When the Marines crossed into Iraq twenty years ago, it still existed, but just barely. You could find it in any college town and the big metropolises, but you had to purposely seek it out in slacker coffeeshops, underground video stores, countercultural bookshops. You had to read alt-weeklies like the Village Voice, but also Z magazine, sections of the Nation, and the full corpus of writings from Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting (my alma mater).
For lack of a better term, and at the risk of anachronism, I’ll call “it” the world of alternative facts.
At the moment the United States barreled into Baghdad, a typical American could comfortably access a maximum of, say, a dozen original sources for national and international news, give or take a few: five TV news bureaus (NBC, ABC, CBS, CNN, and Fox), NPR on the radio, the three national news magazines (Time, Newsweek, US News & World Report), one or occasionally two regional newspapers, plus the Wall Street Journal and USA Today. (In most localities it had only just recently become possible to conveniently find a copy of the New York Times).
All these organizations, whatever their subtle differences of political shading or editorial quality, were staffed by journalists who lived in the same cities, went to the same schools, kept abreast of one another’s work, and knew one another socially. And each of these institutions was, in one way or another, part of the Establishment.
But most important, you couldn’t talk back to them. You could try, but no one would hear you.
It was, therefore, relatively easy and surprisingly common in those days for the media to engineer the wholesale suppression of newsworthy, verifiable facts, or to embed wholly fictitious accounts of historically significant world events into the public record. And the Iraq story — stretching from the first Gulf War (1990–91) to the 2003 invasion, and focused on the saga of Iraqi disarmament — was especially fertile ground for this kind of journalistic prevarication.
Why Did the Inspectors Leave?
To take a small example, in the fall of 2002, the Bush administration took its first steps toward an invasion by pushing for a United Nations resolution, backed by the threat of force, demanding the return of UN weapons inspectors to Iraq. As every news report at the time explained, the inspectors at that point had not set foot in Iraq for almost four years. When debate on the proposal began in the Security Council in September 2002, it was the biggest news story in the world.
And yet if you wanted to know why the inspectors were absent for four years, things got complicated.
If you had the time, you could go back into the archives of, say, the Washington Post or New York Times and read its reporting from the time of the inspectors’ departure four years earlier, December 1998, when Bill Clinton’s administration waged a four-day campaign of air strikes against Iraq dubbed Operation Desert Fox.
Amid the torrent of important diplomatic and military news relayed in the editions of the Post and the Times during that time, you could find mention of a UN announcement, issued just before the bombing began, that it was withdrawing its inspectors because it couldn’t guarantee their safety during the bombardment. So there, it might seem, is your answer: the inspectors had been forced out of Iraq by US bombing.
But if you fast-forward to late 2002, when the inspectors’ hiatus from Iraq suddenly became the focus of the whole world’s attention, you’ll find those same respectable news organs reporting a new, alternative version of history: the Iraqi government had expelled the inspectors from the country, claiming they were spies. This new account didn’t just appear a handful of times in one or two news outlets, like an embarrassing factual error. It was in all the news outlets, because it had become the new official history.
And make no mistake: no matter how many letters to the editor you sent, no matter how many righteous tirades or well-documented exposés you published in your little dissident newsletter somewhere, the New York Times and Washington Post were not going to stop peddling their new history, even after they had it pointed out to them that the correct information had appeared in their own publications at the time of the events in question.
Because why would they? Outside the scruffy and sparsely populated world of alternative facts, nobody was going to read your newsletter, and if they did, they would have no way to communicate what they learned to the rest of humanity back on planet Earth.
This was what made it possible for the Clinton and Bush administrations and their lackeys in the press to mislead the world for so many years about Iraq’s nonexistent weapons of mass destruction — a triumph of misinformation that for a few glimmering years achieved the propagandist’s dream of fooling all of the people all of the time, until the ruse cosmically backfired on them once they actually had to produce a smoking gun.
“We Know Amongst Ourselves There Are No Weapons”
In the run-up to the war, one of the most popular stock talking points among its advocates and apologists was the claim that the Western governments now hypocritically opposing George W. Bush’s drive to war — like those of France, Germany, and Canada — had never actually questioned his contention that Iraq was hiding weapons of mass destruction. The Washington Post editorial page, in its February 2003 masterpiece, “Irrefutable” — a meditation on Colin Powell’s now-infamous presentation to the UN — repeated this well-worn line of argument, quoting Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld: “Any country on the face of the Earth with an active intelligence program knows that Iraq has weapons of mass destruction.”
