CAMP AS SAYLIYAH, QATARThe audio technician tested the mike one final time. "Come see me after the show," he announced to a public-affairs official as hundreds of reporters gathered last week at the $200,000 studio here. In the alternate universe known as "CentCom," the "show" in Iraq is proceeding smoothly. Each day, the world is treated to video of happy but hungry Iraqi children receiving food from American GIs. Single Iraqi tanks and airplanes are surgically extinguished while civilian centers are left untouched. "Free Iraqi" forces are portrayed as having an important role in the liberation of Iraq. The troops, we are told, have all the food, water, gas, and ammunition they need. "We're in fact on plan," the chosen commander says at the beginning of many briefings. The final "outcome has not been, is not, and will not be in question."
Out on the battlefields, reporters are seeing and hearing a very different story. On the same day that Central Command officials here played the video of smiling children, humanitarian aid groups had to stop handing out food when fighting broke out among hostile crowds. Those "free Iraqi" forces that the top commander, Gen. Tommy Franks, and his subordinate, Brig. Gen. Vincent Brooks, are so fond of talking about number "roughly 40" people, Brooks said. As for the supplies, a top Army land commander, Lt. Gen. William Wallace, put himself on record a day later saying that troops had to "pause" to replenish food, water, gas, and ammunition, provisions that had run low during the previous 10 days of combat. American war games before the outbreak of hostilities, Wallace added, had not envisioned such staunch resistance from the Fedayeen, the irregulars who are harassing stretched-out American supply lines. The destruction of the Iraqi regime, he said, might take longer than originally thought.
No one doubts that the United States will ultimately sweep to a military victory in Iraq. But the failure of CentCom commanders to offer even a dose of candor about the unexpected problems encountered there has grouchy reporters grumbling about a credibility gap. The war has not played to CentCom's carefully rehearsed script. American and British forces were not initially greeted as liberators. CentCom officials said in recent days that the crowds have begun to help the American forces, but the southern city of Basra remains a dicey place where it's not clear who's in control.
Before the war began, the military had planned to airlift chosen television reporters to Basra on Day 2 to beam back pictures of Iraqi Shiites celebrating the demise of Saddam Hussein's regime. The reporters still haven't made it there.
When the initial developments did not create the images sought by CentCom, the spin doctors here took over. Franks finally spoke on Day 3, but the briefings contained little useful information. The "mosaic" that Franks and Brooks had said they would stitch together instead became a confused jumble of battlefield reports filed by embedded journalists in the field with little context from the providers of context. In the absence of information, reporters started interviewing each other. New York magazine media writer Michael Wolffdressed mostly in blackchanged his seat each day for maximum opportunity to ask questions and tweak the briefers. One of the generals tried to bond with Wolff by pointing out they both had bald pates, but Wolff was merciless when he asked Brooks on Day 8, "Why should we stay? What's the value to us for what we learn at this million-dollar press center?"
The succeeding briefings were not reassuring. Reporters had to act like Kremlinologists to divine what Franks meant Sunday when he attempted to defend his war plan. "The very best planning, I believe, military planning that can be done, is military planning that assures ultimate success but permits the possibility of early success," he said. It wasn't easy deciphering that oblique code, but what Franks seemed to be saying was that his blueprint relied on launching an attack with a smaller, lighter force to secure the lucrative oil fields and see if Iraqi resistance quickly faded. In case the "early success" didn't fully materialize, Franks and the military planners had prepared a contingency: a second wave of forces that would reinforce the invasion. Military officials could then argue that they didn't have to alter the plan because the planners always foresaw changes. "Its chief characteristic," Franks said of the plan, "is flexibility, adaptability." Many people would have considered this explanationif Franks had offered it in plain Englishto be reasonable, though some would have derided it as after-the-fact spin. But Franks failed in three appearances to explain his reasoning in an understandable way, preferring to rely on vague pronouncements such as, "This plan will be unlike any I believe anyone expects."
What was so stunning about the CentCom stage was the stark contrast with the generous access given to embedded reporters. The Pentagon had promised a new era of openness, and indeed was delivering on the battlefields, but the message never arrived at CentCom. CentCom press officials refuse to provide basic information like numbers of casualties and success rates of American and British airstrikes. Reporters are kept a barbed-wire fence away from the operations, intelligence, and plans commanders. At background sessions, a "senior CentCom official" dribbles out self-serving anecdotes such as: "General Franks gets up really early and continues to work out on the treadmill." The British commander, Air Marshal Brian Burridge, actually told reporters, "We don't do detail." One of the small army of public-affairs officials on hand to watch over the journalists confided in a rare private moment that the place had the feel of a "Potemkin village."
NBC Today show coanchor Matt Lauer voted with his feet when he stopped showing up at the base, preferring to broadcast the show from his hotel. The senior correspondent here for ABC News, George Stephanopoulos, told me that he was leaving early because of the lack of information. Stephanopoulos's show the first weekend of the war included an interview back in Washington with Gen. Richard Myers, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, but no one from American CentCom. (Stephanopoulos did score a coup of sorts when he succeeded in listening in on a Bush press conference over his cellphone while we waited in a security holding pen for a bus to the press center. The word had trickled down that military police had kicked out a foreign journalist who committed a similar offense; the military strictly prohibited the operation of cellphones in the holding pen. But Stephanopoulos sailed right through with nary a word from our minders.) When Wolff asked why journalists should stay for briefings with midlevel officials, Brooks replied, "First, I would say it's your choice." Many of the 700 accredited reporters choose to remain in hopes of landing an elusive interview with Franks. Other reporters are now packing their bags, including a correspondent from the Financial Times who plans to depart for a new assignment: the Scottish elections. I have opted to watch the "show" on television.