The truth behind the Pollack-O'Hanlon trip to Iraq

An interview with Michael O'Hanlon highlights the scope and breadth of this P.R. fraud.


Glenn Greenwald
August 12, 2007 5:36PM (UTC)

(updated below)

Last Wednesday, I interviewed Michael O'Hanlon of the Brookings Institution regarding the trip he recently took to Iraq and the highly publicized Op-Ed in the New York Times about his trip, co-written with his Brookings colleague, Ken Pollack. The full transcript of the interview, which lasted roughly 50 minutes, can be read here.

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O'Hanlon's answers, along with several other facts now known, demonstrate rather conclusively what a fraud this Op-Ed was, and even more so, the deceitfulness of the intense news coverage it generated. Most of the critical attention in the immediate aftermath of the media blitz focused on the misleading depiction of the pro-war Pollack and O'Hanlon as "critics of the administration." To his credit, O'Hanlon acknowledged (in my interview with him, though never in any of the media appearances he did) that many of the descriptions applied to him -- including Dick Cheney's claim that the Op-Ed was written by "critics of the war" -- were inaccurate:

First, I think that to an extent, at least, it's certainly fair to go over a person's record when that person themself is being held up as playing a certain role in the debate. So while I'm not entirely happy with some of the coverage I've received here [on this blog] and elsewhere, I agree with the basic premise: that if I'm being held up as a "critic of the war", for example by Vice President Cheney, it's certainly only fair to ask if that is a proper characterization of me. And in fact I would not even use that characterization of myself, as I will elaborate in a moment.

Indeed, as I documented previously and as he affirmed in the interview, O'Hanlon was, from the beginning, a boisterous supporter of the invasion of Iraq. While he debated what the optimal war strategy was, once it became clear exactly what strategy Bush would use, O'Hanlon believed -- and forcefully argued -- that George Bush was doing the right thing by invading Iraq:

As you rightly reported -- I was not a critic of this war. In the final analysis, I was a supporter.

He believed with virtual certainty that Saddam Hussein possessed WMD and that that fact constituted the principal justification for the invasion. In February, 2003, O'Hanlon wrote -- in a column entitled "Time for War" -- that the "president was still convincing on his central point that the time for war is near" and decreed that "it is now time for multilateralists to support the president." Not a single one of the television interviews Pollack and O'Hanlon gave about their Op-Ed included any reference to the fact that they were both supporters of the war and of the Surge.

Throughout 2003 and into 2004, O'Hanlon supported not only the war, but also Bush and Rumsfeld's occupation strategy. And while he began to argue -- just as did Bill Kristol and his neoconservative comrades -- that improvements were needed in Iraq due to the need for more troops, there was never a point, and there still is none, where O'Hanlon argued for withdrawal of troops or a timetable for withdrawal (though in 2004, he argued for a decrease in troop numbers). Then, in 2005, he argued for troop increases. At the beginning of this year, O'Hanlon (and Pollack) supported George Bush's and Fred Kagan's Surge plan.

Manifestly, then, to describe them as "aggressive critics of the Bush administration's handling of the war" or as "critics of the war" -- as virtually every media figure and pro-war pundit did with no correction -- is misleading in the extreme. In no meaningful sense is Michael O'Hanlon any more of a "strong critic of the administration" or "vigorous opponent of Bush's war policies" than Bill Kristol or Fred Kagan, who also frequently bickered over the administration's strategic choices, accused them of poor war management, and/or called for a greater troop presence.

While this entire group of "war scholars" continuously objected to various strategies executed along the way -- they always believed they harbored the undiscovered Perfect Plan for this war -- they were in the past and are now full-throated supporters of the invasion itself and Bush's subsequent occupation. They are full-fledged members of the small minority of Americans who have been pro-war since before the invasion and who continue to be. The contrary media depictions of O'Hanlon and Pollack (which they actively encouraged) were just pure fiction.

