Honest Mistakes?

The New York Times on "The Failure to Find Iraqi Weapons"

by Paul Street

Dissident Voice

September 30,2003

First Published in ZNET


We should be pleased, I suppose, that American "mainstream" (corporate-state) media has seen fit to recognize the incorrectness of the Bush administration's leading case for invading and occupying Iraq.  As that media now generally acknowledges, Iraq's supposed fearsome stash of Weapons of Mass Destructions

(WMD) did not…well…exist (unless Saddam's mad scientists figured out how to make them invisible). Indeed, blowing away the administration's main justification for "war" has become something of a cottage industry for "mainstream" reporters and pundits.  This, along with much else, is proof that we do not have a "state-run media" in the United States.


Manufacturing Consent


Before we get too impressed at the authority-questioning virtue of our "free press," however, we should remember where those reporters and commentators were when it mattered most.  They were busy uncritically transmitting the Bush administration's fateful lies and telling us that the invasion was going to happen regardless of what we thought - that we were just spectators, not citizens. Prior to the attack on Iraq, they refused to meaningfully challenge the Bush team's assertions about Saddam's ability and willingness to use unconventional weapons and the extent of his program to develop nuclear weapons. As Normal Solomon has noted, "the default position of U.S. media coverage gave the White House the benefit of doubts," in sharp contrast to the British press's "vigorous exposure" of government "deceptions about Iraq." 


American reporters exhibited "reflexive deference toward pivotal players like Donald Rumsfeld, Colin Powell and Condaleeza Rice" and "chronic overreliance on official sources." They "failed," Solomon notes, "to scrutinize contradictions, false statements and leaps of illogic."  The most obsequious coverage of all was given to the de facto president, whose recurrent statement of bold falsehoods was treated as "no big deal". (1)


They behaved pretty much as one might expect after reading Noam Chomsky and Edward S. Herman's Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media (1988).  Chomsky and Herman showed how dominant media provided propaganda for American militarism and empire during the middle and late Cold War era.


Substitute Muslim terrorism (real and fictional) for the international communist conspiracy (essentially fictional) as the indispensable and all- encompassing Evil Other in imperial US rhetoric - ie, switch al Qeada and Saddam (falsely merged with each other and others) for Moscow and Beijing (also falsely conflated, along with others) - and you see the basic same basic ideological mechanisms at work. Again in 2003, we have learned that, as Norman Meier noted more than 50 years ago,  "Americans are the most propagandized people of any nation." (2) 


Things Known Without the Benefit of New War Crimes 


In exhibiting obedience to imperial power, the dominant media in the pre-"war" period ignored basic, readily available evidence that contradicted the White House's story line. According to a key report prepared for the United Nations Security Council in March 1999, all "weapons-usable nuclear material" was removed from Iraq by February 1994. "The bulk of Iraq's proscribed weapons programs," this reported noted four years prior to the invasion, "has been eliminated." (3) According to Scott Ritter, speaking in the fall of 2002, "Iraq has destroyed 90 to 95 percent of its weapons of mass destruction."  By the time that United Nations inspections were finally suspended, thanks largely to America's elimination of Iraq's incentive to cooperate (the lifting of mass- murderous US-led economic sanctions) and to America's use of the inspection process for espionage purposes, "Iraq" was, in Ritter's words, "a WMD threat to no one." (4) Ritter is a former US Marine Major, a ballistic missile technology expert and a former chief UN weapons inspector in Iraq who describes himself as a moderate Republican.


Evidently, it was possible to determine that Iraq did not pose an even mildly serious WMD threat without launching an illegal and expensive invasion that has so far killed at least (by deliberately cautious and conservative estimates) 8000 Iraqi civilians and injured 20,000 more. (5)                       


"We Cannot Blame": Still Giving Bush the Benefit of the Doubt


How disturbing, then, to read last Friday's lead editorial, titled "The Failure to Find Iraq Weapons," in the national "newspaper of record," The New York Times. "Like President Bush," the Times' editorial board claims (6): "we believed that Saddam Hussein was hiding potentially large quantities of chemical and biological weapons and aggressively pursuing nuclear arms.  Like the president, we thought those weapons posed a grave danger to the United States and the rest of the world.  Now it appears that premise was wrong.  We cannot in hindsight blame the administration for its original conclusions.  


They were based on the best intelligence available, which had led the Clinton administration before it and the governments of allied nations to reach the same conclusion.  But even the best intelligence can turn out to be mistaken, and the likelihood that this was the case in Iraq shows why pre-emptive war, the Bush administration's strategy since 9/11, is so ill conceived as a foundation for security policy." 


It's good that the Times' editors oppose the terrible "pre-emptive war" doctrine. Still, this statement flatly ignores the counter-evidence available before the war, evidence it played a key role in suppressing and marginalizing.


