Miami Herald's "major debacle": a lack of journalism

The Miami Herald reports on a study at the National Defense University that it claims calls the war in Iraq a “major debacle” with the outcome in doubt. However, what the Miami Herald didn’t report was that the study looked at a specific time period and has little bearing on the current status of the conflict. How do we know that? A blogger decided to do what the Herald couldn’t — journalism.

First, the Herald’s report:

The war in Iraq has become ”a major debacle” and the outcome ”is in doubt” despite improvements in security from the buildup in U.S. forces, according to a highly critical study published Thursday by the Pentagon’s premier military educational institute.

The report released by the National Defense University raises fresh doubts about President Bush’s projections of a U.S. victory in Iraq just a week after Bush announced that he was suspending U.S. troop reductions.

The report carries considerable weight because it was written by Joseph Collins, a former senior Pentagon official, and was based in part on interviews with other former senior defense and intelligence officials who played roles in prewar preparations. It was published by the university’s National Institute for Strategic Studies, a Defense Department research center.

John Collins is indeed an impressive individual and a good source for analysis. However, the Herald didn’t bother to contact him to get an explanation of the context for the report. Small Wars Journal, in its naivete, committed an act of journalism — and found that the Herald didn’t have any clue what the report actually meant:

The Miami Herald story (“Pentagon Study: War is a ‘Debacle’ “) distorts the nature of and intent of my personal research project. It was not an NDU study, nor was it a Pentagon study. Indeed, the implication of the Herald story was that this study was mostly about current events. Such is not the case. It was mainly about the period 2002-04. The story also hypes a number of paragraphs, many of which are quoted out of context. The study does not “lay much of the blame” on Secretary Rumsfeld for problems in the conduct of the war, nor does it say that he “bypassed the Joint Chiefs of Staff.” It does not single out “Condoleeza Rice and Stephen Hadley” for criticism.

Here is a fair summary of my personal research, which formally is NDU INSS Occasional Paper 5, “Choosing War: The Decision to Invade Iraq and Its Aftermath.”

This study examines how the United States chose to go to war in Iraq, how its decision-making process functioned, and what can be done to improve that process. The central finding of this study is that U.S. efforts in Iraq were hobbled by a set of faulty assumptions, a flawed planning effort, and a continuing inability to create security conditions in Iraq that could have fostered meaningful advances in stabilization, reconstruction, and governance. With the best of intentions, the United States toppled a vile, dangerous regime but has been unable to replace it with a stable entity. Even allowing for progress under the Surge, the study insists that mistakes in the Iraq operation cry out in the mid- to long-term for improvements in the U.S. decision-making and policy execution systems.

The study recommends the development of a national planning charter, improving the qualifications of national security planners, streamlining policy execution in the field, improving military education, strengthening the Department of State and USAID, and reviewing the tangled legal authorities for complex contingencies. The study ends with a plea to improve alliance relations and to exercise caution in deciding to go to war.

Does this remind anyone of the paper analyzing the Harmony documents? The initial reporting, based on a leak from the Pentagon, claimed that the paper showed no links between Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship and al-Qaeda. When the entire report got released, it turned out to show very specific links to various terrorist groups, including two AQ organizations, one of which was Ayman al-Zawahiri’s Egyptian Islamic Jihad.

Perhaps the Herald should rethink its approach to journalism. Wouldn’t it make sense to contact the author of a paper before embarrassing the media outlet with faulty conclusions? SWJ certainly thought so — and showed themselves superior to the layer of fact-checkers and editors at a major-market newspaper. Unfortunately, that’s becoming a dog-bites-man story.