THE USA in many ways has a laudable history. Among the high points in its development was the establishment of the oldest written constitution in the world, a document that established a vibrant and enduring democracy, made freedom of speech, assembly and religion sacrosanct. It showed the capacity for self-criticism and the will to change: it corrected some of its more egregious political features, fighting a civil war to eliminate chattel slavery and amending its constitution to extend suffrage to women. More recently, citizens rose up to demand an end to racial segregation and end the unjust war the nation’s leaders had embarked on in Vietnam.
For Americans, it is necessary to recall the glories of the past to bring some perspective to the present, when there is so much in the administration of President George W Bush with which an ethical observer can find fault.
It was revealed recently that the ruling Republicans have shaped scientific research so that its conclusions serve the highest bidder, in this case the petroleum industry and its cohorts. The New York Times reported that the Environmental Protection Agency, which supervises US policy and practice on interactions with the natural world, succumbed to political pressure by eliminating the sentence, ‘‘Climate change has global consequences for human health and the environment,” from its draft report on the current state of the environment. Gone too was mention of a recent study documenting the rapid rise in global temperatures in the past decade. Instead, as the Times reported, two external agencies, the Council on Environmental Quality and the Office of Management and Budget, inserted a reference to another report that questioned the rise in temperatures – a report scarcely impartial, since part of its funding came from the American Petroleum Institute.
Also excised, in the words of the Times reporters Andrew Revkin and Kathryn Seelye, were “references to many studies concluding that warming is at least partly caused by rising concentrations of smokestack and tail-pipe emissions and could threaten health and ecosystems.”
In contemporary USA, if you don’t like the conclusions reached by science you can just brush them aside. This is true, perhaps only true, for those with sufficient money to pay to get alternate conclusions endorsed. The petroleum industry, the automobile manufacturers who prefer to make high-profit sport-utility vehicles instead of fuel-efficient small cars, the electricity plants which burn coal rather than encourage energy conservation: all of these ‘‘big players’’ have a stake in making sure that science says what they want it to say.
Corporate interests prefer empty rhetoric to plain speaking when their interests are threatened. The Bush administration changed the simple and straightforward sentence cited above to the turgid behemoth: “The complexity of the Earth system and the interconnections among its components make it a scientific challenge to document change, diagnose its causes, and develop useful projections of how natural variability and human actions may affect the global environment in the future.” The mind-numbing rhetoric reinforces what the sentence says: that no one should trust scientific conclusions about anything.
Needless to say, the Environmental Protection Agency scientists who wrote the report were upset at the deletions and skewing of the evidence, something insisted on by political interests orchestrating the work from above, and in consequence they ultimately eliminated the entire section on climate change, other than several vapid generalities like the sentence just cited. In that manner, for them, a small measure of scientific probity was upheld – no false conclusions, just a bit of empty double-speak – though at the cost of giving the Republican politicos what they wanted, a document sanitized of any references to climate change.
What is one to call this administrative interference with scientific assessment? Tampering? Censoring? Lying?
Lying may seem a strong term. Unhappily, a central characteristic of the Bush administration is its disrespect and disregard for the truth. If evidence of global warming is uncomfortable to some of the president’s benefactors, then that evidence can be denied, suppressed, censored. If statistics on mass lay-offs by American industry make the President’s economic policies seem not only misguided but also mistaken, then they need not be collected any longer. (Eliminated in November, those statistics are being collected again only because the Congress insisted they be reported.)
Is this lying, or only ‘‘political spin’’? After all, the modern political stage is full of spin-meisters trying to ensure that facts and events are read in a manner that benefits those paying the spin-meister. Isn’t, one might ask, Bush just shaping facts to help forward his agenda? Science may be for sale, economic data may be manipulated, but has it not always been so?
It is painful to acknowledge that Bush is not averse to lying even when, especially when, the most important issues are at stake. If there were any doubt that he has little adherence to the truth, his statements regarding weapons of mass destruction in the six months preceding the war with Iraq answer those doubts.
Though the Bush administration tried out different reasons for attacking Iraq – regime change and bringing democracy to the Iraqi people were among them – the central argument Bush, Powell & Co advanced was that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction, hence it was a threat to world peace.