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"The itinerary the D.O.D. developed"

But the far greater deceit involves the trip itself and the way it was represented -- both by Pollack/O'Hanlon as well as the excited media figures who touted its significance and meaning. From beginning to end, this trip was planned, shaped and controlled by the U.S. military -- a fact inexcusably concealed in both the Op-Ed itself and virtually every interview the two of them gave. With very few exceptions, what they saw was choreographed by the U.S. military and carefully selected for them. This is O'Hanlon's description of how the trip was conceived:

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GG: I just want to ask you some questions about the trip that you just took. Whose idea was that trip? How did that trip arise and who planned it?

MO: Well, I have wanted to go back to Iraq for a long time. I feel itb

GG: Who did you put them in with?

MO: To the military, starting in about the spring.

GG: And then, at some point they accepted and said that they would organize a trip for you?

MO: Yeah. I think the trip was ultimately originally scheduled for other people as well. I think it's public knowledge that Tony Cordesman was also on our trip, and I think he had plans to go before Ken and I managed to get ourselves invited as well, but --

GG: Why did you need the permission of the U.S. military in order to go? Why couldn't you just go yourself?

MO: I suppose I could have, but I was hopeful that someone could help take care of my security, for one thing. I'm not going to try to sound more heroic than I am. And also I wanted to talk to a lot of military personnel and get their impressions.

The entire trip -- including where they went, what they saw, and with whom they spoke -- consisted almost entirely of them faithfully following what O'Hanlon described as "the itinerary the D.O.D. developed."

But to establish their credibility as first-hand witnesses, O'Hanlon and Pollack began their Op-Ed by claiming, in the very first sentence: "VIEWED from Iraq, where we just spent eight days meeting with American and Iraqi military and civilian personnel. . . . " Yet the overwhelming majority of these "Iraqi military and civilian personnel" were ones hand-picked for them by the U.S. military:

GG: The first line of your Op-Ed said:"viewed from Iraq where we just spent the last eight days interviewing American and Iraqi military and civilian personnel..."

How did you arrange the meetings with the Iraqi military and civilian personnel?

MO: Well, a number of those -- and most of those were arranged by the U.S. military. So I'll be transparent about that as well. These were to some extent contacts of Ken and Tony, but that was a lesser number of people. The predominant majority were people who we came into contact with through the itinerary the D.O.D. developed.

I specifically asked O'Hanlon whether, as a result, he was concerned that he was getting an unrepresentative view of the situation in Iraq, and in response he said:

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If someone wanted to argue that we were not getting a representative view of Iraqis because the ones we spoke with were provided by the military, I would agree that this would be a genuine concern. Certainly that might have influenced the impressions that we were presented, though by no means did all of the Iraqis agree with the view of progress in Iraq.

The following exchange then occurred:

GG: Given that some of the claims in your Op-Ed are based upon your conversations with Iraqis, and that the Iraqis with whom you spoke were largely if not exclusively ones provided to you by the U.S. military, shouldn't that fact have been included in your Op-Ed?

MO: If the suggestion is that in a 1,400 word Op-Ed, we ought to have mentioned that, I can understand that criticism, and if we should have included that, I apologize for not having done so. But I want to stress that the focus here was on the perspective of the U.S. military, and I did a lot of probing of what I was told, and remain confident in the conclusions that we reached about the military successes which we highlighted. But if you're suggesting that some of our impressions might have been shaped by the military's selection of Iraqis, and that we might have disclosed that, that is, I think, fair enough.

Subsequently, I pressed him again on how they could possibly rely on what they were hearing given that virtually all of the vaunted "Iraqi military and civilian personnel" with whom they were speaking were hand-picked for them. O'Hanlon acknowledged:

I will take your point and I would agree with your point that we were certainly not getting a representative view of Iraqi opinion.

Indeed, the great bulk of the information on which this Op-Ed was based came from the U.S. military, either directly or through the Iraqi "sources" provided to Pollack and O'Hanlon, a fact which -- though concealed in their Op-Ed and in their interviews -- O'Hanlon defended this way:

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Now you could say in one sense all this data ultimately, all this information ultimately is coming from the U.S. military. Yes, but there's an opportunity for a lot of probing, a lot of debate, a lot of conversations back and forth. . . .

