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What we don't know about Iraq can hurt us


The Enigma of Rumsfeld

Dodging the ugly news about Iraq

U.S. Accused of Massacre in Ramadi

More Iraqis Say U.S. Troops Engaging in "Collective Punishment"

Over 2 Percent of Iraq Population Killed During Occupation, Study Finds

Turkey Nervously Watching Kurd Region Of Iraq (2005)

  + THE UNKNOWN KNOWNS     Pity the White House speech writers: One can imagine the poor devils on the morning after the election, given a deadline of hours (minutes?) to come up with something nice for the president to say about Donald Rumsfeld. What niceties could they place in Bush's mouth that wouldn't be destined for a clip on that night's "Daily Show?" Wisely, they picked Rummy's own words. As the defeated, dejected-looking Secretary of Defense stood next to his replacement and his president, Bush sweetly remarked: "Don once famously said, 'There are known knowns; there are known unknowns; and there are unknown unknowns. Well, Mr. Secretary, here is a known known: Your service has made America stronger, and made America a safer nation. You will be missed, and I wish you and Joyce all the best in the years to come."

It was, of course, a paraphrase of Rumsfeld's famous gnomic tongue-twister: "There are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns, that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns -- the ones we don't know we don't know." Many top news orgs included that quote in their retrospectives of Rumsfeld's career, but none placed it in original context.

Rumsfeld riffed off the line at a February 12, 2002 Pentagon press conference when he was at the top of his game: the Taliban apparently had been completely routed by his "transformed" military, and reporters shared his happy mood, laughing and joking with Rumsfeld and Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman Gen. Richard Myers. Everyone had just finished chuckling after a reporter asked them to "free associate" about the Afghanistan mission ("It's a sort of touchy-feely '70s term," the reporter jokingly clarified), so Rummy may been intentionally flashing wit, with his "known knowns" answer to a question about no evidence found linking Saddam with al-Qaeda. Now re-read the quote with the understanding that he was talking about Iraq more than a year before the U.S. invasion and a new, important meaning appears: "We don't have any proof connecting Iraq to terrorism," he was confessing, "yet we still have a fool's blind faith we'll find it." In that light, it was a candid and revealing admission, and probably his only truly honest statement about Iraq.

Thanks to a shelfful of books that have appeared in the last year, we now know that Rumsfeld, Cheney and the rest of them were stovepiping data to fabricate "known knowns" at the same time to firm up their bogus case against Saddam as WMD supervillian. But before we begin to feel too smug that the dark days of Iraq misinformation are behind us, realize that Rumsfeld left off the combination of "unknown knowns" -- events about which we know only the sketchiest details. Today in Iraq: many nameless, faceless people died.

The greatest blind spot about the Iraq crisis is the lack of reporting from the field, a result of the virtual deathwish a journalist must have to step outside the Green Zone. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, 93 have been killed on duty -- more than WWII, the Vietnam War, and any other conflict in the last quarter-century (37 media support workers also have been killed, according to CPJ). As a result, lots happens in Iraq that we learn little or nothing about. On Nov. 29, downtown Baqouba, a city with some 250,000 souls, was shut down as it became a combat zone, with "scores of militants and civilians" killed during an all-out assault on the city's police HQ -- or so we learn in the three paragraphs found in the AP's daily news wrap, which was the only mention of the incident in the American press. In other places and other times, a story like that would command headlines.

Other important stories don't appear probably due to lack of space and fatigue. We've become inured to the horrors; also on Nov. 29, six policemen were killed by a Samarra car bomb, two Baghdad policemen were killed by another car bomb, a suicide bomber hit a Baghdad police patrol killing one and wounding seven, another suicide bomber attacked a Mosul police station, killing someone and wounding 23, and five were killed and 25 were wounded by an IED in Muqdadiya. If you're keeping score, that's at least 17 dead -- not even counting the "scores" killed in the Baqouba firefight.

