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January 26, 2005
The New York Times Responds On Biden, Rice

Last week, the New York Times published an editorial cheering the treatment given to Condoleezza Rice by Senator Barbara Boxer and to a lesser extent Senator Joe Biden during her confirmation hearings. While most of the editorial stayed in the safe zone of opinion, albeit a rather childish one, one passage in which the Times quoted Biden in order to accuse Rice of dishonesty was so inaccurate that I wrote public editor Daniel Okrent requesting a correction.

This was what the Times wrote:

Senator Joseph Biden, Democrat of Delaware, asked Ms. Rice how big an Iraqi security force had actually been trained. When Ms. Rice, the national security adviser, offered an absurdly inflated 120,000, Mr. Biden said the people doing the training put the total at 4,000. He then suggested that Ms. Rice "pick up the phone or go see these folks," as if that has not been her job all along, especially in the year since the administration said that all information on operations in Iraq would flow through her.

In my response to the Times and Daniel Okrent, I pointed out that the Washington Post had reported the previous month that the Pentagon had 94,341 Iraqi security troops as "trained/on-hand" status, and that news was four weeks old and could be expected to be larger now. I also wrote:

Senator Biden and the New York Times editorial board failed to do sufficient research on this topic and inadvertently passed along a ludicrously low number in order to play "gotcha" with Dr. Rice. Prior to implying that Dr. Rice is incompetent or untruthful, one would expect a news organization to do its homework. The result now implies that the New York Times is the organization that needs to worry about its competence and its truthfulness.

I hope to see a retraction and an apology from the editorial board to its readers. Thank you for your time.

I heard nothing from this request until today, a week later, when deputy editorial page editor Andrew Rosenthal sent this reply. I'll post it in its entirety:

Your email to Dan Okrent about the editorial on the Iraqi security forces and the hearing on the Rice nomination was passed on to me. I don't agree that we made an error, or as you put it, compounded Senator Biden's error. The Senator asked Ms. Rice to tell him how many Iraqi security forces have actually been trained, not just someone who had been given a uniform and put through an initial training session, but actually trained and capable of taking up the work now being done by the American military.

If you read the transcript, you will find that Ms. Rice did not answer in much of a useful way. But she did set the bar back far below where Senator Biden was setting it, to those who had been given "initial training," and went on to talk about desertion rates, no-show rates, the lack of leadership and other problems. She said that the leadership training program that the Administration has been talking about for months has not yet been set up, and so on. Mr. Biden made it clear that he was talking about trained forces, "I mean real, live guys that our Marines -- I was -- spent four hours in Fallujah -- our Marines are not real anxious to stand next to and count on a lot of Iraqi forces, except the few that were trained as Special Forces. Now, how many do you really think are trained that Allawi can look to and say, 'I can rely on those forces.' What do you think that number is?"

Ms. Rice's reply to that question was 120,000, which is by any measure, wildly inflated. The numbers you cite from the Pincus article simply confirm this.

The numbers he cited for "trained/on hand" do not meet the criterion of actually trained forces. Many of these people do not show up for duty, or desert in the face of fire, and in any case are hardly the sort of trained forces that can take over for the American military. They are simply not prepared to, as Mr. Biden put it, "shoot straight, kill and stand their ground."

By the way, this is the lead on that article by Mr. Pincus: "Pentagon figures show that the training of Iraqi military and police units has improved since the summer but that those forces will not be prepared to undertake security missions on their own until late 2006 at the earliest, according to a study released yesterday by the Center for Strategic & International Studies."

And lower down, he points out that 75 percent of the Iraqi troops deserted during the Fallujah operation last November. He says: "Iraqi National Guard troops 'dropped from 1,100 to 300 in hours,' with two companies abandoning their equipment."

It was, and is, our view that Ms. Rice's answer was a wild exaggeration, and not responsive remotely to Mr. Biden's questions. She came up with a figure that was clearly well beyond even the Pentagon's inflated numbers. Even if you took the "trained/on hand" figures, which are not really relevant to this discussion, she inflated the number of troops by 25 percent. We expect more accuracy and honesty from our public officials.

We quote her accurately and Senator Biden accurately, and characterized her use of numbers accurately. What's left is opinion, and yours and ours clearly differ. But that's not a matter for correction.

