The French and German governments have acted for sanity and hope by proposing a peace plan that involves the tripling of UN weapons inspectors in Iraq possibly backed up by thousands of UN troops. In a public debate, German foreign minister, Joschka Fischer, spoke for millions of people around the world when he shouted his frustration at Donald Rumsfeld and his war plans:
“You have to make the case in a democracy. Excuse me, I’m not convinced.”
By contrast, our prime minister has committed 40,000 troops to the Gulf region – more than were committed during Operation Desert Storm – and he is clearly set on waging war alongside Bush. A leaked United Nations report suggests there could be as many as 500,000 direct and indirect Iraqi casualties as the result of a US/UK attack. Given that these half a million lives are at stake, it is surely reasonable to expect that our prime minister should have to defend his views against informed sceptical opinion.
So let’s have Blair debate the 1991-98 arms inspections regime with Scott Ritter, a UN arms inspector throughout this period. Let’s have him debate the sanctions regime with Denis Halliday and Hans von Sponeck, who implemented it and then resigned in protest. Let’s have him debate US/UK foreign policy with Noam Chomsky, Edward Herman, Mark Curtis. Let’s have him debate the likely impacts of war on the region, and on the terrorist threat facing the West, with John Pilger and Robert Fisk. Well why not? When evaluating the safety of a new drug or airplane design, many experts are assembled to make informed judgments – why not in a democratic evaluation of the merits of a war that could cost half a million lives?
Instead, according to our media, democracy involves inviting the public to take on the prime minister. At first sight, this seems reasonable enough. After all, aren’t politicians supposed to be accountable to the public? But the reality is that this is the same public that is systematically denied access to meaningful information on foreign affairs by the same media, such that, for example, more TV viewers believe that Palestinians are occupying the occupied territories, and that they, not Israelis, are the settlers.
This, too, is the same public that was denied any debate on foreign affairs in the media during the 2001 general election. But now its views on foreign affairs matter, and so now it is asked take on an acknowledged master of deceptive spin. The result is that Blair is able to bamboozle and deceive without serious challenge.
True democracy would involve the general population being sufficiently well-informed to challenge policy makers or, as a lesser alternative, choosing their best-informed representatives to challenge the political elite on their behalf. But of course the media stand between us and these outcomes. The BBC, in this case, decided for us, without our consent, that Blair should be matched against a somnolent and ill-informed establishment interviewer, Jeremy Paxman, and a group of courageous students, salespeople, secretaries and computer consultants – people facing a celebrity interviewer, a prime minister and a mass TV audience of millions for the first time. The results were aired on BBC2 on February 6: Blair On Iraq – A Newsnight Special.
Where Iraq is concerned, Blair is the Bush administration’s key ally – he is playing a central role in making war possible. Lack of British public support might just stop him and so might just stop Bush. The BBC’s interview, therefore, was of critical importance. One might think that the hundreds of thousands of Iraqi people facing death by incineration in the next few weeks at least deserve an incisive and vigorous attempt at challenging Blair. One might think that they at least deserve that the basic facts, the readily accessible evidence and the most obvious counter-arguments be presented.
Well, they got next to nothing of these – both the Iraqi and British peoples were once again let down by the BBC.
The Inspectors – Were They Pulled Or Were They Pushed?
Paxman came out fighting in the first part of his interview with Blair, but the challenge wilted at the first sign of resistance. Paxman quickly corrected Blair that UN Unscom arms inspectors were not “put out” of Iraq in 1998, as Blair had suggested, they were withdrawn. Blair responded:
“I’m sorry, that is simply not right. What happened is that the inspectors told us that they were unable to carry out their work, they couldn’t do their work because they weren’t being allowed access to the sites.
“They detailed that in the reports to the security council. On that basis, we said they should come out because they couldn’t do their job properly.”
Blair had thereby already admitted the deception – the claim that inspectors were thrown out of the country is a misrepresentation of the reality, that they were withdrawn. Blair clearly knows the facts but the idea that inspectors were thrown out serves his purpose, which is to suggest that Iraq is unwilling to cooperate peaceably with inspectors and so must be subjected to military assault. Paxman repeated that being told to “come out” was not the same as being “put out”. Blair replied:
“No, I’m sorry Jeremy, I’m not allowing you away with that, that is completely wrong. Let me just explain to you what happened. They were effectively thrown out for the reason that I will give you. Prior to them leaving Iraq they had come back to the security council, again and again, and said we are not being given access to sites. For example, things were being designated as presidential palaces, they weren’t being allowed to go in there.
