Among The Knowledgeable
The media have erupted with outrage at the allegation that Tony Blair “duped” the public and parliament into fighting a war that had been secretly agreed with George Bush last September. Equally outrageous, however, was the stubborn refusal of the media to discuss these issues before senior politicians blew the whistle.
Martin Woollacott summarised the standard pre-war media view in the Guardian on January 24:
“Among those knowledgeable about Iraq there are few, if any, who believe he [Saddam] is not hiding such weapons. It is a given.” (‘This drive to war is one of the mysteries of our time – We know Saddam is hiding weapons. That isn’t the argument’, Martin Woollacott, The Guardian, January 24, 2003)
This was nonsense but because it was rarely challenged Blair’s “passionate sincerity” about the supposed Iraqi threat also became “a given”. The Observer’s Andrew Rawnsley described how Blair was “genuinely disturbed – it would not be going too far to say petrified – about Saddam Hussein’s potential ability to use weapons of mass destruction.” (‘How to deal with the American goliath’, Andrew Rawnsley, The Observer, February 24, 2002)
The BBC’s Laura Trevelyan declared that Tony Blair “passionately believes” that Saddam had to be confronted if future generations were not to be haunted by our inaction. (BBC News at One, January 14, 2003)
The editors of the anti-war Mirror wrote the day after Blair’s crucial March 18 speech to parliament:
“Even though the Mirror disagrees strongly with Tony Blair over his determination to wage war on Iraq, we do not question his belief in the rightness of what he is doing.”
The Daily Telegraph’s editors wrote:
“Any fair-minded person who listened to [the] debate… must surely have concluded that Mr Blair was right, and his opponents were wrong.”
The Independent’s editors wrote:
“Tony Blair’s capacities as a performer and an advocate have never been in doubt. But this was something much more… this was the most persuasive case yet made by the man who has emerged as the most formidable persuader for war on either side of the Atlantic. The case against President Saddam’s 12-year history of obstructing the United Nation’s attempts at disarmament has never been better made.”
Remarkably, this praise across the media spectrum was heaped on a speech packed full of lies and deceptions that could easily have been exposed by journalists.
Cambridge academic Glen Rangwala has analysed the first reference in Blair’s speech to an Unmovic working document of March 6, 2003, entitled ‘Unresolved Disarmament Issues’. Blair noted that Iraq “had had far reaching plans to weaponise VX”. The quotation used by Blair was from a “background” section of the Unmovic report on Iraq’s policy before 1991. In the key new section on VX in the same report, Unmovic reported that the method used by Iraq to produce 1.5 tonnes of VX before 1990 – a ‘threat’ repeatedly mentioned by US-UK politicians – did not lead to stable results. According to the weapons inspectors:
“VX produced [by the Iraqi method] must be used relatively quickly after production (about 1 to 8 weeks).”
Rangwala explains the sheer audacity of Blair’s deception:
“In other words, Blair’s first piece of ‘evidence’ was about a substance that the weapons inspectors consider to have been no threat since early 1991. Tony Blair didn’t tell the MPs that.” (Glen Rangwala, ‘Evidence And Deceit: How The Case For War Became Unstuck’, ZNet)
This could be mistaken for ignorance, except that it fits a consistent pattern of careful distortion. The government’s September 2002 dossier on Iraqi WMD contained four mentions of the claim that Iraq was able to deploy WMD within 45 minutes of the order being given. Senior intelligence officials – outraged at the abuse of their work – have told the BBC’s Newsnight programme (June 4) that the original mention of a 45-minutes response time referred to the length of time it might have taken the Iraqis to fuel and fire a Scud missile, or to load and fire a multiple rocket launcher. The original intelligence said nothing about whether Iraq possessed the chemical or biological weapons to use in these weapons. The government had turned a purely hypothetical threat into an immediate and deadly threat to make war possible.
Blair has consistently rubbished any notion that the war was motivated by oil. In February, Blair said:
“No, let me just deal with the oil thing because this is one of the – we may be right or we may be wrong – I mean people have their different views about why we’re doing this thing. But the oil conspiracy theory is honestly one of the most absurd when you analyse it.” (Blair On Iraq – A Newsnight Special, BBC2, February 6, 2003)
By contrast, when asked why a nuclear power such as North Korea was being treated differently from Iraq, where no weapons of mass destruction have been found, US deputy defence secretary, Paul Wolfowitz, said this week:
“Let’s look at it simply. The most important difference between North Korea and Iraq is that economically, we just had no choice in Iraq. The country swims on a sea of oil.” (‘Wolfowitz: Iraq war was about oil’, George Wright, The Guardian, June 4, 2003)
Other lies include repeated claims that inspectors were thrown out of Iraq in 1998 (they were withdrawn), and that inspectors were forced to leave because the Iraqi regime had completely failed to cooperate (cooperation had resulted in near-total disarmament). Blair has also blamed the Saddam regime for the mass death of Iraqi children under sanctions (the UN and aid agencies have blamed Gulf War damage to infrastructure and the effects of sanctions).
To create the proper black and white contrast between our noble leader – forced to confront his children with the prospect that his principled stand might cost him his job – the public was told that Saddam was surrounded by “a rogue’s gallery of the world’s most wanted men”, in the words of ITN’s Nicholas Owen (ITN, Lunchtime News, April 3, 2003). Skulking in the shadows was ‘Chemical Ali’, described by ITN’s Tom Bradby as “a diabetic with a high-pitched whine” (ITN Lunchtime News, April 3, 2003). Another senior Iraqi figure was described as “an unstable psychopath who suffers from hyper-tension”.
