We keep hearing about the "liberal," "antiwar" media, which is supposedly spinning the "success" of the administration’s "surge" in Iraq into a defeat. The stab-in-the-back thesis is being run up the flagpole by the neocons, in the hopes that at least some of their base the most deluded of the Kool-Aid drinkers will swallow it. Yet it was this supposedly liberal media that led us down the primrose path to war and occupation and immersed us in what Gen. William E. Odom calls the biggest strategic disaster in American military history and they did it by instilling fear.
The Saddam-has-nukes narrative was the overarching theme that administration spokespersons sounded whenever they got the chance: Condi Rice’s now infamous "we don’t want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud” meme spread like a viral infection through a schoolyard and was echoed by the mainstream media ad nauseam. In order to sound convincing, however, and present this theme in a credible manner, the War Party had to find semi-credible sources: that is, they had to invent credible characters who would echo their themes. In Ahmed Chalabi and his Iraqi National Congress (INC) they found an invaluable source of ready-made material.
Chalabi had set up shop during the Clinton years with the passage of the Iraq Liberation Act, which authorized "regime change" as official U.S. policy and poured millions into his coffers. In return, Chalabi and his cohorts produced a seemingly unending string of Iraqi "defectors" who simply did what any good storyteller does: they made it all up.
The role played by Judith Miller and the New York Times in legitimizing and spreading these tall tales has received much attention, and there is no underestimating how important this was: yet how do we explain the complete breakdown of the critical function in the vast army of reporters and editors who took Miller’s sources on faith virtually the entire English-speaking media? The Washington Post, USA Today, the New York Daily News, the New Yorker, 60 Minutes, and even sainted PBS, which did a Frontline documentary on the defectors a couple of months after 9/11 all invested their journalistic integrity in Chalabi & Co. All wound up getting badly burned.
Some, like CBS’s Leslie Stahl, have owned up to the temporary collapse of their critical faculties; others, like Vanity Fair‘s David Rose, are silent. It was Rose, after all, whose four-page spread in the glossy, perfumed pages of the magazine the elites love to display on their coffee tables made the most extreme claims about the imminent danger posed by Saddam: the Iraqis were feverishly working on a long-range missile project, which was perilously close to becoming operational. Not only that, but, according to Rose and his INC sources, the Iraqis had a "dirty bomb" in the works, as well as blueprints and the means to build chemical and biological warheads. The relentlessly visual Vanity Fair editors even included a map that purported to show where these various sites were located in Iraq, including a nuclear weapons development laboratory.
When none of this turned up in the aftermath of the invasion, did the editors of Vanity Fair cry "mea culpa"? Certainly not. Instead, they ran a piece, "The Path to War," that blamed "the media" for all that INC-generated misinformation but failed to mention their own role in promoting it. The piece was written by Bryan Burrough, Evgenia Peretz, and hold on to your seat David Rose.
There were plenty of indications in the run-up to war that the intelligence being used to justify U.S. military action was bogus, and the most glaringly obvious one was the Niger uranium fiasco that played such a key part in the downfall of Scooter Libby. The president had claimed, in his 2003 State of the Union speech, that the Iraqis were seeking uranium in "an African country" and that this constituted significant evidence that Saddam was circumventing the sanctions and pushing forward with his nuclear program, yet it wasn’t long afterward that the alleged documentary "evidence" for this was exposed as a crude forgery. Surely this would have suggested, to even the most uncritical mind, that someone was making the case for war in bad faith that there was an organized effort, inside the government, to lie us into war. Yet this connection was made by very few in the media, who continued to pump out defector stories as we rushed to invade.
At that point, the media was so invested in the administration’s war narrative that they could not afford to raise questions about the veracity of the "intelligence" they were reporting as fact. This is why they fell for Chalabi’s song-and-dance so readily. As John Walcott, the Washington bureau chief of Knight-Ridder News Service, put it:
"What he did was reasonably clever but fairly obvious, which is he gave the same stuff to some reporters that, for one reason or another, he felt would simply report it. And then he gave the same stuff to people in the vice president’s office and in the secretary of defense’s office. And so, if the reporter called the Department of Defense or the vice president’s office to check, they would’ve said, ‘Oh, I think that’s you can go with that. We have that, too.’ So, you create the appearance, or Chalabi created the appearance, that there were two sources, and that the information had been independently confirmed, when, in fact, there was only one source. And it hadn’t been confirmed by anybody."
The al-Qaeda connection was a subset of the master narrative, which conjured a frightening vision of a nuclear apocalypse as the price we would pay for inaction in Iraq. The list of prominent pundits who signed on to the al-Qaeda-Iraq axis of terrorism sub-narrative is impressive: George Will, Jim Hoagland, William Safire, Charles Krauthammer the Washington Post was a veritable fount of disinformation on this subject. As for the rest of the media, they deliberately soft-pedaled the tenuous nature of the Iraq-al-Qaeda connection. As Bob Simon of CBS told Bill Moyers, "I think we all felt from the beginning that to deal with a subject as explosive as this, we should keep it in a way almost light. If that doesn’t seem ridiculous."
Ridiculous isn’t quite the word that comes to mind: tragicomic, or perhaps even criminal, seems more appropriate. In his own defense, Simon avers that "a frontal attack on the administration’s claims" would have been "premature," because, after all, "we did not know then that there were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. We only knew that the connection the administration was making between Saddam and al-Qaeda was very tenuous at best."
The main connecting thread between al-Qaeda and Iraq was reported as an alleged meeting between an Iraqi intelligence agent and Mohammed Atta that supposedly took place at the Prague airport. CBS News and numerous other mainstream media outlets reported this with a straight face. Simon’s report, which presented the al-Qaeda connection in terms of a "marketing" technique, ran in December ’02: yet the alleged Prague meeting had been debunked on Oct. 21, 2002, in the New York Times, which reported that Czech President Vaclav Havel “quietly told the White House he has concluded that there is no evidence to confirm earlier reports” of the alleged meeting.
The years of constantly repeating this theme that Iraq planned and carried out the 9/11 terrorist attacks either implicitly or explicitly took their toll on the truth: until very recently, substantial majorities believed Iraq had been behind the attacks. Forty-one percent, according to a Newsweek poll taken this past summer, still believe it. In spite of persistent debunkings by the reality-based community, the narrative that places Saddam at the epicenter of 9/11 survives to this day.
The "liberal," "antiwar" media? Give me a break! In reality, we are saddled with "mainstream" news outlets that live in constant fear of the administration, of the War Party, of advertisers, of corporate suits who insist on seeking out the "good news" in Iraq even if there isn’t any. The pattern was established after 9/11, when news anchors were wearing flag pins on their lapels and downplaying civilian casualties in Afghanistan (which have now become a major issue between the government of Hamid Karzai and the U.S.). The same coziness with government officials and leading neocons who always get airtime to give voice to the opinions of a rapidly shrinking minority of American public opinion is all too readily apparent.
The "antiwar" media? Pal, you’re looking at it!