Shortly before American military forces invaded Iraq, a troubled Ellen Goodman raised a singularly important question about the Bush administration’s propaganda campaign for war — “How we got from there to here.”
There, according to Goodman, was innocent 9/11 victimhood at the hands of religious fanatics; here, was bullying superpower bent on destroying a secular dictator. I assumed that someone as astute as Goodman would reveal at least part of the answer — that the American media provided free transportation to get the White House from there to here. But nowhere in her nationally syndicated column did she state the obvious — that the success of “Bush’s PR War” (the headline on the piece) was largely dependent on a compliant press that uncritically repeated almost every fraudulent administration claim about the threat posed to America by Saddam Hussein.
Late as she was, Goodman was better than most in even recognizing that there was a disinformation campaign aimed at the people and Congress. Just a few columnists seriously challenged the White House advertising assault. Looking back over the debris of half-truths and lies, I can’t help but ask my own question of Goodman: Where was she — indeed, where was the American press — on September 7, 2002, a day when we were sorely in need of reporters?
It was then that the White House propaganda drive began in earnest, with the appearance before television cameras of George Bush and Tony Blair at Camp David. Between them, the two politicians cited a “new” report from the UN’s International Atomic Energy Agency that allegedly stated that Iraq was “six months away” from building a nuclear weapon. “I don’t know what more evidence we need,” declared the president.
For public relations purposes, it hardly mattered that no such IAEA report existed, because almost no one in the media bothered to check out the story. (In the twenty-first paragraph of her story on the press conference, The Washington Post’s Karen DeYoung did quote an IAEA spokesman saying, in DeYoung’s words, “that the agency has issued no new report,” but she didn’t confront the White House with this terribly interesting fact.) What mattered was the unencumbered rollout of a commercial for war — the one that the White House chief of staff and former General Motors executive Andrew Card had famously withheld earlier in the summer: “From a marketing point of view, you don’t introduce new products in August.”
Millions of people saw Bush tieless, casually inarticulate, but determined-looking and self-confident, making a completely uncorroborated (and, at that point, uncontradicted) case for preemptive war. While we contemplate the irony of Bush quoting a UN weapons inspection agency that he would later dismiss, we might ask ourselves why no more evidence was needed than the president’s say-so — and why no reporters asked for any.
But the next day, more “evidence” suddenly appeared, on the front page of the Sunday New York Times. In a disgraceful piece of stenography, Michael Gordon and Judith Miller inflated an administration leak into something resembling imminent Armageddon: “More than a decade after Saddam Hussein agreed to give up weapons of mass destruction, Iraq has stepped up its quest for nuclear weapons and has embarked on a worldwide hunt for materials to make an atomic bomb, Bush administration officials said today.”
The key to this A-bomb program was the attempted purchase of “specially designed aluminum tubes, which American officials believe were intended as components of centrifuges to enrich uranium.” Mysteriously, none of those tubes had reached Iraq, but “American officials” wouldn’t say why, “citing the sensitivity of the intelligence.”
Gordon and Miller were mostly careful to attribute their information to anonymous “administration officials,” but at one point they couldn’t restrain themselves and crossed the line into commentary. After nodding to administration “critics” who favored containment of Hussein, they wrote this astonishing paragraph:
“Still, Mr. Hussein’s dogged insistence on pursuing his nuclear ambitions, along with what defectors described in interviews as Iraq’s push to improve and expand Baghdad’s chemical and biological arsenals, have brought Iraq and the United States to the brink of war.”
That Sunday, Card’s new-product introduction moved into high gear when Vice President Dick Cheney appeared on NBC’s Meet the Press to brandish Saddam’s supposed nuclear threat. Prompted by a helpful Tim Russert, Cheney cited the aluminum tubes story in that morning’s New York Times — a story leaked by Cheney’s White House colleagues. Russert: “Aluminum tubes.” Cheney: “Specifically aluminum tubes.” This gave the “six months away” canard a certain ring of independent confirmation: “There’s a story in The New York Times this morning,” said Cheney. “And I want to attribute the Times.”
