“I cannot tell a lie” – George Washington
IT’S LIKE the story of the thief who yelled “Stop, thief!” The dossier against Saddam Hussein that President George Bush presented to the UN General Assembly on 12 September 2002 was called A Decade of Lies and Deceit. And what did he offer for proof? Lies. He claimed that Iraq had close links with the al-Qaida network and was a threat to the security of the United States because it had “weapons of mass destruction” (WMD) – a scary phrase invented by his media advisers.
Three months after the victory of the US forces and their British auxiliaries in Mesopotamia we now know that these claims, widely challenged at the time, were indeed false (1). It is obvious that the US administration manipulated intelligence about the WMD. The 1,400-strong inspection team of the Iraq Survey Group under General Dayton has still not found any evidence. And now we are told that at the moment when Bush made these charges, he already had reports from his security services proving them false (2). According to Jane Harman, a Democratic congresswoman from California, we have been the victims of the “biggest cover-up manoeuvre of all time” (3). For the first time in history the US public is asking questions about the reasons for a war, although only now that it is over.
A secret department at the heart of the Pentagon, the Office of Special Plans (OSP), played a part in this mass deception. As revealed by veteran journalist Seymour M Hersh in the New Yorker (4), the OSP was set up by Paul Wolfowitz, number two at the Defence Department, and led by a noted hawk, Abram Shulsky. OSP’s job is to analyse data received from the security services and to produce summaries to be passed to the government. Relying on statements by Iraqi exiles close to the Iraqi National Congress (an organisation that was financed by the Pentagon) and its president, Ahmad Chalabi, the OSP apparently over-inflated the threat of the WMD and the links between Saddam Hussein and al-Qaida.
The US Secretary of State, Colin Powell, was manipulated and his political future is now at stake. He was reported to have resisted White House and Pentagon pressures to distribute the most dubious briefings. In his UN Security Council speech of 5 February 2003 Powell was obliged to read a draft prepared by Lewis Libby, chief of staff to vice president Dick Cheney. It contained such tenuous information that Powell was said to have become angry, thrown the sheets in the air and refused to read it. Finally Powell asked to have the head of the CIA, George Tenet, sit in view behind him to share responsibility for what was being read.
In an interview in the June issue of Vanity Fair, Wolfowitz admitted that governmental lies had been told. He said that the decision to put forward the threat of WMD to justify a preventive war against Iraq had been adopted “for reasons that have a lot to do with US government bureaucracy . . . We settled on the one issue which everyone could agree on, which was weapons of mass destruction” (5).
So Bush had lied. Searching for a casus belli to appeal to the United Nations and recruit a few accomplices (United Kingdom and Spain) to his project for conquering Iraq, Bush did not hesitate to fabricate a massive governmental lie.
He was not alone. On 24 September 2002 Tony Blair stood before the House of Commons and announced: “Iraq possesses chemical and biological weapons . . . Its missiles can be deployed in 45 minutes.” To the UN Security Council on 5 February Powell said: “Saddam Hussein has investigated dozens of biological agents causing diseases such as gas gangrene, plague, typhus, tetanus, cholera, camelpox and haemorrhagic fever.” In March, on the eve of war, the US Vice President, Dick Cheney, said: “We believe he has reconstituted nuclear weapons” (6).
Bush repeated the charges in many speeches. After a meeting with Powell on 6 February he went so far as to add erroneous details: “Iraq has sent bomb-making and document forgery experts to work with al-Qaida. Iraq has also provided al-Qaida with chemical and biological weapons training. We know that Iraq is harbouring a terrorist network, headed by a senior al-Qaida planner.”
These charges were amplified by the pro-war media, which became the instruments of propaganda. They were repeated by television channels Fox News, CNN and MSNC, by the Clear Channel radio network (1,225 stations throughout the US) and even prestigious newspapers, such as the Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal. These accusations provided the main argument for those who were pro-war around the world. In France they were taken up by Pierre Lelouche, Bernard Kouchner, Yves Rocaute, Pascal Bruckner, Guy MilliÃ¨re, AndrÃ© Glucksman, Alain Finkelkraut and Pierre Rigoulot (7).
They were also repeated by Bush’s allies. The most zealous, the Spanish prime minister, JosÃ© Maria Aznar, on 5 February told the Madrid CortÃ©s: “We all know that Saddam Hussein has weapons of mass destruction . . . We also all know that he has chemical weapons” (8). On 30 January, on an order from Bush, Aznar produced a declaration of support for the US, the Letter of Eight, which was signed by Blair, Silvio Berlusconi and Vaclav Havel among others, claiming that “the Iraqi regime and its weapons of mass destruction represent a clear threat to world security”.
