The Lincoln Plawg - the blog with footnotes

Politics and law from a British perspective (hence Politics LAW BloG): ''People who like this sort of thing...'' as the Great Man said

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Monday, October 13, 2003

CENTCOM target practice: another bull's-eye in the foot?

The usual health warning applies: the lying liars (pace Al Franken) are plying their trade on all sides and at all times.

(And, on the subject of gullibility, be it noted that even the High Table of the journalistic Great and Good persist - long post-Jayson Blair - in showing themselves up: the WaPo, no less, picked up (October 5) a report from the LA Times saying that
Gov. Gray Davis (D) pledged in August that he would fight to retain his job "like one of those cool white tigers owned by Siegfried and Roy."

A quote which just so happened to have been lifted from an August 8 satire column in the Times (registration needed, dammit!) by one Roy Rivenburg under the heading AS IF:
Aug. 7: Davis resumes his tiger theme, this time promising to "fight like one of those cool white tigers owned by Siegfried and Roy. Or maybe like Tiger Woods, whichever sounds meaner."

Maybe, one of these days, the editors of these rags of (decidedly scratched and warped) record will decide to do some damned editing... [1])

But - the Ministry of Truth's CENTCOM office may have been proactive even, just conceivably, to the extent of forgery. The story comes from the Gannett News Service (under the byline of Ledyard King) - and therefore is liable to suffer the vivisection that is the common lot of agency copy. The fullest version online seems to be on the USA Today site (October 12):
Letters from soldiers have surfaced in newspapers describing successes in Iraq, but many are the same form letter....A Gannett News Service search found identical letters in 11 newspapers. They were signed by different soldiers with the 2nd Battalion of the 503rd Airborne Infantry Regiment, also known as "The Rock." The five-paragraph letter relates soldiers' efforts to re-establish police and fire departments and build water and sewer plants in the northern Iraqi city of Kirkuk, where the unit is based.

The paper includes the following extracts from the text of the letters:
I have been serving in Iraq for more than five months, now as a soldier in the 2nd Battalion of the 503rd Airborne Infantry Regiment, otherwise know as the "ROCK." We entered the country at midnight on the 26th of March. One thousand of my fellow soldiers and I parachuted from 10 jumbo jets (known as C17s) onto a cold, muddy field in Bashur, Northern Iraq.

Things have changed tremendously for our battalion since those first cold, wet weeks spent in the mountain city of Bashur. On April 10, our battalion conducted an attack south into the oil rich town of Kirkuk, the city that has since become our home away from home and the focus of our security and development efforts. Kirkuk is a hot and dusty city of just over a million people. The majority of the city has welcomed our presence with open arms.

(According to a piece today on the CBS site - again, sourced from Gannett - the text goes on:
After nearly five months here, the people still come running from their homes, in the 110-degree heat, waving to us as our troops drive by on daily patrols of the city. Children smile and run up to shake hands, and in broken English, shout, 'Thank you, mister.'"

At first sight, the text reads rather more like the hack-work of some CENTCOM spinner than the genuine work of a serving man - the syntax and register just seem not right (in the jargon of the British antiques trade) [2].

However, what is not clear is how the material was produced and distributed - and the USA Today piece admits as much:
It's not clear who wrote the letter or organized sending it to soldiers' hometown papers.

The DOD spokesman
said he was not aware of any coordinated campaign among troops to send letters supportive of the war back home.
but would not be surprised by a spontaneous outbreak of letter-writing
because many U.S. troops are discouraged that not enough positive news is being reported.

There is clearly a range of possibilities, including these:
  1. the DOD drafted the letter and sent it without the knowledge of the men under whose name it was sent;

  2. the DOD drafted the letter, and arranged for men to volunteer to have it sent under their names;

  3. the DOD encouraged someone within the 503rd Airborne command structure to organise the drafting of a letter and the collection of volunteers' names;

  4. a member of the 503rd Airborne, off his own bat, drafted the letter, and got the volunteers.

Of the 11 letters identified
Six soldiers reached by GNS directly or through their families said they agreed with the letter's thrust. But none of the soldiers said he wrote it. One said he didn't even sign it.

A seventh soldier didn't know about the letter until his father congratulated him for getting it published...

The piece mentions other names, but I suspect they are counted among the six. Which leaves four out of 11 unclassified.

On the mechanics, the piece quotes
Sgt. Todd Oliver, a spokesman for the 173rd Airborne Brigade, which counts the 503rd Airborne as one of its units, [who] said he was told a soldier wrote the letter, but he didn't know who.