Does it matter that, in the months that followed, aluminum tubes as weapons of mass destruction were discredited time and again? Does it matter that the former U.S. weapons inspector David Albright (not the usual suspect Scott Ritter) told 60 Minutes, in an interview broadcast on December 8 (a program in which I participated) that “people who understood gas centrifuges almost uniformly felt that these tubes were not specific to gas centrifuge” for production of enriched uranium — that the administration was “selectively picking information to bolster a case that the Iraqi nuclear threat was more imminent than it is, and in essence, scare people”? Will the Times ever publish a clarification (à la Wen Ho Lee) based on IAEA chief Mohammed el-Baradei’s January 9 and March 7 reports insisting that there was “no evidence” that the 81 mm tubes were intended for anything other than conventional rocket production?
As for the “defectors” with special knowledge of Saddam’s elusive chemical weapons stockpile, did Miller and Gordon — did anyone in the mainstream U.S. press — take proper note of Newsweek’s exclusive on March 3? In it, John Barry reported that Iraq’s most important defector, Hussein Kamel, who had run Saddam’s nuclear and biological weapons program, told the CIA and UN weapons inspectors in the summer of 1995 “that after the gulf war, Iraq destroyed all its chemical and biological weapons stocks and the missiles to deliver them.”
And what of Saddam’s overall nuclear procurement program? When el-Baradei told the UN Security Council on March 7 that supporting documents of alleged attempts to buy uranium from Niger were forged, no clarification of the Gordon-Miller report appeared in the Grey Lady. Perhaps Times people still believed their own scare story from all those months before: “Hard-liners are alarmed that American intelligence underestimated the pace and scale of Iraq’s nuclear program before Baghdad’s defeat in the gulf war,” the September 8 piece reported. “The first sign of a ‘smoking gun,’ they argue, may be a mushroom cloud.”
The few corrections and refutations of the White House line were too little and too late for American democracy. Enterprising reporting was needed from the moment of the Bush-Blair p.r. gambit to October 10, the day Congress abdicated its war-making power to the president. During that crucial period, I was able to find only one newspaper story that straightforwardly countered the White House nuclear threat propaganda; it appeared, of all places, in the right-wing, Sun Myung Moon-owned Washington Times. On September 27, a very competent piece by Joseph Curl (unfortunately buried on page 16) pointed out not only that there was no “new report” by the IAEA saying Saddam was six months away from the A-bomb, but also that the agency had never issued a report predicting any time frame. Indeed, when IAEA inspectors pulled out of Iraq in December 1998, spokesman Mark Gwozdecky told Curl, “We had concluded that we had neutralized their nuclear-weapons program. We had confiscated their fissile material. We had destroyed all their key buildings and equipment.”
The American media failed the country badly these past eight months. As journalists, what can we do about it? Perhaps we need to adopt the rapid-response techniques used in public relations, something akin to James Carville’s and George Stephanopoulos’s famous “War Room” ethos: never leave an accusation unanswered before the end of a news cycle.
Unfortunately, the politicians and their p.r. people know all too well the propaganda dictum related nearly twenty years ago by Peter Teeley, press secretary to then Vice President George H.W. Bush. Teeley was responding to complaints that the elder Bush, during a televised debate, had grossly distorted the words of his and Ronald Reagan’s opponents, the Democratic candidates Walter Mondale and Geraldine Ferraro. As Teeley explained it to The New York Times in October 1984, “You can say anything you want during a debate, and 80 million people hear it.” If “anything” turns out to be false and journalists correct it, “So what. Maybe 200 people read it, or 2,000 or 20,000.”
John MacArthur is publisher of Harper’s Magazine and author of
'Second Front: Censorship and Propaganda in the Gulf War'.