Not only was this obviously critical fact --that "all this information ultimately is coming from the U.S. military" -- excluded from their Op-Ed, but, with one exception, neither they nor their numerous media interviewers saw fit to mention it. The only reference to it was a fleeting one as a result of this commendable question from Wolf Blitzer to Pollack during one of CNN's several segments devoted to their "findings":

BLITZER: Was this part, though, of a U.S. military tour, if you will, that they took you around, you were escorted from location to location to location and they were the ones that took you to specific places? Or did you have the freedom to say I want to go here, I want to go there? Who organized, in other words, the stopovers, the visits that you were having?

POLLACK: It was -- largely this was -- it was largely organized by the military. We felt that was important because right now the big story is the military story.

And that was it. In their Op-Ed and countless media appearances, where they constantly paraded around -- and were held up -- as first-hand witnesses who had seen the Truth in Iraq with their very own eyes, that was the only mention of this fact, a fact which rather obviously and profoundly impacts the credibility of what they claimed to have "discovered."

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Sweeping conclusions from 2-hour visits

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But this only begins to convey how ludicrous and misleading a spectacle this whole event was. O'Hanlon and Pollack were in Iraq for a total of 7 1/2 days. They spent every night ensconced in the Green Zone in Baghdad. They did not spend a single night in any other city. As O'Hanlon admitted, they spent no more than "between 2-4 hours" in every place they visited outside Baghdad, and much of that was taken up meeting U.S. military commanders, not inspecting the proverbial "conditions on the ground."

Yet in their Op-Ed, they purported to describe the encouraging conditions in four places other than Baghdad -- Ramadi, Tal Afar, Mosul, and the Anbar Province -- as though they could possibly have made any meaningful observations during their visits which were all roughly the duration of the average airport layover. Worse, both O'Hanlon and Pollack -- and especially Pollack -- in their interviews repeatedly described their optimistic observations about Iraqi cities in such a way as to create the misleading impression that these were based upon their first-hand observations.

Here, for instance, is Pollack on NPR purporting to describe the Great Progress in Mosul as though he is some grizzled war reporter who has witnessed the conditions "on the ground" there -- a place in which, O'Hanlon acknowledged to me by e-mail, they spent a grand total of 2 hours:

The most obvious change we saw was in the security sector, where in Northern, Central and Western Iraq, there was improvement. It varied very widely. It was uneven. But in some places, it was really striking.

My last trip to Iraq was at the end of 2005, and I was up by Mosul. And I gotta tell you, Mosul was a disaster. It was completely out of control, and we had tens of thousand of American troops up in Mosul trying desperately to keep that place together.

Well, this trip, we went up to Mosul, and found that there are only several hundred American troops up there. And the reason for that is we now finally have some Iraqi army divisions that are rising to the occasion. We got two divisions up there -- an Army Division and a Police Division -- which are both capable and reliable. And that's allowed the military to greatly scale back their commitment to Iraq's third largest city, to the point where they are simply providing advisory teams and fire support teams, and the Iraqis are doing the work . . . . That is such a dramatic change.

And here is what Pollack told Tucker Carlson on MSNBC:

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In addition, what was most striking to me -- because the last time I was in Iraq was about 18 months ago in late 2005, and I was over there looking at Iraqi army formations -- and frankly, they were all awful [GG: that was the same exact time when Gen. Petraues was proclaiming "very substantial momentum" and "huge progress" in Iraqi troop readiness]. This time around, the Iraqi army formations are really starting to step up to the plate.

And we have a number -- I won't say the whole army, not even the majority of it -- but there are a number of divisions and brigades and battalions that are really proving to be able partners of the U.S., to the extent that in some parts of Iraq, particularly Mosul, Tal Afar, some other parts, areas south of Baghdad, the Iraqis really are taking the lead and the U.S. forces are really just supporting them.

