Lies Propaganda & Media Distortion in Iraq
"Tell Me Lies: Propaganda & Media Distortion in the Attack on Iraq"
Edited by David Miller,
published by Pluto Press.
More information at:
By David Miller
Since September 11 2001 the propaganda machine in the US (and UK) has been cranked up to levels not seen outside the 1939-45 war. It should be no surprise that the content of the propaganda cranked out quietly to selected journalists or with fanfare in the form of several dossier or grandstanding appearances before the United Nations, should be riddled with deception. Governments have long believed that - to misquote Wilfred Owen - dulce et decorum est pro patria decipio. But it does remain difficult to find a straightforward espousal of this thesis in the mainstream media. Much of the media continue to assume that the statements of government officials and politicians are characterised by what Mark Curtis calls a 'basic benevolence'. They may lie here or there, or they may act in a foolish or misguided way, but to advance the proposition that they are calculating liars, in full consciousness of the outcomes of their policies is beyond the pale. Thus discussions of propaganda strategy and deliberate deception remain rare.
For the sake of clarity, let us say a few words about lies - to combat the accusation of erecting a mirror image propaganda from the margins. Lies are falsehoods the status of which the liar is aware. Of course it is difficult to prove intention in these matters even in personal relations. In governmental circles it is more difficult as there is always someone else who can take the rap. I didn't know that this information was false. I took it in good faith from Alastair Campbell, MI6, the Office of Special Plans, Italian intelligence, Iraqi defectors (delete according to taste). A further muddying element in official misinformation is that the system of relations between journalists and government in and out of war is based on confidence and trust. Off the record briefing, disguised sources, and the like are a fundamental part of the system and are fully exploited by government in the US and UK. One of the 'most insidious' - because least checkable - ways of exploiting the system is when 'propaganda stories are planted on willing journalists, who disguise their origin from their readers'. The key to this is that the stories are deniable. That is to say that - since the source will not be identified - government can deny any role in the information. This is a system of insitutionalised lying which deliberately seeks to cover its tracks.
A further question is the distinction betweeen big and little lies. Was the justification for war 'an honourable deception' as former Cabinet Minister Clare Short has said of Tony Blair's state of mind. Or was it, as Paul Wolfowitz of the Pentagon, has put it for reasons of 'bureaucracy [that] we settled on the one issue that everyone could agree on'. The size of the lie will depend in part on the status of the liar and in part on the consequences of the lie. But little lies have a way of meshing together. The tangled webs they weave when first they practice to deceive - as the saying has it. Little lies can become webs of deceit especially when they are directed to some overall purpose such as presenting the military and the government in a favourable light and attempting to promote - or at least not undermine - big lies. In the first week of the attack on Iraq there were numerous examples of little lies. The Daily Mirror counted thirteen separate cases often made up of more than one deception. These included the alleged firing of Scud missiles, the 'discovery' of a chemical warfare factory, the 'liberation' of Umm Qasr, the 'uprising' in Basra and others. Later, British Army press officers with the Forward Press Information Centre claimed that as civilians were attempting to leave Basra 'the local militia engaged… the civilians with possibly the inference that they should all get back in, which was exactly the reaction that they got'. This claim was picked up on television news that evening as fact: 'This is one of the bridges where today civilians scattered as Iraqi fighters opened fire on them' (BBC1, News at Ten, 28 March 2003). Later the UK Defence Secretary Geoff Hoon announced the story in the House of Commons as yet another example of 'brutal suppression' by the Iraqi regime. Yet - according to the eyewitness reports of BBC journalists filming a documentary titled Fighting the War - the Iraqi's were in fact engaging the British Army: 'It's the British soldiers who are being fired at… It's not until the bridge is clear of people that [Iraqi] mortar rounds are fired towards it… In reality it is the British who are controlling movement across the bridge, both in and out of the city.'
But these little lies - even cumulatively - pale in comparison with the really big lie, which elements of the US government and MI6 have reportedly been building through 'I/Ops' or Information Operations, since at least 1997. This is the notion that Iraq posed a threat to the west by virtue of its programme on Weapons of Mass Destruction and (latterly) by virtue of its links with international terrorism. Both of these justifications were categorically false. The question is only whether those at the top knew that they were false.
One of the key claims - mentioned four separate times in the September 2002 dossier Iraq's Weapons of Mass Destruction: The Assessment of the British Government - was that WMD could be 'ready within 45 minutes of an order to use them' . This was not the only false claim made by the US and UK governments in the attempt to justify war. Glen Rangwala has produced a briefing paper identifying some 36 separate falsehoods. But it illustrates the key point. The dossier claimed the 'much information about Iraqi weapons of mass destruction is already in the public domain from UN reports and from Iraqi defectors. This points clearly to Iraq's continuing possession, after 1991, of chemical and biological agents'(p. 5) and Iraq has 'continued to produce chemical and biological agents'. The problem with these statements is not just that they are false but that they are fundamental misrepresentations of the sources cited by the government, notably UN reports and evidence from the key defector, Hussein Kamel, Saddam Hussein's son in law. Briefly these sources indicate that the Iraqi government had destroyed 90-95 per cent of their chemical and biological agent and that any that remained (with the single exception of mustard gas) was in a form which would have degraded to uselessness within 10 years. In the case of the mustard gas, if any actually remained, the quantity was so small that it would only effectively poison an area of some 5.2 square kilometres. The sources also indicate a complete lack of evidence that new production had occurred.
