with Brigadier General Mark T. Kimmitt, Deputy Director for Strategy
and Plans, US Central Command
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.
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
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.
Does the engagement with Al Jazeera represent a shift in official
thinking about the network?
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
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.
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?
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.
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?
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.
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?
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.
Do those statistics come from the US government?
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.
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
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.