Dispatches from the Creation Wars

Yeah, I know. It’s hardly a shock that the Pentagon lies to the American people. You can be pretty sure they’re lying a large majority of the time. But it’s almost amusing the degree to which Donald Rumsfeld and military leaders in Iraq turned into Baghdad Bob after the invasion. Ellen Knickmeyer, the Baghdad bureau chief after the invasion, documents all of this with the help of the latest Wikileaks document dump. First she sets the scene:

In the dark morning hours of Feb. 22, 2006, a group of unknown attackers detonated bombs in the northern Iraqi city of Samarra, bringing down the golden dome of a revered Shia Muslim shrine.

A few hours later, I drove through Baghdad and watched the country descend into civil war. Then the Baghdad bureau chief for The Washington Post, I drove with Iraqi and American colleagues to Sadr City, the sprawling slum on the outskirts of the city. We watched hundreds of black-clad religious militiamen, waving their AK 47s in the air and calling for revenge, in what would be the start to a campaign of sectarian killing and torture.

But the American government didn’t want to admit that things were getting worse, so they basically did a Baghdad Bob impersonation: Sectarian violence? What sectarian violence? There are no Shiite militias in this country, your eyes are deceiving you:

During visits to Baghdad’s morgue over the next two days, I saw Sunni families thronging to find the bodies of loved ones killed by the militias. The morgue’s computer registrar told the grim-faced families and me that we would have to be patient; the morgue had taken in more than 1,000 bodies since the Samarra bombing, and was way behind on processing corpses.

Here’s the thing, though: According to then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and his top commanders, it never happened. These killings, these dead, did not exist. According to them, reporters like myself were lying.

“The country is not awash in sectarian violence,” the top U.S. commander in Iraq, Gen. George Casey said, on talk show after talk show, making the rounds to tell the American home-front not to worry. Civil war? “I don’t see it happening, certainly anytime in the near term,” he said, as he denied the surge in sectarian violence.

Casey had taken his own drive around Baghdad after the bombing of the Samarra mosque and had seen, not executed bodies in the streets but “a lot of bustle, a lot of economic activity. Store fronts crowded, goods stacked up on the street.”

Donald Rumsfeld held a news conference at the Pentagon to say that U.S. press reports of killings–such as mine that estimated 1,300 dead in the immediate aftermath of the bombing, based on what I had seen at the morgue, interviews with Sunni survivors, U.N. and Iraq health officials–were calculated “exaggerated reporting.” Iraqi security forces, he said, “were taking the lead in controlling the situation,” everything he assured his listeners was “calming.”

But as it turns out, this latest document dump includes lots and lots of reports from troops on the ground about how all hell was breaking loose in the aftermath of the Samarra bombing, including troops stumbling on piles of bodies killed by sectarian militias increasingly at war with one another.

You should never be surprised when your government lies to you. You should still be appalled though.