- The Washington Times - Saturday, June 10, 2006

Cold blood is a “hot” topic. For pontificating politicians and the potentates of the press it invariably trumps good news. Even the violent demise of terror-mastermind Abu Musab Zarqawi wasn’t enough to push the bad news off Page One for long.

At 7:30 a.m. EST on June 8, the masters of American media paused their drumbeat of negativity from the Global War on Terror just long enough to announce U.S. Special Operations Forces had killed Zarqawi. The barons of bombast allowed President Bush a few minutes of air-time to commend our troops and note they had administered “a severe blow to al Qaeda.” Then it was business as usual, bashing the administration, trashing our troops, and making sure that the words “Haditha” and “atrocity” are firmly branded in the minds of everyone with access to American media.

Here’s a “self-test” to prove how well this “branding” works. Clip or print this article. Put it in a pocket and a week from now, whip it out and ask a “representative sample” of your family, friends and associates two questions: “What happened at Baqouba?” And then, “What happened at Haditha?” Tabulate the results. Prediction: 8 of 10 will be able to tell you something about “Marines accused of killing civilians” in Haditha. Fewer than 3 in 10 will know anything about Baqouba and only a few will even know it’s in Iraq.

Baqouba, in case you have already forgotten — or never heard — is where Abu Musab Zarqawi, one of the most brutal terrorists in history, was tracked down and killed by Joint Task Force 145 — a special air-sea-ground unit of the U.S. Special Operations Command. That was good news — and, therefore, transitory. Haditha, on the other hand, is here to stay.

What did or didn’t happen in Haditha, Iraq, last November will remain a full-throttle topic for every “talk-jock” with a microphone for months to come. Television, radio and newspaper pundits, armchair admirals, bar-room brigadiers and pontificating politicians are all openly opining on the fates of those involved. Most want you to remember the “horror” of “American crimes” in Haditha. Others purport to be “outraged” at the “mistreatment” of the U.S. personnel allegedly involved.

Some politicians, like Rep. Jack Murtha, Pennsylvania Democrat, claim to “know” Americans committed murder “in cold blood.” None of them know what they are talking about because not one of them has seen the final reports of ongoing investigations.

The dissonant reporting and commentary about the two places — Baqouba and Haditha — reflects far more than a difference in what’s “known” before you hear, see or read the “news” from each. From bloggers to broadcasters, few of today’s “reporters,” editors or news directors require two or more sources to corroborate a story. Journalists blame intense competition for ratings and circulation in a “24-hour news cycle” for “minor factual errors” and an “if it bleeds it leads” mentality. Politicians claim they need to be “out front” on issues important to their constituents.

These are lame excuses for what’s really going on — and the Baqouba-Haditha stories are perfect examples of what has been happening in this war since Baghdad was liberated. Critics of the Bush administration and those who seek political advantage in denigrating America’s military have decided: Haditha — like Abu Ghraib — will be beaten like a rented mule. Baqouba — like the capture of Saddam outside of Tikrit — will be “buried” like every other “good news” story coming from this war. And the Washington politicians are helping make sure that happens.

Last week, chairmen of the House and Senate Armed Services Committees announced their intentions to hold hearings to “get to the bottom” of what happened in Haditha. That will keep the Islamic press entertained for months. And the day before the Zarqawi-Baqouba story broke, Marine Commandant Gen. Michael Hagee, held a press conference at the Pentagon to report he was “gravely concerned about the serious allegations concerning actions of some Marines at Haditha and Hamdania.”

He reminded those who bothered to listen that investigations were still under way and that the Marine Corps is “committed to ensuring they are thorough, that no avenue of investigation is left undone, and that due process and the rights of the affected individuals are protected. If it turns out that an individual violated rules or regulations, he will be held accountable, regardless of grade or position.”

The first question to Gen. Hagee from my “colleagues” in the Fourth Estate indicated where this is heading: “I’m wondering, given the gravity of what’s come to light thus far in the two cases that you cited, why shouldn’t you resign as an acknowledgment of failure of leadership?”

It’s easy to throw barbs like that in a Pentagon press room. But the troops operating in harm’s way in Iraq and Afghanistan rarely see a U.S. journalist in the field. In seven trips to Iraq, embedded for months with U.S. Army and Marine units from Mosul to bloody Al Anbar Province, I’ve met fewer than a half-dozen reporters from American news organizations who spent more than 48 hours away from the air-conditioned hotels in Baghdad’s “Green Zone.” Despite hundreds of miles of video footage documenting young Americans in gunfights with Zarqawi’s terrorists, “IED incidents” and engagements with suicidal “martyrs” — I’ve not seen a single violation of the code of conduct or rules of land warfare.

But that’s not “news.” That may not be an atrocity, but it is certainly a travesty.

Oliver North is a nationally syndicated columnist and the host of “War Stories” on the Fox News Channel.

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