By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

Silent scream

I’m going to take a pass for the moment on the Bob Woodward matter. If you just can’t get enough, Romenesko is accumulating links here. Instead, I want to look at a story that’s getting very little attention in the American media — and to ponder why that’s the case.

This past Sunday, the New York Times’ Week in Review section published an article that could prove infamous. Written by Scott Shane, the story is essentially a puff piece about the Open Source Center, a new U.S. intelligence unit. Shane wrote:

A documentary on Italian television on Tuesday accuses American forces of using white phosphorus shells in the assault on Falluja last year not just for nighttime illumination, their usual purpose, but to burn to death Iraqi insurgents and civilians. The mainstream American news media, whose reporters had witnessed the fighting and apparently seen no evidence of this, largely ignored the claim.

“We posted it because it was getting significant play on the Web and in foreign media, which means it could influence public opinion,” said Douglas J. Naquin, director of the center. The Web site — open to government workers and contractors — included links to the video and to foreign news reports about it from the BBC in London to The Daily Times in Pakistan.

Notice that the tone of Shane’s article is essentially one of debunking the phosphorus claims. We now know that what the situation called for was not debunking but, rather, aggressive reporting. Yet the story is still barely a blip on the U.S. mediascape.

The American media should have gone on full alert last week, when the phosphorus allegation became a major story in the European press. Here, for instance, is the top of an article that appeared in the Independent of London on Nov. 9:

A leading campaign group has demanded an urgent inquiry into a report that US troops indiscriminately used a controversial incendiary weapon during the battle for Fallujah. Photographic evidence gathered from the aftermath of the battle suggests that women and children were killed by horrific burns caused by the white phosphorus shells dropped by US forces.

The Pentagon has always admitted it used phosphorus during last year’s assault on the city, which US commanders said was an insurgent stronghold. But they claimed they used the brightly burning shells “very sparingly” and only to illuminate combat areas.

What part of “photographic evidence” do Bill Keller, Len Downie et al. not understand? Isn’t this something they would want to see for themselves to determine whether there’s a story? Apparently not.

A week later, the truth came out, when the BBC — not the Times, not the Post — reported that U.S. forces had, indeed, used white phosphorus in the Fallujah battle not just to “illuminate combat areas” but also to inflict injury and death on the insurgents. In a piece on the BBC Web site yesterday, we learned:

US troops used white phosphorus as a weapon in last year’s offensive in the Iraqi city of Falluja, the US has said.

“It was used as an incendiary weapon against enemy combatants,” spokesman Lt Col Barry Venable told the BBC — though not against civilians, he said.

The US had earlier said the substance — which can cause burning of the flesh — had been used only for illumination.

BBC defence correspondent Paul Wood says having to retract its denial is a public relations disaster for the US.

It gets worse. It turns out that, under the terms of an international treaty — a treaty that the U.S. has refused to ratify — it is forbidden to use phosphorus as a weapon in areas where civilians might be exposed. And Fallujah, obviously, was a place where many civilians were holed up, even though there was some effort to evacuate them before the battle began.

Technically, it’s probably an exaggeration to call this chemical warfare. But it certainly looks like chemical warfare, doesn’t it? So here we are, some two and a half years into the war in Iraq, and we are now faced with the reality that U.S. forces have engaged in precisely the sorts of behavior that we found so appalling when Saddam Hussein engaged in them: torturing Iraqis and blasting them with lethal chemicals.

Atop the Independent’s Web site right now is a headline that reads “Incendiary Weapons: The big white lie.” It’s the lead story in the Times of London’s Iraq coverage. Oddly, it’s not played prominently on Al-Jazeera’s English-language Web site, but there’s still a fairly detailed story posted on the site. Yet the American media are still lagging.

The Washington Post, which managed to run a 222-word brief on page A16 on Wednesday, has nothing today. ( did run an interesting blog entry on Tuesday by William M. Arkin offering some perspective on phosphorus, and concluding that the manner in which it was used in Fallujah was “terribly ill-conceived.” But I wonder how many people saw that?) today has a Reuters story summarizing what we know so far, including the Pentagon’s defense of its use of phosphorus and its denial that it targeted civilians. But I had to use the Web site’s search engine to find it, and I’m not sure it even made it into the print edition. I do know that it’s not on the front page.

