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Wednesday, July 23, 2003 FULL SHOW | HEADLINES | NEXT: Judge Drops Two Terrorism Counts Against Civil Rights...
2003-07-23

What Really Happened to Jessica Lynch?

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As Private Jessica Lynch arrives in West Virgina Democracy Now! takes a look at the media coverage of her capture and "rescue" in Iraq. We speak with Washington Post ombudsman Michael Getler and listen to an earlier interview with London Times reporter Richard Lloyd Parry.

Private Jessica Lynch is home. She arrived to her rural West Virginia community yesterday amid bristling flags, yellow ribbons and TV news trucks.

She suffers from multiple broken bones and other injuries and is able to walk with the aid of a walker but still has trouble standing.

On Monday, she was awarded the Bronze Star, Purple Heart and Prisoner of War medals.

Jessica Lynch first gained national headlines when she was captured in the first week of the Iraq invasion. On March 23rd, her Army maintenance unit was ambushed near the Iraqi city of Nasiriyah.

11 U.S. soldiers were killed and five others captured in the attack. Lynch was taken to hospital by Iraqi soldiers and held for 9 days before being rescued.

The press initially reported that Lynch fought fiercely during the attack, getting stabbed and shot several times as she fended off her assailants. News articles described her emptying her M-16 into Iraqi soldiers, killing several of them before finally being caught.

Initial reports of her subsequent rescue 9 days later were also dramatic. They described Army Rangers and Navy Seals storming the Nassiriyah hospital just after midnight. The press reported they came under fire but managed to find Lynch and whisk her away by helicopter. A video of the rescue captured by the military’s night-vision camera was released to the public.

Since then, enterprising reporters have shown that the reality of both her capture and rescue were very different.

New reports concluded that Lynch was injured when her Humvee crashed into another vehicle in the convoy after being hit by a rocket-propelled grenade.

Reports also found that the convoy blundered into the ambush after getting lost and many of the unit’s weapons malfunctioned during the battle.

Of her rescue, Iraqi doctors at the hospital said later that the U.S. has faced no resistance and the operation had been over-dramatized.

The Washington Post was the first to report the heroic version of Lynch’s capture. The paper came under sharp criticism from its own ombudsman, Michael Getler, for its handling of the story. He was the first U.S. journalist to question the original reported version of events on April 20th. The Post later published a 5,000 word expose on Lynch’s capture completely debunking their original version of the story.

Days earlier the London Times’ Richard Lloyd Parry had exposed the true story of Lynch’s rescue. This was followed by a report from the BBC’s John Kampfner which was widely read.

  • Jessica Lynch, reading a statement after arriving in Elizabeth, West Virginia yesterday.
  • Richard Lloyd Parry, foreign correspondent for the London Times interviewed on Democracy Now! on April 28th, 2003 regarding his article in the London Times: "So Who Really Did Save Private Jessica?"
  • Michael Getler, Washington Post ombudsman.

TRANSCRIPT

AMY GOODMAN: You are listening to Democracy Now! as we turn now to our second story — Private Jessica Lynch has come home.

TAPE:

JESSICA LYNCH: Hi, thank you for being here. It’s great to be home. I would like to say thank you to everyone who hoped and prayed for my safe return. For a long time I had no idea so many people knew I’d been missing. But I read thousands of letters, many of them from children, who offered messages of hope and faith. I would like to thank the people in this community, especially those who gave donations to the Lynch fund and who volunteered their time and skills to work on my family’s house. Please allow me to thank the doctors, nurses and staff members of Walter Reed Army Medical Center for the excellent care they gave me. I would like to thank the staff of Landstuhl Medical Center in Germany for their care and support. I would like to thank the Fisher Foundation, Governor Bob Wise and United States Senator Jay Rockefeller for the roles they played in helping my family to be with me in Germany and Washington. I’m also grateful to several Iraqi citizens who helped save my life while I was in their hospital. And then a unit of our Special Forces soldiers that saved my life. I want to thank Sgt. Ruben Contreras. Ruben, you never let me give up. When I wanted to quit p-t (physical therapy), you kept me going. And you’re my inspiration and I love you. I’m proud to be a soldier in the Army. I’m proud to have served with the 507th. I’m happy that some of the soldiers I served with made it home alive and it hurts that some of my company didn’t. Most of all, I miss Lori Piestewa. She was my best friend. She fought beside me and it was an honor to have served with her. Lori will always remain in my heart. I read thousands of stories that said when I was captured, I said, "I’m an American soldier too." Those stories were right. Those were my words. I am an American soldier too. Thank you for this welcome and it’s great to be home.

