Iraq War Media Reporting, Journalism and Propaganda

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  • by Anup Shah
  • This page last updated

The war on Iraq, however swift in its short three week period, was accompanied by propaganda from many angles. From the ridiculous claims of the Iraqi information minister that the Americans will surrender or perish, or that they were nowhere near Baghdad (while coalition tanks could be heard just a mile from where he said that!) to the subtle propaganda of Coalition nations’ media, that at times minimized the civilian casualties, highlighted the awesome military force of the coalition, minimized geopolitical discussion and context, and often jumped at unconfirmed reports as confirmed news.

As the attack on Iraq commenced, there were numerous challenges for the media, while various forces also affected the media’s coverage and depth. It would be futile to list all the issues that unfolded during the short weeks of war time on this page and how the media covered it, so this page will mostly attempt to highlight other analysis and perspectives that we typically do not get on the mainstream and also look at some of the geopolitical fall outs from this war.

On this page:

  1. Failed Diplomacy and Deep Divide in International Community
  2. War Reporting and Journalism
  3. Subtle Propaganda
  4. Civilian Casualties
  5. Narrow Range of Views and Topics
  6. Majority of Foreign Militants are Saudi, not Iranian
  7. Urging Support of Troops Regardless of Views on the War
  8. Captured Soldiers
  9. The "Rescue" of Private Jessica Lynch
  10. Sanitizing The Horrors of War
  11. Bombing the Media
  12. Fall of Saddam and Vindication of the War
  13. U.S. Army Sent Fake Iraq Letters To U.S. Media Outlets
  14. PR Firm, Hired By Pentagon, Pay Iraqi Newspapers to Plant Pro-American Articles, Secretly Written by US Military
  15. US Tenders New Contract For Monitoring Iraq War Coverage
  16. A Free and Uncensored Press in Iraq?
  17. Censorship in the Free World
    1. Weakening Democracy by Stifling Debate
  18. Torture Revelations
  19. Chalabi provides detailed insights into world propaganda campaign to gain support for a war against Iraq
    1. Propaganda and lobbying to convince a people to go to war
    2. U.S. Government funnelling lots of money to agitators
    3. Support in future Iraqi government
    4. U.S. Government out-sources creation of opposition
      1. Out-sourcing global propaganda campaign
      2. Out-sourcing global media management
      3. Disinformation campaigns
    5. Chalabi’s own agendas
    6. Pitting American Politicians and institutions against each other
    7. Iraq and September 11 link for Bush

Failed Diplomacy and Deep Divide in International Community

International diplomacy was said to have failed and the United Nations could not prevent the United States and Britain leading a small coalition of nations to war against Iraq, even under a weak case.

Yet, as the previous link details, the case for war was hardly made to the international community, but the U.S. and U.K. were determined to go to war with or without U.N. backing, with or without international support. Noam Chomsky notes that this was not a failure in diplomacy, but a failure of coercion as the U.S. did not succeed in getting the international community to bend to its will. Side NoteYet as a sign of how effective propaganda was leading up to the war, consider how such a large portion of people polled in the U.S. believed that there was a link between Saddam Hussein and the September 11 attacks on the U.S., a link that even the CIA had questioned. Prize-winning author, Arundhati Roy highlighted that, According to a New York Times/CBS News survey, 42 per cent of the American public believes that Saddam Hussein is directly responsible for the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon. And an ABC news poll says that 55 per cent of Americans believe that Saddam Hussein directly supports al-Qaida. (Conversely, it could be said that the propaganda only got as far as roughly half those polled.)

The deep divide or split described by some mainstream media amounted to massive international opposition against the war. The media of the U.S. and U.K. had furiously been reporting the diplomatic goings on, but with little context, allowing questionable claims by Bush, Blair, Powell, Straw and others to go relatively unchallenged. Side NoteIt is common to read summaries in papers, that in the build-up to war against Iraq, the British and American governments made desperate efforts to find diplomatic alternatives, but that these were thwarted by miscalculations, international tensions, French/German/Russian opposition (due to their interests in Iraq) etc, which ultimately led to the failure of those efforts. As mentioned above and detailed on the previous page, the determination to go to war at all costs is ignored, almost stricken from mainstream history as if it were.

Media and government tactics both unwittingly and intentionally allowed propaganda to go through, as also detailed in depth on the previous page on this site. Even the legality of the decision to go to war was controversial given that not only was it that UN Resolution 1441 did not explicitly authorize automatic war without further consultation with the UN Security Council, but that the U.S. and U.K. acknowledged this.

