For anyone who has followed the Iraq War on television, Brigadier General Mark T. Kimmitt has to be one of the most recognizable spokespersons for the American military. General Kimmitt, who served in the high-profile position as chief military spokesman for the Coalition Provisional Authority in Baghdad, is now the deputy director for strategy and plans at US Central Command. During his time in Iraq, General Kimmitt frequently criticized the coverage of the war by some Pan-Arab networks—especially Al Jazeera— going so far at one point as to advise audiences to “change the channel to a legitimate, authoritative, honest news station.” Recently, however, General Kimmitt was spotted on the Al Jazeera program “No Limits” with Ahmed Mansour. TBS contributing editor Andrew Exum, a former US Army Ranger and Iraq War veteran who interviewed another American public affairs officer for this issue, caught up with General Kimmitt over the telephone recently to ask if the general’s appearance with Ahmed Mansour represented a softening of American attitudes toward Al Jazeera and the other Pan-Arab networks.
TBS: US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld has called the pan-Arab television network Al Jazeera “vicious, inaccurate, and inexcusable.” You yourself, while still spokesperson for CENTCOM, referred to Al Jazeera as “anti-coalition media.” Yet just the other day we turned on our television to see you on Al Jazeera talking to Ahmed Mansour about American policy in the Middle East. Are we witnessing a thaw in relations between the US Defense Department and the most popular Pan-Arab news network?
MK: No, not at all. I think what we have is a continued concern about Al Jazeera’s editorial policy, Al Jazeera’s editorial slant … There have been well-documented and conclusive studies which demonstrate that Al Jazeera does have an anti-coalition bias. Nonetheless, that does not stop us from our obligation to engage and talk with Al Jazeera so that our point of view is able to be heard.
TBS: Does the engagement with Al Jazeera represent a shift in official thinking about the network?
TBS: Well, then is there a growing sense of realism that just says, “Look, regardless of how we feel about Al Jazeera and its content, if we want to reach Arab audiences, this is a better bet than talking to, say, The Washington Post or going on Alhurra.”
MK: Again, it is important to note that my engagement, personally, with Al Jazeera has been routine and regular over the past three years – both when I was in Baghdad and when I was no longer in Baghdad. We have always engaged with Al Jazeera in order to represent our view of the situation and put actions on the ground in context.
TBS: To the outside observer, it seems as if there is a lot of tension between different groups within the Pentagon and the rest of government as far as how Al Jazeera should be treated. On the one hand, it seems to me that some still consider Al Jazeera little more than the public affairs branch of Al Qaeda. Others, meanwhile, seem to consider Al Jazeera and the rest of the Arab press to be an important step toward greater political freedom in the Middle East. Is that the case? Is there some tension or discussion within the government or within CENTCOM as far as how Al Jazeera should be treated or viewed?
MK: I don’t think there is any tension within CENTCOM regarding the way Al Jazeera should be treated. We have an active engagement with Al Jazeera and we often use that engagement opportunity to remind Al Jazeera that it should not be used as the tool of the terrorists, that it should not be the media outlet for (Osama) bin Laden. Yet as we continue to see, Al Jazeera is used as the station by which bin Laden is able to transmit his messages, (Ayman) Al Zawahiri is able to transmit his messages, and extremists groups and (Abu Musab) Al Zarqawi are able to have their videos shown. We have some concerns about that. It’s always important to understand a simple axiom of terrorism: terrorism is not about how many you kill-it’s also about how many people are watching. And by Al Jazeera being used by terrorists to show their handiwork, that’s an audience of 60 million Arabs to whom they’re able to perpetuate their extremist ideology.
TBS: Well, looking at Al Jazeera in contrast to some of the other Arab news networks, such as Al Iraqiya or Al Arabiya, it seems like US officials, senior US officials at least, are much more likely to go on Al Arabiya than Al Jazeera. Is there a preference that US officials have? Is there a sense that one network might be a little more fair than another?
MK: I don’t know. I have not had my specific engagements with Al Arabiya or any of the other Arab channels moderated as either punishment or reward. In other words, we do not use our presence to either provide a stick or a carrot.
TBS: But when you go into an interview with Al Arabiya versus Al Jazeera, for example, do you have a sense that maybe the playing field with one will be more level than with the other? Do you sense that one might be less anti-coalition? Do you distinguish, in other words, between the different pan-Arab news networks?
MK: Certainly, we have high-level concern regarding Al Jazeera. The statistics that are maintained on their reporting demonstrate a higher level of anti-coalition bias than with other stations.
TBS: Do those statistics come from the US government?
MK: They’re maintained by the US State Department. But in my case, my personal relationships with Al Jazeera, Al Iraqiya, Al Arabiya, MBC and the other stations are warm and cordial. I know all of them are going to be tough interviews, and I’m just prepared whenever I go onto any of them.
TBS: So is this the start of something? Can we expect more senior officials to show their faces on Al Jazeera in the future? Or should we not read too much into your appearance with Ahmed Mansour?
MK: You should not read too much into my appearance with Ahmed Mansour. It was an opportunity that, two years after the Fallujah invasion, operation—whatever you want to call the operations done by the terrorists in Fallujah—that Ahmed, who was the lead reporter for Al Jazeera at that time, and I, who was the military spokesman, had an opportunity to sit down and do a kind of “one over the world” with regard to the situation. But it’s certainly not part of an overall policy or part of a thawing of relations. It’s part of an ongoing, active engagement program with all Arab media channels, regardless of who owns them or who they are.