To justify a preventive war that the United Nations and global public opinion did not want, a machine for propaganda and mystification (organised by the doctrinaire sect around George Bush) produced state-sponsored lies for more than six months, with a determination characteristic of the worst regimes of the 20th century.
The Bush administration added to the US‘s long historical tradition of lies. One of the most cynical was about the explosion on the battleship Maine in the Bay of Havana in 1898, which was used as the pretext for the US to go to war with Spain, and for the annexation of Cuba, Puerto Rico, the Philippines and the island of Guam.
On 15 February 1898, at 9.40pm, the Maine sank in the Havana straits, with the loss of 260 men, after a violent explosion. Immediately the popular press accused the Spaniards of having mined its hull: the press denounced Spanish barbarism and “death camps”. It even claimed the Spanish were cannibals.
Two press barons vied in sensationalism: Joseph Pulitzer of the New York World, and William Randolph Hearst of the New York Journal. The anti-Spanish campaign was supported by US businessmen who had major investments in Cuba and were keen on ousting the Spaniards. But the public was not interested, and neither were journalists. In 1898 the Journal war artist Frederick Remington wrote to Hearst from Havana: “There is no war here. I demand to be recalled.” Hearst cabled: “Stay. You provide the drawings, I’ll supply the war.” Then came the explosion on the Maine, which allowed Hearst to campaign for war, devoting pages of his news-papers every day for months to the subject, calling for vengeance: “Remember the Maine! To Hell with Spain.” Other papers copied. Sales of the Journal soared from 30,000 to 400,000, and then regularly topped a million. Public opinion was inflamed. The atmosphere became hallucinatory. Pressed on all sides, President William McKinley declared war on Spain on 25 April 1898. But 13 years later a commission of inquiry decided that the explosion had been an accident in the Maine‘s engine room (9).
During the cold war in 1960, the CIA distributed to journalists confidential documents showing that the Soviets were about to get ahead in the arms race. Immediately the media pressured candidates for the presidency and clamoured for increased defence spending. John F Kennedy promised to devote millions of dollars to reviving the ballistic missiles programme, wanted by both the CIA and the military-industrial complex. Once Kennedy was elected and the programme voted through, he discovered the US already had a crushing military superiority over the USSR.
In 1964 it was claimed that two US destroyers had been attacked by North Vietnamese tor pedoes in the Gulf of Tonkin. Immediately the media turned this into an issue, describing it as a humiliation and demanding reprisals. President Lyndon B Johnson used this as a pretext to launch reprisal bombings against the North Vietnamese. He called on Congress to pass a resolution that allowed him to send in US troops, and began the Vietnam war, which was only to end – in defeat – in 1975. Later the crews of the destroyers said that the attack stories were fabricated.
In 1985 President Ronald Reagan declared a state of emergency because of the “Nicaraguan threat” posed by the Sandinistas in power in Managua, a government democratically elected in November 1984 that respected political liberties and freedom of expression. Nicaragua, so Reagan claimed, was “two days’ car drive from Harlingen, Texas.We are in danger!” Secretary of state George Shultz told Congress: “Nicaragua is a cancer eating into our country, it applies the doctrines of Mein Kampf and threatens to take control over the whole hemisphere” (10). These lies were used to justify massive aid to the anti-Sandinista Contras and led to Irangate.
The lies of the Gulf war in 1991 have been extensively analysed (11) . Claims were frequently repeated that Iraq had the fourth most powerful army in the world, that maternity hospitals in Kuwait had been destroyed, that there was an uncrossable defensive line, that Patriot missiles were effective: all were proved false.
After George Bush Jr’s election to the presidency in November 2000, manipulation of public opinion was the key preoccupation of the new administration. After the attacks of 11 September 2001 it became an obsession. Michael Deaver, a friend of Donald Rumsfeld and a specialist in psychological warfare, advocated that military strategy should be considered in relation to television coverage, because if the public supported a conflict it was unstoppable – without it government was powerless.
On 20 February 2002 the New York Times revealed that the Pentagon, on orders from Donald Rumsfeld and the undersecretary for defence, Douglas Feith, had secretly created the mysterious Office of Strategic Influence (OSI), to generate false news to serve US interests. It was coordinated by an air force general, Simon Worden. The OSI was authorised to engage in disinformation, particularly to foreign media. It had a contract worth $100,000 a month with the Rendon Group, a media consultancy already used in the Gulf war, which had fabricated a statement by a Kuwaiti “nurse” (12) who claimed to have seen Iraqi soldiers looting the maternity department of a hospital in Kuwait and killing the babies. This statement was decisive in persuading members of Congress to vote for the war. Although officially dissolved after these revelations, the OSI must have remained active. How otherwise can we explain the grossest manipulations of the recent war in Iraq, especially the “rescue” of Private Jessica Lynch?
