Pentagon dismisses claims it coached GIs for talk with Bush
WASHINGTON — Pentagon officials on Friday dismissed accusations that soldiers were coached and coerced before a nationally televised event with the president on Thursday.
Ten soldiers from the Army National Guard’s 42nd Infantry Division and an Iraqi soldier, all stationed in Tikrit, Iraq, joined President Bush in a video teleconference for the event, billed as a conversation between the commander-in-chief and troops in the combat zone.
But about 30 minutes before the event began news outlets picked up a video feed of Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense Allison Barber speaking with the group about what to expect during the event, who should speak when, and how to deal with some questions posed by the president.
At one point, she advised the soldiers on who should take the microphone, “if he (Bush) gives us a question that’s not something that he has scripted.”
During the event the soldiers offered an upbeat assessment of the conflict in Iraq and of security forces preparations for this weekend’s vote.
U.S. news outlets seized on the story Thursday night, and members of the White House press corps questioned whether the event was rehearsed.
In a statement Thursday night, Pentagon spokesman Lawrence Di Rita said the prebriefing talk was necessary because of the complexity of the event.
“The event was technologically challenging and required organization and preparation,” he said. “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 service members were excited about the opportunity to speak with the President. No one intended to tell them what to think or how to express themselves; going through likely questions in advance was meant solely to help the troops feel at ease during an obviously unique experience.”
Army spokesman Lt. Col. Carl Ey was adamant Friday that the teleconference with Bush was not orchestrated. The Army rehearses everything as a matter of practice, he said, and the teleconference was rehearsed in order to maximize Bush’s time
“She (Barber) was not telling them what to say; she was rehearsing the order of who would answer what question,” he said. “We don’t rehearse the content.”
White House press secretary Scott McClellan said Thursday’s event was coordinated with the Defense Department but that the troops were expressing their own thoughts. With satellite feeds, coordination often is needed to overcome technological challenges, such as delays, he said.
The U.S. troops were soldiers from the National Guard’s 42nd Infantry Division, based out of New York state. A spokesman for the unit said officials there have not received any complaints from their troops related to Thursday’s event.
Critics blasted the pre-event pep talk as implied censorship, and the event itself as disingenuous.
Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., told the Associated Press that, “The American people and our brave troops deserve better than a photo op for the president and a pep rally about Iraq. … Unfortunately, today’s event only served to highlight the fact that the president refuses to engage in a frank conversation about the realities on the ground.”
Paul Reickhoff, executive director of the anti-administration veterans group Operation Truth, compared the pre-event briefing to soldiers receiving operations orders, and called the entire event “shameful.”
“We’re used to staged events to some extent, but this was super staged,” he said. “Troops should not be used as political props.”
Barber is head of OSD/PA Internal Communications, which includes oversight of AFRTS, Pentagon Channel and Stars and Stripes.
The Associated Press and Stars and Stripes reporter Jeff Schogol contributed to this story.