To those who fear this resolution is just an automatic trigger point, without any further discussion, paragraph 12 of the resolution makes it clear that is not the case.

Tony Blair, Tony Blair’s statement in response to the unanimous passing of UN resolution 1441, November 8, 2002. (You can see the full text at the Guardian newspaper web site, for example.)

[U.S. ambassador to the U.N., John] Negroponte (U.S.): As we have said on numerous occasions to Council members, this resolution contains no hidden triggers and no automaticity with respect to the use of force. If there is a further Iraqi breach, reported to the Council by UNMOVIC, the IAEA or a Member State, the matter will return to the Council for discussions as required in paragraph 12.

[U.K. ambassador to the U.N., Sir Jeremy] Greenstock (U.K.): We heard loud and clear during the negotiations the concerns about automaticity and hidden triggers — the concern that on a decision so crucial we should not rush into military action; that on a decision so crucial any Iraqi violations should be discussed by the Council. Let me be equally clear in response, as a co-sponsor with the United States of the text we have just adopted. There is no automaticity in this resolution. If there is a further Iraqi breach of its disarmament obligations, the matter will return to the Council for discussion as required in paragraph 12. We would expect the Security Council then to meet its responsibilities.

Security Council 4644th meeting, Speeches delivered after adoption of U.N. Security Council Resolution 1441, United Nations document S/PV.4644, November 8, 2002 (Emphasis Added)

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War Reporting and Journalism

During the campaign, Iraq had expelled journalists, staged events such as street dances of support for Saddam Hussein and more (perhaps the most incredulous was the Iraqi information minister, forever claiming that the coalition forces were nowhere near Baghdad, even when they were all around there, and that they would all perish). Much of this propaganda by the Iraqi regime is covered well by Western mainstream media outlets, and was further shown to be ridiculous and crude as the war itself unfolded, so is not necessary to detail further here. But another aspect worth highlighting is the media reporting from journalists of the mainstream/Coalition nations.

It is well known and an accepted part of war that Iraq had attempted to control media reports, monitor foreign journalists, and even expel them (including CNN and even Al Jazeera for a while). Occassionally reporters point out the same thing on the other side, with coalition forces. Embedded reporters travelling with Coalition forces sometimes highlighted in television reports that they were under strict control and unable to say some things as well. This control is an understandable and even desirable aspect from a military perspective.

A BBC Radio 5 broadcast on the morning of April 9, 2003 also highlighted that many embedded journalists developed a sympathetic viewpoint for the Coalition perspective by being with them so much, which, as the radio program also suggested, was what the Coalition would want. Even though embedding was a somewhat new technique seen in this war, the theme of sympathy is also highlighted more generally by Phillip Knightley as being a common theme in war reporting throughout various conflicts in the past decades, in his book, The First Casualty, (Prion Books, 1975, 2000 revised edition). So too is the desire to be able to manage media reporting. In the past, for example, in Vietnam, the press was not looked on favorably. In the Gulf War and Kosovo conflict for example, the media was managed using pools that could be fed official information from press briefings and a media version of a tour guide to managed areas of the conflict.

The idea of embedding reporters and managing them in this way comes from the public relations industry:

Embedding reporters within U.S. and British combat units is a brilliant strategy because it’s all about relationships, Katie Delahaye Paine wrote in a late-March story in The Measurement Standard, a public relations industry publication. The better the relationship any of us have with a journalist, the better the chance of that journalist picking up and reporting our messages, Paine, the founder of The Delahaye Group, pointed out.

A relatively quick war against an overwhelmed and outmatched foe — sanitized of civilian casualties — has been a tonic for a Pentagon hungry for good publicity. From day one, live transmissions of grainy pictures from embedded reporters surrounded by a phalanx of tanks or armored vehicles hunkered down in swirling sandstorms, helped define the war for an information-hungry and voyeuristic American public.


Embedding reporters is the brainchild of Victoria Torie Clarke, the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs. Clarke brings considerable PR experience to the task of winning the spin war. She recently worked with Hill and Knowlton, the public relations firm heavily involved in Gulf War I, and prior to that she was president of Bozell Eskew Advertising, an issue advocacy and corporate communications company.

According to a 10-page memo prepared for the National Security Council, Clarke, with Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld on board, argued that allowing journalists to report live from the front lines would give Americans the opportunity to get the story, both good and bad — before others seed the media with disinformation and distortions, as they most certainly will continue to do.

Our people in the field need to tell our story. Only commanders can ensure the media get to the story alongside the troops. We must organize for and facilitate access of national and international media to our forces, including those forces engaged in ground operations. ... To accomplish this, we will embed media with our units. These embedded media will live, work and travel as part of the units... to facilitate maximum, in-depth coverage.

