Why the Pentagon Announced the U.S. Airstrike in Iraq in a Tweet

These days, the Obama administration is trying to make its own national security announcements before everyone else does.

Iraqis who fled violence in the northern city of Tal Afar, walk at the Bahrka camp that hosts displaced people in the Kurdistan region on July 12.
National Journal
Marina Koren
Aug. 8, 2014, 7:23 a.m.

No press brief­ing by the Pentagon is ex­pec­ted on Fri­day. But there may be tweets.

The Pentagon press sec­ret­ary an­nounced Fri­day that U.S. forces launched an air­strike against Is­lam­ic mil­it­ants in Ir­aq, us­ing just 132 char­ac­ters and giv­ing Twit­ter the news of the United States’ reen­gage­ment in that coun­try first.

It’s a mo­ment­ous tweet, and one that shows an ad­min­is­tra­tion that is in­creas­ingly try­ing to get ahead of its own ma­jor na­tion­al se­cur­ity an­nounce­ments through so­cial me­dia. When The New York Times re­por­ted that U.S. forces had car­ried out air­strikes on at least two tar­gets of the Is­lam­ic State in Ir­aq and Syr­ia, the Pentagon went first to Twit­ter to deny it, sev­er­al hours be­fore Pres­id­ent Obama gave an of­fi­cial state­ment lay­ing out his plans.

On Twit­ter, where people spread in­form­a­tion faster than the fast­est news­wire, the White House is just an­oth­er user. That much be­came clear in 2011, when news of the killing of al-Qaida lead­er Osama bin Laden by U.S. spe­cial forces broke on the so­cial-me­dia plat­form be­fore the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion could an­nounce it.

The White House at that time had sug­ges­ted something big was com­ing when its com­mu­nic­a­tions dir­ect­or, Dan Pfeif­fer, tweeted that Obama would soon ad­dress the na­tion. So­haib Ath­ar un­know­ingly beat them to it when he began live-tweet­ing the spe­cial forces raid in the city of Ab­bot­tabad, where he lived. Minutes be­fore the sched­uled ad­dress, Keith Ur­bahn, a former chief of staff un­der Don­ald Rums­feld, tweeted, “So I’m told by a reput­able per­son they have killed Osama Bin Laden. Hot damn.” The news spread rap­idly from there, and with­in half an hour, the me­dia was re­port­ing on bin Laden’s death.

The Pentagon re­leased an of­fi­cial state­ment Fri­day shortly after its tweet, de­scrib­ing the air­strike. Two com­bat jets struck ar­til­lery Fri­day morn­ing that U.S. of­fi­cials say IS­IS was us­ing to shell Kur­d­ish forces de­fend­ing the city of Er­bil, where U.S. per­son­nel are loc­ated. Obama said Thursday night that the U.S. mil­it­ary will con­tin­ue to con­duct air­strikes against IS­IS if the group con­tin­ues its ad­vance in Er­bil.

Pentagon of­fi­cials will not take dir­ect ques­tions from re­port­ers on Fri­day. But should any­thing hap­pen that war­rants an alert to the pub­lic, they know where to go.

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