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LIVE FROM THE HEADLINES

BBC Says Pentagon Embellished Jessica Lynch Rescue

Aired May 19, 2003 - 19:14   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.

BILL HEMMER, CNN ANCHOR: It is often said that truth is the first casualty in war. Now there's a BBC documentary asking whether or not the truth about the rescue of Private Jessica Lynch back in early April was one of those casualties.
Private Lynch was rescued in the early hours of April 2 from behind enemy lines in the town of Nasiriya. She was being treated at a hospital there after an ambush that killed nine of her fellow soldiers.

The BBC is now suggesting that that rescue was not everything we were led to believe.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: They shout go, go, go, with guns and blanks, without bullets. Blanks and the sound of explosions and break the door. We are very scared.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

HEMMER: Part of the BBC documentary right there. Political correspondent John Kampener reported that documentary. He joins us now tonight from London, which is well after midnight. We appreciate you staying up late tonight.

What were you reporting on? What are the allegations there on the ground in Nasiriya from the Iraqis about the level of resistance that was met by U.S. special forces and Marines?

JOHN KAMPENER, BBC POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, specifically on the Jessica Lynch story, where the official U.S. version diverged from the version we got from the Iraqi doctors is what happened around the time of Jessica's actual rescue.

Up until that point, the stories are pretty similar. Her convoy was ambushed and, as you say, nine of her colleagues were killed and she was taken away.

What the Iraqi doctors say is that, far from mistreating her, they gave her the best kind of treatment they could. They say that Saddam Hussein's Fedayeen special forces, which had been there in the hospital at the outset, they he had cleared off a couple of days before the Americans descended on the hospital itself. And that far from encountering resistance from the Iraqis, the Americans themselves could have just walked in and turned the key. That, anyway, is what the Iraqis were telling us.

HEMMER: What we heard in that particular part of the documentary is that these special forces fired blanks from their weapons and did not even have bullets loaded inside. Where is the evidence that suggested blanks were fired that night?

KAMPENER: What the Iraqis were saying was that the day -- the morning of the night in which the Americans did make the rescue, the Americans were told -- the Americans had special people in Nasiriya, and that they were told that the Iraqis had left.

So the contention of the Iraqi doctors, and our purpose was merely to raise the questions and to put them to the Pentagon, which is what we did and what we can discuss. What the Iraqis were suggesting was that the Americans knew they were not going to come under fire and that the whole operation was embellished in order to make a good TV package to beam around the world.

HEMMER: What was the conclusion, though, reached by the Pentagon when you took the allegations to it in Washington?

KAMPENER: Well, what we did was we took the version and our aim was simply to put that to the Pentagon and say, OK, we've got one story here, we've got two versions. Let's try and unpick the mystery around this story.

So we put some specific points to Brian Whitman, who's the number two at the Pentagon. He also was the chief strategist who designed the whole media management of this war, specifically the use of embedded reporters.

We said to him, what was the nature of Jessica Lynch's injuries? Is it true that she did not have stab and bullet wounds? And his answer to us was, well, let's wait and see what happens in the future.

And then we said, is it true that the Americans did not come under fire when they took the hospital and rescued Jessica? Again we got what I would describe as a holding answer.

When I then said, OK, well, why don't we clear up these discrepancies and instead of all of us relying on your five-minute edited package, which was presented around the world, why don't we all look at the raw material together, what we here in Britain call the rushes, the real-time TV shots as shot by the Pentagon cameraman who was with that U.S. snatch squad. That request of ours was declined.

HEMMER: And John, was there ever any claim from the Pentagon, refresh my memory, I don't remember this, was there ever a claim made that U.S. special forces came into that hospital with guns blazing that night?

KAMPENER: If you look at the TV footage itself, and the commentary that General Brooks attached to it, the implication of the way the Pentagon presented it was that U.S. special forces were putting their lives on the line that night in order to rescue Jessica Lynch.

I mean, on one point, you know, just to set the matter straight, nobody, I think, would be fair and reasonable in denying the American forces the right to get her out of there. Who, which country would want...

HEMMER: Certainly.

KAMPENER: ... their soldier to be, you know, in a hostile environment in a hospital that even if the Iraqi doctors had acted to the best of their ability, it obviously would be no match to any American or European hospital, where she could have received treatment and close to home.

So the contention -- the argument is not were they in their rights to go and get her. Or maybe the argument is also not were they wrong to prepare for a worst-case scenario, perhaps they were right to do that. Everybody ought to anticipate the highest level of danger.

But when they apparently did not confront -- where they did not receive -- encounter that kind of danger, perhaps afterwards they should have come clean and told the world, yes, we did a good thing, we rescued Jessica Lynch but actually, we encountered no resistance along the way.

HEMMER: John, thanks. I'm out of time. John Kampener. That's the view from the BBC and part of that documentary, what it reveals about the rescue of Jessica Lynch. John, thanks for that.

No surprise, the Pentagon sees the thing quite a bit differently than the BBC. How different? Our senior Pentagon correspondent Jamie McIntyre tonight to tell us what the reaction is there.

Jamie, good evening. What are they saying?

JAMIE MCINTYRE, CNN SR. PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Well, good evening, Bill. The Pentagon says there's no mystery here to be unraveled. It's clear that the U.S. military who conducted this operation had one perspective about what happened. And that the Iraqis on the ground had another perspective. And when you put those two together, you get a clear picture of what happened.

In fact, CNN's John Vause visited the hospital in middle of April and got pretty much the same story from the Iraqis there, that they did not mistreat Jessica Lynch, and that they were ready to hand her over. In fact that they had put her in an ambulance and tried to turn her over to the U.S. authorities the day before.

But I think what the Pentagon would dispute is a number of things. First of all, the question of the U.S. soldiers firing blanks to somehow embellish the action there, that is nonsense according to the Pentagon. They label any suggestion that this operation was embellished or in any way inflated in order to create a better television story as simply ridiculous.

That same spokesman that the BBC talked to, Brian Whitman here, who is I should say number two not at the Pentagon, but in the press operations office in the Pentagon, the deputy to Torie Clark, the main spokesman here, he said, "I think that the allegation is ridiculous. He said I don't know how else to respond, the idea we would put a number of troops in danger unnecessarily through recover one of our POWs is ridiculous."

Now the other point here is that, while it's clear in retrospect, or appears clear in retrospect, that the hospital forces had cleared out of the hospital by the time the U.S. got to the hospital, it was not clear to the U.S. forces at the time and, in fact, the U.S. did encounter gunfire at other locations, not at the hospital and the U.S. -- and the briefers made that clear the day -- when they explained what happened down at the U.S. Central Command.

HEMMER: Thank you, Jamie. Jamie McIntyre at the Pentagon tonight.

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