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AIM Report: The Media War Over Private Lynch

The homecoming for Army Private First Class Jessica Lynch on July 21 was as dramatic as her filmed rescue from an Iraqi hospital on April 2. It was one of the more emotional stories to come out of Operation Iraqi Freedom.

Lynch, who received a Purple Heart, a Prisoner of War medal, and the Bronze Star for Valor, is now reportedly working on a $1 million book deal with former New York Times reporter Rick Bragg, and NBC is planning an action-adventure television movie about her.

Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld praised the operation to free Lynch as “brilliant and courageous.” U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) spokesman Brigadier General Vincent Brooks said “some brave souls put their lives on the line to rescue Lynch.”

To many, the operation was the fulfillment of the military’s creed to never leave behind a fallen comrade. But accounts of Lynch’s rescue were constantly replayed-and inflated-by the media. The use of anonymous sources makes it difficult, if not impossible, to determine the reason or motives for why this happened. Elaine Donnelly of the Center for Military Readiness thinks the Lynch story was used to promote the importance and use of women in the U.S. military.

But most Americans still have not heard of another female veteran, Sgt. Casaundra Grant, who lost her legs when she was run over by a vehicle in Kuwait, or Sgt. Donald Walters, who was killed in the ambush of the unit that Lynch was in. It appears that Walters may have performed the heroics that were initially attributed to Lynch.

Not surprisingly, a media controversy erupted over the retelling of Lynch’s rescue. Reporters, especially those with a leftist bias, denounced the Lynch saga as a hoax, staged by the military to revive flagging American morale at a low point in the war. Such allegations are not surprising coming from the likes of Los Angeles Times’ hard-left columnist Robert Scheer, but conservative columnist Cal Thomas has also labeled the story “stinky” and “awfully curious.” The Associated Press and the Chicago Tribune ran stories intended to debunk the raid as a hoax and a myth.

Private Lynch became a POW along with five other soldiers after the Saddam Fedayeen ambushed her re-supply column outside An Nasiriyah in southern Iraq. Eleven U.S. servicemen were killed in the ambush or later died from their wounds. Initially, the liberal media depicted her capture as symbolic of how mistaken U.S. military planners had been about the Iraqi resistance. Her rescue was no small accomplishment, however; there are precious few examples of the successful rescue of an American POW in recent history.

When General Brooks, speaking from CENTCOM Headquarters in Doha, Qatar, first announced the operation, his description of the event was careful and measured. He told reporters that there had been firefights “outside the building, getting in and getting out,” but there had been no shooting inside the hospital. He said that paramilitary units had held Lynch, but that the Iraqis had “moved most of them out before we arrived.” The operation did take fire from “buildings outside the hospital,” however.

Brooks declined to provide any details about her condition, beyond assuring the press that she was receiving “appropriate medical attention.” Back in Washington, Pentagon spokesmen would say only that Lynch was “in good spirits and being treated for injuries.”

Sources Sensationalize

Almost immediately, however, the media cited unnamed “official” sources to describe Lynch as suffering from both gunshot and stab wounds. A “second-day story” in the Washington Post carried a sensational account of her initial capture. Reporters Susan Schmidt and Vernon Loeb cited unnamed “U.S. officials” as saying that Lynch had “fought fiercely and shot several enemy soldiers” during the Iraqi ambush on her unit. These “sources” told the Post that she eventually ran out of ammunition and “sustained multiple gunshot wounds” and had also been stabbed during the battle. “She was fighting to the death,” the [unnamed official] said. “She did not want to be taken alive.” Schmidt and Loeb also reported that a “torture chamber” had been found in the hospital’s basement; it was reported elsewhere that she had been mistreated and slapped during her captivity, although that information does not appear to have come from the U.S. military.

The Post’s story carried one important caveat: the account of Lynch’s capture was reportedly based on unverified “battlefield intelligence” derived from “monitored communications and from Iraqi sources.” Despite the notorious unreliability of such sources, the Post story was quickly replayed in other media outlets.

