The wreckage of a U.S. military plane that crashed and burned on a snowy mountain peak in Afghanistan on Monday was still fresh when Iranian state TV ran a story claiming a top CIA officer was among the dead. Like all good propaganda, the story was mostly false, but with a scintilla of truth. Two American service members had been killed when the U.S. Air Force jet slammed into the side of the mountain, but U.S. officials insist there was no CIA onboard.
A combination of bad weather and Taliban gunfire kept U.S. and Afghan forces from reaching the site for more than a day. By the time the U.S. military put out a brief statement saying that the downed plane carried two U.S. Air Force pilots, the dubious story had spread around the globe.
After a couple of fringy Iranian and pro-Kremlin news outlets reported that Michael D’Andrea, head of the CIA’s Iran Mission Center, was onboard the E-11A communications jet, the story was picked up in The Daily Mail, a major British tabloid, and a second British newspaper, The Independent, carried the news of D’Andrea’s alleged demise to London, albeit with some skepticism. While the Pentagon confirmed to TIME on Friday that there were only two Air Force officers on the plane, none of the official public statements say they were the only passengers. And the CIA has refused to comment on whether D’Andrea or any other CIA personnel were onboard.
The U.S. military says it could not have gotten the news out sooner. But the Iranian version of events that circulated in the information vacuum had people inside and outside the U.S. wondering who to believe. The Trump Administration’s now-familiar pattern of slow, incomplete and sometimes disingenuous responses to events has ground down public and internal trust of its messaging and created an opportunity for adversaries like Iran and Russia to spread disinformation and sow confusion among allies and U.S. officials. The wrong information can spread about an event whether it happened on a remote Afghan mountainside or a maximum-security American compound. “If false reports are not authoritatively or convincingly disproven, they can take on a life of their own,” James Cunningham, former U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan told TIME. “Once that happens, it’s very hard to undo that.”
Critics and some U.S. officials say the growing dearth of trust in America’s word is symptomatic of an Administration led by a President who calls journalists “the enemy of the people”, frequently labels factual or unflattering news coverage as “fake news”, and has himself made more than 12,000 false or misleading statements during his tenure, according to a count by The Washington Post. A trust gap has formed between journalists and Administration spokespeople who often see challenging questions as political attacks, and treat offending outlets with disdain.
Overall, there are fewer on-record press briefings in the Pentagon, the State Department, the White House and other agencies in this Administration, says a former senior Trump Administration official. He says that’s due in part to the top-down nature of the Administration and in part to subordinates’ efforts to protect the President. There is an internal battle afoot with some senior Administration officials arguing for more public briefings, and while the White House Press Secretary hasn’t briefed from the podium since March 2019, the Pentagon and State Department have resumed holding more frequent press conferences to win back that global public trust. But it’s an uphill battle against the megaphone of the Twitter presidency —and the active disinformation campaigns being waged overseas against the U.S. “No one believes us anymore,” one frustrated senior U.S. official said.
FOR THOSE COUNTRIES that similarly see the free press as an enemy, the Trump Administration’s approach to the media works just fine, and the case of Iran and the downed U.S. jet shows how. The U.S. Bombardier E-11A, which was providing troop communications in a remote part of Ghazni, crashed early Monday in an area that’s under Taliban control. Video of the smoldering aircraft was almost immediately posted to social media by eyewitnesses, and the Taliban was quick to claim responsibility for shooting it and other aircraft down. “Many senior officers were killed,” Zabihullah Mujahid, Taliban spokesman in Afghanistan emailed TIME on Monday.
Roughly three hours later, U.S. Forces Afghanistan spokesman Col. Sonny Leggett issued a brief statement denying the militants’ claims, but it did not provide many details. “While the cause of crash is under investigation, there are no indications the crash was caused by enemy fire,” Leggett said in the statement. “The Taliban claims that additional aircraft have crashed are false.”
Multiple U.S. military and Administration officials told TIME that the delay in getting the details of the crash out was due to the fact that the plane went down in Taliban territory and that bad weather prevented them from flying directly to the site. The officials also said it wasn’t immediately clear whether there were any survivors; if there were, they didn’t want to signal to the Taliban to go looking for their troops. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the ongoing investigation.
In the meantime, the Iran story that a high-level CIA officer was on board took off. It wasn’t until late Wednesday afternoon – more than 48 hours after the crash – that the U.S. was able to release the names of two Air Force personnel who were killed on the jet: Lt. Col. Paul K. Voss, 46, of Yigo, Guam; and Capt. Ryan S. Phaneuf, 30, of Hudson, New Hampshire.
The lag time in releasing information gave time for the Iranian disinformation about D’Andrea to circulate, even reaching senior foreign officials in Washington, D.C., who told TIME they were uncertain which account to believe. As of Friday, the CIA has declined to comment, and no Trump Administration official would deny the CIA rumor on record, citing concerns that publicly commenting on the report only spreads the lie further. “That’s not how your fight disinformation,” one frustrated senior U.S. official tells TIME. “On the record should be our default standard.”
