Bill Moyers has put together an amazing 90-minute video documenting the lies that the Bush administration told to sell the Iraq War to the American public, with a special focus on how the media led the charge. I've watched an advance copy and read a transcript, and the most important thing I can say about it is: Watch PBS from 9 to 10:30 p.m. on Wednesday, April 25. Spending that 90 minutes on this will actually save you time, because you'll never watch television news again — not even on PBS, which comes in for its share of criticism.
While a great many pundits, not to mention presidents, look remarkably stupid or dishonest in the four-year-old clips included in "Buying the War," it's hard to take any spiteful pleasure in holding them to account, and not just because the killing and dying they facilitated is ongoing, but also because of what this video reveals about the mindset of members of the DC media. Moyers interviews media personalities, including Dan Rather, who clearly both understand what the media did wrong and are unable to really see it as having been wrong or avoidable.
It's great to see an American media outlet tell this story so well, but it leads one to ask: When will Congress tell it? While the Democrats were in the minority, they clamored for hearings and investigations, they pushed Resolutions of Inquiry into the White House Iraq Group and the Downing Street Minutes. Now, in the majority, they've gone largely silent. The chief exception is the House Judiciary Committee's effort to question Condoleezza Rice next week about the forged Niger documents.
But what comes out of watching this show is a powerful realization that no investigation is needed by Congress, just as no hidden information was needed for the media to get the story right in the first place. The claims that the White House made were not honest mistakes. But neither were they deceptions. They were transparent and laughably absurd falsehoods. And they were high crimes and misdemeanors.
The program opens with video of President Bush saying "Iraq is part of a war on terror. It's a country that trains terrorists, it's a country that can arm terrorists. Saddam Hussein and his weapons are a direct threat to this country."
Was that believable or did the media play along? The next shot is of a press conference at which Bush announces that he has a script telling him which reporters to call on in what order. Yet the reporters play along, raising their hands after each comment, pretending that they might be called on despite the script.
Video shows Richard Perle claiming that Saddam Hussein worked with al Qaeda and that Iraqis would greet American occupiers as liberators. Here are the Weekly Standard, the Wall Street Journal, William Safire at the New York Times, Charles Krauthammer and Jim Hoagland at the Washington Post all demanding an overthrow of Iraq's government. George Will is seen saying that Hussein "has anthrax, he loves biological weapons, he has terrorist training camps, including 747s to practice on."
But was that even plausible? Bob Simon of "60 Minutes" tells Moyers he wasn't buying it. He says he saw the idea of a connection between Hussein and al Qaeda as an absurdity: "Saddam, as most tyrants, was a total control freak. He wanted total control of his regime. Total control of the country. And to introduce a wild card like al Qaeda in any sense was just something he would not do. So I just didn't believe it for an instant."
Knight Ridder Bureau Chief John Walcott didn't buy it either. He assigned Warren Strobel and Jonathan Landay to do the reporting, and they found the Bush claims to be quite apparently false. For example, when the Iraqi National Congress (INC) fed the New York Times' Judith Miller a story through an Iraqi defector claiming that Hussein had chemical and biological weapons labs under his house, Landay noticed that the source was a Kurd, making it very unlikely he would have learned such secrets. But Landay also noticed that it was absurd to imagine someone putting a biological weapons lab under his house.
But absurd announcements were the order of the day. A video clip shows a Fox anchor saying "A former top Iraqi nuclear scientist tells Congress Iraq could build three nuclear bombs by 2005." And the most fantastic stories of all were fed to David Rose at Vanity Fair Magazine. We see a clip of him saying "The last training exercise was to blow up a full size mock up of a US destroyer in a lake in central Iraq."
Landay comments: "Or jumping into pits of fouled water and having to kill a dog with your bare teeth. I mean, this was coming from people, who are appearing in all of these stories, and sometimes their rank would change."
