press, the Pundits — and the President — Failed on Iraq,” includes two chapters on the Lynch and Tillman cases.