Charles Krohn is a small, big man. Though he stands five feet seven inches, he bounds when he walks and commands attention with a firm handshake and a spacious smile that competes for real estate with the twinkling eyes on his 67-year-old face.
Gliding through the halls of the Army and Navy Club in downtown Washington, where he's been a member for 24 years, Krohn, in a blue and white seersucker suit, calls a valet "my guy" and encourages his lunch guests to begin their meal with "something substantial," like a martini.
His affability disarms people. Like a court jester, he can deliver honest, often brutal truth, cloaked in well-turned one-liners. This forthrightness makes him valuable to some and a threat to others.
"When people first meet me, they're usually skeptical," Krohn confesses one afternoon over lunch in his club's basement dining room. He looks better suited for emceeing a talent show than hustling about the scorched battlefields of Iraq, itching for a fight with the Pentagon. But that's where you would have found him nine months ago.
Last November, Krohn, then serving as deputy chief of public affairs for the Army, took the job of spokesman and media adviser for David Nash, the retired Navy admiral running the Program Management Office in Baghdad. The PMO was to handle more than $18 billion in U.S. reconstruction funds for Iraq, a Herculean task with two goals: to rebuild the country and, in the process, to win the Iraqi people's goodwill. Reconstruction, to Krohn and Nash, was the way to win the peace and thus protect U.S. soldiers.
But from his first days, Krohn saw the plan falling apart. His network of military reporters, built over a 20-year career as an infantry and Army public affairs officer, had complained to him about the American press operation in Iraq. Outside of staged briefings, getting information was nearly impossible. Requests for interviews went unanswered. Reporters rarely gained entry to the headquarters of the Coalition Provisional Authority, the U.S.-led occupation entity housed in one of Saddam Hussein's palaces.
Krohn took the Baghdad job in part to unclog the communications channels and get the word out about the government's mission. That's what he'd always done, earning a reputation among journalists and some Defense Department brass as one of the Army's most knowledgeable and trusted media relations professionals. Most public affairs officers see their job simply as reporting the agency's mission, not guiding it. Not Krohn. He believed his "public affairs hat," as he calls it, and his talents as a media gatekeeper made him a confidant to the powerful, and therefore a player. "I start a job with an idea of how I think things should be in the end," Krohn says.
His closest media colleagues say Krohn is an expert on the military bureaucracy, but also an idealist. He's a Vietnam combat veteran. During the Battle of Hue in January 1968, half his battalion was killed. He's also a partisan Republican. He advised the Bush 2000 presidential campaign on military management and regularly donates money to the GOP. Krohn resigned from his synagogue in 1994 because he thought the leadership was too liberal. And while he refuses to be labeled a neoconservative, he believes the despotic Middle East can be turned democratic by force.
When he agreed to come out of retirement in 2001 to re-join the Army as a political appointee, Krohn thought he'd be among fellow travelers. "I thought it would be a marvelous collaborative arrangement of like-minded people working together in harmony," he says. "And what I found there was the most disharmonious, hostile environment I have ever encountered in my life."
What he found, and what he did because of it, would shed light on the inner workings of a Defense Department excoriated for its "no news is good news" approach to the media, an approach Krohn thinks is perpetuating the war in Iraq.
It's hard to elicit praise from journalists for government public affairs officers, or "flacks" as they're often called. In the Army, they're regarded as more parsimonious with information than in the other services. But Krohn, by many accounts, reversed that. Journalists flocked to him because he patiently explained the military bureaucracy and because he gave up good dirt.
"Charles understands what not all Pentagon officials get: what the press really needs and wants," says Michael Duffy, who has worked with Krohn since the early 1980s. Many Pentagon officials haven't understood the intersections between their needs and the media's, says Duffy, now the Washington bureau chief for Time magazine. "Charles understood that there were a lot."