AMY GOODMAN: And that was Private Jessica Lynch returning to her rural West Virginia community yesterday amid rippling flags, yellow ribbons, TV news trucks. She suffers from multiple broken bones and other injuries, is able to walk with the aid of a walker but still has trouble standing. On Monday, she was awarded the Bronze Star, the Purple Heart, and the Prisoner of War medals. Jessica Lynch first gained national headlines when she was captured in the first week of the Iraq invasion. On March 23rd, her Army maintenance unit was ambushed near the Iraqi city of Nasiriyah. 11 U.S. soldiers were killed and five others captured in the attack. Lynch was taken to hospital by Iraqi soldiers and held separately for 9 days from other patients as she was being taken care of by Iraqi doctors. The press initially reported that Lynch fought fiercely during the attack, getting stabbed and shot several times as she fended off her assailants. News articles described her emptying her M-16 into Iraqi soldiers, killing several of them before finally getting caught. The initial reports of her subsequent rescue 9 days later were also dramatic. They described Army Rangers and Navy Seals storming the Nasiriyah hospital just after midnight. The press reported they came under fire but managed to find Lynch and whisk her away by helicopter. The military provided video of the rescue with it’s night-vision camera and released it to the public. Since then, enterprising reporters have shown, the reality of both Jessica’s capture and rescue, were very different. New reports concluded that Jessica Lynch was injured when her Humvee crashed into another vehicle in the convoy. Reports also found that the convoy blundered into the ambush after getting lost and many of the unit’s weapons malfunctioned during the battle. Of her rescue, Iraqi doctors at the hospital said later that the U.S. had faced no resistance when they came in.

Lynch herself was not quoted by the television at the time, did not comment on what had taken place as she was recovering. Although her father did say, after the Pentagon said she had suffered from amnesia and could not comment on the attack, her father said she did not suffer from amnesia.

The Washington Post was the first to report the heroic version of Lynch’s capture. The paper came under sharp criticism from its own Ombudsman Michael Getler for its handling of the story. He will join us by telephone, the first US journalist to question the reported version of events on April 20. The Post later published a 5,000 word expose on Lynch’s capture completely debunking their original version of the story. We’re going go to break. When we come back, we’re going to play the first piece that Democracy Now! ran before the B.B.C. and Washington Post expose. It was with London Times reporter Richard Lloyd Perry who found a very different story when he investigated the so-called rescue of Jessica Lynch from the hospital. That’s after this break.

AMY GOODMAN: You are listening to Democracy Now!," The War and Peace Report. Coming up, Lynne Stewart will join us in just a few minutes. A judge has dropped terror charges against her. We’ll also talk to congress member Bernie Sanders about the U.S.A. Patriot Act, about a bill that’s been introduced that would take librarians out of the cross hairs of the bill. But right now we’re going to return to that first report Democracy Now! did with London Times reporter Richard Lloyd Perry after he visited the hospital in Nasiriyah where Jessica Lynch was being treated.

TAPE:

RICHARD LLOYD PERRY: When I was in Nasiriyah, this was a week or so ago, I stayed in the General Hospital, principally that’s the safest place in town, protected both by Iraqis as well as by a small number of American marines. And while I was staying there, I got to talking to one of the hospital doctors and asked about Jessica Lynch because this, of course, was the hospital from which she had been plucked by U.S. special forces in those very dramatic pictures that were shown while the war was still going on.
And this doctor and others of his colleagues told a very interesting story. They, too, had heard the official American version which was put out in Qatar. And they described the exciting infrared pictures of special forces going in, walking through the corridor of the hospital, and carrying this injured woman out. But to them, it was a very — it was all rather amusing. They were rather sardonic about it because they said that among other things, there was no resistance at the hospital. The Iraqi soldiers and commanders who have been there, had fled several hours before — really the day before, so these special forces didn’t have to fight their way in at all. They walked in. And they also said that although they and civilian doctors had been struggling really rather hard for a week or so, to save Jessica Lynch’s life and to give her the best treatment that they could, that they were treated really very badly by these soldiers who came in. A number of the doctors as well as two patients, including one paralyzed patient, were handcuffed, shackled to beds, had their hands tied. One of the senior hospital administrators was actually taken away in the U.S. special forces helicopters with Jessica Lynch and held for three days in the prisoner of war pen in the sun. And they felt this was really very poor treatment for the honest job they had tried to do in saving her life. At the very least, they were getting little credit for the job they’d done.

AMY GOODMAN: How did the story we came to know in the United States — how was it constructed?

RICHARD LLOYD PERRY: Well I saw — I think like most people on one of the live briefings from Doha — I can’t remember which particular general it was doing the briefing, but it clearly — it came at a stage in the war when they were a bit short of good news to put out. And I remember at the time that clearly a lot of thought and preparation had gone into this — this presentation. You know the story was told from the point of view of the rescuing forces. There was very little mention made of any — any of the Iraqis in the hospital or both on the Iraqi side. And it was portrayed as a — a very dangerous mission carried out to save this, you know, this young rather attractive young woman. And it was clearly a P.R. coup at the time. But it wasn’t like that. As far as I can remember, no one at the time really questioned the Pentagon account that had been put out. And because there was fighting still going on, it was difficult at that point to get to the other side. But it struck me as interesting and significant that these doctors had their own story to tell.