"When he asked other soldiers in his unit to sign it, they did," Oliver explained in an e-mail response to a GNS inquiry. "Someone, somewhere along the way, took it upon themselves to mail it to the various editors of newspapers across the country."

Now, I don't reckon that USG is doing anything wrong if it sends down the message to its unit commanders that maybe it would be a great idea to get their men emailing their local rags to say things aren't too bad; even sending along a form letter with a list for men to sign to have the letter sent on their behalf wouldn't, I think, cross the line.

Did USG go further, and send letters without the knowledge of those men in whose name they were sent? Yet again, there's no gun, smoking or otherwise.

The USA Today piece tries to suggest that even rounding up letter writers might be classed as using serving men for partisan political purposes, given the current state of affairs back home. But that seems to suggest an impossible standard of virtue (everything any government does has political motives). I think the real question here is, Were the letters genuinely sent by or for those who were purportedly their authors?

(In real life, of course, letters are being signed by people who didn't draft them all the time. By signing a letter, whoever drafted it, the signer adopts it as his own. That is, after all, rather the point of there being such a thing as signature in the first place...)

What would be surprising is if it were only the 503rd Airborne from which such letters have supposedly been sent. If the case was in fact unique, that would support the spontaneity theory. If other clusters of identically worded letters supposedly sent from men in other units could be found, that would be evidence of a USG set-up. How difficult is it to do that sort of search on Nexis, I wonder?

Which, of course, leads to the question, how did Gannett get switched on to the 11 letters from the 503rd Airborne in the first place? Not another USG leak, surely?

More actual journalism required here, I'm afraid...

  1. This and not a few other media stories here come from the Romanesko page - for a more or less guaranteed half an hour of daily amusement and edification on the US media, it cannot be beaten. Peculiarity: uses quicklinks (paste into the search box, top-right) rather than permalinks - odd, but, unlike Blogger permalinks, they actually seem to work. This will take you to the LAT piece.

  2. There is a minor industry involved in the authentication of texts - using, for instance, the cusum or qsum technique (as described here).


An October 12 piece in the Inquirer (not the Philly one) leads to the apparent head-waters of this particular river, a piece (October 11), also under a Ledyard King byline, in The Olympian from Olympia, WA - providing, according to the title of the homepage window,
Local News and Information for South Puget Sound.

It is also one of a large number of rags owned by the Gannet Company, who also own Gannett News Services.

(Gannet apparently also owns the Army Times Publishing Company, whose titles include the Army Times, the Air Force Times and the Navy Times.)

The piece says
The Olympian received two identical letters signed by different hometown soldiers: Spc. Joshua Ackler and Spc. Alex Marois, who is now a sergeant. The paper declined to run either because of a policy not to publish form letters.

There is some five Ws detail that we always like (even though, of course it may not be accurate!): names and places. For instance it says [1] that
Marois, 23, told his family he signed the letter, said Moya Marois, his stepmother. But she said he was puzzled why it was sent to the newspaper in Olympia. He attended high school in Olympia but no longer considers the city home, she said. Moya Marois and Alex's father, Les, now live near Kooskia, Idaho.

It also has a GIF of the two letters which is evidently intended to be probative.

(The Inquirer piece says that the 11 letters were all published by Gannett Group newspapers. Which can't be right because
  1. one of them appeared in the Snohomish Herald of Everett, WA (NE of Seattle) - though it seems to have disappeared from the website - which is not in the Gannett group list; and

  2. at least two of the 11, those sent to the Olympian, weren't published at all.)

The Olympian piece mentions a letter (from the seventh man mentioned above, Pfc Nick Deaconson) sent to a paper in Beckley, WV, which I'm surmising must be the Register-Herald which, again, is not a Gannett rag that I can see - site.

And, on the MO used, it has this:
Sgt. Christopher Shelton, who signed a letter that ran in the Snohomish Herald, said Friday that his platoon sergeant had distributed the letter and asked soldiers for the names of their hometown newspapers. Soldiers were asked to sign the letter if they agreed with it, said Shelton, whose shoulder was wounded during an ambush earlier this year.

No indication, natch, of where the (strangely unnamed) platoon sergeant got the brainwave (and the text). Still, what was it that Mao said about a journey of a thousand miles...

Again, one needs some real journalism to sort the red herrings from the caviare.

  1. There is a soporific quality about all this namechecking that reminds me of the soothing but uncommunicative station-master in Mr Deeds Goes To Town.

UPDATE (October 16)

The Romanesko page now has permalinks. Phew, that was quick...

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