Bush-media axis on WMDs

BY Dasu Krishnamoorty| IN Media Practice | 30/06/2003
By publishing this one-source version, the Times put its stamp of legitimacy on stories that promoted the interests of the Bush administration.
 

 

Dasu Krishnamoorty

 

 

 

The yarn fine-spun by the Bush administration on WMDs (weapons of mass destruction) and its replication by the media have sparked off a fierce debate which veterans like John Dean, a former Nixon aide, think may be good reason for the impeachment of Bush. The temperatures raised by the debate have forced both the White House and the media, specially the New York Times to resort to convoluted and untenable logic. Bush opened the defence arguments by a reference to WMDs in his weekly radio talk (21 June). His Defense Secretary called the media for a briefing (24 June) to explain the rationale behind America`s war against Iraq. The New York Times began last week what we can call a fire-fighting operation, commissioning columnists in the defence of Bush and his lies.

 

People now believe the words of Thomas Jefferson who said in 1823 that `nothing in a newspaper is to be believed.` Much to the embarrassment of the mainstream media and despite their best efforts, the debate on the reporting on WMDs refuses to go away. Judith Miller, star reporter of the New York Times on bio-terrorism and author of a book on WMDs, cornered all the flak on circulating unfounded stories on WMDs in Iraq. The media storm over how she compromised journalistic independence to get information of doubtful status has not lost any of its fury. Russel Baker, well-known media columnist, thinks that Miller had co-operated with the Pentagon in its disinformation program.

 

Miller filed from Baghdad several stories on Saddam`s store of deadly weapons and the Times carried them on the front page. On 21 April she reported that the US military had failed to uncover the WMDs in Iraq because they had been recently `destroyed or existed only as precursors with dual civilian uses.` How did Miller get this information? This question became important because most media, including the Times, know that sources have agendas and that revealing the source helps readers understand the motivation behind the disclosure of information. The source Miller quoted in her story was the Mobile Exploration Team Alpha. The team claims to have got the information from an Iraqi scientist who is reported to have led them to sites he claimed were where the Iraqis buried the weapons. According to Miller, she had not met the scientist but only seen him from `afar` pointing out to the team spots where the WMDs were presumed buried. She even described the scientist as wearing nondescript clothes and a baseball cap.

 

Miller confesses that the military had declined to identify the so-called scientist and to permit her to interview him. In the long run, one can presume that the entire story of 21 April and other pieces she wrote were based on information the military gave her, uncorroborated later either by herself or by other sources. By publishing this one-source version, the Times put its stamp of legitimacy on stories that promoted the interests of the Bush administration.

 

Slowly, even this information which Miller obtained by compromising her position as a journalist began being contradicted. On 26 May, the Washington Post laid its hands on internal mail between Miller and John Burns, the Times bureau chief in Iraq. In that e-mail, Miller admitted that her source was Iraqi National Congress leader and the White House`s favorite Ahmad Chalabi. Now, people see in this a Pentagon plan to use Chalabi to smuggle information into the Times. Burns is reported to have chided Miller for bypassing him in doing a story on Iraq. "If you do this, what is to stop you doing it on any other story of your choosing," Burns, a Pulitzer Prize winner, asked her in the e-mail. Chalabi was a key source for Pentagon for information on WMDs, according to Seymour Hersh, familiar to Indian readers as the man whom Morarji Desai successfully sued for defamation.

 

This information of questionable value came to Miller after she had agreed to abide by a demand of the military that violated all canons of journalistic rectitude. Miller agreed to 1. Embargo her story for three days; 2. Permit military officials to review her story prior to publication; 3. Not name the found chemicals and 4. Refrain from identifying or interviewing the Iraqi scientist who led the Mobile Exploration Team Alpha to sites where he maintained Iraqis had buried chemical precursors to banned chemical weapons. Andrew Rosenthal of the Times foreign desk confirmed Miller`s pact with the military by saying that all embedded reporters agreed to the same conditions. Now it becomes clear that all the information that came to the Times from Miller on WMDs was through the military sieve. The terms on which Miller got her information amounted to censorship and the Times had no qualms using censored material.