Any reasonable person would conclude that Pollack is describing progress based upon first-hand observations made during his "visit to Mosul" -- a completely deceitful impression in light of the reality of this trip. Indeed, the overarching narrative for every interview was that they had "just returned from Iraq" and were excited by what they saw.

Yet they inspected virtually nothing in these cities, and everything with regard to "Iraqi troop readiness" -- which Pollack excitedly touted in hailing the "dramatic progress" in Mosul and elsewhere -- was all based on what they were told by the U.S. military or its hand-picked sources. As O'Hanlon said:

GG: What I'm trying to get at is if they told you, for instance, that there were certain army divisions in Mosul where the bad commanders were being weeded out and they were now capable of holding neighborhoods better, you wouldn't actually go to the neighborhoods and inspect whether or not what you were told was true. Your claims in that regard in the Op-Ed were based upon your belief that what the U.S. military commanders were telling you was accurate. Is that true?

MO: Yes, that's true. Based on that example, on that type of example, you're right.

The day before I interviewed O'Hanlon, The New Yorker's George Packer spoke with Pollack and reported that Pollack "spoke with very few Iraqis and could independently confirm very little of what he heard from American officials." To Packer, Pollack also confirmed that the flamboyant claims about Iraqi troops readiness "came from American military sources."

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Severe sloppiness or bad faith?

With the possible exception of their observations about U.S. troop morale and the McCain-like claims about the isolated, peaceful strolls they were led on by the military, Pollack and O'Hanlon could have just as easily stayed at home, spoken on the telephone with U.S. military commanders, written down what they said, and then "reported" everything exactly as they did in their Op-Ed. The trip to Iraq part was just a prop in the argument, something to bestow unwarranted and artificial credibility on their war cheerleading claims.

I have nothing against O'Hanlon personally; he was perfectly cordial and professional in my dealings with him and I think he deserves credit for agreeing to be interviewed in light of what I had written about his Op-Ed. But it is very difficult to credit him and Pollack with good faith, as though they are guilty of nothing more than sloppy "scholarship."

A failure to disclose obviously critical facts that bear on the credibility of their "findings" and a willingness to ground their conclusions in patently one-sided and highly controlled data are far more serious sins than mere sloppiness. It is difficult to avoid reaching any conclusion other than that they willfully served as propaganda tools in order to bolster the perception of success for a war and a "Surge" strategy which they prominently supported and on which their professional reputations rest.

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After all, the whole premise of the Op-Ed is that they have credibility to speak about the Progress in Iraq because they just returned from a trip there and because they are "two analysts who have harshly criticized the Bush administration's miserable handling of Iraq." Indeed, they used the very first sentence to create the misleading impression that they were offering first-hand accounts of the purported progress, rather than simply relying upon claims of the U.S. military.

Moreover, they not only acquiesced to the fraud that they are "critics of the administration," they actively propagated it in order to lend their claims credibility they did not deserve. Here, as but one example, is Michael O'Hanlon's description of himself on Hardball: "I have been a critic of the administration all along." That is nothing short of an outright falsehood.

But far more importantly, they had to have known beforehand that they were going to get a highly unrepresentative picture of Iraq by having the U.S. military shape their itinerary from start to finish and hand-pick virtually everyone with whom they would speak. That is just so obvious. And yet when I asked O'Hanlon about this, he acted as though this had never occurred to him before.

It's one thing for political hacks like Joe Lieberman or John McCain to go on these contrived missions -- trips aptly derided on Meet the Press by Jim Webb in explaining why he has never gone:

Sen. Graham: "Have you been to Iraq and talked to the soldiers?"

Sen. Webb: "You know, you haven't been to Iraq, Lindsey. (cross-talk). You go see the dog and pony show. That's what Congressman do."

But Pollack/O'Hanlon are "scholars" -- people whose claims are supposed to be immune from political pressures and who reside above the political fray. Ask them and they will be happy to tell you that. Here is Ken Pollack with Tucker Carlson, snidely dismissing the notion that he has anything other than the purest of aims:

And you know, I am going to go out there and I am going to say what I have to say. I've been doing this my entire life. I say exactly what I think is the right answer. I don't care about politics.

