Rumsfeld: Al-Qaida may be behind media reports on Iraq

The secretary of defense says Americans are getting an unduly negative view of the war.

Published March 7, 2006 9:01PM (EST)

Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld said today that the U.S. news media is to blame for the public's poor perception of the war in Iraq, suggesting that "al-Qaida media committees" are succeeding in filling Americans' minds with incorrect and unduly negative reports about the situation on the ground.

Although he didn't say so, Rumsfeld seemed to be focused on a disputed Washington Post report that put the death toll from sectarian violence at about 1,300 when many other media outlets were reporting numbers in the 300-400 range. "Interestingly, all of the exaggerations seem to be on one side," Rumsfeld said at a news conference. "It isn't as though there simply have been a series of random errors on both sides of issues. On the contrary, the steady stream of errors all seem to be of a nature to inflame the situation and to give heart to the terrorists and to discourage those who hope for success in Iraq."

Rumsfeld is a fine one to talk about media errors and exaggerations. It was Rumsfeld, after all, who said unequivocally before the war that Saddam Hussein "possesses chemical and biological weapons." It was Rumsfeld who said that "we know" where those weapons are. And it was Rumsfeld who told anyone who'd listen that the war would probably take no more than a matter of months. None of that stopped Rumsfeld from throwing stones today, nor did his admitted lack of proof for any link between the U.S. media and al-Qaida.

"We do know, of course, that al-Qaida has media committees. We do know that they teach people exactly how to try to manipulate the media. They do this regularly. We see the intelligence that reports on their meetings. Now I can't take a string and tie it to a news report and then trace it back to an al-Qaida media committee meeting. I'm not able to do that at all."

However, he said, "we do know that their goal is to try to break the will; that they consider the center of gravity of this -- not to be in Iraq, because they know they can't win a battle out there; they consider it to be in Washington, D.C., and in London and in the capitals of the Western world."

But if bad news from Iraq comes only from al-Qaida influence and infiltration, perhaps Rumsfeld and his colleagues in the Bush administration ought to be taking a hard look at some of their own, starting with the U.S. ambassador to Iraq. In contrast to the sunny assessment of Iraq Rumsfeld offered today, Zalmay Khalilzad -- he works for the president, not for the press -- tells the Los Angeles Times that Iraq is "really vulnerable" to civil war if there is another attack like last month's bombing of the Askiriya shrine in Samarra. By invading Iraq, Khalilzad says, the United States has "opened the Pandora's box" of sectarian strife in Iraq.

By Tim Grieve

Tim Grieve is a senior writer and the author of Salon's War Room blog.

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