Doubts about this account began to emerge about two weeks after the Schmidt-Loeb story appeared. Her U.S. military doctors told the press that she had suffered numerous fractures, but no other type of wounds. The hospital commander in Germany, where Lynch was being treated, said their examination did “not suggest that any of her wounds were caused by either gunshots or stabbing.” Her father, Greg Lynch, Sr., told the media that she “had no penetration wounds.”

Hollywood Dazzle

On April 15, Post reporter Keith B. Richburg cast further doubt on his colleagues’ story and, for the first time, on the military’s version of the rescue itself. Richburg interviewed Iraqi doctors who claimed to have either worked at the hospital or to have been on duty during the rescue. Their account of the raid was very different from the story then being endlessly repeated by the media. The Iraqi doctors claimed that the U.S. raiding party had encountered “no resistance” during the rescue and that “no Iraqi soldiers or militiamen were at the hospital that night.” Richburg dismissed the entire operation as representing little more than “Hollywood dazzle, with little need for real action.”

On May 2, the Toronto Star’s Mitch Potter told readers that there was no truth to the Pentagon’s account of the rescue. That conclusion was based on interviews with “three Iraqi doctors, two nurses, one hospital administrator and local residents.” He added new details to Richburg’s account; most notably, he quoted a local waiter claiming that he had told the U.S. that Iraqi units had been withdrawn from the area several days before the raid.

Another new detail: one doctor told Potter that they had tried to turn Lynch over to the Americans two days before the raid. An ambulance carrying Lynch got to within “300 meters” of a coalition checkpoint, but turned away when the Americans fired upon it.

The Iraqis were most upset by accounts of Lynch’s mistreatment while in their care. They told Potter that the Iraqi doctors lavished extra care on Private Lynch and “they all made a point of giving Lynch the best of everything.” “Despite the scarcity of food, extra juice and cookies were scavenged for their American guest.” They gave her two pints of blood and performed orthopedic surgery on her left leg, supposedly using scarce supplies to treat her. The Iraqi doctors claimed that Lynch “bonded” with one of the nurses and even promised to take the nurse back to America with her.

The Iraqis told Potter that a U.S. military doctor visited the hospital three days after the raid to thank them for the “superb surgery.” One of the doctors said that the U.S. officer was “shocked” when told the “real story” of the raid. “You do realize you could have just knocked on the door and we would have wheeled Jessica down to you, don’t you,” the doctor said. Potter cited the real value of the raid as “raising America’s spirits when it needed it most” and concluded that “All Hollywood could ever hope to have in a movie was there in this extraordinary feat of rescue-except, per-haps, the truth.”

Peter Jennings and Doorknobs

A few days later, ABC World News Tonight’s Peter Jennings referred to this new version of the raid saying, “Now we hear that it may have been less dangerous and maybe even less challenging than Central Command first told us.” Reporter David Wright told viewers that “people at the hospital” had told him that there were no Iraqi soldiers in the building. ABC’s story focused primarily on the damage inflicted on the hospital by U.S. forces. Potter’s Toronto Star article claimed that Iraqi doctors had assessed the damage to be twelve broken doors, a contaminated operating theater, and a “trashed” traction bed used by Lynch. Wright claimed that the Iraqis had to sell “precious drugs to pay for the damage.” Skeptics wondered at the willingness of doctors to trade “precious drugs” for building maintenance supplies.

CENTCOM’s General Brooks had been very clear on the issue of Iraqi military presence during the raid. On April 2, he had told reporters, “There was not a firefight inside the building,” and that Iraqi forces had been pulled out of the building before the raid. But U.S. forces also found in the hospital basement “ammunition, mortars, maps, a terrain model, and other things that make it very clear that it was being used as a military command post.”

The BBC’s War Spin

The Lynch rescue controversy took on new life when the British Broadcasting System ran a documentary entitled “War Spin.” The broadcast, accompanied by feature stories in the leftist U.K. daily, The Guardian, dismissed the military’s version of the raid altogether.

