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Saving Private Lynch

June 10, 2003 at 12:00 AM EST
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TOM BROKAW, NBC News anchor: Saving Private Lynch… Details of the daring mission to rescue a young American POW.

TERENCE SMITH: It was the perfect story at the perfect time. After a rash of bad news for American forces in Iraq — mounting casualties; POW’s, second-guessing of war plans — U.S. Special Operations Forces staged a midnight raid on April 1 to rescue a captured comrade in Nasiriyah.

But is “staged” the operative word? And did the American media romanticize the account in hot pursuit of a hero?

That is the assertion made by witnesses in a variety of reports — most notably, a recent BBC documentary — that say the raid was not all it was reported to be. The initial announcement of the rescue recounted the heroism of the navy seals and army rangers who spearheaded the operation.

BRIGADIER GEN. VINCENT BROOKS: It was a classic joint operation done by some of our nation’s finest warriors, who are dedicated to never leaving a comrade behind.

TERENCE SMITH: A subsequent Washington Post story, which relied on anonymous “U.S. officials” and was widely replayed in the media, described the gravely wounded PFC Lynch fighting ferociously. An unnamed source told The Post, “she did not want to be taken alive.”

Lynch had reportedly sustained multiple gunshot wounds and fractures. She had allegedly been mistreated by her captors. Military officials said she had no memory of her capture, captivity, or rescue.

BBC ANNOUNCER: Jessica Lynch, an all-American icon of the war…

TERENCE SMITH: In the BBC report, shown last month in the United Kingdom on BBC-2 and reported by correspondent John Kampfner, Iraqi eyewitnesses called the rescue unnecessary; said that the Americans faced no resistance, and made a show of the rescue, using blanks in their weapons.

The documentary said Lynch was well cared for by the Iraqis, had no gunshot wounds, and that the Iraqis had attempted to deliver her to U.S. forces, only to be turned back when fired upon by Americans.

The report contended that the operation was an epic attempt at news management of an eager American press at a critical juncture in the Iraq campaign. Pentagon officials denied and denounced the BBC report.

The Chicago Tribune also went to Nasiriyah in an effort to reconstruct the Lynch rescue. Its reporting diverged from the BBC on some details, but described the Lynch story as a case in which “officials and journalists with different agendas accepted contradictory and self-serving versions of what happened to her.”

TOM BROKAW, NBC News anchor: Saving Private Lynch: We know the chilling story of Jessica Lynch’s capture and rescue — or do we?

TERENCE SMITH: Television news, which fed the frenzy over the Lynch rescue, also began looking at the story again.

THALIA ASSURAS, CBS News: Private Jessica Lynch’s story is still generating headlines and raising questions about the Pentagon’s handling of the details.

TERENCE SMITH: Lynch’s family recently contradicted the early reports of her memory loss.

GREGORY LYNCH, Private Lynch’s father: Her memory is as good as it was when she was home.

TERENCE SMITH: So finding out what happened to Jessica Lynch remains a case of separating fact from fiction.

TERENCE SMITH: Joining me now are E.A. Torriero, staff reporter for the Chicago Tribune; Tom Rosenstiel, director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism, which, like the Media Unit, is funded by the Pew Charitable trust; and Joe Galloway, senior military correspondent for Knight Ridder Newspapers, who recently consulted for the State Department.

Welcome to you all.

Let me note at the beginning that we invited the Pentagon to send a representative to join this discussion, and they declined. A BBC reporter was not available.

Ernie Torriero, you went back to Nasiriyah, you tried to reconstruct what happened there. From what you were able to learn on the ground, let me ask you a couple of things. Was Jessica Lynch, as far as you could learn, shot and stabbed during her capture, as originally reported?

E. A. TORRIERO: No. There is no evidence of that whatsoever. What is interesting is that she was in horrible shape when she came in: One broken leg; one broken arm; one broken ankle. She was unconscious. Her heart was beating at 140 beats per minute. She was in very bad shape.