I appreciate the fact that Mr. Rosenthal gave such a lengthy and substantive reply, even if I disagree with most of it. For one thing, Mr. Rosenthal supplies context to me that the editorial denied the readers. He instructs me to "read the transcript," but the original editorial didn't bother to quote it to support their argument. In fact, all it said was this:

Senator Joseph Biden, Democrat of Delaware, asked Ms. Rice how big an Iraqi security force had actually been trained. When Ms. Rice, the national security adviser, offered an absurdly inflated 120,000, Mr. Biden said the people doing the training put the total at 4,000.

The Times made not a single mention of the quality of the troops or the training, and in fact Rice's numbers come much closer than Biden's. And if Mr. Rosenthal took his own advice and read the transcript, he'd find out that even Senator Biden acknowledged that fact:

BIDEN: The same goes for the way you answered my questions, in my view, about training Iraqi security forces. It is true: There's probably 120,000 people in uniform. But the question really is -- and I'll end, Mr. Chairman, I know my -- I'm going over my time.

The question really is, how many of those forces could supplant American forces? How many of them we could trade off for an American soldier? Because that's ultimately, again, the exit strategy: Get enough Iraqis there so we don't need American troops there.

Had Mr. Rosenthal also provided some context for Rice's answer, he would have seen that she addresses the very point Mr. Rosenthal makes in his reply back to me:

RICE: Senator, I have to rely on what I get from the field.

And by the way, I think that the trips that you've made and the trips that the others have made have given us information that we can go back with. And I appreciate your doing that.

We think the number right now is somewhere over 120,000. We think that, among those people, there clearly continue to be questions about on-duty time, that is, people who don't report for duty. And so this is being looked at.

We are trying to provide for some of these units mentors who can help, trying to provide leadership from the Iraqis themselves that can help these people.

But this is the reason that Gary Luck has gone out, at Secretary Rumsfeld's direction, to take a hard look at the training program to see what General Petraeus, who, as you say, is a terrific soldier and has a lot of experience in Iraq, what he's been able to achieve; to work with the Iraqis to address some of these problems of leadership and morale and desertion in the armed forces and in the police forces; and to look at some of the equipping of the police forces.

In other words, Mr. Rosenthal attacks me for not acknowledging a context for Senator Biden's question that the Times never bothered to provide -- and then strips all context out of Condoleezza Rice's answer. How honest and ethical is that?

Most of these troops have been trained in the last six months, which also has a lot to do with their readiness. The American troops in Iraq are the best-trained, best-equipped, and best-led armed forces in the world. I wouldn't trade any of them off for an American soldier, especially not just a few months out of boot. Experience and seasoning will improve the Iraqis battle readiness, just as it does for American soldiers, and expecting that to come in a couple of weeks is nothing short of idiocy. And in the American armed forces, new soldiers join more experienced troops, which allows for continuity of performance. The Iraqi security troops are building from the ground up.

That was what the Pentagon tried to explain to Biden in an anecdote he tells here, and Biden typically misses the point:

When the chairman and I were in Iraq with Senator Hagel, right after Saddam's statue went down, we asked the military as well as the police trainers, "How long would it take you to train a military force that's necessary?" They talked about 40,000. And they said, at least two, maybe three years.

"How long would it take you to train a police force capable of policing the country to replace the 79,000 thugs that were called police before?" They said, three to five years.

That's one of the reasons why we're staying in Iraq until at least the end of 2006 -- to make sure that the training sticks and that we get them the experience and command structure they need to survive. We have 120,000 trained Iraqi troops, and that's a great start. Now we need to get them seasoned and well-led.

What's more, I think Mr. Rosenthal knows that his and Biden's numbers are flat-out wrong. That's why he goes on to state that "75%" of the ICDC deserted in the second battle of Fallujah, a number that changes an awful lot. NPR had it at two-thirds, while others have it higher or lower. According to Mr. Rosenthal, that means that we should presume the entire force consists of 75% who would desert at the first action, which makes Biden and the New York Times correct. Unfortunately, 25% of 120,000 is still 30,000, not 4,000. The argument also demonstrates a lack of logic, as Iraqi troops have performed better at other times, such as in Najaf, and with more training and experience will continue to improve. And again, note that wasn't the question Biden asked.

The Times gave me its answer today, and quite frankly, I don't see how Mr. Rosenthal thinks that this is any kind of defense. In fact, when looking further into their editorial, it loses even more credibility and looks more like shabby ankle-biting all the time.

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Posted by Ed Morrissey at January 26, 2005 10:15 PM

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