If media companies want to boost ratings and credibility at the same time, they should follow the lead of New York Times columnists Paul Krugman and Nicholas D. Kristof and make weapons of mass destruction the top story of the summer. Not only have President Bush and his administration exaggerated the evidence that Iraq had WMD, but now that news of their lies has leaked out, the pro-war camp is spinning like mad. The odds of exposing a major cover-up are looking very good indeed.
Consider the momentum this story has picked up from the Times Op-Ed page in recent weeks. On May 30, Kristof reported that according to "a torrent" of sources, WMD intelligence was "deliberately warped . . . to mislead our elected representatives into voting to authorize [the war in Iraq]." On June 3, Krugman noted that "misrepresentation and deception are standard operating procedure for this administration," and on June 10, he demanded accountability, blasting the Bush team's m.o. as one of "cherry picking, of choosing and exaggerating intelligence that suited [their] preconceptions."
At press time, the Bush team and Tony Blair stand widely accused of intentionally publicizing bogus evidence to justify the war. Not only did Bush rely on forged documents when he made the claim in his State of the Union address that Iraq tried to purchase uranium from Niger, but, as Kristof reported on May 6 and June 13, everyone in the intelligence community knew this was a lie, including the office of Dick Cheney. With some Democrats demanding public WMD hearings, the Bush team is running scared, scheduling closed hearings and scheming to make CIA director George Tenet the fall guy.
What did the president know, and when did he know it? The refrain dates back to Watergate days, when Richard Nixon had to resign because of his lies. Just think, with gavel-to-gavel coverage, WMD hearings could be an enlightening spectacle, filling the cable channels with Watergate nostalgia while reminding the world that in America, political leaders have an obligation to tell the truth. Even lying about sex, as conservatives liked to remind us during the Clinton era, is an impeachable offense.
Now that a Republican is accused of lying to launch an endless military occupation, hawks are rushing to reassert the legitimacy of U.S. aggression. But the "bouquet of new justifications," as Maureen Dowd calls their arguments, have wilted quickly. What's the rush to find WMD? asks the Bush camp. We found other neat stuff, like torture chambers. Saddam Hussein had these weapons before, but he hid them really well—or maybe sent them to Syria. Dr. Germ and Mrs. Anthrax aren't talking, 'cause they don't want to be tried as war criminals. And besides, would Dubya lie to you?
The Bush defense begins and ends with the assertion that we're better off now that the U.S. is occupying Iraq. Questioned on June 9 about his reasons for going to war, Bush declared, "The credibility of the United States is based upon our strong desire to make the world more peaceful, and the world is now more peaceful." It is?
Some hawkish columnists invoke noble goals to justify the war, but they dodge the question of organized deception. Writing for the British Mirror on June 5, Christopher Hitchens argued that allegations of hyped evidence do not discredit regime change in Iraq, concluding that the failure to find WMD is "a good thing on the whole"—because it means Hussein has been disarmed. On June 4, New York Times columnist Thomas L. Friedman shrugged off WMD hype as a necessary selling technique for Bush, arguing that we hit Hussein "because we could" and that what matters is whether we succeed at building a "progressive Arab regime." In other words, the ends justify the means.
In a June 8 op-ed, Washington Post columnist Robert Kagan apologized for Bush and Blair by linking them with anyone who ever said Iraq had WMD. "If Bush and [Blair] are lying," he wrote, "they're not alone. They're part of a vast conspiratorial network of liars that includes U.N. weapons inspectors and reputable arms control experts both inside and outside the government." Post letter writers responded that the issue is not whether Iraq had WMD in the past, but whether those weapons posed an imminent threat and justified war. (Blair had endorsed bogus evidence that Hussein could deploy his arsenal in 45 minutes flat.)
Bush is so comfortable bending the truth to defend this war that he recently denied the consensus that no WMD have been found. On Polish TV last month, he said, "We've found the weapons of mass destruction. You know, we found biological laboratories. . . . And we'll find more weapons as times goes on. But for those who say we haven't found the banned manufacturing devices or banned weapons, they're wrong. We found them."
Ah, the mysterious labs, a/k/a trucks or trailers. These were introduced on May 28 by U.S. officials who called them "the strongest evidence yet" that Iraq was hiding a biological warfare program. But as a former UN inspector told The Washington Post, "the government's finding is based on eliminating any possible alternative explanation for the trucks, which is a controversial methodology under any circumstances."
If wishful thinking fails, hawks can always fall back on blaming the messenger. In a June 10 op-ed in the New York Post, the Heritage Foundation's Peter Brookes suggested that if intelligence analysts felt bullied by the Bush administration to cook the evidence, it was their fault for not resisting the pressure. The same day, the Post's John Podhoretz weighed in with the warning that anyone who accuses Bush of planting WMD evidence will be exceeding the bounds of "taste, logic, good sense or reason."
The most cynical strategy involves expressing disbelief that our leaders are capable of lying. "Does anybody believe that President Bush [and his military brass] ordered U.S. soldiers outside Baghdad to don heavy, bulky chemical-weapon suits in scorching heat . . . to maintain a charade?" wrote Charles Krauthammer in The Washington Post on June 13. On June 4, Brookes explained why Bush and company are too smart to lie: If they intentionally deceived the public, "not finding the weapons would then spell big trouble for administration officials. Why tell a lie they knew would eventually come to light?" The New York Post's Deroy Murdock chimed in on June 14 with the opposite argument—these guys are actually too dumb to lie. "Were Bush and Blair clever enough [to have hyped WMD]," wrote Murdock, "they should be crafty enough by now to have 'discovered' enough botulinum to have justified hostilities."
In retrospect, the Bush administration's most publicized war stories have all been the products of smoke and mirrors. Contrary to the initial hype, the Hussein "decapitation strike" turned up no bodies and no bunkers. Chemical Ali walked out alive. Jessica Lynch was never shot, stabbed, or tortured by Iraqis. And despite all the hot tips Ahmad Chalabi spoon-fed to New York Times reporter Judith Miller, the WMD search teams have not found a single silver bullet or smoking gun. The war on Iraq is a Byzantine puzzle that begins and ends with a lie. The media have an obligation to expose it.
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