“As a result of that, they came back to the United Nations and said we can’t carry out the work as inspectors; therefore we said you must leave because we will have to try and enforce this action a different way. So when you say the inspectors, when you imply the inspectors were in there doing their work, that is simply not the case.”
Is Blair telling the truth? Paxman certainly didn’t correct him and could be heard repeatedly mumbling “right” as Blair was giving this account. So what are the public to make of Blair’s claim that the inspectors, while not thrown out, weren’t allowed to do their jobs?
The answer is that they must surely believe Blair because they will have heard almost nothing to counter this claim in the media. Barring a window of comparative media honesty in the immediate aftermath of the collapse of Unscom inspections in 1998 – when inspectors were accurately described as having been withdrawn amid admissions of CIA infiltration and spying (intelligence that was used to bomb Iraq in Operation Desert Fox in December 1998) – in the four years since, the media has almost completely buried the reality.
As we have documented in previous Media Alerts, the US and UK media quickly changed its story to the claim that inspectors were “thrown out”. But even when the point that inspectors were withdrawn has been conceded, the fall-back lie – that they weren’t able to do their work – has gone completely unchallenged.
Readers can simply ask themselves this one question: How often have they seen or heard a discussion describing the extent of the success of Unscom inspections between 1991-98? Hans Blix has occasionally referred to the fact that previous inspections were “quite successful” but these mentions are never explored by the media.
In fact the remarkable truth is that the 1991-98 inspections ended in almost complete success. Scott Ritter, chief UN arms inspector at the time, insists that Iraq was “fundamentally disarmed” by December 1998, with 90-95% of its weapons of mass destruction eliminated. Of the missing 5-10%, Ritter says:
“It doesn’t even constitute a weapons programme. It constitutes bits and pieces of a weapons programme which in its totality doesn’t amount to much, but which is still prohibited.” (War On Iraq, Scott Ritter and William Rivers Pitt, Profile Books, 2002, p.24)
Of nuclear weapons capability, Ritter says:
“When I left Iraq in 1998… the infrastructure and facilities had been 100% eliminated. There’s no doubt about that. All of their instruments and facilities had been destroyed. The weapons design facility had been destroyed. The production equipment had been hunted down and destroyed. And we had in place means to monitor – both from vehicles and from the air – the gamma rays that accompany attempts to enrich uranium or plutonium. We never found anything.” (ibid, p.26)
One might think that this would be vital information for interviewers like Paxman now when Blair, Straw and co are declaring war regrettably essential to enforce Iraqi disarmament. Instead, these central facts have been simply ignored by our media – as far as the public is concerned Iraq did not cooperate between 1991 and 1998. In a recent Panorama documentary, for example, Jane Corbin said merely of the 1991-98 Unscom inspectors, “their mission ended before they completed their task”. (Panorama, Chasing Saddam’s Weapons, BBC1, February 9, 2003)
This is a good example of how institutionalised media corruption means that power is freed to manipulate the public to suit whatever cynical ends it chooses. This is the secret of elite control in an ostensibly ‘democratic’ society – the media are central to the task.
Blair is referring to people like Ritter when he says “they came back to the United Nations and said we can’t carry out the work as inspectors”.
This is what Ritter actually says:
“If this were argued in a court of law, the weight of evidence would go the other way. Iraq has in fact demonstrated over and over a willingness to cooperate with weapons inspectors.” (op., cit, p.25)
Ritter argues that inspectors were withdrawn not, as Blair claims, because of a lack of Iraqi cooperation, but because the US deliberately sabotaged the inspections regime. Just prior to the air strikes heralding the end of inspections, Ritter notes:
“Inspectors were sent in to carry out sensitive inspections that had nothing to do with disarmament but had everything to do with provoking the Iraqis.” (ibid, p.52)
In a report published on the second day of bombing in December 1998, immediately after the inspectors had left, Ritter said:
“What [head of Unscom] Richard Butler did last week with the inspections was a set-up. This was designed to generate a conflict that would justify a bombing.” (Quoted, New York Post, 17 December, 1998)
Suggesting that Butler deliberately wrote a distorted justification for war, a UN diplomat said at the time:
“Based on the same facts he [Butler] could have said, There were something like 300 inspections and we encountered difficulties in five.’” (Washington Post, 17 December 1998)
So could Blair. But instead, Blair’s interpretation of these five difficulties out of 300 inspections ahead of withdrawal is:
“Prior to them leaving Iraq they had come back to the security council, again and again, and said we are not being given access to sites. For example, things were being designated as presidential palaces, they weren’t being allowed to go in there.