Even when our leaders were clearly responsible for major loss of civilian life, the media managed to sanitise the horror. Standing beside a deep crater that had once been a restaurant and residential area in the heart of Baghdad – destroyed in a US attempt to kill Saddam Hussein – ITN reporter John Irvine said merely:
“It’s the Americans who are setting the agenda.” (ITN Evening News, April 7, 2003)
As though auditioning for a part in a Hollywood action movie, Irvine concluded:
“After this, Saddam Hussein is a dead man walking.”
Silencing Dissent – The War We Could Have Stopped
It was only possible to be persuaded of Blair’s sincerity by ignoring highly credible experts who argued that Iraq had no significant WMD capability, and that the US-UK case for war was therefore an audacious fraud. Former chief Unscom weapons inspector, Scott Ritter, has long insisted that Iraq was “fundamentally disarmed” between 1991-98, with 90-95% of its WMD eliminated by December 1998. Of the remaining capability, Ritter wrote last year:
“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)
Responding to Colin Powell’s infamous February 5 speech to the United Nations, Ritter said:
“He just hits you, hits you, hits you with circumstantial evidence, and he confuses people – and he lied, he lied to people, he misled people… The Powell presentation is not evidence… It’s a very confusing presentation. What does it mean? What does it represent? How does it all link up? It doesn’t link up.” (‘Ritter dismisses Powell report’, Kyodo News, February 7, 2003)
Unscom’s executive chairman Rolf Ekeus reported to the Security Council in April 1997 that “not much is unknown about Iraq’s retained proscribed weapons capabilities”. (Quoted, Glen Rangwala, ‘A Threat to the World?: The facts about Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction’, April 4, 2002 )
In May 2000, Ekeus added, “I would say that we felt that in all areas we have eliminated Iraq’s [WMD] capabilities fundamentally”. (http://www.casi.org.uk/discuss/2000/msg00701.html )
Ritter, the CIA, the International Institute for Strategic Studies, and others, also pointed out that their extremely limited shelf lives meant that any remaining WMD would long since have become “harmless sludge”.
Time and again government spokespeople like Blair, Jack Straw, John Reid and Mike O’Brien made damning references to thousands of litres of missing anthrax. They asked, ironically, if we were supposed to believe that Saddam had simply mislaid them. Not once did an interviewer respond with the basic facts: 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 blown up in 1996.
Crucially, Ritter pointed out that any attempts to reconstitute the WMD programmes would have been immediately detected by the most intense and sophisticated surveillance operation in history – it just couldn’t have been done without Western awareness.
If these arguments had been granted the exposure they merited, public support for the war would surely have collapsed. What is so remarkable, and so damning, is that these elementary but obviously crucial points were almost literally never raised in our media before the attack on Iraq.
According to the Guardian/Observer website, Iraq has been mentioned in 7,118 articles this year (as of June 6, 2003), with 961 articles mentioning ‘Iraq and weapons of mass destruction’. Out of these, Scott Ritter has received 12 mentions and Rolf Ekeus 2. The Independent’s website records 5,872 articles mentioning Iraq, with 931 mentions of ‘Iraq and weapons of mass destruction’. Ritter records 24 mentions, Ekeus 4. There have been no mentions of Ritter or Ekeus in either paper in May or June – the period covering the current media furore on WMD.
Ritter, the most outspoken whistleblower, was not interviewed by BBC TV News, Newsnight, or ITN ahead of the war this year. He was last interviewed on a terrestrial BBC channel by David Frost on 29 September last year. When asked why Newsnight had failed to interview such an important source, editor George Entwistle answered: “I don’t particularly have an answer for that; we just haven’t.” (Interview with David Edwards, March 31, 2003) By contrast, Newsnight “just has” interviewed war supporters like Ken Adelman, Richard Perle and James Rubin endlessly over the last six months.
We are living in a time when the propaganda function of even our most respected media is clear for all to see. In October 2001, as Britain helped the US pound Afghanistan, one of the poorest countries on earth, into rubble, the Guardian’s editors commented on a speech by Blair:
“The core of the speech – intellectual as well as moral – came when he contrasted the west’s commitment to do everything possible to avoid civilian casualties and the terrorists’ proven wish to cause as many civilian casualties as possible, a point which Jack Straw followed up powerfully in the Commons yesterday. Let them do their worst, we shall do our best, as Churchill put it. That is still a key difference.” (‘Blair plays it cooler – A new tone, but few new answers’, Leader, The Guardian, October 31, 2001)
With tens of thousands dead, injured and sickening in Iraq, with the country’s health and social systems looted and wrecked, and with clear proof of “the west’s commitment to do everything possible” to wage war, regardless of the cost in human life, this is surely one conceit “the country’s leading liberal newspaper” will not be repeating any time soon.
The goal of Media Lens is to promote rationality, compassion and respect for others. In writing letters to journalists, we strongly urge readers to maintain a polite, non-aggressive and non-abusive tone.
Write to the BBC’s director of news, Richard Sambrook: Email: [email protected]
Write to Newsnight editor George Entwistle:
Email: [email protected]
Write to Guardian editor, Alan Rusbridger:
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Ask them why they have given so little attention to the views of credible experts who exposed the fraudulence of the US-UK case for war long before the invasion of Iraq. Why did they wait for ministers and intelligence officers to speak out before making even the most elementary challenges to the government’s claims on Iraqi WMD?
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