But in the examination of her, several doctors found no evidence whatsoever of a gunshot wound or a stab wound.

TERENCE SMITH: And they thought that she had apparently been in an accident, a vehicle accident?

E.A. TORRIERO: They said that she showed all the classic signs of being in a major accident, and that anybody who came into that hospital would only have a 50/50 chance of survival.

TERENCE SMITH: All right, what about the report that Iraqi medical personnel put her in an ambulance and tried to drive her and turn her over to U.S. forces and were turned back when they were fired upon. Did you find that to be true?

E.A. TORRIERO: That is true. However, what’s interesting about that is, they put her into the ambulance, according to the ambulance driver, with the hope that US troops would stop the ambulance. There wasn’t an intention. There wasn’t a plan hatched to take her back to the US forces. What happened was, they got about 250 meters to the actual checkpoint when they heard shots, and they turned around.

E.A. TORRIERO: But there’s no indication that she was shot at or the ambulance had survived any shots.

TERENCE SMITH: And finally, were US forces, as reported, told that Iraqi fighters had withdrawn from the hospital?

And is there any evidence that they did, as reported originally, used blanks, according to the BBC, used blanks to, in effect, stage their whole assault there?

E.A. TORRIERO: Several of the doctors indicated there was shooting and nothing came out of the guns. They supposed that was blanks. But many of the doctors were herded into a room where they really couldn’t see. So that issue is really in contention.

What’s not in contention is that people on the street who had seen the soldiers, and hospital people, sent people out to tell the Americans there were no Iraqi forces in the hospital.

TERENCE SMITH: Joe Galloway, you have covered incidents like this before, and you’ve researched this one. What’s your conclusion?

Was it overblown, and if so, by whom?

JOE GALLOWAY: I’m afraid that it was overblown, but by the media, not by the military. I’ve gone through and read the transcripts of the briefings at CENTCOM headquarters, at the Pentagon, the secretary of defense’s briefings. They were all very carefully understated.

TERENCE SMITH: Right, although the Washington Post story was attributed to intelligence reports…

JOE GALLOWAY: Well, there is… the ripples flow out from that.

That one story on April 4, I think, just sort of opened it all up, said that she had fought as a hero, that she fired until her rifle was empty, she killed enemy soldiers, that she was shot and stabbed and just went right over the top with it. And everything flows from that as far as Jessica Lynch, the hero.

TERENCE SMITH: Tom Rosenstiel, when you look at the media performance here, were news organizations too accepting of this original and very dramatic story?

TOM ROSENSTIEL: Yeah, absolutely. And for a couple of reasons, I think. First of all, the Pentagon — and here I would differ with Joe — was pumping this story. They had a middle of the night briefing. They tried to get this thing out as quickly as possible.

It was at a moment when the Pentagon was worried about the narrative of the war stalling. And there were criticisms from commanders on the ground, and they needed some good news.

At the same time, the press was in a position where you had a very popular war, and some networks were even sort of on the bandwagon — their slogan and the Pentagon’s slogan were one and the same.

And they took the bait. And they were insufficiently skeptical in that regard, and also in regard to not going to the other sources. We took the story from our own military. The story was there to be had, that there was an alternative version of this.

And newspapers and television in other countries were getting it in fairly real-time. A week or so after this incident, there was a story in New Zealand newspaper that was raising a lot of these questions very quickly.

TERENCE SMITH: Ernie Torriero, you wrote in your article that officials and reporters accepted what you described as “contradictory self-serving versions of this story.” What did you mean by that?

E.A. TORRIERO: Well, clearly, I think Jessica Lynch’s story was something that the US public craved for, and including comments by Donald Rumsfeld, who called it a “so-called hospital” — when really it’s one of Iraq’s best hospitals — and the idea of Jessica Lynch can’t remembering startles the doctors in the hospitals who did neurological tests, they said her memory was fine.