Forged documents from Niger could not have gotten noticed in this stew of lies. Had there been some real documents honestly showing something, that might have stood out and caught more eyes. Walcott describes the way the INC would feed the same info to the Vice President and Secretary of Defense that it fed to a reporter, and the reporter would then get the claims confirmed by calling the White House or the Pentagon. Landay adds: "And let's not forget how close these people were to this administration, which raises the question, was there coordination? I can't tell you that there was, but it sure looked like it."
Simon from 60 Minutes tells Moyers that when the White House claimed a 9-11 hijacker had met with a representative of the Iraqi government in Prague, 60 Minutes was easily able to make a few calls and find out that there was no evidence for the claim. "If we had combed Prague," he says, "and found out that there was absolutely no evidence for a meeting between Mohammad Atta and the Iraqi intelligence figure. If we knew that, you had to figure the administration knew it. And yet they were selling the connection between Al Qaeda and Saddam."
Moyers questions a number of people about their awful work, including Dan Rather, Peter Beinart, and then Chairman and CEO of CNN Walter Isaacson. And he questions Simon, who soft-pedaled the story and avoided reporting that there was no evidence.
Landay at Knight Ridder did report the facts when it counted, but not enough people paid attention. He tells Moyers that all he had to do was read the UN weapons inspectors reports online to know the White House was lying to us. When Cheney said that Hussein was close to acquiring nuclear weapons, Landay knew he was lying: "You need tens of thousands of machines called 'centrifuges' to produce highly enriched uranium for a nuclear weapon. You've got to house those in a fairly big place, and you've got to provide a huge amount of power to this facility."
Moyers also hits Tim Russert with a couple of tough questions. Russert expressed regret for not having included any skeptical voices by saying he wished his phone had rung. So, Moyers begins the next segment by saying "Bob Simon didn't wait for the phone to ring," and describing Simon's reporting. Simon says he knew the claims about aluminum tubes were false because 60 Minutes called up some scientists and researchers and asked them. Howard Kurtz of the Washington Post says that skeptical stories did not get placed on the front page because they are not "definitive."
Moyers shows brief segments of an Oprah show in which she has on only pro-war guests and silences a caller who questions some of the White House claims. Just in time for the eternal election season, Moyers includes clips of Hillary Clinton and John Kerry backing the war on the basis of Bush and Cheney's lies. But we also see clips of Robert Byrd and Ted Kennedy getting it right.
The Washington Post editorialized in favor of the war 27 times, and published in 2002 about 1,000 articles and columns on the war. But the Post gave a huge anti-war march a total of 36 words. "What got even less ink," Moyers says, "was the release of the National Intelligence Estimate." Even the misleading partial version that the media received failed to fool a careful eye.
Landay recalls: "It said that the majority of analysts believed that those tubes were for the nuclear weapons program. It turns out, though, that the majority of intelligence analysts had no background in nuclear weapons." Was Landay the only one capable of noticing this detail?
Colin Powell's UN presentation comes in for similar quick debunking. We watch a video clip of Powell complaining that Iraq has covered a test stand with a roof. But AP reporter Charles Hanley comments: "What he neglected to mention was that the inspectors were underneath watching what was going on."
Powell cited a UK paper, but it very quickly came out that the paper had been plagiarized from a college student's work found online. The British press pointed that out. The US let it slide. But anyone looking for the facts found it quickly.
Moyers' wonderful movie is marred by a single line, the next to the last sentence, in which he says: "The number of Iraqis killed, over 35,000 last year alone, is hard to pin down." A far more accurate figure could have been found very easily.
David Swanson is creator of MeetWithCindy.org, co-founder of the AfterDowningStreet.org coalition, a writer and activist, and the Washington Director of Democrats.com. He is a board member of Progressive Democrats of America, and serves on the Executive Council of the Washington-Baltimore Newspaper Guild, TNG-CWA. He has worked as a newspaper reporter and as a communications director, with jobs including Press Secretary for Dennis Kucinich's 2004 presidential campaign, Media Coordinator for the International Labor Communications Association, and three years as Communications Coordinator for ACORN, the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now. Swanson obtained a Master's degree in philosophy from the University of Virginia in 1997. His website is www.davidswanson.org.