A recent Harris Poll reports found that while “the U.S. and other countries have not found any weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, surprisingly more U.S. adults (50%) think that Iraq had such weapons when the U.S. invaded Iraq. This is an increase from 36 percent in February 2005.”
This is terrible news. Even President Bush has been forced to admit that his administration's number one justification for attacking Iraq was wrong, because in fact there were no weapons of mass destruction. The Harris Poll didn’t attempt to analyze why the number of misled Americans has actually increased in the past year, but perhaps it is because Senator Rick Santorum held a news conference not long ago in Washington and announced that WMDs had just been found in Iraq. A bit like announcing that, science be damned, the Sun is revolving around the Earth! Pentagon officials quickly dismissed the Senator's claims, which were based on the discovery of some leftover, nonfunctioning weapons from more than a a decade ago. Sheldon Rampton and I examine this phenomenon in our next book, The Best War Ever, excerpted below.
Writing for the Associated Press, Charles Hanley suggests that “timing may explain some of the poll result. Two weeks before the survey, two Republican lawmakers, Pennsylvania's Sen. Rick Santorum and Michigan's Rep. Peter Hoekstra, released an intelligence report saying 500 chemical munitions had been collected in Iraq since the 2003 invasion. … But the Pentagon and outside experts emphasized that these abandoned shells, many found in ones and twos, were 15 years old or more, their chemical contents were degraded, and they were unusable as artillery ordnance.” The AP quotes John Prados, author of Hoodwinked: The Documents that Reveal How Bush Sold Us a War, as saying, ''I think the Santorum-Hoekstra thing is the latest 'factoid,' but the basic dynamic is the insistent repetition by the Bush administration of the original argument” that Saddam had WMDs.
The repetition of these phony WMD claims continues in the right-wing media and blogosphere. For example, this very article by Hanley of the Associated Press is under stiff if ludicrous attack by the American Spectator and others keeping the 'Saddam had WMDs' myth alive and even growing.
Author John Prados is only half right when he blames the pro-war message machine. The basic dynamic is what is called in PR lingo the “big lie” tactic and as Sheldon Rampton and I pointed out in our 2003 bestseller Weapons of Mass Deception, it worked like a wonder to sell the war on Iraq. For the big lie to work, however, there has to be no countervailing voice, no strong criticism, no opposing view echoed in the dominant media.
The reason that increasing numbers of Americans share a collective false memory is that they still remember being told, over and over again, that there “absolutely” were WMDs. This story was boldly declared, not merely by the Bush administration, but also by leading U.S. news media. In fact, during the initial weeks of the US attack in 2003, the TV, radio and print media in the US repeatedly reported that WMDs were discovered, and although every single story was later shown to be false, the retractions were few and minor if they were aired at all.
After extensively scouring Iraq and failing to find weapons, the White House and news media should have been equally bold in admitting their error, but instead their retractions came wrapped in weasel words that left many Americans still believing the original stories were true. The story of how this happened is one of the topics that Sheldon Rampton and I explore in our forthcoming new book, The Best War Ever, which goes on sale in bookstores September 14. Here's an excerpt from chapter three, "Big Impact":
For many people, including journalists who traveled embedded with U.S. troops in Iraq, the Bush administration's confident affirmations of certainty seemed to have an almost hypnotic effect. Over the course of the next several months, soldiers and their accompanying reporters kept seeking—and in many cases, finding—mysterious hints, suspicious items and tantalizing clues that seemed to be the "smoking gun" that would prove once and for all that Iraq harbored banned weapons. The discoveries were treated as page one news in major newspapers and top-of-the-hour stories on television. Later, when it came time to admit that these discoveries were mistaken, the retractions were buried on inside pages or omitted altogether.
- On March 28, NBC correspondent David Bloom reported "a bit of a chemical weapons scare" when "US military intelligence picked up what they suspected to be three possibly mobile chemical/biological trucks." The tanker trucks were bombed by U.S. aircraft and spent the rest of the day burning, suggesting that they probably contained fuel rather than chemical or biological agents.
- That same day, the New York Times cited intelligence reports from Army officials that Saddam Hussein was setting up a ring of chemical weapons—a "red line" defense—to surround Baghdad and "strongly believed that Mr. Hussein would use the weapons as allied troops moved toward Baghdad to oust him and his government." This also turned out to be a mirage.
