Thursday, June 22, 2017

Book Review: 'So Wrong for So Long: How the Press, the Pundits--and the President--Failed on Iraq' by Greg Mitchell

Review by Susan Gardner

So Wrong for So Long 
How the Press, the Pundits--and the President--Failed on Iraq 

By Greg Mitchell 
Union Square Press 
New York/London, 2008
Quick: Without checking subtitles, which book is the young insider’s story of dysfunction within the Defense Intelligence Agency? And which is the veteran journalist’s account of the dysfunctional national press in the run-up to the war? Still Broken? Or So Wrong for So Long?
It’s telling that when glancing at book covers, it’s impossible to distinguish between the differing subject matter. Together, the two new books make a devastating read, a near-comprehensive look at how truth has been sacrificed since the 9/11 terror attacks—both inside the agencies created to analyze facts, and in the national media purportedly dedicated to enlightening the American public. Reading both makes you realize the public never had a chance of getting a true picture of what was going on in the lead-up to the war or in its subsequent conduct.
A.J. Rossmiller in Still Broken tells his story as a young idealistic Defense Intelligence Agency analyst whose gradual disillusionment with the cumbersome system and its use, non-use and mis-use of facts finally leads to his departure from the agency. Greg Mitchell, through a compilation of his marvelous, darkly critical columns written over the past six years for Editor & Publisher, tells the story of our national media’s similar straying from the facts in its run-up and coverage of the war. The young insider’s account of pressure to fix facts, combined with Mitchell’s documentation of the press’s disregard, combine to provide a vivid account of betrayal, from within and without.
First, to Rossmiller’s excellent book. The author arrived fresh out of college at the DIA at a time when the agency was in the throes of transition, not just adjusting to the new strategic world after the 9/11 terror attacks, but at a point when new technologies were challenging the old guard and the previous paradigm of hiring specialists was being jettisoned in favor of hiring generalists. Rossmiller was just such a generalist, eager to volunteer his services for the good of his country, and after a couple of months of somewhat disheartening bureaucratic orientation, headed to Iraq as a volunteer analyst. Before deployment though, still in DC, he sat through training sessions that set off warning bells about what was to come:
The sections on the region were like Middle East for Morons; the one-page summary of the "culture Guide to Iraq," for example, included the helpful hints that "Arabs usually believe that many, if not most, things in life are controlled by the will of God (fate) rather than by human beings. That is why it is difficult to get an Arab to do any form of planning for the future" and "Arabs are an emotional people who use the power of emotion in forceful and appealing rhetoric that tends toward exaggeration. In their exaggeration, wish becomes blended and confused with reality."
"Hard to imagine," Rossmiller remarks wryly, "why we have a difficult time with dealing with the Arab world."
The author’s understated humor runs like an underscore throughout the whole book, and one suspects that he needed to draw upon it consistently throughout the episodes he describes. Upon arrival in Iraq, for example, it’s clear that no preparation was made for his group despite weeks of advance notice. Assignments aren’t worked out, desk space not allotted (a problem back in DC at the Pentagon as well). In a testimony to bonding, the group he arrives with sticks together despite attempts to break them up and assign them to separate work units—ultimately, they almost wind up making up their own assignments and begin working them, focusing on kidnapping, hostages and the lucrative trade the terrorists are working up in these areas. And his unit ends up being one of the few that actually hands off information that is used in the field—which is a double-edged sword.
While avoiding the feeling of frustration others in his agency in Iraq feel because the information they work up never leaves the building, Rossmiller ends up accompanying interrogators on a raid out in the field, using intelligence he had worked up. It is, to understate, quite an eye-opening experience. First off, the insurgents the analyst had targeted are not the men brought to the make-shift interrogation area; apparently, the worked-up suspects weren’t around, so other men in the homes or the area were picked up instead. Then there follows a harrowing description—no outright abuse or physical punishment meted out—of a haphazard, pointless questioning that goes on for hours and concludes with all prisoners being sent to Abu Ghraib. This experience shakes Rossmiller, who comes to what he describes as "the realization that the painstaking process of collecting intelligence, vetting it, researching the targets, and finally putting together a target package turned into, in the field, Anybody who’s picked up gets sent to prison."
"It’s one thing to suspect that we’re jailing untold numbers of innocents," he writes, "but another to witness it and be a cog in the machine that facilitates the process." Stepping back and viewing the process from a more general and objective viewpoint, he observes, "It was clearly a structural breakdown, and a massive one: The people in the field thought the prison would decide who needed to stay and who needed to be let go, but those at Abu G thought anybody delivered to them was a guilty shithead."