TERENCE SMITH: Joe Galloway, is the… do you sense that the Pentagon is a bit on the defensive here? I mean, I know that Dennis Kucinich, one of the Democratic candidates for president, has asked them to release… the Pentagon to release all the video that they might have for this.

What’s your sense and your ear tell you about the way the Pentagon is reacting to this?

JOE GALLOWAY: Well, they’re reacting just as you might expect. They have appointed a team to do a complete investigation of the ambush of the 506 Ordnance Maintenance Company from start to finish, because you’ve got multiple casualties, missing in action, you’ve got Jessica Lynch rescued. And they’re going to go back and walk the dog all the way through it. And it may take them days more or weeks more, and eventually, they’ll put out a very thorough- going report on it.

TERENCE SMITH: Why wouldn’t they release all the video if they have more than what was released? Only a little bit was released.

JOE GALLOWAY: Only a little bit was released. I’m confident that they filmed the whole action and they wouldn’t release it because these were special operators from the 75th Rangers, the Navy Seals, and it might reveal too much of the methods of how they operate in such instances. You don’t want to do that.

TERENCE SMITH: Tom Rosenstiel, you referenced a certain flag-waving quality to this. Were… in your assessment, were news organizations eager for a good news story at this particular time; maybe too eager?

TOM ROSENSTIEL: Well, I don’t know if news organizations were eager for it in the sense that they would concoct something. But presented with evidence of it, they were insufficiently skeptical.

It sort of fit with the need for a turn in the narrative after the idea that the war was stalling. We were provided by the Pentagon with things that we love to chew on — like the first rescue of a POW since World War II.

It was a great soap opera story with all the emotion that particularly television morning news programs and cable programs are dining out on now. So it had all the made-for-TV ingredients that, you know, that the people who see news as something that you cast in a Hollywood style were looking for.

TERENCE SMITH: Ernie Torriero, I wonder if you think there’s more… whether there is more reporting to be done on this story.

One voice of course that has not been heard is that of Jessica Lynch. And I know that the networks are in great competition to get an interview with her, get the first interview with her. I’m told that one network has even offered to stage a welcome-home concert in her town in West Virginia when she comes home. Is there more work to be done on this?

E.A. TORRIERO: Oh, yes, absolutely. I would like to hear from the Pentagon: Where is their evidence, why they did what they did, and when they had to do it.

I would also like to hear where the reports came of any gunshots. Where was the battle? And you know, Americans may not like this, but one of the heroes of this story are the Iraqi doctors and nurses who kept her alive.

TERENCE SMITH: Joe, what’s your view on that?

JOE GALLOWAY: Well, there are more questions to be asked and more answers to be gained. And we ought to all be about that.

TERENCE SMITH: I mean, without knowing whether blanks were fired, or what seems…

JOE GALLOWAY: That’s… that’s over the top. I can guarantee you one thing: that Special Operations Forces never go in on a hostile situation with blanks in their weapons. You know, if they want to use non-lethal methods, they have them. They have flash bang grenades and all this stuff.

TOM ROSENSTIEL: It is possible that they knew this was a safe rescue. It is possible that they… that there were assurances that there were not armed guards there. And they went in with guns just in case that was wrong.

TERENCE SMITH: But how could they count on those assurances?

TOM ROSENSTIEL: They couldn’t, which is precisely why you’d go in armed and you probably wouldn’t be there with blanks.

TERENCE SMITH: Right.

TOM ROSENSTIEL: But it may have been a political calculation to generate a story that will be a good story. Donald Rumsfeld himself has said that information is one of the weapons in the 21st century war. And this was information that had a political dimension to it.

TERENCE SMITH: Ernie, what’s your view on that?

E.A. TORRIERO: I think if the Iraqis wanted to, they could have killed Jessica Lynch at any point. I think the real heroes of this story are the Iraqis who kept her alive. And they did that. Somehow they kept her alive.

TERENCE SMITH: All right. Thank you all three very much. As we say, there’s more reporting to be done. Ernie Torriero, Joe Galloway, Tom Rosenstiel, thank you so much.