At the same time, it editors ignore the generally under-discussed issue of Saddam's motivations and character. There is no reason to think that Iraq's dictator was recklessly suicidal, which he would need to have been to put WMD into play against "the United States and the rest of the world."  The Times' editors are wrong when they add that Saddam's "history as a vicious tyrant who has used weapons in war and against his own people lent credence" to the notion that his (supposed) WMD "posed a significant threat" to Americans.  Saddam used those chemical weapons with the approval and support of the most powerful nation on earth (the United States) and therefore without any great risk. (7) 


Above all, the Times editors stick their head in the sand about the reality of the Bush administration's blatantly propagandistic approach to the WMD issue leading up to "war."  The real problem with that approach was not a genuine truth-seeking over-reliance on inherently limited "best-available" intelligence.  It was the Bush administration's insistence on selecting, manipulating and creating facts to fit a pre-ordained agenda on behalf of "regime change" in Iraq. 


If Bush Junior's "war" was based on bad intelligence, why did all of the White House's supposed "mistakes" and "exaggerations" point to invading Iraq, which we know to have been a longtime pre-9/11 objective of many key players in the neo-imperial Bush "defense" team (e.g., Paul Wolfowitz, Richard Perle, and Donald Rumsfeld, among others)?  As Chomsky pointed out more than thirty years ago in a book dissecting the delusional mindset of the people who planned the Vietnam War, "mere ignorance or foolishness on the part of US policymakers " - e.g. bad intelligence - "would lead to random error, not to a regular and systematic distortion" that always points to the necessity for murderous US aggression. (8) Under the invasion-selective pattern of "systematic distortion" followed by the Bush intelligence apparatus in 2002 and early 2003, former US Ambassador Joseph C. Wilson 4th was simply ignored when he informed the CIA after a careful investigation that there was no evidence to support the claim that Saddam had tried to purchase uranium ore from Niger as part of attempt to manufacture nuclear weapons. (9)


To review the White House's statements during the build-up to "war" (September 2002-March 2003) is hardly to study honest officials struggling to extract the difficult truth from complex, uncertain, and inherently flawed data. It is to revisit bold, unambiguous, and definitive declarations to the effect that Saddam absolutely possessed sufficient terrible weapons, terrorist connections, and malevolent suicidal willpower to pose a clear and present danger to the American people and the world.


The Dominant Media's Living Vietnam Syndrome


Like the White House, the Times editorial board knows better than what its letting on. Consistent with its behavior, and that of the rest of the dominant media, during the brutal American military assault on Southeast Asia during the 1960s and 1970s, the Times is stretching to portray the invasion of Iraq as an ill-informed, falsely reasoned  "mistake."  It can't afford to describe that policy in honest and accurate terms, as pre-mediated, murderous high-state aggression.  Such are the limits of acceptable critical commentary in the

highest corridors of corporate-ideological power.     


Paul Street is an urban social policy researcher in Chicago, Illinois. His book Empire Abroad, Inequality at Home: Essays on America and the World Since 9/11 (Paradigm Publishers) will be available next year. This article appeared in ZNET (www.zmag.org/weluser.htm).


Other Recent Articles by Paul Street


* Urban Race Relations: "Everything Changed" After 9/11?

* Forbidden Connections: Class, Cowardice, and War

* The "Repair" of "Broken Societies" Begins at Home

* Deep Poverty, Deep Deception: Facts That Matter Beneath The Imperial Helicopters





1. Norman Solomon, "U.S. Media Are too Soft on the White House," Newsday (August 1, 2003).


2.  Meier is quoted in Alex Carey, Taking The Risk Out of Democracy: Corporate Propaganda Versus Freedom and Liberty (Urbana and Chicago, IL: University of Illinois, 1997).


3. The Celso Amorim report, available online at www.unorg/Depts/unmovic/documents/AMORIM.PDF.  


4.  William Rivers Pitt with Scott Ritter, War on Iraq: What Team Bush Doesn't Want You to Know (New York, NY: Context Books, 2002), p. 29; Scott Ritter, "The Case for Iraq's Qualitative Disarmament," Arms Control Today (June 2000), available online at www.armscontrol.org/act/2000_06/iraqjun.asp., quoted in Rahul Mahajan, Full Spectrum Dominance: U.S. Power in Iraq and Beyond (New York, NY: Context Books, 2003), p.84. For extremely useful discussions that completely undermine the Bush administration's case on Saddam, WMD, and inspections, see Mahajan, Full Spectrum Dominance, pp. 76-90 and Milan Rai, War Plan Iraq: Ten Reasons Against War on Iraq  (London, Verso, 2002), pp. 45- 74, 117-126 (published just as the Bush propaganda campaign for war on Iraq was

moving into gear).  


5.  See the detailed reports and exhaustive research conducted by Iraq body count, available online at www.iraqbodycount.org. 


6.  "The Failure to Find Weapons of Mass Destruction," editorial, New York Times (September 26, 2003), p.A24.


7.  For an excellent assessment of Hussein as an essentially pragmatic and highly survival-oriented state player, see John J. Mearsheimer and Stephen M. Walt, "An Unnecessary War," Foreign Policy (January-February 2003).  See also Carl Kaysen et al, War With Iraq: Costs, Consequences and Alternatives (The Committee on International Security Studies of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, December 2002).


8.  Noam Chomsky, For Reasons of State (New York, NY: The New Press, 2003 [reprint of 1970 edition], p.53.


9.  Carl Hulse and David E. Sanger, "New Criticism of Prewar Use of Intelligence," New York Times (September 29, 2003, p. A1).




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