Sheldon Rampton and John Stauber – 2006-10-09 00:02:50
The Best War Ever
Excerpted from the new book by Sheldon Rampton and John Stauber
Center for Media and Democracy
(2006. Jeremy P. Tarcher/Penguin, ISBN 1-58542-509-5. $11.95)
During the buildup to war with Iraq, the Bush Administration did not merely say it suspected that Iraq had weapons. It claimed to know for certain, and even to know where they were located. “We do know, with absolute certainty,” said Dick Cheney, that Saddam Hussein “is using his procurement system to acquire the equipment he needs in order to enrich uranium to build a nuclear weapon.”
President Bush made the same claim in his televised address to the nation announcing the start of war: “Intelligence gathered by this and other governments leaves no doubt that the Iraq regime continues to possess and conceal some of the most lethal weapons ever devised.”
The claim that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction was not just a component of the administration’s case for war. It was its main argument. Three days before the commencement of fighting, Vice President Dick Cheney appeared on “Meet the Press” with Tim Russert. “What do you think is the most important rationale for going to war with Iraq?” Russert asked.
“Well, I think I’ve just given it, Tim,” Cheney replied, “in terms of the combination of his development and use of chemical weapons, his development of biological weapons, his pursuit of nuclear weapons.”
For many people, including journalists who traveled embedded with US 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 on page one in major newspapers and as breaking news 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, 2003 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 US 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 7, MSNBC’s Dana Lewis reported the discovery in Karbala of “chemical barrels in an agricultural factory. . . . 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 US 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 US 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.
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 been found there at all, in what appeared upon examination to be a long-abandoned facility.
On April 10, 2003 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 UN weapons inspections and demonstrates that our guys are going to find the weapons of mass destruction.”
Neither Fox nor the Pittsburgh Tribune-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.
WMD or Not To Be
Given the extraordinary importance placed on WMDs as a rationale for war, the belief in their existence could not be abandoned easily or quickly. In the absence of actual weapons, the website of the US Department of Defense posted photographs of chemical suits, Geiger counters and gas masks found in Iraq — evidence, they said, that the regime must have weapons as well. As it became increasingly clear that actual weapons were not going to be found, administration officials adopted strategies aimed at buying time while they recalibrated their rhetoric to lower the expectations that they had previously raised.
Washington Post reporter Barton Gellman accompanied some of the weapons hunters and witnessed their findings. At one suspected weapons site, they found a cache of vacuum cleaners, air conditioners and rolls of fabric; at another, a distillery; at another, a swimming pool; a middle school for girls; a factory that manufactured license plates.
Sometimes the weapons teams found suspicious-looking items, but upon examination the discoveries turned out to be innocuous.
After some initial excitement about a document that included sketches of laboratory flasks, the soldiers realized that all they had uncovered was “some kid’s high school science project,” Gellman reported. And so it went: “Another day brought ‘suspicious glass globes,’ filled, as it turned out, with cleaning fluid. A drum of foul-smelling liquid revealed itself as used motor oil.”
The last notable claim that WMDs had actually been found came in May 2003 after troops found a couple of mobile trailers in northern Iraq whose design loosely resembled the design for mobile bioweapons laboratories that Colin Powell had displayed during his speech to the United Nations.
Following the usual script for such discoveries, NBC News correspondent Jim Avila reported from Baghdad that the trailers “may be the most significant WMD findings of the war.” The CIA rushed out an analysis claiming that the trailers found in Iraq were indeed biowarfare labs.
After examining the trailers, however, a team of engineering experts from the US Defense Intelligence Agency disagreed, as did a report published two weeks later by British analysts. “They are not mobile germ warfare laboratories,” said a British scientist. “You could not use them for making biological weapons. They do not even look like them. They are exactly what the Iraqis said they were — facilities for the production of hydrogen gas to fill balloons.”
The Bush administration continued to insist that the trailers were bioweapons labs for months in the face of accumulating evidence to the contrary. By July 2003, however, their own chief weapons inspector on the ground in Iraq had backed away from the story, calling it a “fiasco.”
Shut Up and Wait
In August 2003, the Pentagon adopted a new strategy, called the “big impact” plan. According to Washington Times columnists Bill Gertz and Rowan Scarborough, “The plan calls for gathering and holding on to all the information now being collected about the weapons.
Rather than releasing its findings piecemeal, defense officials will release a comprehensive report on the arms, perhaps six months from now. The goal of the strategy will be to quiet critics of the Bush administration who said claims of Iraq’s hidden weapons stockpiles were exaggerated in order to go to war.”
