What the Media Gets Wrong About Rescuing Hostages

on February 23 | in Foreign Policy, Hostages, Military, Terrorism, War of Ideas

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For the last several months, various media outlets have been sharply critical of the Obama administration’s unsuccessful attempt in July 2014 to rescue four American hostages held by ISIS in Syria. This coverage has been especially stinging since all the hostages have since died, most of them publicly executed by ISIS.

The public treatment ranges from the thoughtful to the thoughtless, but in all cases the coverage betrays a case of “Captain Hindsight”—and a woeful underestimation of how incredibly difficult a hostage rescue is to successfully carry out. To wit:

The Washington Post published an extensive article about the particular rescue operation, noting up front the “painful questions about whether more could have been done to save them.” CBS News pointed out one of the hostages “may have been at site of rescue attempt.” The Guardian got in on the act. Fox News trumped them all by essentially claiming the White House willingly allowed ISIS to kill its hostages.

The main point of contention appears to be that the Obama Administration was too slow and timid in acting on intelligence on the hostages’ location in Ar Raqqah, ISIS’ self-styled capital in Syria.

Let me offer a contrarian viewpoint, as I have one experience with the complexity involved in these types of operations. I was part of the mission in 2003 to rescue U.S. Private First Class Jessica Lynch, who Iraqi forces captured when her convoy was ambushed in An Nasiriyah. At the time, I was an E-4 SAW gunner in the Army Rangers, so beyond receiving the mission brief I was not privy to any intelligence information or planning. Subsequent press reports indicated U.S. forces received actionable human intelligence on Lynch’s whereabouts before launching the mission to rescue her.

I remember being frustrated we had to stand around and tap our feet overnight in some desolate Iraqi airbase about an hour away from our objective. I am certain I was not alone in feeling this way. Eventually, the mission was a go, and we rescued Lynch and recovered 8 other American bodies in a soccer field next to the hospital.

The comparison between the Lynch rescue and the unsuccessful ISIS operation is instructive if the media is pushing the narrative that the administration was too timid. It’s clear the operation in 2014 was much more difficult to pull off, the intelligence was weaker, and the risk of disaster was dramatically higher.

Rescuing PFC Lynch was a large-scale operation, involving Ranger elements from two different battalions as well as SEALs, and Marines. We had secondary goals too: we were to take the city of An Nasiriyah and retrieve our fallen comrades. But the logistics with the Lynch mission were much less complicated than in Syria in 2014. Americans controlled large parts of Iraq in 2003 and our mission launched near to the objective.

The ISIS mission, by contrast, needed to launch from much-farther-away Jordan—and hence be coordinated with the Jordanian government—and would require some 100 US personnel to fly many miles of hostile territory.

The intelligence also was superior in the Lynch operation. After the Marines received information on Lynch’s location, they sent the informant back to collect more information before launching the raid—even though it delayed the operation—because precise intelligence raised the likelihood of success and lowered the risk of friendly casualties.

Compare this to 2014. The Pentagon and the President were forced to make the decision to launch based on piecing together accounts of debriefings of freed European hostages, who in those circumstances were likely to provide incomplete and potentially contradictory accounts. It’s clear that the suggestion in the press that the administration had an unusually high threshold for intelligence doesn’t square with past practice.

The potential for a disastrous outcome in Syria in 2014 was also much higher than in the Jessica Lynch mission. There were no persistent air surveillance assets to provide real-time intelligence over Syria. The size of the enemy force was unpredictable, and if a large-scale firefight erupted in an area that by most accounts is uniformly hostile to the U.S., there would be little chance to organize an adequate rescue mission.

The situation might have been much worse than the Battle of Mogadishu, when hostile fighters surrounded Task Force Ranger, killed 18, wounded 73, captured helicopter pilot Michael Durant, and paraded the dead bodies of two Delta Force soldiers on international television. All this happened even though TF Ranger’s mission was little more than a mile away from its Forward Operating Base.

The media has consistently underplayed or ignored altogether this danger, which is critical to an operation of this type. Had the mission in 2014 resulted in a disaster, the same press now criticizing the administration for its timidity would be issuing hysterical headlines about reckless operations based on weak intelligence.

Interestingly, in the aftermath of the successful Lynch operation, the media reported wild and generally inaccurate rumors about the nature of the operation. Most egregious was a BBC article that claimed American soldiers and SEALS used blanks while rescuing Jessica Lynch. I wasn’t in the hospital when Lynch was rescued — I was outside manning my SAW — but I can assure you American troops were not flying around Iraq with blank rounds in their weapons.** By the way, we were also wearing all our bulky chemical gear because at the time we still believed Iraq had WMD.

The simplistic coverage of the hostage rescue shows once again that major media outlets are often more interested in clickbait than in seeking the truth of the story. In June 2003, New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof wrote a highly critical oped about the Lynch operation, stating, it “was a complex tale vastly oversimplified, partly because of genuine ambiguities and partly because they wanted a good story.” At the time the “they” was the Bush Administration, and his point was (and is) well taken. But I wonder if he would say the same thing about our media’s coverage of subsequent hostage rescues.

I’m sure the soldiers who risked their lives on the 2014 operation deep in Syria to rescue Jim Foley, Kayla Mueller and others are annoyed that they hit a dry hole. It’s also easy to blame the President for sending them into harm’s way for what turns out to be nothing. Rescuing hostages is almost always high-risk. Next time POTUS authorizes a dangerous mission deep into enemy territory, I hope the media will be a little more understanding that these things are often ugly, bloody, and doesn’t always conclude with a happy ending.

**Great, short first-hand accounts of the Jessica Lynch mission written by other enlisted Rangers can also be found in Violence of Action.

Kevin Strouse ran for Congress in 2014 in Pennsylvania’s 8th District after serving as an analyst for the CIA and as an Army Ranger who deployed Iraq and Afghanistan. Kevin lives in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, with his wife Amy and two young children, Walter and Charlotte.

photo: U.S. hostages arrive at Rhein-Main U.S. Air Force base in Frankfurt, Germany, after their release from Iran, on January 21, 1981. They are among 52 Americans held hostage in Iran for 444 days after their capture at the U.S. Embassy in Tehran. (Department of State)

 

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