In his 6 March press conference, President George Bush once again issued a series of assertions that are unsupported and even contradicted by the available evidence. What is most disturbing is the abject failure of the US media to subject Bush’s statements to any form of scrutiny.
To take just one example, Bush, in listing justifications for a US attack on Iraq, asserted that “There is a poison plant in Northeast Iraq.” This was merely a repetition of the claim Secretary of State Colin Powell made in the Security Council on 5 February, when he displayed a satellite photo of the alleged site.
The Observer’s Luke Harding who was among a group of journalists who visited the site, wrote:
“If Colin Powell were to visit the shabby military compound at the foot of a large snow-covered mountain, he might be in for an unpleasant surprise. The US Secretary of State last week confidently described the compound in north-eastern Iraq – run by an Islamic terrorist group Ansar al-Islam – as a ‘terrorist chemicals and poisons factory.’ Yesterday, however, it emerged that the terrorist factory was nothing of the kind – more a dilapidated collection of concrete outbuildings at the foot of a grassy sloping hill. Behind the barbed wire, and a courtyard strewn with broken rocket parts, are a few empty concrete houses. There is a bakery. There is no sign of chemical weapons anywhere – only the smell of paraffin and vegetable ghee used for cooking. In the kitchen, I discovered some chopped up tomatoes but not much else.”(“Revealed: truth behind US ‘poison factory’ claim,” The Observer, 9 February 2003)The BBC and even the US network ABC carried reports from their journalists that concurred completely with this version. Yet the issue got almost no attention, and neither Powell nor Bush has been asked to explain how such flimsy ‘evidence’ could be used to justify a war.
Another disturbing example involved the arrest on 31 January of 28 Pakistani men in Naples, whom Italian authorities sensationally claimed were part of an Al-Qaida terror cell. That same day, however, it was apparent that there was much less to the story: the Associated Press reported that an Italian “police official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said late Friday officers “might have gotten ahead of themselves” in announcing an al-Qaida link in the headline of their press release.” (“Italian police arrest 28 Pakistanis, find explosives, maps,” Associated Press, 31 January 2003)
Bush, who always claims that he is defending “freedom” and American “values” did not accord the Pakistanis the presumption of innocence until guilt is proven, that is a basic tenet of the American legal system. Rather, at a 31 January joint press conference with UK Prime Minister Tony Blair, President Bush announced boldly, “Today Italy rounded up yet another cell of people who are willing to use weapons of mass destruction on those of us who love freedom.”
Not even the Italians had alleged that “weapons of mass destruction” were involved in the case. And on 13 February, buried deep on page 27, The Washington Post carried in its “World in Brief” section, a few sentences about the case, among them that, “An Italian judge ordered the release of 28 Pakistanis arrested last month on suspicion of plotting a terrorist attack, saying there was not enough evidence to hold them, according to a court statement. The ruling represented a blow for the Italian police, who have seen a number of high-profile terrorism investigations fall apart in recent months.”
It would appear that the men were what they and their defenders said all along: poor immigrants struggling to make money to send home, who happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.
These are just two of many cases where presidential assertions of “fact” turn out to be inconsistent with all available evidence. The President and other administration officials also seem unwilling to take into consideration any alternative explanation. This phenomenon has not gone entirely unnoticed. The Washington Post reported last October that, “As Bush leads the nation toward a confrontation with Iraq and his party into battle in midterm elections, his rhetoric has taken some flights of fancy in recent weeks. Statements on subjects ranging from the economy to Iraq suggest that a president who won election underscoring Al Gore’s knack for distortions and exaggerations has been guilty of a few himself.” (“For Bush, Facts Are Malleable; Presidential Tradition Of Embroidering Key Assertions Continues,” Washington Post, 22 October 2002)
Alas the Post story was a remarkable aberration for a press corps that almost always defers to official pronouncements. This was evident in the 6 March press conference, where the tone of the journalists can only be described as obsequious and deferential in the extreme. Many American journalists place themselves rhetorically on the side of the government, when they regularly refer to “our armed forces,” “our allies,” and “our policy.” They ask questions about whether and when “we will attack Iraq.” This kind of language, in which there is no distance between the journalist and the government creates the illusion of a national consensus in which the considerable opposition to the war in the United States is totally marginalized as something which lies outside the norm.
No wonder then that Americans are so misinformed and confused. Fifty-seven percent of Americans still believe that Iraq was involved in the 11 September 2001 attacks, according to a survey published on 20 February by the Pew Research Center. Not even the Bush administration has ever advanced this conspiracy theory.
Few other democratic governments enjoy such carte blanche from the media. After Powell cited in the Security Council a “fine” British “intelligence analysis” about Iraqi deception, the UK media quickly revealed that the document was a shabby “cut and paste job” by prime minister Tony Blair’s public relations staff, made up of old, published articles and plagiarized sections from a student paper. While the affair became a major story in the UK, costing Blair the little credibility he had left, it went unnoticed in the United States.
In an ominous sign of how determined the Bush administration is to restrict what Americans see, the President advised that when the US attack on Iraq begins, “The journalists who are there should leave. If you’re going, and we start action, leave.” There is little reason to hope that many will not obey this ‘advice’ and Americans will be left even more in the dark than they are now.
This article first appeared in The Daily Star on 11 March 2003.