A Feb. 13 front-page story by The Post's military reporter, Tom Ricks, was headlined "Special Operations Units Already in Iraq." It revealed that these U.S. forces were hunting for weapon sites, setting up a communications network and seeking defectors from Iraqi military units. They were carrying out what unnamed "U.S. defense officials and experts familiar with Pentagon planning" said amounted to the initial ground phase of a war. The story said two such task forces had been in and out of Iraq for over a month, laying the groundwork for a large contingent of U.S. conventional forces to quickly seize big chunks of the country as part of a strategy very different from that of the 1991 Gulf War, in which massive aerial attacks took place before ground action.
Ricks is an experienced and respected reporter. But the story, not surprisingly, drew complaints from many readers who said they were "aghast," "appalled" and "incensed," among other descriptions, that The Post would publish such a story. They said that it was irresponsible to print this and that it could endanger U.S. forces. Readers who said they had no opinion on the war itself pointed out that if the Pentagon leaked this intentionally, then the information could be misleading and the paper could be manipulated.
In asking about the story here, I was told the paper checked it with senior officials at the Pentagon and elsewhere and, on their request, dropped some geographic information from the story. But you can't blame readers for wondering how and why a story like this gets leaked or published. Is it true and meant to spook Saddam Hussein? Is it misinformation meant to spook him? Is it intended to subtly propagate in public an internal assessment that the new ground war strategy "promises to substantially lessen the impact on the Iraqi population," as the story says? Or has it simply been ferreted out and reported as part of informing the public?
It should have been obvious that this story would raise questions with some readers and anger others. Yet there is no effort in the story to deal with some of these questions. What motivates those who talk about such things? Why do they think it is okay to talk about them? Why is it not dangerous to troops? Ricks says: "This is a sensitive area, and I understand readers' concerns. I think we should try to speak better to those concerns in stories" like this, but sometimes "that can be difficult to do."
Ricks's story brings to mind another recent event: the release on Feb. 11 of an audiotape purportedly by Osama bin Laden. News organizations reported at the time on the tape's content, including a lengthy section in which bin Laden described how he, other al Qaeda leaders and a band of about 300 mujaheddin survived a massive U.S. aerial bombardment during the battle at Tora Bora, Afghanistan, in December 2001. But there was little if any reporting on the context of these remarks. Bin Laden described the underground and disguised trenches in the mountains that he said allowed them to survive, and he spoke of the "cowardice" and "fear" of U.S. forces who "dared not break into our positions" on the ground.
U.S. ground troops are not cowards. They are well-trained, well-equipped professionals who can be counted on to achieve their objectives. But they must be ordered to attack, and at Tora Bora the decision was made to rely on Afghan and Pakistani forces to do the job on the ground. Last spring, in an article in the quarterly journal Foreign Affairs about the war in Afghanistan titled "A Flawed Masterpiece," Michael E. O'Hanlon, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, said that "the big U.S. mistake" concerned the hunt for the al Qaeda leaders. He argued that U.S. forces should have been used. O'Hanlon said there were good reasons not to put many Americans in Afghanistan. "But even though [Defense Secretary Donald] Rumsfeld's reasoning was correct in general, it was wrong for Tora Bora. Putting several thousand U.S. forces in that mountainous, inland region would have been difficult and dangerous. Yet given the enormity of the stakes . . . it would have been appropriate." In the end, O'Hanlon wrote, "partly because of logistical challenges but perhaps partly because of the Pentagon's aversion to casualties, the idea was dropped."
Now it's on to finding Hussein.