AMY GOODMAN: Richard Lloyd Perry of the London times. He —- he reported that in the paper on April 16.— We had him on, on April 28. Just before that, Michael Getler raised a question about his own newspaper’s reporting in The Washington Post. And he joins us on the line right now. Welcome to Democracy Now!. Michael Getler.

MICHAEL GETLER: Thank you for having me.

AMY GOODMAN: It’s good to have you with us. You’re the ombudsman of The Washington Post. Can you talk about the evolution of this story and how your newspaper and so much of the rest of the press in the world got this story wrong?

MICHAEL GETLER: Well, I will. I’ll be glad to. But I should make one point on your previous segment —-actually The Washington Post, its initial story was at the heart of when she was first captured, the heart of this dispute. But on April 15, I think prior to the report you just aired, it was also Washington Post correspondent Keith Richberg who got to the hospital in Iraq where Private Lynch was being held, and reported based on doctors, on the record comments, that she had not been shot, she hadn’t been stabbed, that she was injured in the humvee accident and that she had been well cared for. So The Post actually had that story first as well. But the problem was that it was back on page A-15 or A-17, I don’t remember exactly where. It was way back in the paper and it was based on Iraqi sources and of course, it didn’t get the attention that it otherwise might have gotten. But The Post did -— the foreign correspondents actually did begin to pick away at this story before I believe anybody else did.

The original story in The Post appeared on April 3. And it was very dramatic. It had a headline She was fighting to the death, and it talked about, as you said earlier that she was part of the ambush, she continued firing at the Iraqis even after she had sustained multiple gunshot wounds and watched several other soldiers die. That she actually killed several Iraqis and that she was stabbed as they closed in to her position. Which was obviously a very, very dramatic story at the time when there was really no good news coming out of the — out of the war front. The original story did have cautions in it, but it was further down, it made clear that this — that this information was coming from sort of battlefield intelligence and monitored communications and from Iraqi sources in Nasiriyah whose — they said whose reliability has yet to be assessed. So, and the Pentagon never actually confirmed it. They didn’t deny it, but they didn’t confirm it.

My initial reaction to the story was that it should have been written more cautiously because they were these caveats further down in it. And that the story should not have been presented in what really did look like a propagandistic-type of account. But in any event, the reporters clearly were — were — these are experienced reporters and I never had any doubt that they were told what they were told. It’s a question initially of whether or not they should have been more cautious and careful in how it was presented. But the — very soon after that first report appeared, there was the — there was the report from Germany from the Landstuhl Hospital where Lynch had been taken, by the commander of the army hospital there, this Colonel David Rubenstein and he said the medical evidence did not say any of her wounds were caused by gunshots or stabbing. That also, which I thought was important, was seriously underplayed by the paper. It was included inside another story way in the back of the paper. But it was also on television and readers — readers of The Post got very angry after that, where they felt that that original story had been very misleading and it was propagandized and it looked like an agenda was being pursued there. And that’s when the controversy really took off.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Michael Getler, ombudsman at The Washington Post. Also very important to point out when this story came out at the time of this so-called quagmire when the Bush administration was getting a lot of heat for getting, what looked like bogged down in Iraq. It was the myth that came out at that time. Also, now CBS news is apologizing for offering Private Jessica Lynch quite a deal if they could do the CBS movie on her. They would — they wanted to do a CBS news exclusive and they offered her a made for TV movie, an MTV special that might include a special concert in her hometown. Now they are saying they may have overstepped when they raised the possibility of the movie deal and other entertainment-related incentives. Your response to that?

MICHAEL GETLER: Well, you know, my focus has always been on the journalism and all the columns I’ve written about this, I’ve tried to make clear that this has nothing to do with Private Lynch who was a courageous young soldier and who has been through a terrible ordeal no matter what happened. My concerns have been with the journalism surrounding the story. And that’s where I think there were some flaws. And The Post. did move to do a very, very lengthy investigative piece 2 1/2 months later that sought to correct the record before the army investigation came out. I was also somewhat critical of that, because it actually put the real correction — saying that she wasn’t shot, she wasn’t stabbed — actually it was on the jump page on the continuation inside. And it still didn’t quote anybody on that point, even though there had been a Defense Department official quoted in The New York Times saying exactly the same thing about four days earlier. And also, the fault I found, it suggested that The Post was not alone in its phrasing. It talks about initial news reports including those in The Washington Post and actually The Post was the exclusive — had the exclusive on that first story about the details of her capture. So I really — I don’t want to comment on other news organizations and what they did or may have done or are planning to do. I think in general, the press was quite slow to try and go back on this story which seemed fishy, almost from the start, as soon as Colonel Rubenstein made his comment.

AMY GOODMAN: Michael Getler, thank you for being with us, ombudsman of The Washington Post.

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