So the notion that there was any significant threat from Iraq from chemical and biological attack was wrong and they knew it was wrong. On the possibility of using the weapons within 45 minutes the dossier noted that Iraq 'can deliver chemical and biological agents using an extensive range of artillery shells, free-fall bombs, sprayers and ballistic missiles… The Iraq military are able to deploy these weapons within 45minutes of a decision to do so' (p. 17). This neatly conflates the alleged 'intelligence' on 45 minutes with long range ballistic missiles. In fact, Iraq did not have any such missiles and the original intelligence assessment was only, according to John Scarlett of the Joint Intelligence committee, that 'battlefield mortar shells or small calibre weaponry' could be deployed in 45 minutes. Again, both Blair and Campbell were in a position to know this since it was their own intelligence. (Blair, as Prime Minister sees all intelligence reports). In other words, the 45 minute claim involved at least three separate deceptions: on the existence of the agent in weaponised form; on the existence of the delivery mechanism; and on the application of the 45 minute claim to long range delivery systems. Weaving these various deceptions into a wholly false picture of a 'current' Iraqi threat required deliberate deception, but deception with a purpose; the purpose was to present the deception in such a way as to encourage the media to draw the obvious conclusion. That it did so is more than evident in the headline in the London Evening Standard that day '45 minutes from Attack' (24 September 2003) or in the Daily Express the next day 'Saddam can strike in 45 minutes' (25 September 2003).
An examination of the language used in official pronouncements show that ministers and officials - in this case Alastair Campbell and Tony Blair - took considerable care not to be caught out lying. But at the same time they stretch language so that words appear to mean the opposite of their dictionary definitions. This can be seen in their use of off the record and confidential briefings and leaks, but also in the extreme care taken in the use of language in set piece - on the record - encounters.
One thread in the web of deceit, exposed at the Hutton inquiry, illustrates the seeming inability of those in power to do anything but dissemble. Campbell claimed before the Foreign Affairs Committee that the first draft of the September dossier had been seen by him on September 9 and had included the controversial 45 minutes claim. At Hutton, it emerged that he had chaired the meeting on the 5th September at which an earlier draft was discussed. Asked to explain, Campbell replied simply that the previous draft was a different document.
that is not what I define as the WMD dossier… these were different products that were being prepared in different parts of Government. The one that mattered was the one that John Scarlett was putting together… I think in my mind, certainly, they were always separate.
This playing with words characterises the whole affair.
Blair too, was very careful in his use of language which exploited the media thirst for dramatic threats. In a key address to the House of Commons Liaison Committee, Blair said: 'I think it is important that we do everything we can to try to show people the link between the issue of weapons of mass destruction and these international terrorist groups, mainly linked to al-Qaeda'. Seconds later in the House of Commons Blair acknowledged that 'I know of nothing linking Iraq to the September 11 attack and I know of nothing either that directly links al-Qaeda and Iraq to recent events in the UK.'
The final position seemed to be that although there was no connection it was dangerous to leave weapons of mass destruction in the hands of Hussein in case at some future date these ended up with terrorists. The 'link' in other words is a hypothetical one. Via the medium of spin this is deliberately translated into a 'real' link. As Blair put it in the House of Commons: 'at some point in a future not too distant, the threat will turn into reality. The threat therefore is not imagined. The history of Saddam and weapons of mass destruction is not American or British propaganda. The history and the present threat are real'. Note the dishonesty of the language here as Blair appears to say the threat is both 'real' and 'present' while at the same time a potential threat in the 'not too distant' future which will 'turn into' reality.
On the strength of this hypothetical future risk up to 40,000 Iraqi's were killed. The ability of the US and UK governments to get away with these killings, depends in part on their ability to muddy the waters by means of propaganda and deceit. The attack on Iraq shows the integration of propaganda and lying into the core of government strategy. It shows how such a strategy, planned and executed by a relatively small cabal (in Downing St, the White House and Pentagon), in the face of opposition from within their own ranks, to invade and occupy a sovereign country, can be successful. This does seem to me to elevate the Iraqi threat story into the premier league of big lies.
But we also need to explain the seeming inability of a large majority of the political elite to see through the lies. Some of this is easily explained in terms of political calculation and in terms of fear. But, there is a further element in the psychosis of government which is that members of the elite come to believe their own lies and seem unable to break free of the operating assumptions of the system. Even outside the charmed circle of ministerial office, they come to believe that the world seen through the distorting lens of the their own self interest is how the world really is. Of course this will change with the relative strength of the forces of opposition. We cannot explain the pathetic evasions and misunderstandings contained in both the Foreign Affairs Committee and the Intelligence and Security Committee reports on Iraq, together with their occasional glimpses of truth, without understanding that perceptions of the world can be markedly distorted by ideology – the moulding of perceptions by interests - and by political circumstance.
Most crucially the Iraq lie shows the immense gulf between the democratic wishes of the population and the priorities of the political elite. The elite can simply ignore the will of the people of the UK and the majority of global opinion. It can control or bypass the institutions for democracy such as congress or the House of commons by means both of deception and the long term sapping of their practical democratic power. It shows that democracy in both the US and UK is institutionally corrupt, and that there is a need for fundamental changes in the system of national and global governance for them to be objectively recognisable as democratic. The most important legacy of the attack on Iraq then, may be to expose to the world the crisis of liberal democracy and this may well prove in the longer term to be the biggest chink in the armour of the American empire and its UK vassal.