Three weeks into the invasion of Iraq, Torie Clarke’s plan and the Pentagon’s decision to embed reporters has worked out well for them. How do you manage the media in times of war? Thoroughly embed them, surround them with PR enablers, and spread a little fear amongst those not embedded.

Bill Berkowitz, Embedded, enthusiastic and un-encumbered by truth, WorkingForChange, April 9, 2003

(Hill and Knowlton, mentioned above, was the PR company the created the dead baby story in Iraq, using a Kuwaiti Ambassador’s daughter to pose as a nurse in front of cameras to claim that Iraqi soldiers were killing babies in hospitals, a claim used to help justify the war in 1991.)

Independent journalists have often been looked at with suspicion, for they cannot be guided and controlled as much as embedded journalists, potentially. For example, four independent journalists (two from Israel and two from Portugal) were beaten by American troops and expelled. Embedded journalists have not suffered from the same problems, as military spokesmen on television reveal. Other journalists have been fired for airing dissenting views, or in the case of a well known American NBC reporter, Peter Arnett, for simply being interviewed by an Iraqi television station. The previous link, to the BBC, also points out that he was one of the few U.S. correspondents left in Baghdad.

The Guardian newspaper reported (April 3, 2003) that the European Broadcasting Union (EBU) head of news, Tony Naets, said that the British and U.S. forces had created a caste system with embedded journalists — usually from countries in the so-called coalition who can associate with the troops — and the truly unilateral broadcaster who is prevented from coming anywhere near the news. Jean Stock, the EBU Secretary General is also quoted, saying US central command policy is now actively restricting independent newsgathering from southern Iraq. Reporters and camera crews who put their lives at risk have been detained by American and British troops and returned to Kuwait.

In U.K., the History Channel broadcasted a documentary on August 21, 2004, titled War Spin: Correspondent. This documentary looked at Coalition media management for the Iraq war and noted numerous things including the following:

  • Embedded journalists allowed the military to maximize imagery while providing minimal insight into the real issues;
  • Central Command (where all those military press briefings were held) was the main center from which to:
    • Filter, manage and drip-feed journalists with what they wanted to provide;
    • Gloss over set-backs, while dwelling on successes;
    • Limit the facts and context;
    • Even feed lies to journalists;
    • Use spin in various ways, such as making it seems as though reports are coming from troops on the ground, which Central Command can then confirm, so as to appear real;
    • Carefully plan the range of topics that could be discussed with reporters, and what to avoid.

Also at Central Command, during the media briefings, many things were not tolerated, such as follow-ups on difficult issues. One journalist even claimed to be threatened by some of the official media managers there to stop asking certain questions, with the threat of not being able to attend.

By the end of the first week, journalists were getting frustrated at how they were receiving little information of use, and of being managed so well. (Yet, judging by other recent conflicts and media management in those, it should not have been surprising that the media would have been managed, so journalist frustration as if it was not expected is a bit perplexing, admittedly.)

Independent journalists were of course frowned upon, and one seemed to imply that American troops fired on and killed a British journalist. They were described as a pain. They were also to be discredited where possible for not using official sources!

In summary then,

  • Even though there appears to have been no weapons of mass destruction, the military saw the media management as a success; and
  • The media had successfully been designated a mostly controllable role by the military, which would no doubt improve in the future.

As discussed in more detail in the media pages on this site, military control of information and other techniques have often been employed in times of war to help present a certain picture as part of a propaganda battle.

In the first few days of the war, various leaders in the U.S. and U.K. were openly hostile to the media reporting and coverage of destruction, civilian deaths and so forth. The early days of the war had seen some mixed results, and, at that time, little of the shock and awe and quick liberation images that leaders of the coalition had described. It did not bode well from the military’s view point that the media were initially reporting on civilian deaths and about troops meeting more fierce resistance than expected in some places, for example. CNN reported (March 28, 2003) that President Bush has some level of frustration with the press corps for accounts questioning the U.S. and coalition war plan in Iraq, and he finds it 'silly' that such skepticism and questions were being raised just days into a conflict he says is going quite well, according to a senior administration official.Side NoteYet, as detailed on the page on this site about building the case for war, much of mainstream media was quite supportive. In fact, the previous link to the CNN article is a copy reposted to the media organization, An editor annotated that CNN article suggesting that These kinds of comments from Bush must be terribly disheartening for the folks at CNN. They have, after all, shown Americans a war in exactly the sanitized, patriotic mode desired by the Defense Department. Is Bush not satisfied with the warm and fuzzy stories that totally obscure the bloodbaths taking place in Basra, Umm Qasr and Nasiriya? Really, what else does the man want?