Almost exactly a year later, I interviewed Frank Ronald Cleminson, one of the most senior arms control experts in the Canadian foreign service, who had served the UN’s Iraqi weapons-hunting agency as an inspector in the 1990s and then as a member of its supervising body of experts, the UN Monitoring, Verification and Inspection Commission College of Commissioners, in the early 2000s.
“I used to say, you know, we basically know amongst ourselves there are no weapons and we’re unlikely to find any,” Cleminson told me.
According to him, the most intractable obstacle to the completion of the UN’s disarmament mission in Iraq was not, in the end, Saddam’s stonewalling — which the inspectors managed to foil — but the obstruction they encountered from Washington.
“My guess is that with full American cooperation and without all this politics, [the UN’s disarmament task] could have been wrapped up in three to four years,” by 1995, he explained. At that point, in UN jargon, the focus would have shifted from “disarmament” to the operation of a permanent system of “ongoing monitoring and verification” in Iraq to ensure that the banned weapons programs would never be reconstituted.
Nothing could be more emblematic of how the media functioned in those days: the same august news organs that published extravagantly expensive “investigations” into the murky shadow worlds of Iraqi bioweapons labs and clandestine terrorist rendezvous in Prague — like those of the New York Times’s Judith Miller, whose fraudulent scoops, we later learned, mostly came from the serial fabricators in Ahmed Chalabi’s Iraqi National Congress — were evidently unable to penetrate the pudding-like wall of secrecy surrounding Ottawa’s paper-and-pencil intelligence analysts.
Those Canadian analysts, we now know, thanks to an article published in the Spring 2020 issue of the journal Intelligence and National Security (“Getting it right: Canadian intelligence assessments on Iraq, 2002–2003”), understood perfectly well that Iraq was unlikely to have weapons of mass destruction and said so clearly in their internal reports. But they shied away from stating the facts publicly so as not to anger American officials — who then turned around and used their apparent acquiescence (and that of the other allied intelligence establishments) to argue that “everybody” agreed with them that Iraq had WMDs.
The argument from Rumsfeld and his cothinkers in the press was, in essence: If you think the CIA is tailoring its conclusions about Iraq’s alleged WMD arsenal to fit the needs of its political masters in the Bush White House, how do you explain the fact that intelligence agencies in allied countries whose governments opposed Bush’s war reached the same conclusions?
The answer, at least in Canada’s case, is that they didn’t reach the same conclusions. They just kept those conclusions as quiet as possible. Recounting the internal controversies within Canada’s spy agencies in the run-up to the war, the article’s author, Alan Barnes — the former Middle East director of the Intelligence Assessment Secretariat (IAS), Canada’s lead foreign intelligence agency — wrote:
The greatest resistance was over the IAS’s analysis of Baghdad’s WMD programs. This went beyond analytic disagreements which were debated vigorously in meetings of the Interdepartmental Experts Group. Officials who had no part in these analytic discussions expressed concern that disagreeing with the US on Iraqi WMDs — and consequently failing to support military action against Iraq — would lead Washington to reduce the amount of intelligence it shares with Ottawa and lead to the marginalization of Canada within the Five Eyes intelligence partnership.
All of this was happening a few hundred miles from New York Times headquarters, and it was a story that any enterprising intelligence reporter surely could have gotten; though politically awkward for the Canadians, it wouldn’t have required sources in Ottawa to divulge any highly sensitive secrets. Who knows what kind of impact the story would have had if it had run on the front page of the Times. Instead, it was kept under wraps, like all the other evidence that Iraq had no WMDs.
Today, I would argue, journalistic chicanery of that particular kind is no longer possible. There’s still plenty of bad and inaccurate news reporting out there. But there are two major differences between now and then.
First, there’s a much wider range of news sources with “mass” audiences than there was twenty years ago. Any attempt to reconstruct the pre-internet misinformation cartel today would likely founder because newer publications, more detached from the hive mind of the Greater Washington Bureau, would play the role of spoilers. (Even publications as essentially nonsubversive as Buzzfeed or the Huffington Post would probably fill this role.)
But variety and competition by themselves aren’t enough. The most important factor in breaking down the old semi-Orwellian media status quo was the interactive nature of the internet. The mere fact that the truth is being told — and that your news outlet’s lies are being exposed — in some competing publication isn’t enough to compel you to tell the truth.
It’s when there’s a chorus of eagle-eyed Twitter users noisily holding your reporting up to the light of contrary evidence, day in and day out, that the lying becomes untenable. We can only wonder how many lives in Iraq and beyond would have been saved back in 2003 if the world’s clout-chasing shitposters had had the kind of reach they do today.