“As a result of that, they came back to the United Nations and said we can’t carry out the work as inspectors.”
Blair is clearly lying and, equally clearly, it is a conscious lie. Having been prime minister at the time, it is inconceivable that he is unaware of the reality – it was surely no simple matter for the US to sabotage inspections so close to 100% disarmament, and after eight years of high-profile work.
Note that the BBC’s most senior interviewer, in the most high-profile interview during the crisis so far, failed to raise even these basic facts based on the testimony of a senior UN source whose credibility has never been questioned, and whose arguments are readily available in a 70-page book found in most bookshops. Other media have similarly failed the British and Iraqi people. The Independent on Sunday (IoS) reviewed this section of the interview, with Blair’s claims answered by the Independent:
Blair: “The truth is the inspectors were put out of Iraq.”
IoS: “No they weren’t.”
Blair: “They were effectively thrown out. They came back to the United Nations and said we can’t carry out the work as inspectors; therefore we said you must leave.”
IoS: “That’s not the same thing.” (Andy McSmith, ‘The Paxman dossier: Blair’s case for war, The Independent on Sunday, February 9, 2003)
As ever, the fall-back lie is allowed to go unchallenged – there is no mention of the fact that the inspections largely succeeded, or of US provocation and spying. This is standard right across the media, despite the available facts.
Ritter’s central conclusion is clear: the job had been done, Iraq had been fundamentally disarmed. Despite genocidal UN sanctions and ceaseless US/UK bombing raids, the Iraqi regime had ultimately cooperated in disarming without the need for war. This is the truth of the proposed US/UK military action hidden beneath the mountain of liberal media verbiage – it has already been shown to be unnecessary.
Blair is therefore completely misleading the British public in support of an unjustified and cynical war – a treacherous act, if ever there was one. But the all but impenetrable wall of media complicity stands between us and the voices of people like Scott Ritter, which are not allowed to be heard above the bland, erudite, but ultimately lethal din of establishment journalists, politicians and ‘experts’.
Sludge Of Mass Destruction 1 – Anthrax and Botulinum
“We still don’t know, for example, what has happened to the thousands of litres of botulism and anthrax that were unaccounted for when the inspectors left in 1999.”
But it is entirely uncontroversial that Iraq is only known to have produced liquid bulk anthrax, which has a shelf-life of just three years. The last known batch of liquid anthrax was produced in 1991 at a state-owned factory. That factory was then blown up in 1996. Any remaining anthrax is therefore, by now, sludge. Blair, again, must surely be aware of this.
Professor Anthony H. Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) discounts the possibility that any Iraqi anthrax produced in bulk prior to 1991 could still be effectively weaponised:
“Anthrax spores are extremely hardy and can achieve 65% to 80% lethality against untreated patients for years. Fortunately, Iraq does not seem to have produced dry, storable agents and only seems to have deployed wet Anthrax agents, which have a relatively limited life.” (‘Iraq’s Past and Future Biological Weapons Capabilities’, 1998, p.13 http://www.csis.org/stratassessment/reports/iraq_bios.pd )
Readers will recall that Colin Powell held up a vial of dry powder anthrax in his presentation to the United Nations, referring to the anthrax attacks on the United States. This is the anthrax that Iraq “does not seem to have produced”, according to the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Powell is regularly described in the media as a ‘dove’.
Any botulinum toxin would now also be so much sludge. A CIA briefing in 1990 reviewed the threat from Iraq’s biological weapons facilities:
“Botulinum toxin is nonpersistent, degrading rapidly in the environment. […] [It is] fairly stable for a year when stored at temperatures below 27c.” (‘Iraq’s Biological Warfare Program: Saddam’s Ace In The Hole’, August[?] 1990 http://www.fas.org/irp/gulf/cia/960702/73924_01.htm )
The strategic dossier of the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) of 9 September 2002 assesses the likelihood of Iraq retaining a stockpile of biological weapons:
“Any botulinum toxin produced in 1989-90 would no longer be useful.” (p.40)
Ritter has explained how UN Unscom inspectors roamed the country monitoring Iraq’s biological facilities, installing sensitive sniffers and cameras and performing no-notice inspections. But is it possible that Iraq could somehow have reconstructed its capability since 1998? Ritter responds:
“For Iraq to have biological weapons today, they’d have to reconstitute a biological manufacturing base. And again, biological research and development was one of the things most heavily inspected by weapons inspectors. We blanketed Iraq – every research and development facility, every university, every school, every hospital, every beer factory: anything with a potential fermentation capability was inspected – and we never found any evidence of ongoing research and development or retention.” (op., cit, p.38)
Sludge of Mass Destruction 2 – Weaponised VX
Returning to the present, Paxman described how, “Hans Blix said he saw no evidence either of weapons manufacture, or that they had been concealed.”