The Boston Globe, to its credit, gives the story front-page play today, publishing a Reuters piece with supplemental material from the Associated Press, as well as a Q&A about phosphorus. But the network news divisions take their cue from the Times and the Post, not the Globe.

There’s no doubt that the media are overwhelmed right now with negative news from Iraq, most prominently the discovery this week of a torture chamber run by our ally, the Iraqi government. But the phosphorus story could, over time, become as damaging a symbol of what went wrong as the Abu Ghraib photos did earlier. This story needs to be reported aggressively and thoroughly. What are the media waiting for?

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Secret Agent Len


  1. Bill Baar

    What we really need are reporters to embedded with Iraqi Forces. I don’t think there is one embedded with an Iraqi Unit since Lasseter out there and DoD has been looking for some to go.History Channel’s Shootout: D-Day: Fallujah gives an account of how we went about things there. The voter turnout afterwords tells me we did something right there.I found Shia and Kurd restraint so far remarkable. This recent column in The Guardian with a reporter who managed to inteview some Arab Sunni insurgents interesting too.For me, the interesting Iraq and Vietnam analogy is not to 1968 or 1972, but to 1919 and 1945. In both 1919 and again in 1945, the United States rebuffed Ho Chi Minh and sided with French Imperialism. Today we embrace Shia, Kurds, Communists, and Islamists; anyone willing to go along with Constitutional gov in Iraq. We take a lot of risks working with these folks. They might brutalize someone but then Ho hardly a pacifist. We wouldn’t take the risk to work with Ho and stuck with authoritarians and Imperialists for the sake of world stability and anti-communism. So we drove Ho into Stalin’s arms. I think it was a mistake but again that was a different world. Today I think anyone committed to Liberal values and Democracy has to stand with Bush, and Sistani, and the Kurds and the rest of those fighting now in Iraq. It’s not easy and they’re not Liberals or Democrats as we know them; but then neither would have uncle Ho been.

  2. alkali

    “Technically, it’s probably an exaggeration to call this chemical warfare. But it certainly looks like chemical warfare, doesn’t it?”The distinction is legalistic, to be sure, but that’s the nature of the laws of war. A bomb, after all, is just a bunch of chemicals in a metal container plus an ignition device, but dropping a bomb is not “chemical warfare.” It’s not OK to intentionally drop white phosphorus on civilians, but it’s not OK to intentionally bomb or shoot them either. It’s certainly appropriate to report on this, but it really does need to be done carefully.

  3. Bill Baar

    Watch those kids go door-to-door on the History channel and remember we could have just flattened the town had we chosen too. If you had put that option to a vote in the US you’d find a surprizing overlap between people chosing that option and also supporting a time line to get out.That’s the funny thing about anti-war sentiment in the US: it’s bi polar with either isolationism or turn where ever into a parking lot.Why I always though Kerry’s wars of last resort would be wars of anniliation. God help the Arab world should Bush fail and we get a Kerry style war of last resorter.

  4. Anonymous

    I know its off topic, what does it tell the Arab world? It simply gives them more ammunition to become what we call “Terrorists”. Why would they (for that matter any objective human) be wrong to hate the invaders and do whatever it takes to get revenge. After all, when US was attacked, we went in Afghanistan. Its shameful to be part of a country which is causing so much death and destruction, thanks mainly to its ignorant population.

  5. Anonymous

    Careful readers of history know that pacifists feel as they do because “war is hell” literally in the best of circumstances. They are right to feel as they do. That said, while awful, collateral damage is inescapable within the current paradigm. People who are surprised when terrible things happen in war may be journalists who happen to be Americans rather than Americans who happen to be journalists. We all have our priorities.

  6. Bill Baar

    Here’s what Orwell said of the Pacifists in the 1930s. It’s still true today, But there is a minority of intellectual pacifists whose real though unadmitted motive appears to be hatred of western democracy and admiration of totalitarianism. Pacifist propaganda usually boils down to saying that one side is as bad as the other, but if one looks closely at the writings of younger intellectual pacifists, one finds that they do not by any means express impartial disapproval but are directed almost entirely against Britain and the United States.

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