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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Tuesday, October 14, 2003
 

The Iraq letter mystery - developments


One or two further (alleged) facts [1] concerning the 503rd Airborne's epistolary raid on the small town American press (piece yesterday) [2].

The New York Times piece today persists with the figure of 11 letters -
At least 11 American newspapers have inadvertently published identical or nearly identical letters from soldiers serving in the same unit in Iraq,
- though the Ackler and Marois letters that sparked off the search, sent to The Olympian, were not published.

And the Times is the first piece (I think!) to refer to nearly identical letters: previously, the letters had been called just identical.

It fingers the Boston Globe and the Tulare Advance-Register - site - of Tulare, CA - as papers which published a version of the letter - signed by Specialist Myron Tuttle - and passed on by his mother, a Tulare resident.

We also have a slight different story from 173rd Brigade spokesman Sgt First Class Todd G Oliver. To the Olympian, he said
he was told a soldier wrote the letter, but he didn't know who. He said the brigade's public affairs unit was not involved.

"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."


His explanation in the Times piece:
"They are working at an extremely fast pace and getting the good news back home is not always easy,'' [Oliver] wrote yesterday in an e-mail message from Iraq. "They thought it would be a good idea to encapsulate what they as a battalion have accomplished.''

"With the current and ongoing media focus on casualties and terrorist attacks,'' he added, "we thought it equally important to share with the American public the good news associated with our work.''


Why is the spokesman for a brigade a mere sergeant? And who is the we he refers to in the last sentence? Surely, sergeants in the USA don't initiate propaganda campaigns, even if they are important enough to be brigade spokesmen. So who else was involved?

He adds that
...every soldier who signed the letter did so after a careful read.
Which is a relief, I suppose. But did not say who drafted the letter.

A head-shaking editorial in the Snohomish Herald - which published the Shelton letter - bemoans the fact and goes on to say that
Weeks after publishing it, we received two identical letters with different signatures. We had been duped.

So - just so someone, at least is counting, that puts the total up to fifteen - 11 published, the two Olympian and two SH unpublished.

(Just pause to contemplate: three letters from the same battalion sent to the rag of a one-horse town like Everett, WA? [3] Do we know whether the unpublished letters were also signed by men of the 503rd?)

The LA Times says today that
Several copies of the letter were received by the Los Angeles Times, but none have been reprinted.

(Running total: 15 plus several.)

The LA Times also fingers the CharlestonGazette - site - of Charleston, WV [4] as a recipient. It quotes Shelton's mother as saying (of the letter) that
his commander had circulated it.

What level commander would this be, I wonder? (More below...)

Fox has a piece trying to connect the letter-writing with the Bush campaign to bypass the negative filter of the mainstream press.

More to the point, it has more details on what it says was the MO of the letter-writing operation:
Officials at the Pentagon and the White House have said the administration was not involved in the letter-writing campaign by some soldiers in Company A, 2nd Battalion of the 503rd Airborne Infantry Regiment. The letters, bearing the names and signatures of soldiers on the ground in the city of Kirkuk, were written by some of the unit's officers. They were then forwarded to the military's "Hometown News Release Program," based at Kelly Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas.

The what? The Hometown News Release Program, it explains,
encourages soldiers to write their local newspapers to announce promotions and personal milestones as well as other slice-of-life stories...Staffers with the program forward the letters to the papers, but it is up to the newspaper to publish the letters or discard them.

There's some question whether opinion letters fall within the scheme, but that's it.

Except that the HNRP MO does not fit with the evidence we have from some other sources: for instance, Oliver's statement (above) that
Someone, somewhere along the way, took it upon themselves to mail it to the various editors of newspapers across the country.

And the Stoughton Journal (of Stoughton, MA - south of Boston) has an interview today with Amy Connell, mother of Pfc Adam Connell:
Connell said she received the typewritten letter in an envelope addressed to her home, but with the words "Sharon Advocate" at the top. She mailed copies to the Advocate's Needham office and to the Globe, she said.

(So that's two to the Boston Globe, then. Are the Connell letters to the Globe and Advocate - site - counted in the original 11?)

According to the Fox piece,
The U.S. military's public affairs office in Baghdad has slapped the 503rd Regiment on the wrist, telling the unit not to send anymore [opinion letters via HNRP], but no action will be taken against the 503rd. Officials said the Pentagon considers the matter closed.

Just to make it perfectly clear that no one in military propaganda had hand, act or part in the 503rd's patriotic endeavour.

The Stoughton Journal piece refers to an ABC piece (October 13) by Martha Raddatz [5] on the genesis of the letter:
In an e-mail to ABCNEWS today, the commander of the battalion, Lt. Col. Dominic Caraccilo, said the "letter-writing initiative" was all his idea.

Caraccilo said he circulated the form letter to his soldiers to give them "an opportunity to let their respective hometowns know what they are accomplishing here in Kirkuk. As you might expect, they are working at an extremely fast pace and getting the good news back home is not always easy. We thought it would be a good idea to encapsulate what we as a battalion have accomplished since arriving Iraq and share that pride with people back home."

Caraccilo wrote that his staff drafted the letter, he edited it and reviewed it and then offered it to the soldiers. "Every soldier who signed that letter did so after a careful read," he said. "Some, who could find the time, decided to send their own versions, while others chose not to take part in the initiative."

Caraccilo was unapologetic, saying that the letter "perfectly reflects what each of these brave soldiers has and continues to accomplish on the ground."


So now we know, huh?

Caraccilo doesn't mention the Hometown News Release Program, you'll note. Again, even the battalion commander says we thought it a good idea, etc - is this the royal we - or does it refer to higher authority? Savour the word offered - this is the army, after all: brave souls who chose not to take part.

A compare and contrast with the statement of Sergeant Todd Oliver might not go amiss; for instance, spokesman Oliver said he didn't know who drafted the letter (as if it might have been a freelance effort) whilst Caraccilo is not in the least mysterious about it. Yet they both use the exact words
Every soldier who signed that letter did so after a careful read.
In fact, it looks as if it's the same basic email, with one or two slight variations! Technique sound familiar?

Seems to me that there are still much more holes than cheese in the story. Will the fearless sleuths of press get on the case, and start getting the story straight - or, following the DOD's lead, will they treat it as essentially closed?

I'm not holding my breath...

  1. Again, thanks to Romanesko.

  2. With links to earlier sources, natch.

  3. Actually, it has 100,000 souls and a Boeing plant. You see, I'm happy to let the facts get in the way of a good story. On the other hand, it's just 0.033% of the US population - so I think my point stands!

  4. Just up the road from Beckley, where the Register-Herald - another recipient - is located.

  5. Who, from memory, was one of the first to make an on-air assault on Bush's pre-war Iraq intelligence.


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