"CREDIBILITY gap." Webster's defines it as an apparent disparity between what is said and the actual facts. It is also described as the inability to have one's statements accepted as factual or one's professed motives accepted as the true ones.
The latter definition explains why Americans are skeptical about anything President George Bush says about Iraq. The former illustrates the apparent difference between what is actually happening in the war and what the military is saying about it.
After four years of watching a pre-emptive invasion devolve into a prolonged bloodletting of unimaginable scope, Americans finally said "enough" last November. They said "enough" to the infuriating White House spin that progress is being made in Baghdad and that staying the course in an erupting civil war will pay off.
At long last the revolt by midterm voters emboldened a heretofore rubber-stamp Congress to reassert itself. Whether the new Democratic leadership on Capitol Hill can bring sufficient pressure on the Bush regime to rethink the big picture in Iraq is unclear.
The only change he offered Americans was a military escalation in Baghdad, exactly what suddenly retired field commanders in Iraq argued against. More troops, they said, might actually exacerbate a deteriorating situation.
But before there was time for the facts to get in the way of foreign policy, new military leaders were installed who could be more amenable to the Bush Administration's stall-for-time strategy in Iraq.
Once again the chain of command, from President on down to the military brass, was on the same page - at least publicly. They would all perpetuate the same myths that things are better than they seem in Iraq, or that troops are winning against insurgents, or that military accounts of the fate of U.S. forces are the gospel truth.
Three days before Mr. Bush was to deliver his annual State of the Union speech to Congress and the nation, a U.S. military statement said there had been a raid on a provincial government facility in the holy city of Karbala and that five American soldiers were killed "repelling the attack." It didn't happen that way.
Nearly a week after the assault, and only hours after the Associated Press reported what really occurred, the military finally came clean about what has since been depicted as perhaps the boldest and most sophisticated attack against Americans in four years of warfare in Iraq.
Gunmen wearing American military uniforms, carrying American weapons, and driving a convoy of vehicles used by the U.S. government, were waved through Iraqi security checkpoints at the Iraqi/American compound. They went straight to where the Americans were located.
The attackers threw a hand grenade and opened fire on the unsuspecting soldiers. In its statement on Jan. 20, the U.S. military claimed one soldier was killed and three were wounded in the stunning security breakdown. But that was far from the whole truth.
In the brazen assault on U.S. troops, four American soldiers were kidnapped and murdered. They were found dead or dying about 25 miles away from the compound where they were captured. They all had gunshot wounds to the head.
Two were discovered handcuffed together in the back of one of the black GMC Suburban vehicles used in the raid. One soldier was found dead on the ground and another, still alive nearby, died on the way to the hospital.
Yet for days after the news leaked about the dramatic abductions and killings, the U.S. military was mute about the affair, with no response to repeated requests for comment.
Late last Friday, apparently hoping that the story would be buried over the weekend, the U.S. military issued another account of the Jan. 20 attack in Karbala with far more ominous overtones. "The precision of the attack, the equipment used, and the possible use of explosives to destroy the military vehicles in the compound suggests that the attack was well-rehearsed prior to execution," said a military spokesman.
Still, even as the military was acknowledging a serious contradiction in its original statement about the sneak attack in Karbala, the Defense Department was stuck in myth mode. Its manifesto of war dead on Jan. 20 clearly identified only one soldier killed in the assault at the provincial headquarters in Karbala. Other troops killed the same day in the region were four Army soldiers said to have been "ambushed while conducting dismounted operations" in the vicinity. The department never noted the first casualty of war.
But blurring the truth only broadens the credibility gap in a country where citizens increasingly can't trust their leaders to share unpleasant developments.