For all the criticism that various outlets had of Al Jazeera and other Middle East media (some which was quite appropriate) the media coverage in the U.S. and U.K. since the war had begun, and after, had typically been supportive of the Coalition, or at least quite narrow in scope. That is, there was a lot of diverse and constant coverage of the daily goings on, the military issues, the challenges, and so forth, while Al Jazeera and other outlets concentrated on the horrors of civilian casualties. But, there was little from some outlets, including the likes of the BBC and others, in their prime time coverage, on any of the controversy surrounding the build up to the attacks (their legality was unquestioned, for example), instead just accepting the official position. While there were some reports of opposing views to official positions at the time of the announcement that war would be legal, there was relatively nothing after that, making such controversial issues seem like yesterday’s story and no longer relevant. In continuing to provide detailed accounts of the military activities (mostly), the context in which all this occurred was minimized).

In addition, even the BBC admitted that the pressure to provide 24-hour coverage had led to many mistakes in their reporting and in general reporting the truth about war had proven difficult.

At the beginning of September, 2006, media watchdog Fairness and Accuracy In Reporting (FAIR) caught a New York Times piece that appeared to include a a striking revision of Bush’s reasoning for going to war. The NY Times wrote: The possibility that Saddam Hussein might develop weapons of mass destruction and pass them to terrorists was the prime reason Mr. Bush gave in 2003 for ordering the invasion of Iraq.

Yet, as FAIR is right to criticize, Of course, the drive to war rested firmly on Bush’s repeated and emphatic claim that Hussein had already developed WMDs, which he possessed and was prepared to use—a bogus claim that the mainstream media, led by the Times’ own Judith Miller, largely accepted as an article of faith and bolstered with credulous reports based on faulty information.

It may just seem like it is picking at some choice of words, but the effects are important. The FAIR article shows how US and British leaders insisted on such weapons existing, and how much of the mainstream media supported that. FAIR ends by noting, The New York Times’ revision of the record, maintaining that Bush only presented Iraqi WMDs as a possibility, threatens to erase one of the most significant chapters of recent history, in effect clearing the Bush administration—and the Times—of their role in misleading the country into war.

Both what is reported (and how it is reported) as well as what is not reported, can contribute to various aspects of propaganda. Some Middle East media outlets have been criticized for showing harrowing pictures of casualties, being accused of propaganda (which is an understandble accusation). Yet, many Western media outlets also contributed to a form of subtle propaganda that would suit the Coalition military leadership. That is, of toning down those same types of imagery and thus having the effect of sanitizing the war.

Thus, the attempt to have military control on the side of the coalition, plus the coalition’s own propaganda, combined with pressures for constant reporting and understanding so many reports quickly, plus Saddam Hussein’s own cruder propaganda machine, and various other factors that accompany war reporting had made understanding specific details of war difficult. This is perhaps not new, as similar problems occurred in many prior conflicts (see the above mentioned Knightley book for many examples), but it shows that even in recent times, key issues of media control, manipulation and propaganda are still with us.

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Subtle Propaganda

Much has been made, often appropriately of the state-owned Iraqi television and the numerous blatant propaganda attempts used by the Iraq leadership. Yet, because American and British media is not state-owned, it can be easy to automatically assume that they don’t exhibit forms of propaganda themselves, or be used as vehicles for propaganda. As detailed in the media section of this web site, even in democratic nations propaganda can be present, often in more sophisticated forms than in brutal dictatorships and government run stations. Side NoteAnd also highlighted in that previous link is that when ranking nations based on the level of their free press, the U.S. and U.K. ranked just 17th and 21st, respectively. This highlights that misconceptions in these nations about the level of freedom of the press can affect many other perceptions of various issues, including the war on Iraq.

Throughout the Iraq crisis, including the build-up, as the previous page details, propaganda featured on all sides. On the British/American side, it was used to justify war when the case had been weak, and amidst international opposition, and possibly illegal, according to many legal experts. Side NoteQuite surprisingly for many, as The Guardian reported in the U.K., was that the influential Pentagon hawk Richard Perle conceded that the invasion of Iraq had been illegal. Perle has said that I think in this case international law stood in the way of doing the right thing. It may well have been that international law prevented the ability to support a policy of regime change as such. However, the wider concern that many critics have raised is that the process of determining resolutions and getting international cooperation to agree Saddam Hussein was such an immediate threat to the world was completely by-passed in a manner that most nations in the world would not be able to do, thus ammounting to an abuse of the international system.

