Weapons of Mass Deception by Sheldon Rampton & John Stauber (Tarcher/Putnam, 2003, 215 pp.)


A
number of opinion surveys have recently reported that for the first
time since the beginning of the war in Iraq a solid majority of
Americans believe the Bush administration either stretched the truth
about Iraqi weapons of mass destruction or told outright lies. The
publication of Weapons
of Mass Deception
by investigative reporters Sheldon Rampton
and John Stauber should swell that majority as well as critically
inform a curious public about the aggressive public relations campaign
used to take the nation to war with Iraq. 

For
starters, Rampton and Stauber remind readers about the PR campaign
masterminded by Hill & Knowlton for the first war in the Gulf.
With a budget in excess of $10 million, Hill & Knowlton had
ample funds to gather, select, and broadcast a vast quantity of
information. This process also included the fabrication of front
groups designed to hide the identity of private sponsors as well
as scripting theatrical stories that were then presented as news.
One particular event that is now recognized as the most decisive
ploy used to manufacture American consent for the first Gulf war
involved the testimony of Kuwaiti citizens at a hearing designed
to resemble an official congressional proceeding (the so-called
Congressional Human Rights Caucus). The most moving “eye witness”
testimony, given by a young Kuwaiti girl, identified only by her
first name, described how Iraqi soldiers had taken hundreds of babies
out of incubators in a hospital in Kuwaiti City and left “the
babies on the cold floor to die.” In fact, the girl was the
15-year-old daughter of the Kuwaiti ambassador to the U.S. and Hill
& Knowlton had scripted her lines for their client, the Kuwaiti
Royal family. Needless to say, Dr. Fayeza Youssef, who ran the obstetrics
unit at the hospital, said the girl’s claim was false; no one
had seen Iraqi troops yanking babies from incuba- tors. Furthermore,
there were only a handful of incubators in all of Kuwait. 

After
the media repeatedly broadcast this hoax, the tide of American sentiment
became hawkish enough to launch the war to “reclaim Kuwait.”
The U.S. troops then rolled into Kuwait City for their first victorious
curtain call. Another PR firm—whose clients included the Pentagon
and the CIA—had set the stage for TV crews by distributing
small American flags to hundreds of Kuwaitis posed along the route. 

Though
the babies-torn-from–incubators story has become infamous within
the PR community, few Americans understand how (much less why) their
perceptions were managed at that time and how their perceptions
about various Islamic states and leaders have been managed ever
since. As recently as January 2003, for example, in an opinion poll
conducted by Knight-Ridder newspapers, half of the people surveyed
still believed that one or more of the September 11 terrorist hijackers
were Iraqi citizens. In fact, none were from Iraq and most were
from our “client state” Saudi Arabia. 

What
Rampton and Stauber would like Americans to know is that the freedom
of speech that is seen to be the essence of democracy also grants
the freedom to lie. Thus, a necessary skill for those who aspire
to a better, livable world is to be able to discriminate between
fact and fabrication. Weapons of Mass Deception also makes
it clear that it is important to know who is footing the bill for
the vast amount of misinformation that is broadcast—be it the
Pentagon, the CIA, a client state, multinational corporation, or
other entity. In the same way the general public has become savvy
about industries creating desire and consumption, Americans need
to understand how so much of what passes for news has been tailored
in the interests of ruling elites as acutely as any marketing campaign. 

Weapons
of Mass Deception
offers an analysis of how this works. Its
timeliness is self-evident; it is an excellent book, written with
the conviction that American people are not coarse and feckless
but individuals capable of intelligent discrimination and concern
when the truth isn’t sanitized out of existence.