The inside account of how the now infamous "phony" letter announcing complete US troop withdrawal from Iraq after seventeen years details astoundingly how the "posting of the letter online unleashed a mad, behind-the-scenes scramble at the Pentagon, the White House, and on Capitol Hill, as elected officials, policymakers, military advisers and journalists sought to understand whether the letter intended to communicate what its plain language suggested."
As different departments and levels within the Pentagon bureaucracy attempted to account for it, the story changed multiple times. In a matter of a couple hours it went from "authentic" to "phony" to part of an effort to sow "active disinformation" — and finally according to a confused press briefing by Gen. Milley and Defense Secretary Mark Esper an "unauthorized draft" and "an honest mistake".
This after The Washington Post and a host of other major outlets "confirmed" it as "authentic" — in the words of WaPo's Beirut Bureau chief Liz Sly.
At Monday's Pentagon briefing itself which attempted to assess the origins of the mysterious draft letter, The Dispatch summarized the atmosphere: "Was the United States really moving to remove its remaining troops from Iraq? Nobody seemed to know."
And ultimately no definitive answers came, other than the Pentagon and administration denying than an Iraq pullout is happening, as to just how a "draft letter" which had been making the rounds at CENTCOM came to be in the hands of the Iraqis, after which it was posted online.
As The Dispatch notes, the letter wasn't merely announced by some Iraqi politician in Baghdad, but was released via America's enemies:
The news was a propaganda coup for the Iranians and those in Iraq who support them. The story broke on the television channel of an Iran-backed Iraqi militia, Asaib Ahl al-Haq (AAH), after it was leaked by the Iraqi prime minister’s office, according to Liz Sly, Beirut bureau chief for the Washington Post, who noted that the leader of AAH is a U.S.-designated terrorist and his militia is responsible for the deaths of dozens of Americans.
The letter soon made its way into the American media.
Initially, there was this statement out of the Pentagon policy office in conjunction with Operation Inherent Resolve: “OIR has confirmed with us at the working level that this is active disinformation.” The Pentagon was “fairly certain that this is a fake” according to that early media statement.
Though the letter doesn’t bear a signature, the US military has confirmed its authenticity. Not clear yet whether it’s a full or partial withdrawal, but the reference to deference to the Iraqi parliament’s decision makes it seem pretty definitive.— Liz Sly (@LizSly) January 6, 2020
But then this later at the Pentagon press briefing:
They didn’t declare the letter a fake but they couldn’t offer much of an explanation of its provenance or meaning, either. Esper pleaded ignorance. “I don't know what that letter is,” he said. “We’re trying to find out where that’s coming from, what that is. But there has been no decision made to leave Iraq, period.” He declined to confirm its authenticity. “No, I can’t.”
Gen. Milley couldn’t verify that the letter was real, either. “I do know that it's not signed,” he said. “But I just looked at it right there; it's not signed.”
So even the attempts to account for what may or may not be a "draft" letter which originated within the Pentagon itself and then leaked to the Iraqis remain contradictory.
The final word from the Defense Department seems to be a shoulder shrug and that it was "an honest mistake".
What remains is that the whole embarrassing and bizarre episode does indeed appear a "propaganda coup for the Iranians and those in Iraq who support them."