The day after the United States went to war against Iraq, White House press secretary Marlin Fitzwater put in place a communications system aimed at presenting the administration's view of the day's developments in a series of daily briefings, coordinated beforehand by phone, that would progress from the battlefield, to the Pentagon, to the White House and State Department.
The theory, according to Fitzwater, was "we would have a day of briefings every day and that none of us would speak to the other's areas but all of us would know what the others would say" and "what to be sensitive to" before the day began.
What the theory did not anticipate, according to Fitzwater and others, was television pictures of civilians being wounded and killed by U.S. weapons. "We knew there would be pictures of real war, but we thought it would be ground combat, soldiers killing soldiers, casualties of war, Americans being killed," he said.
Yesterday, as America was waking up to the pictures of charred bodies of women and children being pulled from a building in Baghdad hit by U.S. bombs, the government's top spokesmen -- Fitzwater at the White House, Margaret Tutwiler at the State Department and Pete Williams at the Defense Department -- knew that the pictures would be what one called "the story of the day and we needed to have our game together fast."
In the Reagan White House, every day had a message, every week a theme, and all the government's efforts revolved around that. The Bush operation is patterned on the same theory that the government should speak with one voice, particularly in time of war, but its execution is far more casual, its principals more collegial, and its thrust more reactive, anticipating problems and arranging a consistent answer.
"Of course we recognized this as a problem," Tutwiler said of yesterday's bombing coverage. "Seeing these pictures is heartwrenching. It is brutal, it is horrible to watch. You cannot compete with these pictures and you don't want to. But even as you acknowledge that, you have to have some perspective, you have to remind people that this man has not one shred of human decency, that he has not one concern for the lives of his own people, that he deliberately kills civilians as a matter of policy while our policy is to go out of our way to avoid it."
Defense Secretary Richard B. Cheney told Secretary of State James A. Baker III and national security adviser Brent Scowcroft about the bombing at their regular 7 a.m. Wednesday breakfast at the White House. Cheney, who had already been briefed on the bombing, said the facility had been a military target and was hit deliberately but that the United States had not known civilians were there.
That information would be released by Marine Brig. Gen. Richard I. Neal, the military briefer in Saudi Arabia at the first formal briefing of the day, it was decided. "We felt the military would have to say how it happened and we would say why it happened," Fitzwater said.
Fitzwater, second up in the day of briefings, would take the unusual step of inviting the television cameras to record his statement which he wrote himself after talking to President Bush, who had seen the television reports from Baghdad. Fitzwater rarely allows himself to be televised, preferring the more relaxed atmosphere that can occur without cameras present. He said the need to counter the Iraqi "propaganda war" necessitated a response that could compete on television with the pictures from Baghdad.
In his three-minute statement, Fitzwater turned the tragedy on Iraqi President Saddam Hussein. Saddam, he said, "does not share our value in the sanctity of life. He kills civilians intentionally and with purpose."
Fitzwater built on the military statements to insist the building was a military target and that there had been no evidence of civilians taking shelter there. Saddam, he said, is the leader who kills civilians; the United States is the nation that works to avoid it.
Before issuing the statement, Fitzwater had read it to Tutwiler, who in turn used it to construct -- with the help of Dennis Ross, director of policy planning at the State Department -- the statement she would issue at her briefing. Cheney, the most senior official to appear in public, would echo the themes in a speech in early afternoon to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and it would be repeated at a Pentagon briefing later.
The administration's concern about managing the U.S. government side of what it calls the propaganda war on television is clear. Bush complained twice this week about television bringing uncensored Iraqi statements and views to the world, a theme pursued in earnest at the White House almost since the war began.
Officials say the concern is in part a fear of the unknown. Awash in poll data of all sorts on public attitudes in this and other wars, and used to looking to such data to gauge how the public will react, the White House faces a situation for which there are no "comparables," according to one source.
"You can't say how much effect this can have and how to manage it because it has never happened like this before," an official said. "There is nothing to compare it to, no way to test it out."
Fizwater noted, "Journalists operating in the capital of the enemy country, operating under complete control of the enemy government, sending instant pictures here" is unique and a problem. "The power of the image on television is so much stronger than the power of the word. It doesn't matter how much caveats you put in there, the picture tells a story that establishes itself in the mind's eye no matter what is said."