This sort of "structural breakdown"—situations that defy common sense—are apparent everywhere he turns. It was apparent back in DC before he left, it’s apparent in Iraq and it becomes apparent when he returns to the United States and re-settles in at the Pentagon where, three years into what’s billed as the most important war of our lifetimes, the major intelligence agency in the DoD is still operating out of temporary office space with inadequate desk space, no voice mail and limited access to computers.
But the greatest problem for Rossmiller to swallow was the insistence that the analysis provided by him and his co-workers was "too pessimistic." Anything approaching guarded assessments about the reality of what was happening in Iraq was kicked back through dozens of maddening edits at different levels of labyrinthine bureaucracy, with the political views of individual bureaucrats demanding rewrites based on their own views of who was responsible for the lack of political progress in the country. Indeed, the label "too pessimistic" became a standing bitter joke among Rossmiller and his colleagues, and the inability to feel he was doing any good, combined with the rejection of his assessments ultimately led to his departure from the agency.
Some of the best parts of the book are Rossmiller’s accounts of his inner struggle as he weighs whether staying and trying to change the maddening process and resistant culture is worth the fight. Ultimately, he concludes that not only is he unlikely to change anything for the better, his continued contribution is complicit in covering for a dysfunctional system. For all who have struggled with this question in their own circumstances, there is vivid resonance in the back-and-forth the author goes through before making the final decision to leave.
Rossmiller’s greatest concern for the DIA is the long-term toll on the agency’s culture, which in the past six years has trained up a whole new generation of analysts who have felt pressured to put happy spin on facts and not deliver bad news. As he says, "The intelligence community, particularly within the Department of Defense, is rapidly becoming a culture that values and rewards ‘good news’ over candor."
This same valuing of good news over candor lies at the heart of Greg Mitchell’s magnificent cumulative critique of American media over the past six years, outlined in So Wrong for So Long. As editor of Editor & Publisher, the national trade magazine for journalism, Mitchell had a front row seat to the unfolding disaster of a complicit press corps that was more than willing to embed itself with the worst of the administration’s propagandistic spin meisters, both military and bureaucratic. To his eternal credit, Mitchell used his platform unrelentingly to criticize the press from the outset of war talk, pre-invasion. He pushed, prodded, cajoled, remonstrated from his columns, trying to get the media to do its job.
The selected columns are presented chronologically, with a concise introduction to each month provided to reacquaint the reader with the current events that were unfolding at the time of their original publication. Mitchell’s writing is clear, focused and reliable throughout the years, serving as a touchstone of what journalism was meant to be—and failed to be—when facing off the Bush administration. His coverage was laudatory of the few outlets that took risks, challenged, told the truth or covered stories that were being ignored as the herd mentality took hold. He pushed very early on for deeper looks at the spiraling suicide rate among U.S. soldiers, and he let loose with righteous anger at the whole Judith Miller/WMD debacle (as well as the Plame leak).
As an insider looking from the outside at the press, he demanded more accountability than the media was deigning to offer, keeping like a bulldog at a bone about questions members of the press should have been asking themselves: what does it mean to be "embedded" with the troops? Where does a reporter’s loyalty lie in wartime? Is it honest—or even respectful—to go along with denying the public looks at flag-draped coffins?
Mitchell is a gift to his profession, and these columns are rich, rich reads. As an account of the failures of most journalists, it’s damning. A few shine throughout the years, Knight-Ridder’s Washington Bureau probably the most. But Mitchell isn’t just covering the press covering the administration and the war; there is real original thought and reporting going on in these columns as well, as he will often seek out the story behind the story—the parent behind the flag-draped coffin, for example.
As a record of the times, this volume is a real gem of a reference book as well. The introductions to the columns each month are among the best quick sketches of the order of events I’ve run across. But more than that, despite the sorry performance of the press throughout the 21st century, there is a glimmer of hope that writers such as Mitchell and those he highlights continue to work in the media. This is a record, in many ways, of a shameful time when the national media drastically failed the American people. But it’s also a record of the few voices who objected, who reported and who tried to keep the truth in the forefront.
Together, these two books illustrate not only what we lost—the truth and reliance on it—but what we can hope to restore with such individuals still insisting on making their own views heard and writing books such as these which insist that we look at the past six years rigorously. Both volumes are highly recommended.

Editor's note: This review was originally published at the Daily Kos, which notes that its "content may be used for any purpose without explicit permission unless otherwise specified." The original page can be found here. Like what you read? Subscribe to the SFRB's free daily email notice so you can be up-to-date on our latest articles. Scroll up this page to the sign-up field on your right. 

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