 

Who took the American people for a ride? Bush or the media? To say both may not be a hyperbole because Bush and media have now become interchangeable terms in the context of Iraq. WMDs are sensitive territory because Bush had gone to war bypassing the UN, claiming that Iraq possessed these weapons. Bush has several permutations and combinations on WMDs. The first explanation he gave to the nation was the certain belief that Saddam Hussein had stockpiled WMDs. The latest (21 June) came in his weekly radio address. He told his audience that the suspected nuclear arms sites had been looted in the last days of Saddam`s rule. This is the first time Bush has mentioned looting to explain the failure of the American military to unravel weapons in Iraq. An earlier hunch was that retreating Iraqi forces had destroyed them. He now calls his critics `revisionist historians.`

 

The Times has now begun a fire-fighting operation. It carried a lead article by David E. Rosenbaum on Sunday (22 June) in its Week in Review section trying to explain away White House lies on WMDs. He says that Bush had not said anything that could mean that he had actually lied on the subject. "Certainly, a strong argument can be made that he exaggerated the danger posed by banned Iraqi weapons when he was trying to convince the country and Congress of the need for a pre-emptive strike. Mr. Bush is not alone in selective emphasis." Rosenbaum wants us to believe that what Bush had said, therefore, was only an exaggeration with a bit of selective emphasis.

 

When a newspaper reported his death, Mark Twain dismissed it as an exaggeration. Twain could do it because he was alive despite the obituary. But the exaggeration of Bush had already cost several thousand Iraqi and hundreds of coalition forces` lives. Rosenbaum concludes that the president may have "believed what he was saying." To sound rational, he pretends to believe official insistence that the weapons would still be found.  Rosenbaum unleashes another lie by asserting that the official reason is not WMDs but a desire to dominate the Middle East and to overthrow a dictatorship.

 

Two days after Rosenbaum`s defence of exaggeration, Times carries a report by Thomas Shanker (25 June) of a media briefing by Defence Secretary Rumsfeld. The report says, "Mr Rumsfeld strode directly into a growing debate over whether the Bush administration had not exaggerated the imminent threat of Iraq using unconventional weapons in making the case for war." There now seems to be a valid case for equating exaggeration with truth. Rumsfeld told the media that "Virtually everyone agreed -- they did in Congress, in successive Democratic and Republican administrations, in the intelligence communities here in the United States, and also in foreign countries and at the UN, even among those countries that did not favor military action in Iraq." So, one can manufacture truth by agreement!

 

While one president after the other, Lyndon Johnson on Vietnam, Richard Nixon on Watergate tapes, Bill Clinton on Monica Lewinsky, lied to the American people, what is new is the co-operation of the media in relaying official lies to their constituencies. David Lindorff says in CounterPunch (24 June), "Now, we have the Times--the self-styled national "newspaper of record"-- offering an appalling apologia for Bush Administration deception and lying, an apologia made all the more grotesque because the Times sets a tone that is widely followed, lemming like, by smaller newspapers across the nation."

 

Of Miller, Jack Shafer says, `Her Iraq coverage has always relied heavily on Iraqi defectors.` But this is not a new practice of western correspondents. Two decades ago, Fred Halliday wrote in the Times of India that all special reports on Pakistan and Kashmir originated in the British and American chanceries in Chanakyapuri. Wilfrid Sheed wrote in his book The Hack how western correspondents filed reports on other countries even before they checked into their hotels. They relied on Kremlin watchers (watching from where?), Hong Kong arrivals (before it became part of China) and even cabbies for `reliable information.` There was no way of verifying if such sources existed at all.

 

Contact: dasukrishnamoorty@hotmail.com

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