Pollack's deeply apolitical superiority did not, however, prevent him from issuing this decree at the Council on Foreign Relations last week:

Q. The Democratic candidates have been fighting among themselves over what to do. Your advice to the Democrats is what, to cool it until the election?

Pollack: Certainly to cool it until early 2008.

Whatever it means to be a "scholar," it ought to include at the very minimum a refusal to ground one's "scholarly" conclusions in data that is plainly biased, politically motivated, and worthy of extreme skepticism. Yet -- while O'Hanlon sheepishly admits being fooled about Iraq's WMD and repeatedly insisted that he has learned lessons -- they go on an Iraq "fact-finding trip" and then come back and flamboyantly trumpet extraordinary claims based on very little other than the unverified assertions of the U.S. military. And they never bother to disclose any of that. Whatever that is, it is not the behavior of apolitical "scholars."

[The above-the-political-fray Pollack is employed by the "Saban Center for Middle East Studies" at Brookings -- so named because it is funded with many millions of dollars by billionaire Haim Saban, an Israeli-American neoconservative who was a 2004 supporter of George Bush, was a close associate of Ariel Sharon, and spent the 1990s persuading Bill Clinton (with millions of dollars in donations to the Democratic Party) to be more supportive of Israel.

In a 2004 glowing profile, the NYT described Saban as "throwing his weight and money around Washington and, increasingly, the world, trying to influence all things Israeli," and in that article, Saban told the NYT: "I'm a one-issue guy and my issue is Israel." The profile also reported: "While Mr. Saban is a vocal opponent of President Bush -- 'I think Bush is just messing it up every day more' -- he supports some of Mr. Bush's policies. 'On the issues of security and terrorism I am a total hawk.'" In essence, Saban is Marty Peretz but with money that he earned himself. That is who backs Ken Pollack's presumably large paychecks and funds his Brookings war "scholarship"].

O'Hanlon and Pollack appeared on at least 10 major television news programs. Other than Blitzer, no interviewer even raised the issue of whether they were overly-dependent on the U.S. military for their information, none probed the basis for their claims, and Pollack and O'Hanlon never once even alluded to the questionable nature of what they had been shown (even though O'Hanlon "apologized" for not disclosing it in the Op-Ed when I pressed him on it). And from what I reviewed, not a single one ever identified either of them as having been pro-war and pro-Surge, and they themselves never bothered to mention that as they were hailed as hard-nosed "critics" of the administration -- thus helpfully preserving the dramatic television storyline that "harsh critic of the Bush administration" went to Iraq and found Great Progress.

These interviewers just all stood by, excited and oozing enthusiasm, as Pollack and O'Hanlon lavished tales on the country of the grand and glorious progress we are finally making in Iraq. The host on the very-very-liberal NPR began the Pollack interview by gushing: "If you've been searching the papers for good news from Iraq, we found a little on the Op-Ed pages!" Vapid, mindless and absurd.

After all this time, and everything that has happened under the Bush presidency, nothing has changed. Michael Gordon and the NYT continue to publish one war-fueling story after the next on its front page based on nothing other than the unverified claims of government and military officials. Our "journalists" do not have even an iota of instinct to question or probe anything they hear from our war-mongering Serious Experts and Serious Political Leaders.

And the Foreign Policy Community is led by highly revered propagandists whose "scholarship" violates the most basic and obvious principles of research and disclosure -- all in the service of prolonging still further a war for which they bear profound responsibility. This, in turn, is driven by the overarching and self-absorbed fear that they will be forced to acknowledge their own wrongdoing and culpability. And thus we will remain occupying and waging war in Iraq, through the end of the Bush presidency and beyond.

UPDATE: There were numerous other fallacies and grounds for criticism with regard to O'Hanlon's answers which I excluded due to space constraints. In a superb comment, DanJoaquinOz examines several of those issues.


Glenn Greenwald

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