By Andrew Fowler
George W. Bush wore a suitably sombre grey suit to deliver his “axis of evil” speech, which began laying out the case for the US invasion of Iraq. Few could have faulted his performance on that day in January 2002, just four months after the September 11 terrorist attacks. He told the applauding joint sitting of the US House of Representatives and Senate that Iraq was allied with terrorists, and posed “a grave and growing danger” to US interests through possession of “weapons of mass destruction”.
What we now know is that Bush’s performance was just an act.There was nothing to link Iraq to terrorism.
Yet more than 10 years later the leaders who took us to war are still in denial. Just this week former British prime minister Tony Blair issued what amounted to a non-apology as he tried to spin his way out of the trouble he expects from the findings of the Chilcot inquiry into Britain’s role in the Iraq War. But what has been forgotten is the role of many journalists who led the charge to war.
Eight months after Bush’s address with the drumbeat of war growing ever louder, /The New York Times /reporter Judith Miller, who often boasted the Pentagon had given her clearance to see secret information, crossed the line from journalist to pro-war activist. On September 8, 2002, Miller wrote about “Mr Hussein’s dogged insistence on pursuing his nuclear ambitions”. It was a bald statement of fact without any attribution.
The story, “US says Hussein intensified quest for A-bomb parts”, quoted not a single person by name, and relied entirely on US government sources.
Miller and /The New York Times/, with its uncorroborated, unquestioning reporting, had provided the perfect vehicle for the White House. Over the following 24 hours they saturated the airwaves stirring fear of a nuclear Armageddon. On NBC’s /Meet the Press/, vice-president Dick Cheney cited /The New York Times/ article and accused Saddam of moving aggressively to develop nuclear weapons.
On CNN, national security adviser Condoleezza Rice acknowledged that “there will always be some uncertainty” in determining how close Iraq may be to obtaining a nuclear weapon but, in a phrase as polished as it was hollow, added: “We don’t want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud.” On CBS, Bush cited satellite photos that showed “unexplained
construction” at Iraqi sites that weapons inspectors had previously searched for indications Saddam was trying to develop nuclear arms. “I don’t know what more evidence we need,” Bush said. The news flashed around the world that the White House had “confirmed a report in /The New York Times/” that Saddam Hussein had been attempting to get equipment to produce nuclear weapons.
Australian prime minister John Howard added to the misleading game,saying the intelligence that had come out of the United States “if accurate confirms the intelligence that we have been given”. The fact is it was the same intelligence that the United States had already given to Australia.
Howard made great play of the possibility that “Iraq has not abandoned her aspiration for nuclear capacity”. By suggesting /The New York Times/ story added yet another layer of confirmation, Howard was taking part in the Australian version of the style of journalism that Miller and the White House specialised in: the story leaked to Miller and published in /The New York Times/ had been confirmed by the very people who leaked it in the first place. Iraq’s nuclear ambitions were now accepted as fact. Even the BBC’s prestigious
/Panorama/ program, “The Case Against Saddam”, broadcast on September 23, 2002, embraced this “evidence”, suggesting Saddam was trying to get systems to enrich uranium for nuclear weapons production.
The program acted as a reinforcement of Blair’s claim that Saddam’s missiles could hit British territory in Cyprus with only 45 minutes warning.
The /Panorama/ report formed the basis of a /Four Corners/ broadcast two weeks later but the bald assertions of “fact” were balanced by other interviews in the ABC version, bringing a swift letter of rebuke to the program. /Panorama/ was not happy that /Four Corners/ had not accepted its editorial line.
While Miller had given the White House exactly what it wanted on the nuclear story, she now shared the spoils of a second report. It involved Iraqi defector Adnan Ihsan Saeed al-Haideri who told CIA interrogators that he had personally visited 20 weapons of mass destruction sites in Iraq. The fact that a CIA lie detector test showed the whole story was fabricated had little impact on what the White House wanted. Miller’s story quoting al-Haideri ran in /The New York Times/, while the exclusive TV rights went to a little-known
Australian journalist Paul Moran who was working for the Australian ABC.
Moran was well placed to get the story. He had been employed by a CIA-funded organisation, the Washington-based Rendon Group, whose main role was to manipulate the media to support the war. The Rendon Group had even created the Iraqi National Congress, the anti-Saddam organisation which had delivered up al-Haideri to Miller. Now Moran’s
al-Haideri interview, packed with disinformation and fabrication, went around the world, picked up by dozens of TV stations.
When US troops reached Baghdad, /The Australian/ published an editorial, “Coalition of the Whining Got it Wrong”, which ended with words that gave perfect meaning to irony: “Never underestimate the power of ideology and myth, in this case anti-Americanism, to trump reality. But at least we know for sure it is not love, but being a left-wing intellectual, that means never having to say you’re sorry.”
The disinformation war claimed the reputations of many journalists who either failed to question their governments, or worse still deliberately championed the case for the invasion which led to the deaths of an estimated half a million Iraqis. There was at least one other casualty of this war created by fabricated news: Moran died in a car-bomb attack in northern Iraq.
This article contains excerpts from Andrew Fowler’s book The War on Journalism: Media Moguls, Whistleblowers and the Price of Freedom (Penguin Random House, 2015).
2 November 2015