go to top

DOD Attempts to Fact-Check Press

Monday, Oct. 30, 2006

With the advent of a blog-style Web site called "For the Record," the U.S. Department of Defense has gotten into the business of fact-checking journalists. It's only the latest example of how the Internet is usurping the monopoly traditional media outlets have on providing information to the public. Governments more and more are attempting to use the Internet to bypass press channels and provide information direct to their constituents.

Given the importance of perception and the "battle of ideas" to warfare, it's not surprising that in the U.S. government, DOD has been a pioneer in this kind of thing. Witness, for example, the Web site of the Multi-National Force Iraq. It more closely resembles a news Web site, complete with regularly updated and original articles, than a technocratic government information portal.

And of course the U.S. government funds entire news organizations and television networks to take its message to foreign publics. But the DOD site is part of a new breed of government public affairs efforts that are specifically aimed at responding to inaccuracies in press reports and other media. The State Department's Identifying Misinformation site, for example, has sought to debunk the claims of the popular "non-fiction" book "Confessions of an Economic Hitman."

But DOD's new site does seem to represent a new level of aggressiveness in such government efforts to correct the record. This is perhaps one reason why its effectiveness is inconsistent.

Some posts indeed make the press look sloppy. For example, an Oct. 27 posting about press accounts of a DOD news briefing rightly points out that outlets such as the AP and Washington Post mischaracterized Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's comments about the Iraq war. Both organizations reported that Rumsfeld told war critics to "back off." The AP reported that Rumsfeld directed that comment to "anyone demanding deadlines for progress" in Iraq. But, as the DOD retort says, the transcript indicates Rumsfeld's "back off" was aimed squarely at the press. After all, he used the pronoun "you" when speaking to a roomful of reporters. It's revealing that the press corps failed to make a distinction between themselves and "war critics."

On the other hand, the DOD site often comes across as defensive and epistemologically rigid to the point of absurdity. DOD's rebuttal of an Oct. 2 Newsweek piece on Afghanistan is a case in point. Here's the first part of the 10-part rebuttal:

INCORRECT NEWSWEEK CLAIM: "The 2003 invasion of Iraq did more than divert essential resources from Afghanistan; it created a test lab for new insurgent weapons and tactics that have since been adopted by the Taliban."

RESPONSE:

--The assertion that the Iraq invasion "diverted" resources from Afghanistan is a talking point of critics of the Bush administration. It is an opinion, not a fact.
--Resources to Afghanistan have increased since Operation Iraqi Freedom began. In March 2003, the United States had about 9,500 troops in Afghanistan. Today, there are more than 21,000 U.S. forces either under U.S. or NATO command in Afghanistan or directly supporting missions there.
--The insinuation that Iraq has created new tactics is, at best, exaggerated. Guerrilla warfare techniques and terror tactics such as suicide bombings were not invented in Iraq.
--Additionally, the logic of this claim seems to be that U.S. forces should never confront terrorists far from our shores because of the danger that the enemy might fight back -- and learn new tactics in the process. This is not a coherent policy.

To take just the first point, the department seems to have a strange definition of what constitutes an opinion -- namely, anything that they believe to be untrue. Opinions and facts aren't opposites. Either the statement in dispute -- the Iraq invasion diverted resources from Afghanistan -- is false or it is true, but I can't see why it should be characterized as an "opinion." Furthermore, proving the veracity of such a statement would require more than a couple of talking points.

This seeming inability to pick its battles characterizes much of the DOD site. In an Oct. 24 post, for example, the department seems to believe it can disprove the notion that "troop levels in Iraq are the result of Secretary Rumsfeld's 'not listening to his generals'" simply by citing Tommy Franks' book. But of course there are numerous credible sources that could be cited on the other side of the argument. And this lame debunking is in rebuttal to a New York Times editorial.

The DOD site is a good concept, but could be executed much better with a little bit more discretion in choosing its targets as well as a more thoughtful approach to its task.