ON THE HOME FRONT, TRUTH IS FIRST VICTIM


Author(s): JOHN R. MACARTHUR Date: March 9, 2003 Page: D12 Section: Ideas

The other day, a US military spokesman was asked to expound on the Pentagon's propaganda campaign to frighten Iraqis into overthrowing Saddam Hussein. Describing the latest in weapons of mass persuasion, the spokesman explained to a reporter that "the goal of information warfare is to win without ever firing a shot."
The Bush administration has launched an extraordinary "psy-ops" assault - via e-mail, radio, cellphone and leaflets - to convince the Iraqi people that their wisest course is to abandon President Hussein and avoid a bloody war. But, to my mind, the gentleman might just as well have been describing the "information" war now being waged by the government against the American people, a propaganda campaign intended to start a war. To paraphrase the Pentagon, it seems the goal of White House public relations is to win without ever making a truly factual statement. Government manipulation of public opinion is an old story, of course, but the two President Bushes seem especially gifted in the black arts of advertising and sloganeering. In 1990, Bush the First - with brilliant support from the public relations firm of Hill and Knowlton and a Kuwaiti "witness" named Nayirah - harnessed a fake baby killing atrocity (Iraqi soldiers accused of pulling hundreds of newborns from Kuwait City incubators) to help drive a reluctant Senate and public into approving military action.
The "liberation" of a tiny emirate that had never known liberty remains one of the great propaganda coups of recent times, and its lessons were not lost on Bush the Second. But in seeking to "liberate" Iraq from Saddam Hussein, Bush and his counselors have shown themselves every bit the equals of the father.
Twelve years ago the case for war was easier to make - Saddam had invaded Kuwait. George W. Bush had no such advantage. Except for the far-fetched (now refuted) connection between 9/11 hijacker Mohammed Atta and the Iraqi government, President Bush's team began its race for congressional war authorization from a standing start. But on Sept. 7, 2002, they accelerated quickly, launching their campaign with a near total fabrication that was nothing more than a calculated scare story.
It was then that the president and British Prime Minister Tony Blair announced that the United Nation's International Atomic Energy Agency had issued a "new" report describing a revived nuclear weapons project in Iraq, built on the foundations of the old. Inarticulate to a fault, Bush backtracked a bit from "new" and stated that "when inspectors first went into Iraq and were . . . finally denied access, a report came out of . . . the IAEA that they were six months away from developing a weapon. I don't know what more evidence we need."
Effective propaganda relies on half-truths and the conflation of disparate "facts," so the notion of new IAEA evidence at least sounded plausible. Saddam almost certainly harbored ambitions to build an A-Bomb - it was this that caused Israel to bomb Iraq's first and only nuclear reactor in 1981 (a preemptive act of war that drew unanimous condemnation from the UN Security Council, a move endorsed by the Reagan administration.) The trouble was that no such "new" report existed. Nor had there ever been an IAEA report containing the "six months away" assertion - not in 1991 after the war; not in December 1998 when the UN weapons inspectors pulled out of Iraq; not in September 2001.
More than three weeks elapsed before the Bush administration acknowledged that it was citing a 1991 news story quoting an American expert working for the UN and not anyone at the IAEA. (But the expert was referring to enriched uranium, not a weapon.) But by then the administration was well on its way to panicking Congress into voting for war. The day after the Bush-Blair confidence trick, the newspapers and talk shows were flooded with an administration leak about Iraq's attempt to buy special aluminum tubes, allegedly destined for its "six months away" nuclear program. Suddenly (along with the IAEA phantom report), aluminum tubes had brought the world to the brink of nuclear Armageddon.
Not until Dec. 8, when "60 Minutes" broadcast an interview with former UN weapons inspector David Albright, did any expert point out publicly that the aluminum tubes were probably meant for conventional weapons. Not until Jan. 9, did Mohammed El Baradei, head of the IAEA, finally bury the aluminum tubes (and the Iraqi nuclear weapons program) by confirming Albright's supposition.
Those aluminum tubes were recently resurrected by Colin Powell in a speech to the Security Council on Feb. 5, when he claimed that such finally calibrated tubes would never be used merely for conventional bombs. But just two days ago, El Baradei stated before the Security Council that there was no evidence the 81mm tubes could have been used for anything other than conventional weapons. It hardly matters; Congress long ago gave Bush carte blanche to attack Iraq, with its open-ended war resolution of Oct. 11.
Such propaganda success breeds contempt for the old-fashioned notion that politicians require the informed consent of the people before they go to war. The media are partly to blame; they have been so slow in refuting administration double talk that Karl Rove can count on a fairly long interval between propaganda declaration and contradiction or bet that the contradiction will be so muted as to be insignificant. Thus could the president brazenly include the controversial aluminum tubes in his State of the Union address.
Meanwhile, stories designed to frighten the public on to a war footing proliferate. Powell tells the Security Council of a "poison factory" linked to Al Qaeda in northern Iraq. Reporters visit a compound of crude structures and find nothing of the kind, so an unidentified State Department official responds by saying "a poison factory is a term of art."
Powell cites new "British intelligence" on Saddam's "spying" capabilities; British Channel 4 reveals that this new dossier is plagiarized from an article by a graduate student in California.
The administration raises its terrorist threat level to orange, causing widespread anxiety and duct tape purchases (a placebo to distract from a faltering economy); ABC News reports (at last a rapid response) that the latest terror alert was largely based on "fabricated" information provided by a captured Al Qaeda informant who subsequently failed a lie detector test.
The question is, why do they get away with it? Herman Goering, for one, said it's easy. "Why, of course, the people don't want to go to war," he told US intelligence officer Gustave Gilbert at the Nuremberg war crimes tribunal. "But, voice or no voice, the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders . . . All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same way in any country."


Copyright 2002 Globe Newspaper Company