At a news conference, Bush said, “It’s going to take time for us to gather the evidence and analyze the mounds of evidence, literally, the miles of documents that we have uncovered. . . . And it’s just going to take awhile, and I’m confident the truth will come out.” At the same time, a subtle but telling change entered his rhetoric. Whereas previously, he had talked about actual weapons, instead he began talking about a weapons program. “I’m confident,” he said, “that our search will yield that which I strongly believe, that Saddam had a weapons program.”
David Kay, a former UN inspector and supporter of the war with Iraq, was appointed as a special advisor to the Iraq Survey Group (ISG), the US team assigned to replace the 75th Exploitation Task Force in the hunt for WMDs. To find the weapons, the ISG had a staff of 1,200 people and a budget of $300 million.
On “Newshour with Jim Lehrer,” Condoleezza Rice explained the plan: “What the president said to David Kay is, take your time; do this in a comprehensive way; do this in a way that makes the case, that looks at all of the evidence, and then tells us the truth about this program,” Rice said.
“What David Kay did say to me and to others is that this is a program that was built for deception over many, many years. … And so it’s not surprising that it’s going to take some time to really put this picture together. David Kay is going to put this together in a way that is coherent. I think that there is a danger in taking a little piece of evidence here, a little piece of evidence there. He is a very respected and capable weapons inspector. He knows how to read the Iraqi programs…. We will put this case together.”
In reality, “big impact” was simply another catchphrase. Like “shock and awe,” it sounded impressive, but it was simply an effort to buy time and deflect attention away from the failure to actually find the weapons.
The White House said it would take at least six months before the public should expect to see Kay’s report. During that period, the Bush team could hope that public attention would wander elsewhere, while they adjusted their rhetoric to lower expectations about whatever they eventually offered as “proof.”
Almost immediately after Kay arrived in Iraq, he realized that what he was looking for wasn’t there. “Every weekend I wrote a private e-mail to the [Director of Central Intelligence] and the [Deputy Director of Central Intelligence], my unvarnished summary of where we were,” Kay later told a reporter. “I wrote that it looks as though they did not produce weapons.”
In September 7, 2003, the White House announced that David Kay was about to present a preliminary report to Congress on the findings of the Iraq Survey Group. A week later, however, word leaked out that the progress report had been delayed and that Kay was finding so little of substance that a final report might never be published.
On October 2, Kay finally delivered the interim report and tried to put the best face on things. “We have not yet found stocks of weapons, but we are not yet at the point where we can say definitively either that such weapon stocks do not exist,” he said.
The White House continued to fuzz up its rhetoric. Previously it had gone from declaring that Iraq had weapons to talking about weapons programs. Now it was reduced to talking of “program-related activities” and evidence of mere intent to re-launch weapons programs at some unspecified moment in the future. But was something as vague as a dictator’s possible future dreams sufficient cause to justify a war?
Realizing that the search was fruitless, David Kay tried to resign from the Iraq Survey Group in December 2003, but he delayed his announcement at the request of CIA director George Tenet, who told him, “If you resign now it will appear like we don’t know what we’re doing and the wheels are coming off.”
He waited to resign publicly until January 23 — three days after Bush’s state of the union address. A few days later, he testified before the US Senate about his findings. “Let me begin by saying, we were almost all wrong, and I certainly include myself here,” he said.
Following Kay’s resignation, Charles Duelfer was appointed to complete the work of the Iraq Survey Group. Its final report, published on September 30, 2004, devoted most of its pages to damning assessments of Saddam Hussein’s personality, the brutal nature of his dictatorship, and his history of past deceptions and weapons-related activities.
It spoke of Iraq’s “Byzantine setting,” “culture of lies,” “command by violence,” “mutuality of fear,” “Saddam’s psychology,” and “veiled WMD intent.” In the end, though, the report admitted, “ISG has not found evidence that Saddam Husayn possessed WMD stocks in 2003.” At most, the report left open “the possibility that some weapons existed in Iraq although not of a militarily significant capability.”
Whereas once the United States had sought weapons, now the government turned to seeking the source of the illusion that weapons ever existed. Here too, the searchers seemed unable to find what they were looking for. President Bush appointed a “Commission on the Intelligence Capabilities of the United States Regarding Weapons of Mass Destruction”
After a year of poring through evidence and interviewing experts, the commission issued a 601-page report, which concluded that pre-war assessments of Iraqi weapons were “all wrong” and that the “harm done to American credibility by our all too public intelligence failings in Iraq will take years to undo.”
This excerpt is posted with the kind permission of the authors for noncommercial, educational purposes.