There's a cynical old saying that the victors write the history. CBS's "60 Minutes" demonstrated how that process works on Jan. 27 in airing Scott Pelley's interview with the FBI agent who de-briefed former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein.
In a world of objective reality, a reporter might say that the United States launched an unprovoked invasion of Iraq on March 19, 2003, under the false pretense that Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction, even after Iraq had repeatedly - and accurately - announced that its WMD had been destroyed in the 1990s.
On Dec. 7, 2002, Iraq even sent to the United Nations a 12,000-page declaration explaining how its WMD stockpiles had been eliminated. In fall 2002, Hussein's government also allowed teams of U.N. inspectors into Iraq and gave them free rein to examine any site of their choosing.
Those inspections only ended in March 2003 when President George W. Bush decided to press ahead with war despite the U.N. Security Council's refusal to authorize the invasion and its desire to give the U.N. inspectors time to finish their work.
But none of that reality is part of the history that Americans are supposed to know. The officially sanctioned U.S. account, as embraced by Bush in speech after speech, is that Saddam Hussein "chose war" by defying the U.N. over the WMD issue and by misleading the world into believing that he still possessed these weapons.
In line with Bush's version of history, "60 Minutes" correspondent Pelley asked FBI interrogator George Piro why Hussein kept pretending that he had WMD even as U.S. troops massed on Iraq's borders, when a simple announcement that the WMD was gone would have prevented the war.
"For a man who drew America into two wars and countless military engagements, we never knew what Saddam Hussein was thinking," Pelley said in introducing the segment on the interrogation of Hussein about his WMD stockpiles. "Why did he choose war with the United States?"
The segment never mentions the fact that Hussein's government did disclose that it had eliminated its WMD. Instead Pelley presses Piro on the question of why Hussein was hiding that fact.
Piro said Hussein explained to him that "most of the WMD had been destroyed by the U.N. inspectors in the '90s, and those that hadn't been destroyed by the inspectors were unilaterally destroyed by Iraq."
"So," Pelley asked, "why keep the secret? Why put your nation at risk, why put your own life at risk to maintain this charade?"
After Piro mentioned Hussein's lingering fear of neighboring Iran, Pelley felt he was close to an answer to the mystery: "He believed that he couldn't survive without the perception that he had weapons of mass destruction?"
Wanting an Invasion?
But, still, Pelley puzzled over why Hussein's continued in his miscalculation.
Pelley asked: "As the U.S. marched toward war and we began massing troops on his border, why didn't he stop it then? And say, 'Look, I have no weapons of mass destruction,' I mean, how could he have wanted his country to be invaded?"
It's Bush World, with Pelley - like other prominent U.S. news correspondents - ignoring the well-established facts of the run-up to war and following the made-up story first presented by Bush four months after he forced the U.N. inspectors out, when he began claiming that Hussein had never let them in.
On July 14, 2003, as the U.S.-led WMD search also was coming up empty, Bush began asserting that it was all Hussein's fault because he had never let the U.N. inspectors in. Bush told reporters:
"We gave him [Saddam Hussein] a chance to allow the inspectors in, and he wouldn't let them in. And, therefore, after a reasonable request, we decided to remove him from power."
Facing no challenge from the White House press corps, Bush continued repeating this lie in varied forms over the next four years as part of his public litany for defending the invasion.
On Jan. 27, 2004, for example, Bush said, "We went to the United Nations, of course, and got an overwhelming resolution - 1441 - unanimous resolution, that said to Saddam, you must disclose and destroy your weapons programs, which obviously meant the world felt he had such programs. He chose defiance. It was his choice to make, and he did not let us in."
As the months and years went by, Bush's lie and its constant retelling took on the color of truth.
At a March 21, 2006, news conference, Bush again blamed the war on Hussein's defiance of U.N. demands for unfettered inspections.
"I was hoping to solve this [Iraq] problem diplomatically," Bush said. "The world said, 'Disarm, disclose or face serious consequences.' ... We worked to make sure that Saddam Hussein heard the message of the world. And when he chose to deny the inspectors, when he chose not to disclose, then I had the difficult decision to make to remove him. And we did."
At a press conference on May 24, 2007, Bush offered a short-hand version, even inviting the journalists to remember the invented history.
"As you might remember back then, we tried the diplomatic route: [U.N. Resolution] 1441 was a unanimous vote in the Security Council that said disclose, disarm or face serious consequences. So the choice was his [Hussein's] to make. And he made a choice that has subsequently caused him to lose his life."
In the frequent repetition of this claim, Bush never acknowledges the fact that Hussein did comply with Resolution 1441 by declaring accurately that he had disposed of his WMD stockpiles and by permitting U.N. inspectors to examine any site of their choosing.
Journalistic Group Think
Prominent Washington journalists have even repeated Bush's lie as their own. For instance, in a July 2004 interview, ABC's veteran newsman Ted Koppel used it to explain why he - Koppel - thought the invasion of Iraq was justified.
"It did not make logical sense that Saddam Hussein, whose armies had been defeated once before by the United States and the Coalition, would be prepared to lose control over his country if all he had to do was say, 'All right, U.N., come on in, check it out," Koppel told Amy Goodman, host of "Democracy Now."
Of course, Hussein did tell the U.N. to "come on in, check it out." But he did so in the real history, not in the faux reality that now governs Washington and pervades America's top news programs, including "60 Minutes."
In Pelley's historical formulation, the question is not why did Bush invade Iraq in violation of international law, causing the deaths of nearly 4,000 American soldiers and hundreds of thousands of Iraqis, but rather "How could [Hussein] have wanted his country to be invaded?"
This strategy of repeating a "big lie" often enough to make it sound true was famously described in the writings of Nazi propagandist Joseph Goebbels during World War II. However, given the relatively free U.S. press, many Americans feel they are protected from "big lie" techniques, counting on journalists to call lying politicians to account.
But that clearly is no longer the case - and hasn't been for some time. Facing career pressure from well-organized right-wing attack groups, American journalists act more like triangulating politicians, fearful of accusations of "liberal bias" or unpatriotic behavior or softness on terrorism.
To have challenged George W. Bush in July 2003 - when he was near the height of his popularity - or even now with his approval ratings at historic lows would carry career dangers that few American reporters want to risk.
So, discretion - or in this case the acceptance of a lie as truth - is the better part of valor.