The US media splashed this story in April. Lynch was one of a group of 10 US soldiers captured by Iraqi troops. According to the approved narrative, she had been ambushed on 23 March and captured after firing at the Iraqis until her ammunition ran out. She had been hit by a bullet, stabbed, tied up, and taken to a hospital in Nasiriyah where she was beaten by an Iraqi officer. A week later US special forces freed her in a surprise operation: despite resistance from her guards, they broke into the hospital, rescued her and flew her by helicopter to Kuwait.
That evening, Bush, from the White House, announced her rescue to the nation. Eight days later the Pentagon supplied the media with a video made during the mission, with scenes up to the standards of the best action movies.
After the war ended on 9 April, journalists – particularly from The New York Times, the Toronto Star, El PaÃs and the BBC – went to Nasiriyah to find the truth. They were surprised by what they found. According to their interviews with Iraqi doctors who had looked after Lynch (and confirmed by US doctors who had later examined her), her wounds, a fractured arm and leg and a dislocated ankle, were not due to bullets but to an accident in the lorry in which she had travelled. She had not been maltreated. On the contrary, the Iraqi doctors had done everything possible to look after her.
“She had lost a lot of blood,” explained Dr Saad Abdul Razak, “and we had to give her a transfusion. Fortunately members of my family have the same blood group: O positive. We were able to obtain sufficient blood. She had a pulse rate of 140 when she arrived here. I think that we saved her life” (13).
Taking considerable risks, these doctors managed to contact the US army to return Lynch. Two days before the special forces arrived the doctors had even taken her in an ambulance to a location close to US lines. But US soldiers opened fire and almost killed her.
The pre-dawn arrival of special forces equipped with sophisticated equipment surprised the hospital staff. The doctors had already told the US forces that the Iraqi army had retreated, and that Lynch was waiting to be claimed.
Dr Anmar Uday told the BBC’s John Kampfner: “It was like in a Hollywood film. There were no Iraqi soldiers, but the American special forces were using their weapons. They fired at random and we heard explosions. They were shouting Go! Go! Go! The attack on the hospital was a kind of show, or an action film with Sylvester Stallone” (14).
The “rescue” was filmed on a night-vision camera by a former assistant of director Ridley Scott, who had worked on the film Black Hawk Down (2001). According to Robert Scheer of the Los Angeles Times, these images were then sent for editing to US central command in Qatar, and once they had been checked by the Pentagon they were distributed worldwide (15).
The saving of Private Lynch is one for the annals of propaganda. In the US she may represent the most heroic moment of the conflict, even if the story of her rescue is as much a lie as Saddam Hussein’s WMD or the links between the Iraqi regime and al-Qaida.
Bush and his entourage have deceived Americans and world public opinion. As Professor Paul Krugman says, their lies are “the worst scandal in American political history, worse than Watergate, worse than Iran-contra” (16).
(1) See “Poles apart”, Le Monde diplomatique, English language edition, March 2003.
(2) International Herald Tribune, 14 June 2003 and El PaÃs, Madrid, 1 and 10 June 2003.
(3) LibÃ©ration, Paris, 28 May 2003.
(4) New Yorker, 6 May 2003. See as published oncommondreams.org
(5) Press Release : US Department of Defense, Wolfowitz Interview with Vanity Fair’s Tannenhaus. Published on www.scoop.co.nz/mason/stories/WO030…
(6) Time, 9 June 2003.
(7) See Le Monde, 10 and 20 March 2003 and Le Figaro, 15 February 2003. See also Anna Bitton, “Ils avaient soutenu la guerre de Bush”, Marianne, 9 June 2003.
(8) El PaÃs, Madrid, 4 June 2003.
(10) See “Entretien avec Noam Chomsky”, TÃ©lÃ©rama, 7 May 2003.
(11) See La Tyrannie de la communication, Gallimard, Folio actuel series, no 92, Paris, 2001.
(12) This “nurse” was the daughter of the Kuwaiti ambassador in Washington, and her account was created for the Rendon Group consultancy by Michael K Deaver, formerly media adviser to Ronald Reagan.
(13) El PaÃs, 7 May 2003.
(14) John Kampfner, ‘Saving Private Lynch story ‘flawed’, BBC, London, 18 May 2003
(15) Los Angeles Times, 20 May 2003. See also: www.robertscheer.com
(16) The New York Times, 3 June 2003.
Translated by Ed Emery
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