Bush has a rehearsed tele-conference with US troops in Iraq

Friday, October 14, 2005

U.S. President Bush addresses troops in Iraq in Video Teleconference

The live presidential video teleconference held Thursday by George Bush with U.S. troops stationed in Iraq drew fire from critics and even some Pentagon military leaders. Pentagon officials defended the teleconference, saying that the soldiers stated their own opinions.

An on-camera shot before the teleconference went live showed Allison Barber, the deputy assistant defense secretary, coaching 10 soldiers on broad topics to which the president would want questions directed; then rehearsed their actions on camera and reminded them of what questions were assigned to each soldier.

"OK, so let's just walk through this," Barber said. "Captain Kennedy, you answer the first question and you hand the mike to whom?"

"Captain Smith," Kennedy said.

"Captain. Smith? You take the mike and you hand it to whom?" she asked.

"Captain Kennedy," the soldier replied.

Later on in the discussion:

"If the question comes up about partnering — how often do we train with the Iraqi military — who does he go to?" Barber asked.

"That's going to go to Captain Pratt," one of the soldiers said.

During the live conference, when asked about Iraq's preparations for their constitutional referendum, 1st Lt. Gregg Murphy of Tennessee said: "Sir, we are prepared to do whatever it takes to make this thing a success. ... Back in January, when we were preparing for that election, we had to lead the way. We set up the coordination, we made the plan. We're really happy to see, during the preparation for this one, sir, they're doing everything."

When asked about Iraq's training of security forces, Master Sgt. Corine Lombardo from Scotia, N.Y., a Public Relations officer at the 42nd Infantry Division HQ, said to Bush: "I can tell you over the past 10 months, we've seen a tremendous increase in the capabilities and the confidences of our Iraqi security force partners. ... Over the next month, we anticipate seeing at least one-third of those Iraqi forces conducting independent operations."

The event was coordinated with the Department of Defense, according to White House press secretary Scott McClellan. "I think all they were doing was talking to the troops and letting them know what to expect," he said. He also said that the troops were expressing their own thoughts. With satellite feeds, coordination often is needed to overcome technological challenges, such as delays, he said.

Later, Pentagon officials denied that the conference was staged. Pentagon spokesman Lawrence Di Rita said "On behalf of these fine young men and women, we certainly regret any perception that they were told what to say. It is not the case," adding that "The soldiers were advised as to the issues they should expect to discuss, and decided among themselves who would speak to each issue as it may arise."

The director of Operation Truth, a New York-based advocacy group for U.S. veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan, described the event as a "carefully scripted publicity stunt".

"If he wants the real opinions of the troops, he can't do it in a nationally televised teleconference," Paul Rieckhoff said. "He needs to be talking to the boots on the ground and that's not a bunch of captains."

Sgt Ron Long, one of the troops interviewed, denied that it was scripted on his blog, writing "First of all, we were told that we would be speaking with the President of the United States, our Commander-in-Chief, President Bush, so I believe that it would have been totally irresponsible for us NOT to prepare some ideas, facts or comments that we wanted to share with the President.

"We were given an idea as to what topics he may discuss with us, but it's the President of the United States; He will choose which way his conversation with us may go.

"We practiced passing the microphone around to one another, so we wouldn't choke someone on live TV. We had an idea as to who we thought should answer what types of questions, unless President Bush called on one of us specifically."