Molding Perceptions: American Engagement with the Media after the Bin Laden Raid
by Marno de Boer
Immediately after the successful conclusion of the raid on Osama Bin Laden's compound the United States government and its agencies fed the press and public alike with information about the event. Two trends stand out in this information flow; the rapidity with which it was delivered, and the fact that much of it later turned out to be incorrect. While it is not yet possible to determine whether this was the result of a deliberate policy, it was highly successful in getting a favorable story across during the first few days after the action, the period crucial for forming people's perceptions. In this way, the American media policy, while in some ways an evolution of prior engagements with the media, also began to show a likening to the ones successfully adopted by regular and irregular opponents alike in the last decade. This article argues that this new policy was fairly successful and might be a worthwhile model for dealing with the press during future events.
In various conflicts in which Western militaries have been involved recently, the opponent has been fairly skilled in using tactical events to shape people's ideas. One aspect of this is the propaganda of the deed, often used by Al Qaeda and associated movements to inspire potential followers and attract recruits. While the deed is often a terrorist attack, it can in principle be any event, and the own-goals of Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay have probably done much to fuel hatred of the US. This use of enemy actions can also be observed in more territorially defined conflicts. An early example is the Serbian response to the accidental NATO bombing of a convoy of refugees near Djakovica in Kosovo during the 1999 crisis. Western journalists were immediately offered transportation from Belgrade to cover the event, while NATO took several days to respond. The ensuing headlines and public criticism they created pressured the alliance into ending nighttime strikes.
The present day Taliban uses a similar approach. An example is the American bombardment on the Baghni Valley in Helmand on 2 August 2007. Both the Pentagon and the Afghan Ministry of Defense claimed that only Taliban fighters died in the attack, but were reluctant to give more details on the incident. Meanwhile, the Taliban guided reporters of the Afghan press agency Pajhwok Afghan News to the area. When they arrived locals, acting on Taliban instructions, told how a village picnic had been targeted. This message was subsequently published by the BBC, Associated Press, Agence France Press, and various newspapers. As the Baghni Valley case illustrates, the great advantage irregular or conventional but dictatorial opponents have, something already recognized by David Galula, is that they are not bound by the truth in the same ways as militaries from liberal democracies are.
Western militaries, with the US Armed Forces in the lead, have responded to their opponents' asymmetric advantage with a more open media policy. During the invasion of Iraq a full-fledged program of embedding was implemented, in which journalists joined up with frontline units. The rationale behind this was that journalists would be able to get the story out quickly, much quicker than if they had to wait for the Pentagon or White House to compose and release press statements. The fact that journalists reported what they saw themselves would also give the news item more credibility than a government's press release, while the reporters' time spent among soldiers should contribute to their understanding and sympathy for the military. All this was designed to rapidly counter the enemy's propaganda, which it might spread right after a tactical event. The embedding program has been transferred to Afghanistan, where most Allies have adopted it. Dutch reporters for example have even been allowed to accompany Task Force 55, probably to proactively dispel the image that this special operations unit was some sort of rogue killer unit.
Despite this development, Western militaries still struggle to formulate an adequate media response to many incidents, air strikes in particular. If one takes the strike of 28 May 2011 in Helmand, in which 9 civilians died, as an example, one sees that it are others that set the tone of the story to a significant degree. Afghan officials first released news of the event, making the claim that 14 civilians died. Subsequently ISAF published a statement on its website to express its regret over the casualties. The coalition also explained that the death toll consisted of 9 civilians and 5 Taliban who fired upon Marines from the compound in which the civilians lived. Subsequently headline coverage passed to Afghan president Karzai though, who once again used strong language to condemn ISAF operations that cause civilian casualties. Of course, ISAF is faced with several difficulties; one cannot embed a reporter in an F-16, and Karzai has made it a habit to defame ISAF('s airstrikes and nightraids) in an attempt to boost his own domestic popularity. Nevertheless, ISAF ends up being in a situation in which it responds to the tone of news, rather than setting it. The only option left then is damage control.
The engagement with the media in the immediate aftermath of the Bin Laden raid was of an entirely different kind. During the first 48 hours after the raid, US officials did not yet have a complete picture of what had happened inside the Abbottabat complex. They (and in particular Obama's top terrorism advisor John Brennan) nevertheless decided to present a story to the media, which suggested that a serious shoot-out had taken place, and contained the remarkable detail that Bin Laden used one of his wives as a human shield. This narrative was subsequently widely published by the media. US officials also referred to the terrorist leader's hideout as a 'million dollar mansion', while in fact it was not worth more than a quarter of that price. All of this projected the image that Bin Laden had behaved rather cowardly in what was a serious engagement, and lived a life of relative luxury.
During the following days the story was changed in some aspects and reinforced in other ways, but the perception through which events were received had been created. The firefight was not all that intense after all and Bin Laden's wife received her injury when she rushed toward the SEAL operators. Nevertheless, this did not change the created perception of a not very heroic Bin Laden. Other news releases only reinforced this perception and fitted into the mold that had been created by the statements of the first hours after the attack. The video of Osama watching himself on TV suggests he was a rather vain man, while the way he is dressed and seated looks more like that of a senile grandfather than a strong and capable military leader. The discovery of a large porn collection in the compound even suggest a degree of hypocrisy by the Al Qaeda leader, who previously criticized the US for selling its women like products by displaying them in sensual ways in advertisements.
Given its success, the handling of media affairs in the immediate aftermath of the Bin Laden raid might be a model for future events. It seems that by getting the story out fast the US government managed to set the tone for the narrative and 'conquered' the headlines in the first days after the raid, when it received most media attention. In that way, it (perhaps unintentionally) successfully copied what has often given its opponents an advantage in the battle of perceptions. That it had to make changes later was not held against it too much, since it could use the fact that over time new details surfaced as a plausible excuse. The fact that Bin Laden's wife sustained her wound while rushing toward the Navy SEALs rather than as a human shield used by her husband, then fitted into the mold of perception of a cowardly Bin Laden. In other circumstances it might just as well have created the perception that even women are —to die heroically for the cause. Perhaps ISAF should follow the successful example of the Bin Laden raid aftermath, and also try to get a story out fast after events such as the 28 May air strike, rather than solely issue a declaration of regret and the promise of a future investigation after Afghan officials have already aired the news. In that case other aspects of the event might receive a more prominent part in the story, such as the fact that it were Taliban fighters who exposed women and children to grave danger by firing on enemy soldiers from inside an inhabited house. It would in any case give ISAF more opportunity to set the tone of the narrative regarding the event and mold perceptions through which subsequent information is viewed.
Marno de Boer is a student at King's College London enrolled in the MA History of Warfare.