Add to the Nov. 29 carnage several more deaths in the small Sunni village of Hashimiya. According to the Pentagon, eight al-Qaeda fighters and two Iraqi women were killed in an early morning raid that included an airstrike after troops were fired upon. But a short Los Angeles Times report differs: four men died in an explosion, along with a 70-year-old man, his wife and their adult daughter, killed with a bullet to the head.

What happened that night in Hashimiya? The LA Times has a videotape showing "...a shattered house and dozens of wailing townspeople gathered around a bloody stain on the ground. One man held up a bloody purse. Another held spent shells he claimed were U.S. rounds." Nothing there is conclusive; we are left with local residents and officials insisting that their three neighbors were slain during a joint U.S.-Iraqi forces raid, and the Pentagon releasing a boilerplate statement that, "it is always unfortunate when civilians are hurt or killed during operations to rid Iraq of terrorism. Terrorists do not hesitate to deliberately place innocent Iraqi women and children in danger by their actions and presence." Is there to be no investigation into the allegations that U.S. troops played some role in the execution-style murders of three innocents? Apparently not.

Nor is there likely to be much pressure from outraged Americans to seek a probe of these deaths. The only other papers that picked up the LA Times story were the Houston Chronicle and Ft. Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel. What all other media offered that day for Iraq news was the AP's wrap-up, with its terse summary of the Pentagon press release: "Coalition forces backed by U.S. aircraft killed eight al-Qaeda in Iraq insurgents [sic] on Wednesday during a raid that also left two Iraqi women dead, the U.S. military said."

Sadly, there's a pattern, here. U.S. forces are involved/implicated in the wrongful deaths of Iraqi civilians, and the Associated Press repeats nearly verbatim the U.S. military's own account that glosses over civilian casualties; meanwhile, a more detailed account of the incident is ignored by almost all of the American newsmedia.

Another example can be found the very day before, on Nov. 28, when Marines may have used inappropriate deadly force that resulted in the needless deaths of six children. According to the official account, a patrol spotted an IED in Ramadi, along with a couple of men moving away from the vicinity of the trigger's location. The pair climbed on the roof of a nearby house and reportedly began shooting at the Americans, who fired back in their direction with first small arms, then machine guns, and finally rounds from the main gun of a tank (or tanks). The kids were later found inside the building; the suspects got away. Here's how the story was reported by the AP, and also by the New York Times:


"Coalition Forces engage insurgents in Ar Ramadi"


"Gunbattle With Soldiers Kills 6 Iraqis"
by Thomas Wagner


"U.S. Troops Kill 5 Girls in Assault on Insurgents"
by Edward Wong

Six Iraqis were killed in conjunction with a firefight in the hostile Hamaniyah area of northeast Ramadi ... Coalition Forces conducted an extensive search of the house and found one male and five females, ages ranging from infant to teenaged, dead... According to local residents, the house was a known anti-Iraqi force safe house
U.S. soldiers fought with suspected insurgents using a building as a safe house in Ramadi on Tuesday, killing one Iraqi man and five females, ranging in age from an infant to teenagers, the U.S. military said
American troops killed five girls, including at least one baby, and what the military described as either a boy or a man, when the troops attacked a house Tuesday in volatile Anbar Province after they suspected insurgents of firing at them from the roof

Those New York Times and AP versions of the story could hardly be more different. The AP staff writer was content to be a Pentagon stenographer; U.S. soldiers engage in combat (some AP rewrites mention a "battle") and six Iraqis are killed inside the "safe house" used by the insurgents. There is no suggestion of American culpability in the deaths of the male and "five females." Times reporter Wong proves himself a better journalist. Gone is the inflated language of warfare and the safe-house anonymous hearsay; what's left are the facts that our troops launched a massive assault on a home just to pick off a couple of guys on the roof and instead accidentally murdered a baby and 5 or 6 older kids.

Wong's report was found only in the NY Times -- not a single wire service or other newspaper picked up his short item. By contrast, at least a dozen major papers, and several dozen blogs, reprinted the Associated Press story. No conspiracy there; it's doubtful any harried editor even compared the two versions. Thus like the incident in Hashimiya, it appears that something terrible happened that needs media scrutiny and legal investigation, but is unlikely to receive either.