On 12 September 2002, Bush told the UN General Assembly: ‘‘Iraq has stockpiled biological and chemical weapons, and is rebuilding the facilities used to make more of those weapons.’’ After the war ended, the USA set up a 1,400-person search operation to ferret out weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. Though 230 suspected sites have been inspected, no weapons have been found.
On 2 October, signing the resolution authorizing use of military force in Iraq, Bush told the Congress: “In defiance of... the UN, it has stockpiled biological and chemical weapons. It is rebuilding the facilities used to make those weapons.” Neither those weapons nor those facilities have been found.
On 28 January 2003, in his mandatory State of the Union address, Bush said: “Our intelligence officials estimate that Saddam Hussein had the materials to produce as much as 500 tonnes of sarin, mustard and VX nerve agent. In such quantities, these chemical agents could also kill untold thousands. US intelligence indicates that Saddam Hussein had upwards of 30,000 munitions capable of delivering chemical agents. The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa.” The sarin, mustard and VX have not been found.
As for the British claim, we must examine it directly, especially as Tony Blair appears to share his trans-Atlantic colleague’s disrespect for truth. On 14 January, Blair proclaimed to an emergency session of the House of Commons: “Today we published a 50-page dossier detailing the history of Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction program, its breach of UN resolutions and current attempts to rebuild that illegal program… Saddam has been trying to buy significant quantities of uranium from Africa, though we do not know whether he has been successful.” Since then, the International Atomic Energy Agency has denied Blair’s claim that they were provided with ‘‘a number of sources’’ documenting Iraqi procurement of African uranium for weapon productions, saying the only evidence that Iraq tried to buy uranium from Niger was contained in forged documents.
Blair made claims similar to those Bush was making about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. Interestingly, he too appears to believe in sanitizing records. Though his speech to the Commons was widely reported, it’s strangely absent from the list of ministerial speeches on the official 10 Downing Street website.
It’s missing perhaps because that speech about the intelligence dossier also contained the following claims: “Saddam Hussein’s chemical, biological and nuclear weapons program is not an historic left-over from 1998. His weapons of mass destruction program is active, detailed and growing. This dossier is based on the British Joint Intelligence Committee’s work. It’s extensive, detailed and authoritative. It concludes that Iraq has chemical and biological weapons, that it has continued to produce them, that he has existing and active military plans for the use of chemical and biological weapons, which could be activated within 45 minutes.”
As for Bush, he was nowhere near finished with his calculated ‘mis-statements’, continuing to hype the dangers in order to mobilize the American people behind his desire for military intervention. After all, there was a war he was determined to fight. On 6 March, Bush told a press conference: “Iraqi operatives continue to hide biological and chemical agents to avoid detection by inspectors. In some cases, these materials have been moved to different locations every 12 to 24 hours, or placed in vehicles that are in residential neighborhoods.” Now that 1,400 American and allied inspectors are in Iraq, and have easy access to residential neighborhoods., they still cannot find those weapons
Two days before declaring war, Bush made a televised address. He gave Saddam 48 hours to leave Iraq, justifying the ultimatum by saying: “Intelligence gathered by this and other governments leaves no doubt that the Iraq regime continues to possess and conceal some of the most lethal weapons ever devised.” Those weapons have not been found, and likely do not exist.
All through the period when Bush and Blair were citing intelligence sources on Iraq’s possession of weapons of mass destruction, Hans Blix, UN Monitoring, Verification and Inspection Commission chief, and Mohamed El-Baradei, IAEA director-general, kept saying that no proof of such weapons had been found.
But as with scientific reports on global warming, if the facts do not say what those in power want them to say, the current wisdom in Washington advises excising the facts and substituting others.
When Bill Clinton was the President, Republicans impeached him for being less than truthful about his private sexual affairs. Now with Bush as President, Republicans control both houses of the Congress, but there has not been any legislative outcry about a President who leads a nation into war on the basis of untruthful claims, or who sanitizes scientific results so that his corporate friends won’t be obliged to safeguard the planet’s well-being.
So, unhappily, the strategy of spinning, censoring and outright lying continues unabated. Truth, for those who rule Washington is an outdated concept today.
The author is Professor of English at Vermont University, and former Visiting Fulbright Professor at Calcutta University.