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[casi] CPA limiting & denying access to Iraqi officials, hospitals, morgues ...

The Green Zone Blues
by Sridhar Pappu

In the seven months since Saddam Hussein's statue toppled in Firdaus Square
in Baghdad, the Bush administration has been busy winning the country for
democracy. But to competitive reporters used to exploiting the chaos of war
to get the big story, the rigid control of the U.S.-led Coalition
Provisional Authority and its press arm, the Office of Strategic
Communications, has made winning during the peace more difficult than
winning during the war.

"They've taken the Bush model and applied it to Baghdad," one correspondent

The C.P.A., according to several reporters based in Baghdad-many of whom
requested anonymity-has severely limited access to key officials in the
provisional government. In an effort to stanch the flow of reporting on
small-scale terrorist activity and the resulting injuries to U.S. troops,
sources said, morgues and hospitals in Baghdad have become impenetrable to
reporters. Reporters have found their access to police stations cut off.
When access is granted, reporters said, the C.P.A. often assigns "minders"
to accompany them.

But even the good-news stories the Bush administration has chastised the
press for ignoring-reopening schools and hospitals, building power plants
and infrastructure and factories-can be hard to get, unless you are content
to rely upon a C.P.A.-engineered press junket to do your reporting.
Contractors working on rebuilding projects, sources said, have been told not
to speak to journalists without prior C.P.A. approval. The same is true for
groups like the Army Corps of Engineers.

And the C.P.A. has bypassed the Baghdad bureaus of the major media outlets,
pitching stories or interviews directly to local network affiliates
stateside, and organizing junkets for editorial writers to show off how very
far Iraq has come, leaving major-market newspapers to fight through a web of
red tape even to get the news-good or bad-out.

Following a less-than-positive story, reporters often find their phone calls
go completely unanswered. There have even been charges that reporters whose
work is viewed as unfavorable or unflattering to the ongoing operations in
Iraq have been blackballed at the Republican Palace.

"People joke that it's just like the old days," one Baghdad-based reporter
said. The source was remembering what it was like before the C.P.A. started
issuing sunny press releases about the minting of new, Saddam-free currency
for the country, or opening schools and hospitals that reporters have had
difficulty obtaining clearance to visit; before it had established its
stronghold in the old Republican Palace on the Tigris, once occupied by
Saddam and his sidekick press secretary, Muhammad Saeed al-Sahaf, known to
Americans as Baghdad Bob.

"We saw this kind of treatment [of the press] during Saddam," a
correspondent said. "And it makes me sick that my own government is doing it

Staffed mostly by young Republican campaigners and former Capitol Hill
functionaries with varied levels of experience in the media, the C.P.A.,
reporters told The Observer, feels more like a public-relations agency for
the Bush administration than a field operation for the American press in

"It's been difficult to get consistent access to the C.P.A.," Time's Brian
Bennett said, "in terms of getting responses to interview requests in a
timely manner. It seems like they're understaffed. They have more requests
than they can handle."

Correspondents have been frustrated with the C.P.A.'s reliance on a network
of largely ineffective mobile phones (with 914 area codes!); the
organization has yet to begin credentialing working reporters, meaning that
a one-hour press conference can often mean a lost half-day as reporters are
searched, then searched again. And even when you're in, you're not
necessarily in.

In May, venerable Washington Post military correspondent Tom Ricks was in
Baghdad for an 11 a.m. appointment to meet a member of the C.P.A. "I hauled
my ass across Baghdad," Mr. Ricks recalled. "We went through the
checkpoint.Igot searched; my driver got searched. We get in and check in
with the soldier. A guy comes out, and I tell him I'm here for my 11 o'clock
interview. He comes back and says he's not here. I say I had an appointment.
He says sorry. I say, 'O.K., can I interview the deputy?' He says, 'We don't
do drop-ins.' I was like, 'Thanks, guys.' A lot of that sort of thing goes

A lot of it depends on whom you're seeking out. As the Bush administration
decries the press' morbid fascination with stories about death and conflict,
government sources that could provide information about terrorist activity
and casualties are among the most tightly controlled.

"The police stations are completely shut off," one reporter told The
Observer. "You can go around to 10 police stations in Baghdad and you can't
get in the door. You have to go through the C.P.A. They're trying to
centrally control the message."

"Places like hospital emergency rooms and the Baghdad morgue are
off-limits," another source said. "To visit, you have to file a ton of
paperwork. It's very similar to the old days. They've made a very conscious
decision not to facilitate interviews and give access to stories that are
not going to be positive. It's just that simple."

"Every now and then I hear that a reporter has gone to a hospital and they
won't let him through, saying you have to go through the C.P.A.," said
Charles Heatly, a spokesperson for the authority. "That's certainly not our
policy. You will have an Iraqi police officer or hospital employee who still
thinks they're working in the old days, or you'll have an overly
enthusiastic soldier who might not let someone through. That sort of thing
does happen. It's certainly not our policy."