- On April 4, U.S. troops took possession of the Latifiyah Explosives and Ammunition Plant south of Baghdad and reported that they had found boxes of white powder that a commander called "suspicious." MSNBC'S Chris Matthews asked analyst David Kay about the powder. "Chris, get ready," Kay said. "We're going to have a lot more of these. We're now driving into the heartland of Iraq's WMD program, the area where he produced and stored it. It's the area around Baghdad and Tikrit." The white powder was tested and found to be conventional explosives—the sort of thing you might expect to find at an explosives plant.
- On April 7, National Public Radio's John Burnett reported that "a top military official here with the 1st Marine Division" had found "the first solid confirmed existence of chemical weapons by the Iraqi army. He says a relatively large amount, perhaps 20 medium-range rockets, were found with warheads containing sarin, a nerve gas, and mustard gas, which is a blister agent. They had not been fired. They were captured. … If it turns out to be true, the commander told us this morning this would be a smoking gun. This would vindicate the administration's claims that the Iraqis had chemicals all along." The NPR report was picked up and repeated by other media, Later that day, the Pentagon backed off the story. "That report has not been confirmed by the Pentagon," reported NPR's Jennifer Ludden. "However, U.S. officials have cited the discovery of suspicious chemicals apparently in 50-gallon drums that are in a warehouse along the Euphrates River southwest of Baghdad." NPR never followed up on the story, leaving listeners to guess or surmise the contents of the 50-gallon drums.
- On MSNBC that same day, Dana Lewis reported the discovery in Karbala of "chemical barrels in an agricultural factory. … What they have found is 11 25-gallon barrels and 3 55-gallon barrels. They were buried very suspiciously in a bunker. ... They have run tests on this. And what they have found is sarin and tabun, which are nerve agents. And we are also told that they have found a mustard-type agent." News reports also noted that several soldiers in the vicinity had collapsed, adding to suspicions that they had been exposed to a chemical agent. The Miami Herald carried a headline declaring, "Discovery at Village the Strongest Signs of Toxins Yet." Further tests showed that the barrels contained farm pesticides. Troops also found pamphlets describing how to deal with mosquitoes, and it turned out that the soldiers who collapsed had suffered heat stroke. A few British newspapers carried the correction that WMDs had not been found after all, but the correction was omitted altogether or buried near the bottom of stories in U.S. newspapers, which by then were agog with other new and alarming discoveries—discoveries that also led nowhere in the end.
The Fox News network had the dubious honor of reporting more WMD discoveries than any other network. Its sensational reports from Iraq were so popular with conservative viewers that it won the cable ratings war during the invasion of Iraq, even though Fox had a smaller contingent of correspondents actually reporting from the battlefield than any of the others. At the time of the Iraq war, Fox News had just 1,250 full-time and freelance employees and 17 news bureaus, only six of them overseas, with operating costs of about $250 million. By contrast, CNN had 4,000 employees and 42 bureaus, 31 of them overseas, at a cost of about $800 million. In the Middle East, Fox had only 15 correspondents, compared to at least 100 apiece for ABC, CBS, NBC and BBC. As U.S. tanks rolled on Baghdad, Fox was forced to purchase video footage of Baghdad from Al-Jazeera, the Arab network.
“We don’t have the resources overseas that CNN and other networks have,” admitted Fox correspondent Rick Leventhal, who was with the First Marine Light Armor Reconnaissance unit. “We’re going in with less money and equipment and people, and trying to do the same job. You might call it smoke and mirrors, but it’s working.” The "smoke and mirrors" consisted of opinionated pundits and studio consultants, who filled the gaps left by their limited reporting from the field with a freewheeling mix of wild speculation, embellishments of reports from other journalists, and outright fantasy. Here are some of the reports that Fox viewers heard on Fox News during just a 15-minute time slice on April 9 (note the absence of references to specific, verifiable individuals or locations):
- 1:00 p.m.: "Possible weapons of mass destruction storage site also detected in central Baghdad."
- 1:04 p.m.: "Fox News alert for you from the front, of course, they have found what they have suspected was a chemical facility that might have been weapons. Well, they've done initial tests on those big drums, those many-gallon container drums they have, and apparently according to initial tests, banned chemical weapons have been found in Iraq. This is hot off the wire, it is breaking information; this could be the so-called smoking gun. . . . Apparently some military folks went in there, discovered these drums, got sick, they started to vomit, there were skin rashes."
- 1:08 p.m.: "Nerve agents . . . have been found, also a blister agent; now this was in a part of Iraq that is in the centrally located area where U.S. Marines had gone in, found these big containers, these huge vats, gallons of stuff that made the folks in there sick. . . . Remnants of sarin, tabun and a blister agent . . . have been found in Iraq."
