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The Stagecraft of a Capture

In this morning's New York Times, there's a story I read, thinking it was going to explain what legal procedures would be used when Hussein stands trial. Instead, A Careful U.S. Plan to Dispel All Doubt on Hussein's Fate is solely concerned with the stagecraft involved in planning Hussein's capture:

The announcement of Saddam Hussein's capture followed a careful plan devised over months and intended, according to those who worked on it, to dispel any doubt among Iraqis and a skeptical Arab world that he was in American hands.

Code-named HVT No. 1 Å\ for High-Value Target No. 1 Å\ the public relations playbook that the Pentagon followed was written back in the summer, in response to the widespread disbelief that greeted the announcement that American soldiers had killed Mr. Hussein's sons, Uday and Qusay, in July.

According to officials at the State Department and the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq, the plan, which President Bush approved, stipulated that Iraqis were to have a role in announcing the news and that the images of the quarry were to be broadcast worldwide as quickly as possible, to leave little time for conspiracy theories to course through Iraqi towns and villages.

Crucially, the American military, Iraq's administrators and officials in Washington were able to keep the news of Mr. Hussein's capture on Saturday secret for 18 hours.

One wonders why Jim Runtenberg, Jacques Steinberg, and David Carr failed to ask Gary Thatcher, an author of the media strategy and the director of strategic communications for the Coalition Provision Authority, the obvious question: How did the "those who worked on this plan" go about planning for the manipulation of American media and audiences? Surely, after Jessica Lynch, there can be no doubt that this was part of the plan. Why didn't they ask?

Is it my imagination or did someone, maybe Paul Bremmer, announce -- like 3 weeks ago -- that the US was very close to catching Saddam Hussein? I tried to find the statement I remember, but it has been overwhelmed in the search engines by Hussein's capture and also by the many claims in the past that the US was very close to finding this or that. Anyway, some matter of weeks ago, as I recall an administration official claimed this in a news conference and I thought, That's an awfully bold claim. If they're as close as they're claiming, why don't they just go get him?

So. Saddam was caught, "like a rat," in a hole. It's nice that Hussein is in custody. But capturing him at this late date does not save lives the way as capturing or killing him would have at the beginning of this misbegotten war. While the manner of his capture and the circumstances are probably sufficiently humbling to send the message the occupying authorities desire, they raise as nearly as many questions as they answer. A man in the circumstances described does not seem to be in much position to coordinate the Iraqi resistance to the extent that has been recently claimed. The more miserable the description of his circumstances upon capture -- "We didn't stay there long. It smelled really bad." said one of the soldiers who participated to the A.P. -- the more irrelevant militarily is his capture. DEBKA file has gone so far as to suggest that he was already a captive when captured. Whether he was actually a captive or merely a fugitive at the end of his rope, his capture seems unlikely to diminish the level of resistance to US occupation.

So, returning to the subject of stagecraft, how can we untangle the stagecraft from the truth of this made-for-TV event? Hussein's capture seems to have released in many right-wingers the pent-up desire to celebrate the war's success and has given Joe Lieberman a venue to express his bitterness about losing out on the Gore endorsement. From the tone and content of some of what's being said, one would think the Hussein was stuffed full of the still-missing weapons of mass destruction when found.

But clearly after two failed attempts to take out Saddam, the first televised to a huge audeience when the war started, the pressure was on to put on a good show. My thought is that following the Gore endorsement of Dean, the Bushies got nervous and laid their best card on the table before the endorsement story could hit the covers of the news magazines. Note this passage from the NYT piece:

The breaking news was of such magnitude that both Time and Newsweek decided to redo issues that were already being printed.

When the phone rang at 5 a.m. on Sunday, Jim Kelly, managing editor of Time, thought that it was more bad news, following the bad wounds suffered last week by a correspondent, Michael Weisskopf, and a veteran war photographer, James Nachtwey, in Baghdad. Instead, it was news of the capture.

Where does this leave us? In the hands of the same propagandizing, foolishly unquestioning news media we were in two days ago, except that they're excited. Relax boys. We will shortly be returned to our regularly scheduled dreary war.