Defense

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

Pallets of bottled water are loaded aboard a U.S. Air Force C-17 Globemaster III aircraft in preparation for a humanitarian airdrop over Iraq Aug. 8, 2014.

Pallets of bottled water are loaded aboard a U.S. Air Force C-17 Globemaster III aircraft in preparation for a humanitarian airdrop over Iraq Aug. 8, 2014. // U.S. Air Force/AP

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. Obamasaid 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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// October 30
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