The BBC’s correspondent, John Kampfner, claimed to reveal the “inside story of the rescue that may not have been as heroic as portrayed.”

Kampfner’s story was based on interviews with Iraqi doctors, presumably the same doctors interviewed by Potter. Dr. Anmar Uday, “who worked at the hospital,” told Kampfner, “It was like a Hollywood film. They cried ‘go, go, go’, with guns and blanks without bullets, blanks and the sound of explosions. They made a show for the American attack on the hospital-action movies like Sylvester Stallone or Jackie Chan.” He repeated the account of Iraqi doctors trying to turn Lynch over to the Americans at great personal risk, only to be driven away by gunfire. According to Kampfner, “the Americans had almost killed their prize catch.” He also repeated the local Iraqi waiter’s account of telling “an American advance party” that there were no paramilitary forces at the hospital.

Kampfner also expanded on the Iraqi doctors’ efforts to save Private Lynch. One said that they gave her three “bottles of blood, two of them from the medical staff because there was no blood at this time.” She was given the “only specialist bed in the hospital, and one of only two nurses on the floor.” That nurse said, “I was like a mother to her and she was like a daughter.” All this while the hospital was receiving 400 dead and 2000 wounded Iraqis before and during Lynch’s captivity, according to the Toronto Star.

Hollywood Production Values

Kampfner attributes the Pentagon’s purported version of the story to “the real influence of Hollywood producers on the Pentagon’s media managers.” He cited, in particular, Jerry Bruckheimer, who produced the movie “Black Hawk Down” and several successful television action shows. Bruckheimer, he alleged, had persuaded Pentagon officials to “skim over the details” and concentrate instead on the “visuals” of the story. Kampfner cited a five-minute video shot by a military combat crew during the raid that showed Lynch being carried on a stretcher down a stairwell and out to a waiting helicopter. Kampfner criticized the Pentagon for omitting from the video any of the details provided to him by the Iraqi doctors. He said that Pentagon officials refused his request to release the entire tape to “clear up any discrepancies.”

Kampfner also reported that some of our British allies were “infuriated” by American media tactics. A British army spokesman in Doha told him the rescue was “not the main news of the day. This was just one soldier: this was an add-on: human interest stuff.” This Group Captain went on to say, “Having lost the first skirmish they (the Americans) had pretty much lost the war when it came to media support.” (Kampfner hadn’t done his homework: “Group Captain” is a Royal Air Force, not an Army rank in the British military.)

Kampfner implies that the raid wasn’t much more than an attempt to revive U.S. public morale. “It couldn’t have happened at a more crucial moment, when the talk was of coalition forces bogged down, of a victory too slow in coming.” He labeled the story “one of the most stunning pieces of news management ever conceived.”

The BBC Fires Blanks

On May 19, the BBC story was challenged during an interview on CNN. Kampfner was asked straight out about his allegation that U.S. forces were shooting blanks when they entered the hospital. He evaded the question, saying only that the Iraqis had claimed that the U.S. knew that it would encounter no resistance and “that the whole operation was embellished in order to package it to beam around the world.” Asked again if the U.S. had made any claim about entering the hospital with “guns blazing,” he answered only that the Pentagon had contended that U.S. forces were “putting their lives on the line to rescue” Lynch. Kampfner finally admitted that U.S. planners may have been correct to plan for the worst case, but then the military should have “come clean” that it “apparently did not confront-where they did not receive-encounter that kind of danger.”

CNN’s Senior Pentagon Correspondent Jamie McIntyre followed with a response from the Pentagon. The charge that U.S. forces were using blanks was “nonsense” and any allegation that the operation was embellished to create a better television story was “ridiculous.” McIntyre also disputed assertions by Kampfner and the Iraqi doctors that the U.S. knew that the Iraqis had evacuated the area. McIntyre said that U.S. forces had encountered “gunfire at other locations, not at the hospital,” just as General Brooks had told reporters on April 2.

