The Unseen War

The Coalition Media Center, at the Saliyah military base in Doha, Qatar, seems designed to be as annoying and inconvenient as possible for reporters. To get there from the center of town, you have to take a half-hour ride through a baking, barren expanse of desert. At the gate, you have to submit your electronic equipment to a K-9 search, your bags to inspection, and your body to an X-ray scan. You then have to wait under the scorching sun for a military escort, who, after checking your credentials, takes you to the press bus. When the bus is full, you’re driven the two hundred yards to the media center. The bus lets you off in a concrete courtyard surrounded by a seven-foot-high wall topped by barbed wire. If you stand on a ledge and look out, you’ll see two rows of identical warehouse-like buildings—the offices of General Tommy Franks and the US Central Command.

Journalists, though, never get inside these buildings, for they’re restricted to the windowless media center, which is sixty feet long, brightly lit, and heavily air-conditioned. Inside the front door is a large space with long counters at which reporters for second-tier news organizations work. Extending out from this area are three corridors housing the offices of the TV networks, wire services, and major newspapers. Along the back wall is the door to the UK press office. Knock on it and moments later an officer in fatigues will appear and field your request. By contrast, the door to the US office, to the right of the main entrance, opens onto an empty corridor, and if you knock on it no one will answer. Instead, you have to phone the office and leave your request with the officer on duty. If you’re lucky, someone will come out and speak with you.

During the war, many of the reporters crammed into the center would dial the US number, seeking to check facts, get some background information, or ferret out a bit of news. Usually, they’d be disappointed. Getting confirmation for even the most basic facts filed by reporters in the field would often prove difficult. Occasionally, a senior press officer would emerge to speak with a reporter, and within minutes a ravenous mob would surround him, desperately seeking to shake loose something even remotely newsworthy.

The daily briefings were even less helpful. Held in a large conference hall with the now-famous $250,000 stage set, the briefings were normally conducted by Vincent Brooks, a tall, erect, one-star general who is impeccably polite, unflappable, and remarkably uninformative. Each briefing would begin with a few choice videos—black-and-white clips of “precision-guided” missiles unfailingly hitting their targets, and color shots of American troops distributing aid to grateful Iraqis. No matter what was taking place inside Iraq, Brooks would insist that the coalition remained “on plan” and that morale remained “sky high.” Sometimes the general offered outright misinformation. When, for instance, the Palestine Hotel was hit …

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