What is truth anyway? What is mass destruction?
The New York Times’ apology for its gullible reporting on the probability of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, along with a similar but more interesting apology by Bob Woodward of the Washington Post, made me wonder what the American media were thinking a year ago.
Did anybody actually believe that Saddam Hussein was about to attack the United States? Did the media believe Dick Cheney? “Simply stated,” he said, “there is no doubt that Saddam Hussein now has weapons of mass destruction.” Who believed Tony Blair’s statement, recycled by President Bush, that Saddam could mount a nuclear attack within 45 minutes?
Recently I’ve made it a point to ask friends if they believed the Bush administration’s WMD pretext for invasion of Iraq. They have said of course not. I’m not aware of any polling data to show my friends are normal, but I think most thoughtful Americans, simply stated, saw the WMD issue as a “first casualty” thing.
(“The first casualty when war comes, is truth,” was the title quote, from a U.S. Senator, for Phillip Knightley’s 1975 best seller on war propaganda.
Did the American media totally go blank on the propaganda leading to the first Gulf War?
(Did the media forget getting snookered by “Nayirah,” the Kuwaiti 15-year-old girl who tearfully testified before Congress about Iraqi soldiers dumping babies out of incubators and leaving them to die on a cold hospital floor? She was actually the daughter of the Kuwaiti ambassador to the U.S., coached in this false story by the international p.r. firm of Hill and Knowlton, hired by her own royal family. Did they forget the Pentagon claims of 250,000 Iraqi soldiers massed along the border despite satellite photos that showed nothing but American troops?)
Perhaps the normality of myself and my acquaintances around Santa Fe is biased by the neighborhood. At nearby Los Alamos, “mass destruction” means exactly that. I don’t think a poison gas shell or a germ vial are in the same category.
The neocons of the Bush administration may not have invented the WMD term, but certainly they redefined it. And the media let them do it, no questions asked.
Perhaps it was simply due to the media’s general lack of scientific perception – the absence of proportional thinking with regard to nuclear warheads and ballistic missiles and the huge visible industrial economies required to produce them. Ordinary journalists don’t feel at home around science.
But perhaps the best explanation came from the Times itself in its May 26 “From the Editors” note after review of hundreds of articles in the prelude and early stages of the war. It said, “The problematic articles varied in authorship and subject matter, but many shared a common feature. They depended at least in part on information from a circle of Iraqi informants, defectors and exiles bent on ‘regime change’ in Iraq, people whose credibility has come under increasing public debate in recent weeks.”
It’s no coincidence that the note was published within a few days of the public disgracing of Ahmad Chalabi (he blames a CIA smear), who was an obvious source in some articles, by veteran Times reporter Judith Miller.
Woodward months earlier wrote a purer mea culpa in “Plan of Attack” It begins (p. 354), “As I had been interviewing various officials and sources during the buildup to war, three separate sources said confidentially that the intelligence on WMD was not as conclusive as the CIA and the administration had suggested.”
He goes on to quote his own five-paragraph memo on the specific doubts raised by each protected source. He sent it to the Post’s “national security editor” and to veteran reporter Walter Pincus, but they responded that the memo was “a little strong,” Woodward agreed, and the memo was spiked. “In light of subsequent events,” Woodward confesses, “I should have pushed for a front page story, even on the eve of war, presenting more forcefully what our sources were saying.”
I happen to think – as a far outsider – that one of the sources was Colin Powell, who said early in his tenure as secretary of state: “Frankly, the sanctions have worked. Saddam has not deployed any significant capability with respect to weapons of mass destruction. He is unable to project conventional power against his neighbors.” (Craig Unger, “House of Saud, House of Bush,” p. 226).