The CIA’s reticence has frustrated some of D’Andrea’s colleagues, two of whom tell TIME it’s “business as usual” for the senior official. If someone as senior as D’Andrea were killed, he’d likely be buried with full honors in Arlington Cemetery, within 24 hours of his demise because he’s an observant Muslim, they said, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly.
David Lapan, a retired Marine Colonel who served as a senior spokesperson for multiple administrations, including Trump’s, says it’s not unusual for it to take hours before the military can report the facts of an incident, but that the current atmosphere of mistrust in information coming out of the Administration make unavoidable delays ripe for both misinterpretation and exploitation by adversaries.
This particular case could have been handled differently, Lapan says. The three-hour lag between the video of a U.S. aircraft smoldering on social media and a U.S. statement “is too long,” he says. “We should get out and acknowledge what we can. That delay — on top of this distrust that now exists — made the situation worse.”
The crash follows close on the heels of other recent events that have sparked fake news from adversaries and left U.S. officials worried or confused over what version of events to believe.
After the Jan. 8th Iranian ballistic missile attack on U.S. bases in Iraq, President Donald Trump first reported on Twitter there were no U.S. injuries, while Iranian sources were reporting dozens of Americans were dead and injured in the attack. The Pentagon has since acknowledged that were more than 60 cases of mild to severe traumatic brain injury among the troops who were buffeted by massive shock waves that broke glass windows 1,000 yards from the missiles’ impact.
It can take hours, days or more for symptoms of traumatic brain injury to manifest, and the Pentagon’s own rules classify an officially reportable injury as loss of life, limb, eye or life-threatening injury, something Administration officials say they are now reviewing. Trump was briefed along those rules and wasn’t trying to mislead the public, the military and Administration officials said.
But when later challenged on his initial account, the President dismissed the injuries as “headaches” adding, “I don’t consider them very serious injuries relative to other injuries that I’ve seen” — a comment that U.S. military officials privately called demoralizing and insulting. Senior diplomats said that shifting narrative of whether American troops were hurt on U.S. bases that day was yet another notch in their dwindling trust in public statements from Trump and his officials.
Something similar happened just weeks later, when unidentified attackers launched an aerial assault on the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad. The absence of information about the attack from the Embassy was followed by conflicting information from senior Administration officials, a frustrated U.S. official tells TIME.
The aerial bombardment on the U.S. compound was first acknowledged by Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi, and then mentioned in a State Department statement describing a phone call from Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to the Iraqi leader, in which Pompeo condemned “continued assaults by Iran’s armed groups against U.S. facilities in Iraq, including yesterday’s rocket attacks against our Embassy, which resulted in one injury.”
U.S. Central Command chief Gen. Frank Mackenzie has since told reporters that it was in fact mortars that were used. In this case, identifying the weapon helps identify the attacker: rockets are almost exclusively used by Iranian-trained Iraqi armed groups, but simpler mortars are commonly available throughout Iraq and could have been fired by any number of disgruntled actors.
In the confusion, fake news also took root, with stories being published in local media that the U.S. Embassy was being evacuated, and the people were dead and seriously injured, the official said. “It just makes people question what’s true.” The U.S. Embassy itself still hasn’t put out a public account of the attack and a State Department official, speaking anonymously as a condition of offering comment, told TIME they would not offer further details of the Baghdad embassy attack due to security concerns.
THE PENTAGON SAYS it’s doing everything it can to stop disinformation about U.S. military personnel and interests overseas from spreading. “We live in a time of widespread misinformation from the U.S.’s adversaries, and the Department of Defense is constantly working to counter it,” Alyssa Farah, Department of Defense Press Secretary told TIME. She said the Defense Department regularly engages with the press in on- and off-record briefings as part of that effort.
But the Pentagon is only one agency in what is sometimes a discordant cacophony of messaging, and at others, silence. The recent string of problematic messaging has frustrated veterans of the fight on terrorism who want to react to state-sponsored propaganda with the same speed they learned to counter messaging by al Qaeda in Iraq under the Bush and Obama Administrations.
Now-retired Gen. Stanley McChrystal, who commanded U.S. forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, wrote in his memoir My Share of the Task that a key part of defeating militants in both countries is getting your version of events out first — lest, for instance, an adversary paint an overnight U.S. Delta Force raid on militants as a slaughter of innocent civilians, a rumor that would make it harder to win the trust and cooperation of the local population.
Bret Schafer, of the Washington-DC-based Alliance for Securing Democracy which tracks Russian disinformation, said the U.S. regularly fails at getting its own version of events out first. He said he first heard of this week’s plane crash in Afghanistan from anti-American social media accounts. “By leaving gaps in the information space, you are on your back feet,” he said.
Getting in front of the story is also important to how people back home digest news of the events. If adversaries plant stories that end up reinforcing Americans’ skepticism of own government or media, they’ve won, says Schafer. “The Iranians or Russians don’t have to prove their theory,” he said. “There just have to be enough versions of the story out there so we can’t know what’s happening and we can’t trust anything.”
—With reporting by W.J. Hennigan and John Walcott/Washington