BOB GARFIELD: This is On the Media. I'm Bob Garfield.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And I'm Brooke Gladstone. The U.S. has a 25-million-dollar bounty on the head of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the same sum offered for Osama bin Laden. But still, we don't know much about Zarqawi. We read he had a leg amputated in 2002, then he's seen walking on two legs. He's reported dead, then he pops up again. We do know that he's given credit for and happily takes credit for a great many bombings in Iraq. A lot of that credit is bestowed by jihadist websites, but this week, Thomas Ricks reported for The Washington Post that amplifying Zarqawi's importance has been a mission of the U.S. military, too. The Post cited internal military documents indicating that the Pentagon has promoted Zarqawi's role in the insurgency through leaflets, Iraqi radio and television, Internet postings and selected leaks. While the U.S. audience is listed as one of six major targets for a broader propaganda campaign, the documents don't specify whether America has been a target for Zarqawi-hyping. The day after Ricks’ article appeared, a U.S. military spokesman responded by saying that 90 percent of Iraqi suicide attacks were carried out by foreign fighters recruited and equipped by Zarqawi for al Qaeda. Juan Cole, who monitors the Arab-language media and American Mideast policy in his blog, Informed Comment, says that's unlikely.
JUAN COLE: It's impossible that he's running around the country setting off 25 bombs a day. I mean, he would have to have tens of thousands of followers for the logistics of it. It makes no sense. I mean, we know that there are literally tens of thousands of disaffected Sunni Iraqis, many of them still loyal to the ideals of the Ba'ath party, who were in military intelligence, they were in the regular army or they were running state factories, bureaucracies, who know where the weapons and the hidden depots are. So, it seems a real stretch to me that a few hundred scruffy jihadists coming over the border are responsible for all this violence. The Iraqi interior minister has come out and said he thinks that there are less than a thousand in the country.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Now, it's clearly in Zarqawi's interest to pump up his own importance, but for the record, why would it also be in the interest of the White House?
JUAN COLE: Well, I think it's actually been in everybody's interest to make something much more of Zarqawi and his network than is plausible. After all, inside Iraq it's a very uncomfortable thing to admit that Sunni Arabs are blowing up Shiite weddings, Shiite mosques and so forth. I think a lot of that is being done by remnants of the Ba'ath party and its military. I think they tend to blame Zarqawi for these things because they want to do them. They want to destabilize Iraq but they don't want to take the public relations hit for these activities. I think it probably suits the Bush Administration to acknowledge those claims that Zarqawi is behind these activities because he is someone who could be tied to al Qaeda in some vague way and it reinforces the idea that Iraq is a theater in the war on terror, as the Bush Administration puts it, and that what we're really fighting in Iraq is not Iraqi nationalists, but rather we're fighting international terrorism of the al Qaeda sort.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Now, the most controversial part of The Washington Post piece has to do with PSYOP operations, not just in Iraq but on Americans. Now, in The Washington Post piece, Colonel James Treadwell stressed to the reporter that the government does not PSYOP – that is to say, use psychological operations – on Americans. Now, through the years, you've doubted a lot of the information that the American press has reported on Zarqawi. Is there any evidence that the source of that information has been psychological operations, in your view?
JUAN COLE: It's impossible to trace it back very easily, but the statement that the U.S. military doesn't conduct PSYOPS operations directly on the U.S. public is misleading, because if the U.S. military plants an article in the Iraqi press, if it's viewed as an important subject, it's very likely that that article will be translated into English. So those planted articles are making their way back into our discourse.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And some call that blowback. One military official softened that a bit in an article. He called it “bleed over”, in which case, he says, “it shouldn't be seen as a deliberate attempt to mislead the American people.”
JUAN COLE: Well, I just beg to disagree. Any time you lie anywhere in the world in the press, then you are influencing, potentially, American public opinion.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: There's nothing that you've observed that suggests that the American government would be deliberately trying to mislead the American people, but it's simply a carryover from a foreign propaganda campaign, the like of which our government has carried out for decades, and so has every other government.
JUAN COLE: No, I think it goes beyond simply placing articles in the Iraqi press. I think statements are made by U.S. government spokespersons. If you went back and looked at all of the Department of Defense briefings to journalists over the past three years about violence in Iraq, you would see Zarqawi as an extremely central figure. And so that function of the spokesperson also does help to create a spin to the news which then gets reinforced by these phony news articles planted in the Iraqi press, which will be reported to American reporters by their Iraqi translators and stringers.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So are you suggesting, then, we should give up on psychological operations because you can't conduct them anywhere else without it blowing back into the U.S.?
JUAN COLE: Well, what I'm suggesting is that they can't be carried out without harming the United States. I think we need a national debate on the issue of lying, of government deliberately lying. And I think we've been lied to a very great deal in the past three years or four years by various forces, and that it has had the effect of subverting, in a dreadful and significant way, our democratic process.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Is there something in the nature of reporting that needs a central character to build a story around?
JUAN COLE: Well, even if that were true, and there are books about writing for character, how to do journalism in a way that's less painful for the general audience -
BROOKE GLADSTONE: [LAUGHS]
JUAN COLE: - one could as easily have made someone like Izzat Dhouri a central character in the resistance.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Tell me about him.
JUAN COLE: He's one of Saddam's right-hand men. He's rumored to be based in the Mosul area and every indication is that Dhouri is an extremely central figure in the resistance. It's an embarrassment to the U.S. government that they haven't captured him. He is rallying Sunni Arab Iraqis on nationalist grounds, and that's a hard sell to the American people, that we're fighting Iraqis who are essentially nationalists and don't want us in their country.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: All right. Thank you very much.
JUAN COLE: You're very welcome.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Juan Cole is a history professor at the University of Michigan and author of the blog Informed Comment. [MUSIC UP AND UNDER]