The Pentagon brass who relied on Krohn were well served, says Tom White, former secretary of the Army. In 2001, White asked Krohn to be his spokesman and Army deputy chief of public affairs. "Charles knows the Army inside and out," says White, who has been a friend for nearly 20 years. "He knows the Washington press corps. He has a gift for always being well informed."
In Baghdad, Krohn saw a problem that needed fixing. "Everyone knew that public affairs was in the toilet," he says. "Everyone in the media was very unhappy. And the people around [Defense Secretary Donald] Rumsfeld knew it. . . . The media wasn't pleased, but my sense is the White House was." Perhaps that's because the stories about how badly the occupation was managed weren't getting out.
On the Scene
Not one to downplay his talents, Krohn believes that, were he in charge of the media effort in Iraq, the occupation wouldn't be so rocky. Before he took the job with Nash, he made a play for the chief spokesman slot, which had been given to a young White House communications office staffer named Dan Senor.
While stateside, Krohn says he put together a team of eight "subject matter experts," the bulk of a public affairs shop that would include two Arab experts. Krohn would give top priority to flooding the Iraqi air waves with details on the coalition's rebuilding and governing plans. It was Public Diplomacy 101, something the CPA failed to do in the initial stages. "I had the support of the Army [at] the highest levels of responsibility," Krohn says. "But I could never get Bremer's attention," he says of former CPA head L. Paul Bremer. And Senor "never acknowledged I existed," he adds.
Krohn opted instead for the job with Nash, and it didn't take long to get the attention that had eluded him. In Baghdad, he began his own media insurgency and sought out as many reporters as he could. "I told them, 'I'm the guy you want to talk to about reconstruction,' " he says. And he started talking, doing favors and leaking.
Krohn found reporters who couldn't get access to CPA headquarters, and escorted them in personally. "I wasn't authorized to bring news people into the palace. So I brought them in just as American citizens," he says. They used their passports, not their press credentials, for identification. And they brought their notepads and cameras. Krohn calls it "a full-fledged operation," and he doesn't know whether Senor or anyone else found out. "They never complained," he says. "I just did it."
Krohn also leaked to Fox News brutal video footage of torture committed by the Hussein regime: men being beaten with truncheons and whips, saber-wielding guards hacking off hands and fingers. "I thought the U.S. public should have some appreciation of what it was like to live in Iraq under Saddam," he says. The U.S. audience was becoming as important as the Iraqi, in some respects. CPA officials were surprised by the video-clips of which are available today on the Internet-but they didn't complain much, Krohn says.
Reporters from Baghdad to Washington sought out Krohn. "During [Krohn's] time in Baghdad, I talked with him relatively frequently on the phone," says one Pentagon reporter in Washington. "He was blunt, as always, and gave some insight into the dysfunctions of the operation that you certainly weren't getting from the daily press briefings. Charles' insights into the CPA were pretty much on the mark."
The media channels were opening, but still Krohn was uneasy. In winter 2004, a bureaucratic power struggle in Washington was holding up the awarding of $5 billion in key infrastructure projects by the PMO. The failure to pacify Iraq could be traced to the failure to rebuild it, to show the Iraqis that the coalition was a liberating force, Krohn thought. The United States was about to lose the peace.
Nash was similarly frustrated. In mid-December, he had received word from Rumsfeld's office that the $18.6 billion fund might be slashed to $1.9 billion, and that the reins of reconstruction might be handed to another, more experienced group of players.
Krohn's loyalty is unconditional to the person he immediately serves. He held Nash, a civil engineer, in high esteem. He saw him as a "master builder," center stage in an historic act of nation-building. But Nash threatened to resign if he were marginalized by the Pentagon. So, to save the reconstruction, and his boss, Krohn went on the offensive.
He thought the White House was in the dark about the Pentagon's inclination to cut back the PMO, so he wanted to get the president's attention. Krohn cycled reporters from prominent publications through Nash's office for interviews. He "cut a deal," he says, with a reporter from The Wall Street Journal to get the exclusive story if Nash quit. Krohn's hope was that such a story would expose the fumbled reconstruction, and paint Nash as the one who could have saved it.