On March 23, the Associated Press reported that troops had found a "suspected chemical plant" near the city of Najaf, noting that the discovery had not been confirmed. Fox News announced the story by running headline banners that said, "HUGE CHEMICAL WEAPONS FACTORY FOUND IN SO IRAQ.... REPORTS: 30 IRAQIS SURRENDER AT CHEM WEAPONS PLANT.... COAL TROOPS HOLDING IRAQI IN CHARGE OF CHEM WEAPONS." The story on their website said the discovery had been confirmed by "a senior Pentagon official." Fox anchor Linda Vester told viewers, "this validates President Bush's argument with the UN. ... This is proof that Saddam has been hiding weapons of mass destruction." The following morning, Pentagon officials backed away from the story. No chemicals had found there at all, in what appeared upon examination to be a long-abandoned facility.
On April 10, an embedded reporter from the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review wrote that "a quick inspection" by Army specialists at the Tuwaitha Nuclear Research Center had sparked suspicions that the site "harbors weapons-grade plutonium." Prior to 1991, the Tuwaitha facility had been part of Iraq's nuclear weapons program, but it was bombed by the United States during Operation Desert Storm and subsequently monitored and regulated by the IAEA. Fox News recycled the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review story into a "breaking news" special, featuring interviews with stateside military analysts and a scientist who said, "I think this demonstrates the failure of the U.N. weapons inspections and demonstrates that our guys are going to find the weapons of mass destruction." Neither Fox nor the Pittsburgh Tribume-Review mentioned that the Tuwaitha facility had actually been subject to continuous on-site UN monitoring for years. And Fox did not bother correcting the record when, days later, further investigations found no evidence of plutonium or other banned activities.
Also on April 10, Fox reported the discovery of a small, shot-up, tan-colored truck that they described as "a mobile unit, disguised as … a surface-to-air missile radar truck. … Upon closer inspection, they discovered a false wall. What was behind that false wall? Well, all sorts of material that would suggest this was, in fact, a chemical-biological weapons mobile lab. Winches to lift things up, areas to cool and to warm certain things. Bottles, test tubes. Other materials suggestive of the presence at some point in the past of weapons that could have been used in a chemical or biological attack. … This could be the first explicit piece of evidence that a mobile-chemical-biological weapons truck existed. And it was right in the heart of Baghdad. And as Rick Leventhal reported, at least when it was discovered, less than half a block from the U.N. offices where weapons inspectors had once worked." The following day, Fox interviewed G. Gordon Liddy, who boasted that the "biolab special truck was discovered by my son, Major Ray Liddy in the Marine Corps, his unit, 23rd Marines, 2nd Battalion. … But guess who that specialized truck was traced to, who manufactured it for them? The French." After some general ridicule of France, Democrats and peaceniks in San Francisco, Fox co-host Alan Colmes was allowed to counter, "I think they've decided it is not a weapons of mass destruction mobile lab." Nothing further has ever been heard about the little tan truck.
On May 8, another Fox analyst, retired general Paul Vallely, told Bill O'Reilly he had evidence that the WMD's had been smuggled into Syria and were buried 30 to 40 meters underground in the Bekaa Valley. He added that the government of France had provided forged passports to help Saddam flee the country. "Let me stop you," O'Reilly interrupted. "Do you really believe there's going to be conclusive proof, General, do you believe there is going to be conclusive proof that France helped Saddam Hussein and his thugs escape? Do you believe that will come out?"
"Absolutely," Vallely replied. "There is enough information, Bill, that I'm getting coming out that is going to bury and break the Chirac government."
"Wow!" said O'Reilly.
Eight months later, Saddam Hussein was captured inside Iraq in an underground "spider hole" near his home town of Tikrit. Evidently his wine-swilling, brie-eating French accomplices were so fearful upon being exposed by the intrepid journalists at Fox that they smuggled the tyrant back into Iraq to face his fate.
Shortly after the fall of Baghdad, a survey conducted by the University of Maryland found that 34 percent of Americans believed that weapons of mass destruction had actually been found in Iraq, and 22 percent believed that WMDs had actually been used during the war. Sixty percent, moreover, believed that evidence of Iraq having WMDs was the most important reason to go to war. "Given the intensive news coverage and high levels of public attention to the topic, this level of misinformation suggests that some Americans may be avoiding having an experience of cognitive dissonance," suggested survey director Steven Kull. Given the type of reporting we have described above, however, another likely possibility is that Americans got their misinformation from the news.