But the Hashimiya story shows editors are disinclined to use stories like that even when available, and it's easy to understand why. Since the first days of the invasion, editors and publishers have been incessantly targeted by conservative letter-writing campaigns demanding more patriotic coverage of the "good news" from Iraq, sometimes threatening advertiser boycotts. Imagining the reaction of that crowd to stories that suggested U.S. troops might be implicated in atrocities -- and in the case of Ramadi, actually could be "baby killers" -- is enough to give a crusty old editor like Lou Grant the quivers. So place these kinds of stories in the "unknown knowns" category due to self-censorship.

There are several bombshells among the "unknown knowns," the biggest of them may be Israel's covert operations inside Iraq.

The first mention of this appeared in a 2004 New Yorker article by Seymour Hersh. The Israelis had concluded as early as August 2003 that the Iraq war was lost -- just three months after Bush declared "mission accomplished." Former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak privately met with Cheney and told him that Israel "had learned that there's no way to win an occupation." The only issue, Barak told Vice President Dick, "was choosing the size of your humiliation."

By the end of [2003] Israel had concluded that the Bush Administration would not be able to bring stability or democracy to Iraq, and that Israel needed other options. Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's government decided, I was told, to minimize the damage that the war was causing to Israel's strategic position by expanding its long-standing relationship with Iraq's Kurds and establishing a significant presence on the ground in the semi-autonomous region of Kurdistan. Several officials depicted Sharon's decision, which involves a heavy financial commitment, as a potentially reckless move that could create even more chaos and violence as the insurgency in Iraq continues to grow.

Israeli intelligence and military operatives are now quietly at work in Kurdistan, providing training for Kurdish commando units and, most important in Israel's view, running covert operations inside Kurdish areas of Iran and Syria. Israel feels particularly threatened by Iran, whose position in the region has been strengthened by the war.


The Kurdish-Israeli collaboration inevitably expanded, the Israeli said. Some Israeli operatives have crossed the border into Iran, accompanied by Kurdish commandos, to install sensors and other sensitive devices that primarily target suspected Iranian nuclear facilities. The former officer said, "Look, Israel has always supported the Kurds in a Machiavellian way -- as balance against Saddam. It's Realpolitik." He added, "By aligning with the Kurds, Israel gains eyes and ears in Iran, Iraq, and Syria." He went on, "What Israel was doing with the Kurds was not so unacceptable in the Bush Administration."

The shocking story of Israelis training Kurdish death squads didn't get much traction when the New Yorker published it in July, 2004, overshadowed by another Sy Hersh exclusive a few weeks earlier: The torture of prisoners at Abu Ghraib. But this autumn, the story gained attention again after the BBC program Newsnight showed footage of the Kurdish militia being trained in marksmanship by Israeli experts. Hersh followed with more info in a November article: the Kurdish militia, known as the Party for Free Life in Kurdistan (PJAK) and now jointly supported by the U.S, has been now given "a list of targets inside Iran of interest to the U.S." The Turkish Daily News also recently reported that over 100 Iranian police were killed and scores injured in attacks by Iranian Kurds last year, notably by PJAK. The Turks, of course, are having fits that Bush has aligned the U.S. with a terror group just as likely to cause trouble inside neighboring Turkey as Iran, and on Dec. 22 told Washington that we had to crack down on the Kurdish militias or they would cross the border and do it themselves. (And predictably, not a single U.S. newspaper picked up the AFP wire story about this important new development.)

Taken together, a depressing picture emerges: Americans hardly know anything about the situation in the country that we invaded and have occupied for almost four years. We don't feel the oppressive weight of the relentless carnage because our media mentions it in passing, if at all; we know little or nothing about controversial combat incidents that surely are inciting hatred for the United States and our troops, rightly or no; and maybe worst, we have barely an inkling of doings such as our involvement with the Kurdish militia, which may reveal what our White House misadventurers are further planning for Iran and the rest of the region. We need to know lots more about our unknown knowns, and we need to know about them now.   (December 23, 2006)

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