The Participants Speak

Notably missing from these stories is any account from actual participants in the raid. The Pentagon did not make any of the participants available to the media as it did during operations in Afghanistan. Fox News Channel’s “The O’Reilly Factor” filled that gap on May 29. Bill O’Reilly interviewed the father of an Army Ranger who participated in the raid. He said his son was “nearly killed on this raid. His helicopter was nearly shot out of the sky when they were leaving.” He interviewed retired Army colonel David Hunt, who said he had been in contact with three individuals, “two of them were on the operation itself, and one watched it on a Predator (drone) real time from Qatar.” Hunt’s biography claims extensive experience in the U.S. Special Operations community.

Hunt says that he was told there was a firefight outside the wall (of the hospital) involving the Marines and one involving Army Rangers. No one “fired a round in the hospital, but there were rounds fired outside and people were killed on the outside of the perimeter and on the wall.” Hunt’s account tracked closely that given by General Brooks at CENTCOM the day after the raid: no firing inside the hospital, but firefights outside.

What Really Happened?

So what really happened in the early morning hours of April 2?

First, there is no dispute that Lynch and five other soldiers were captured by Iraqi paramilitary forces and held as POWs. A post-war Army investigation of the ambush concluded that the tale told by Washington Post reporters was factually incorrect. The reporters have hidden behind unnamed sources, but the errors transmitted through the Post’s article set the stage for later criticisms.

No one disputes the U.S. military’s right to rescue its POWs. Even the BBC’s Kampfner acknowledged the merit of this long-held U.S. military tradition. The Iraqi doctors’ recounting of the events of the raid is entirely consistent with techniques by the U.S. special operations community. There has been no claim that any Iraqi inside the hospital was killed or wounded during the raid. There were no media reports of bullet holes or any other evidence of gunfire inside the hospital; in fact, the damage described by Iraqi doctors seemed minimal.

The discrepancies between the Iraqi doctors’ accounts and those of official U.S. military spokesmen can be explained mostly by perspective.

The doctors’ vantage point on the raid was from inside the hospital. One report in the Chicago Tribune had the doctors fleeing to an X-ray room where “they said they could not see much, but heard explosions.” That would be consistent with reports of firefights outside the hospital and the use of flash bangs upon entry. “Flash bangs,” are a type of grenade customarily used by special operations forces to stun potential bad guys when entering a building thought to be under hostile control. This was subsequently confirmed by NBC Nightly News in a report that the Iraqi hospital staff told them that incoming troops had used flash bangs. The doctors also told NBC Nightly News that the Iraqis had been using the hospital basement as a military headquarters and “the Americans had every reason to expect trouble.”

The reports critical of the raid cited only one “eyewitness”-a local waiter-to “prove” that there were no Iraqi military or paramilitary forces in the area. The reporters demonstrated no effort to check the accuracy of the waiter’s story; it is inconceivable that U.S. special operations commanders would alter their mission planning based on “hearsay” from one “untested” source. The doctors later acknowledged that the Iraqi military and paramilitary forces had been using the facility.

What about reports that the doctors tried to turn Private Lynch over to American authorities? Those reports all come from the same Iraqi sources; there is no evidence that Kampfner or anyone else tried to independently verify them.

In short, what is “stinky” and “awfully curious” about this story are the media efforts to distort what really happened on this raid. Leftist reporters trying to discredit the story, however, were assisted by reporters, like Schmidt and Loeb, who were less than rigorous in their reliance on anonymous “unofficial sources.” Assuming the two faithfully reported what their “sources” told them, those “sources” did great harm to the credibility of the military in the midst of a war.

What You Can Do

Send the enclosed cards or cards and letters of your own choosing to Bill Keller [1] of the New York Times, Dan Rather [2] of CBS News and Bo Jones [3] of The Washington Post.