Washington Post foreign correspondent and Baghdad bureau chief Rajiv
Chandrasekaran said the C.P.A. was in a "tough position."

"They're trying to do civil reconstruction of a country in the midst of a
very intense conflict," Mr. Chandrasekaran said. "It's hard to keep the
attention of journalists on reconstruction issues when you have helicopter
crashes and daily ambushes of troops and multiple car bombings. These days,
for better or worse, violence is driving the story. Security issues are

It's easy to see why they might think that way, as reporters outfit their
houses-turned-bureaus with guards and sandbags and plastic to shield windows
from shrapnel.

Nicholas Lemann, the dean of the Columbia University Graduate School of
Journalism and former New Yorker Washington correspondent, said it was "too
much to ask of the press to downplay the terrorist attacks in Iraq.

"As long as terrorists are pulling off these attacks regularly, it will be a
big story," Mr. Lemann said. "There's no way around it. It's news."

But there is something else at play as well, sources said: When the dance
steps required by the C.P.A. become too complex, there's always a reserve of
Iraqis in the provisional government not terribly thrilled with orders to
keep silent that have been handed down by what they see as an occupying
force. Interviews with them are not vetted through the C.P.A.

"It is clear the administration is being damaged," said Marvin Kalb, a
lecturer in public policy and senior fellow at Harvard's Joan Shorenstein
Center on the Press. "Though everyone says Iraq is not Vietnam, and I agree
it isn't, nevertheless, this kind of activity-the daily loss of life, the
inability so far to contain the anti-American operation-all of this has an
effect on American public opinion."

The Bush administration has demonstrated that it's not missing that point,
appealing directly to the public to see beyond the story being written by
major media outlets around the world. After all, this is the President who,
before the war, stood before the White House press corps choosing questions
from a pre-selected group of reporters while ignoring veteran White House
correspondents. And during the war, while former Vietnam correspondent
turnedfilmwriter Bernard Weinraub and New York Post movie reviewer Jonathan
Foreman filed dispatches for their papers as embeds, reportersattheU.S.
Central Command in Doha, Qatar, openly fumed at the treatment they received
at the hands of their handlers.

In past wars, the military operation may have placed side constraints on the
press to ensure that its military objectives could be met. In Baghdad,
another model is emerging: a political operation putting side constraints on
the press to ensure its political objectives. While the C.P.A. must rebuild
Iraq, it must also be a cheerleader for that rebuilding-and the current
administration's handling of it.

To do that, the C.P.A. has brought the right Republican pompoms to the Green
Zone. The staff, mostly quite young, is made up largely of young Republican
functionaries from Capitol Hill. Their mission is explicit.

On Aug. 9, the Tulsa World ran a story about Oklahoma native Jared Young, a
spokesman for Republican Senator James Inhofe on a local Superfund site, who
was headed out for Baghdad to work with C.P.A. head Paul Bremer as one of a
half-dozen press contacts.

"Most of the media are covering the military side of things, but haven't
plugged into the rebuilding efforts that much," the 25-year-old Mr. Young
told the paper. "When Ambassador Bremer was back here last week, he said
they have a great story to tell that hasn't quite made it out there."

Another C.P.A. staffer, Thomas Basile, got his chops as a young volunteer
for George W. Bush's 2000 campaign. Fresh out of college and working on a
law degree at Fordham University, this Westchester native's enthusiasm was
such that he was entrusted with planning George and Laura Bush's motorcades
during the 2000 Republican National Convention in Philadelphia, before
joining the Pataki administration as a press liaison.

C.P.A. chief administrator Dan Senor, a senior adviser to Mr. Bremer who
also worked as the director of the Coalition Information Center in Qatar,
was a press secretary and communications director for former U.S. Senator
Spencer Abraham.

Getting along with these guys is important for reporters in Baghdad. Mr.
Heatly, who came to the C.P.A. from the British Foreign Service, said that
the C.P.A. didn't single out reporters for special treatment based on their
reporting, but on their attitude.

"Some journalists are frankly better at getting access than others," Mr.
Heatly said. "If you're loud or overly aggressive, you're not going to be
the favorite person in the compound. Having said that, we don't try and not
give access deliberately. There's no C.P.A. plot to do that."

But can the C.P.A. tell the difference between a loud, aggressive person and
a person who's trying to get past them to a story?

"They certainly have favorites," one Baghdad reporter complained. "They'll
return Fox News' call. They'll fall over themselves for Fox."

For their part, said Mr. Heatly, the C.P.A. has given reporters "as much
access as we can. There's somewhere in excess of 500 journalists in Iraq,
and we have a small organization. We're not talking about the kinds of
numbers in government back in Washington or where I come from in London. The
staff we have is small, and if we spent all our time giving interviews, we
wouldn't get any work done.

"I can understand the frustrations of journalists," Mr. Heatly added. "But
we're doing a difficult job in difficult circumstances. The sheer pace of
change is incomparable to any situation."

You may reach Sridhar Pappu via email at:

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