Stories lionizing Nash began appearing in U.S. papers in December, framing the reconstruction as key to Iraq's future. The Pentagon got a "shot across the bow," as Krohn calls it, on Dec. 29, 2003, when his friend, the syndicated columnist Robert Novak, wrote that "the $18.6 billion for Iraq's reconstruction rushed through Congress in November was indefinitely on hold." By New Year's Day the administration was under considerable pressure to pick up the pace in Iraq.
Krohn counts among his achievements "saving the reconstruction program." It's a debatable claim. Would-be contractors had been complaining about delays and poor management. And violence in Iraq was clearly on the rise. But the series of articles Krohn helped place illuminated the managerial deficiencies at play in Iraq, and tied them to a hand-wringing Pentagon. In March, the PMO awarded its $5 billion in contracts, a month behind schedule, and Nash stayed at the helm.
But the Pentagon's patience with Krohn had worn thin. Although the reconstruction was coming off track, it apparently was intolerable to have the Army's senior media official in Iraq saying that it was off track. In February, before the PMO awards, Krohn was replaced in Baghdad, and returned to Washington. But his bosses didn't know he carried a 4,800-word journal about his exploits, and that he planned to publish it.
Krohn didn't ask permission to publish his manuscript, which appeared in the Columbia Journalism Review last March. Arguably, as the senior Army public affairs officer in Baghdad, Krohn was without a superior to authorize its printing. His story contained no classified information. But none of that mattered. Fallout from the detailed account of how Krohn leaked stories, and what he thought of the management of the occupation, ended his job with the Army.
Krohn says that after he returned from Baghdad, he gave a draft copy to Novak over breakfast at the Army and Navy Club. Novak wrote a column about it, which, Krohn says, lit up the Pentagon public affairs office.
Novak asserted that "the Bush administration's fetish for secrecy" had overshadowed the reconstruction, and that nothing was getting done. This roiled the Pentagon, and prompted Rumsfeld's circle to bring down the hammer. Krohn says that after the article ran, he received a call from the top Pentagon spokesman, Lawrence DiRita, who was traveling in Southwest Asia. He was livid.
"He said, 'Krohn, everyone told me you couldn't be trusted, and now I know they were right,' " Krohn recalls. "DiRita made no attempt to suppress his sarcasm. 'I hope you enjoyed your three-month vacation in Baghdad.' "
DiRita didn't agree to an interview, and so can't confirm or deny Krohn's claim. But shortly after the conversation, Krohn began processing his resignation. He was gone in six weeks.
It's hard to believe that Krohn didn't consider this final act. He went to Iraq on the condition that he "could operate independently, supporting Nash," he says. Under the media lockdown in Baghdad, he surely knew independent operators wouldn't be embraced. By his calculations, the job was part of a grander plan.
"I use my position to affect history," Krohn says. "I've always felt that public affairs officers were force multipliers and are very rarely treated as such. Very few senior people have had experience with public affairs officers and the media that was totally positive."
This fall, Krohn will teach his trade secrets to undergraduate classes in media relations at the University of Michigan. It's likely students will ask him how an official spokesman knows the difference between loyalty to an institution and loyalty to people, or to a cause. He might impart one of his rules: "The thought of, 'Let's not tell them the full story,' I won't be part of that. I simply won't. The truth always comes out anyway."
Krohn might also refer his students to another, deeply personal source: The Lost Battalion, the book he wrote about the Battle of Hue (Praeger, 1993). As one reviewer noted, it "calls to account those responsible for 'cutting loose' " Krohn and his doomed comrades. Krohn opens the tale with a preface that now looks prophetic, and helps explain why he chose the path he did:
I know I say things about living and dead that some will find offensive, although it is not my intention to offend. Both my explanation and my defense is that I had to tell the story as honestly as I could. It's now obvious that we lost the war and some 57,000 died in vain. Some accounting is called for. The least we owe the dead is an obligation to be honest.