By Elaine Hargrove-Simon, Silha Fellow and Bulletin Editor
Nineteen-year-old army supply clerk of Pfc. Jessica Lynch was captured in southern Iraq on March 23, 2003, when her convoy made a wrong turn and was ambushed. Nine members of 507th Maintenance Company were killed and five were captured. Lynch reportedly "fought to the death" in order to avoid capture, suffering multiple gunshot and stab wounds. Nevertheless, she was caught and taken to Nasiriyah General Hospital where her captors allegedly used force to interrogate her. Eight days later, tipped off to her location by an Iraqi lawyer who risked his life to pass the information on to U.S. forces, Army Rangers, Marine commandos and Navy SEALs descended on the hospital just after midnight. Lynch was scooped from her hospital bed and whisked to the safety of an American hospital in Germany.
The story of "Saving Private Lynch" made headlines on April 2. It was a "feel-good" story from the war with Iraq, centering on a young woman characterized as an attractive and spunky young Yank.
But as early as April 15, the Washington Post reported that, "Iraqis Say Lynch Raid Faced No Resistance." Some of the doctors at the hospital where Lynch was held were interviewed for the story. Although they said that the rescue contained elements of "Hollywood dazzle," none of them mentioned any gunfire. They did say, however, that U.S. soldiers broke down some doors in their search for Lynch.
On April 20, Michael Getler, ombudsman for the Washington Post wrote an editorial on the rescue operation entitled "Reporting Private Lynch." He wrote, "[W]hat really happened is still not clear. In the sweep of this conflict, the episode is just a footnote. But let's hope an authoritative public account emerges . . . ."
In mid-May, John Kampfner, a reporter with the BBC, revealed the "true" inside story on Lynch's release on the television program "BBC Correspondent." According to Kampfner, Iraqi doctors said they provided Lynch the best possible care they could, given the difficulties of wartime. None of them could be accused of mistreating her in any way. She was given the only specialist bed in the hospital, and one of only two nurses on her floor
was assigned to her care.
Dr. Harith Al-Houssona stated Lynch had a broken arm, a broken thigh, and a dislocated ankle, characteristic of a "road traffic accident." Lynch had no bullet or stab wounds that would be indicative of a "fight to the death." The Guardian of London also reported that Al-Houssana said Lynch was given transfusions requiring three bottles of blood, two of which were donated by Iraqi hospital staff themselves.
On May 20, Los Angeles Times columnist Robert Scheer wrote about the controversy. Comparing the Lynch rescue to the 1998 film "Wag the Dog," where phony war footage was created to generate public sympathy for a manufactured war, Scheer pointed out many discrepancies between the official U.S. and British media versions of events.
Scheer cast doubt on the credibility of Mohammed Odeh Al-Rehaief, the attorney who informed U.S. forces of Lynch's whereabouts, saying that he and his family were "whisked" to the United States, granted political asylum, and assured a job with a lobbying firm run by former Rep. Bob Livingston that represents the defense industry. Al-Rehaief has also been promised a $500,000 book contract with HarperCollins, which is owned by
Rupert Murdoch, who also owns Fox Network, Scheer reported. Fox "did much to hype" the story of the war in general and Lynch's rescue in particular, Scheer added.
Assistant Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs Victoria Clarke issued a statement that appeared May 26 in the Los Angeles Times. "I take strong exception to the accusations in Robert Scheer's tirade on the Jessica Lynch rescue. . . . No one within the Department of Defense 'manufactured' the news about Lynch's rescue. A joint team of U.S. military forces put their lives on the line in a hostile area during combat operations to
accomplish the mission. Official spokespeople in Qatar and Washington, as well as the footage released, reflected the events accurately . . . .To suggest otherwise is an insult and does a grave disservice to the brave men and women involved," Clarke said.
Clarke concluded: "That Scheer would simply repeat the BBC's claims without talking to the Defense Department or independently verifying them make it clear he is more interested in spurious charges than in the facts."
On May 29, Scheer addressed some of Clarke's accusations in a commentary in the Los Angeles Times, stating that the Chicago Tribune and the London Daily Mail have "independently verified much" of the BBC's story surrounding the Lynch rescue.
On May 29, Associated Press writer Scheherezade Faramarzi reported that Dr. Wajdi Al-Jabbar told her that he offered the Americans a master key to the hospital, but they refused it, and instead shot at doors and kicked them down. The director of the hospital, doctors, and even a patient were restrained and handcuffed.
Dr. Khodheir Al-Hazbar told Faramarzi that he and his family, staying together in the hospital for safety's sake, were surrounded by about 20 American soldiers firing their guns. "They were shooting indiscriminately, everywhere, at windows, between our legs, on the floor. We were terrified." But when he realized no one was getting hurt, he surmised that the special forces were shooting blanks. "They didn't shoot real bullets because they knew there was no military force in the hospital," Al-Hazbar concluded.
On May 29, CNN International host Nic Robertson interviewed Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs Bryan Whitman, and John Kampfner. In a transcript of that interview, Kampfner said that the Lynch rescue was "a professional mission but it should have been basically spun in a low-key fashion." He suggested that the Pentagon should have said, "we went in there, we anticipated hostile encounter, none was forthcoming . . . end of story."
Whitman responded that American soldiers did encounter fire in the compound surrounding the hospital, but maintained that the soldiers did not fire inside the hospital itself. He further stated that the basement of the hospital contained ammunition, mortars, maps and terrain models showing the positions of U.S. troops, indicating that the facility was being used as "a command post by the Saddam regime." Defending the use of force by U.S. soldiers, Whitman continued, "It was not an established fact that there was no longer Fedayeen operating out of that hospital. We know that the Fedayeen was [sic] not in uniform all the time, that there were enemy combatants that were in civilian clothes."
Kampfner has asked the Pentagon to release the raw footage of the rescue operation so that the American account of events can be verified. To date, the Pentagon has refused. On June 2, Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio), ranking minority member of the House Subcommittee on National Security, also asked that the raw footage be released, and that questions regarding the rescue operation and the state of Lynch's health be addressed officially by the Defense Department.
On May 30, Tom Brokaw interviewed NBC reporter Jim Avila on "NBC Nightly News." Reviewing file footage from televised news broadcasts covering the Lynch rescue, Avila pointed out that the Pentagon never accused anyone on the hospital staff of mistreating Lynch, and no U.S. soldier fired blanks inside the hospital during the rescue operation. Avila concluded, "No one from the Pentagon ever said on the record that Jessica had fired her weapon or had been shot, but a steady stream of leaks built a dramatic
and false impression, an erroneous report often repeated." In fact, the New York Times had reported on April 5 that Col. David A. Rubenstein, the commander of the American hospital in Landstuhl, Germany, stated that none of Lynch's wounds resulted from either gunshots or stabbings.
The Minneapolis Star Tribune's readers' representative Lou Gelfand, wrote in a column on June 1, "The American press in Iraq defaulted on this story. The time to interview the hospital personnel was when the BBC, the London Times and the Washington Post did. And the failure of the American press to jump on the Post story is equally embarrassing." Gelfand also added that the Star Tribune had elected to run the Scheer column from May 20, but did so on the op-ed page of the newspaper because "it was too opinionated to merit a news page location."
An editorial in the Philadelphia Inquirer on May 30 expressed a similar view. "Now [the story of the Lynch rescue] must be traded for some complicated questions about the sticky entanglements of a rah-rah Pentagon, a thirsty press, and a public desperate for some good news. . . . Stay tuned - perhaps decades from now - for the real story. To journalism's credit, the original, faulty stories sometimes get revised when the facts finally become clear."