“No, I don’t think again that is right. I think what he said was that the evidence that he had indicated that the Iraqis were not cooperating properly and that, for example, he thought that the nerve agent VX may have been weaponised.
“And he also said that the discovery of the warheads might be – I think I’m quoting here – may be the tip of an iceberg. I think you’ll find that in that report.”
On January 19, Blix said:
“We have now been there for some two months and been covering the country in ever wider sweeps and we haven’t found any smoking guns.” (‘Allies in a spin over lack of evidence’, Oliver Burkeman, The Guardian, January 10, 2003)
On January 28, Blix was reported as saying:
“Iraq has on the whole cooperated rather well so far. Access has been provided to all sites we have wanted to inspect. Arrangements and services for our plane and our helicopters have been good. The environment has been workable.” (‘Is Saddam hiding something? Blix gives his verdict on Iraqi weapons’, Ewan MacAskill, Jonathan Steele, Richard Norton-Taylor and Ian Traynor, The Guardian, January 28, 2003)
Blair raises the spectre of weaponised VX nerve agent – Blix has indeed referred to “indications” that Iraq “had been working” on VX in the past and that that VX may have been weaponised in the past. (‘Statement by Hans Blix to the UN security council’, The Guardian, Monday January 27, 2003)
“The real question”, Ritter points out, is simple: “Is there a VX nerve agent factory in Iraq today? Not on your life.” (op., cit, p.32)
UN inspectors found the factory producing VX in 1996. Having found it, they blew it up. “With that”, Ritter explains, “Iraq lost its capacity to produce VX.”
VX also quickly becomes sludge. The International Institute for Strategic Studies’ strategic dossier of September 2002 records the likely status of any VX agent in Iraq:
“Any VX produced by Iraq before 1991 is likely to have decomposed over the past decade […]. Any G-agent or V-agent stocks that Iraq concealed from UNSCOM inspections are likely to have deteriorated by now.” (pp.52-3)
The taskforce of the US Department of Defence gave an interesting insight into how important the Iraqis view their own chemical warfare capability so feared by Blair. The US taskforce attributed the high level of Iraqi cooperation in revealing the scale of its chemical programme between 1991-98 to the fact that the Iraqi government realised that the nerve agents it had produced were no longer viable:
“We believe Iraq was largely cooperative on its latest declarations because many of its residual munitions were of little use – other than bolstering the credibility of Iraq’s declaration – because of chemical agent degradation and leakage problems.” (‘Chemical Warfare Agent Issues During the Persian Gulf War’, Persian Gulf War Illnesses Task Force, April 2002 http://www.cia.gov/cia/publications/gulfwar/cwagents/cwpaper1.htm )
It is these “residual munitions… of little use” that Blair claims are a justification for a massive war against an impoverished Third World country. If it happens it can only be adjudged a war crime on a vast scale. The Independent on Sunday reviewed this part of the interview as follows:
Blair: “What our intelligence services are telling us, and I’ve no doubt what American intelligence is telling President Bush as well, is that there are weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.”
IoS: “During his long presentation to the UN Security Council, Colin Powell produced copious evidence that the Iraqis have something which they don’t want the inspectors to see, but scarcely any proof of what it was.” (McSmith, op., cit)
Not a word about limited shelf-lives, blown up factories, or UN arms inspectors who dismiss the claims as absurd. Ritter said in response to Powell’s presentation:
“Everything in here is circumstantial, everything in here mirrors the kind of allegations the US has made in the past in regard to Iraq’s weapons program… He [Powell] just hits you, hits you, hits you with circumstantial evidence, and he confuses people – and he lied, he lied to people, he misled people.” (‘Ritter dismisses Powell report’, Kyodo News, www.japantoday.com , February 7, 2003)
Tomorrow, in Part 2, we will examine Blair’s claims that oil is not a motivation for war and that Iraq needs to be attacked as part of the “war on terror”.
Feel free to respond to Media Lens alerts: [email protected]
Visit the Media Lens website: http://www.medialens.org