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Home > War On Terror

The Straight Story

A masterclass in evasion tactics, courtesy of the Pentagon.

27 June 2003

The US military has admitted crossing into Syria last week and having a gun battle with Syrian soldiers. Well, sort of admitted it.

This is how the original incident was reported in USA Today: 'It was unclear who fired first or how the confrontation developed.' Similarly unsure was TCM (the Irish news source) which said: 'It was unclear who shot first and where Syrian border guards were positioned, but a firefight followed between the Syrians and the Americans.'

This week, after a curious delay, there was a top-level Pentagon briefing about the encounter. You might expect quite a few concrete details to have emerged about what actually happened. If you're an idiot. At the briefing we were given a masterclass in equivocation, and witnessed some classic Pentagon dodges.

Particularly well used were the following evasions:

1) It's too early to say

General Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said: 'We are continuing to gather information from the strike, so we don't have any additional details at the moment.' Such a common excuse: 'still gathering information'. Tony Blair used it all the time about WMD, until everyone got bored and started shouting. The usefulness of the dodge is that it has no specific end point. There can always be 'more information' found out about something. (General Myers, how do you boil an egg? 'Well, we're still gathering information about that, and I think it would be improper of me to say anything more at this time...')

2) In real life things aren't always clear cut

An empty truism. Donald Rumsfeld used this excuse, stylishly combined with the 'it's too early to say' dodge, when he said: 'Borders are, you know, not always distinct in life, and I just would rather wait and give you the straight story.' This dodge was also used by Donald when he was asked if anyone in the convoy escaped: 'how would one know that? It was pitch black.'

3) We know things that you don't

An evergreen bluff. Rumsfeld used it when he went on to affirm: 'There were reasons, good reasons, to believe that the vehicles that were violating the curfew... were doing it for reasons other than normal commerce.' What were those reasons? Donald doesn't say. They were just 'good reasons' - you can take his word for it. What's revolting about this bluff is that, in order for it to work, the public and the media have to be complicit. They have to nod and say, "yes - I'm sure you knew best. I'm sure you know all sorts of things that I don't - it's probably best that you don't worry my head with them". In this respect, it has much in common with the next dodge:

4) We can't talk about that

One of Rumsfeld's favourites: 'As you know, we don't discuss rules of engagement' was how he put it in the briefing. Ari Fleischer is another fan of this dodge. Practically all he ever says is 'I'm sorry, I can't talk about that'.
He must make a very boring dinner guest.

5) Make a joke

If people are laughing, they're not asking. In the transcript of this briefing on the Pentagon website there are seven explicit 'laughter' breaks.

The most sinister is the last, recorded as: 'laughter, no response'. Towards the end of the briefing, Rumsfeld has a fascinating exchange with a frustrated journalist. Rumsfeld massively over-commits, flounders, and resorts to making a joke which could mean absolutely anything:

Q) Will there be a formal report on this? And will you tell us at some point what happened?

A) Sure. [He didn't mean to say that]. When the dust settles, we may very well - I don't know about a formal report. But when the dust settles, [yes, you've said that already] we'll know more about what's been said... and everyone will know that which is available to be known.

Q) But you'll tell us.

A) Isn't it a wonderful world!

Isn't it just.

Comment on this article: letters@thefridaything.co.uk

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