Since the war had started, diverse coverage and discourse on legality appeared to be less discussed. With the demise of the Iraqi regime, a lot of media reporting turned towards suggesting vindication of the actions, or questioning where Saddam Hussein may be hiding, where the supposed weapons of mass destruction are, and about the security of occupation forces. Yet, it seems that the issue of legality is less discussed, especially in a geopolitical and power context.

An interesting debate that had occassionally surfaced in the mainstream was whether or not there was media bias against the war initially because it had sometimes questioned the effectiveness of the military strategy at various stages of the conflict.

  • While the predictable overall military triumph of the Coalition was hardly questioned, there was lots of questioning of the means, the tactics, the timeframes, and so forth.
  • Yet, this is an example of a narrow range of discourse because what has been debated is the military tactics, not whether the war could have been justified on the claims given or not, etc.
  • Alternatives to war had existed for a long time but were never taken seriously
    Alternatives to war were numerous, but lack of patience was among the main reasons people like Tony Blair decided war had to be waged.
    • For decades, people around the world, including human rights groups, activists, non governmental organizations, exiled Iraqis and many others had opposed Saddam Hussein’s brutality.
    • But also opposed was the British and American influence on the brutal sanctions regime which in the last 12 years had inflicted so much damage to ordinary Iraqi civilians — of course, as a propaganda battle waged on, American and British leaders were easily able to claim that the sanctions effects were solely Saddam’s responsibility.
    • In addition, also for many years, such groups had been opposing American and other nations’ support of Saddam.
      • For example, it is well known that the U.S. and others sold Saddam Hussein chemical and biological weapons and even some nuclear materials.
      • Yet when the media reports on speeches from Blair and others about how Saddam used chemical weapons on their own people, (or when they mention it themselves), never is it added with our support.
      • Those three words, repeated as often as the point about Saddam’s use of those weapons, would have added a different perspective to the propaganda battle perhaps.
      • Such side notes seem minor, but we see this in many situations. For example, we were often reminded that journalists reporting in Iraq during the war were often being monitored and accompanied by Iraqi officials. Hardly ever were we reminded of similar, though more subtle, processes when reporting as embedded reporters, or reporting from Coalition military headquarters.
    • In comparison to the violent support of Saddam Hussein in the past, support for democratic uprising from within had been limited and the effects of the sanctions hurt the people the most, while ironically strengthening the regimes grip on the country.
    • While detailed more so in the links below, consider how journalist Robert Fisks reports of Saddam gassing his own people, were at that time, somewhat stifled in the media:

      He did use gas against the Iranians and against the Kurds. And I also have to say that when he used it against the Iranians, and I wrote about it in my own newspaper at the time, the Times, the British Foreign Office told my editor the story was not helpful because at that stage of course, Saddam Hussein was our friend — we were supporting him. The hypocrisy of war stinks almost as much as the civilian casualties.

      Robert Fisk, Interview by Amy Goodman, Democracy Now!, April 22, 2003
    • These aspects are discussed in more detail, for example at the following pages on this web site:

Listed here are just a small set of examples of the types of things that media coverage in the mainstream had often avoided or lacked details of. These are not a complete set of examples, because covering the war would require a full-time effort (not the spare time, one-man effort that this site is!)

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Civilian Casualties

Some civilian deaths, such as the one where a bomb hit a market killing around 50 people, have been treated as suspicious with respect to who did it (sometimes suggesting that some were possibly Iraqi in origin, not Coalition). In other situations they have been presented almost as a PR problem, as an article from media watchdog, Fairness and Accuracy In Reporting (FAIR) puts it, because it looks bad for coalition forces.

As an aside, it is interesting to note how contradictions can arise in such situations. Consider for example what prize-winning writer, Arundhati Roy noted:

After dropping not hundreds, but thousands of bombs on Baghdad, when a marketplace was mistakenly blown up and civilians killed — a US army spokesman implied that the Iraqis were blowing themselves up! They’re using very old stock. Their missiles go up and come down.

If so, may we ask how this squares with the accusation that the Iraqi regime is a paid-up member of the Axis of Evil and a threat to world peace?

Arundhati Roy, Mesopotamia. Babylon. The Tigris and Euphrates, Guardian, April 2, 2003

Little effort has been made so far to understand the number of casualties on the Iraqi side, both civilian and military. In some respects, numbers have been hard to measure due to the types of devastating weaponry used, and due to the fact that when entire Iraqi divisions were destroyed this involved large numbers being killed, surrendering, or withdrawing from battle, so that the final death toll was hard to count. Perhaps the numbers will surface at some point, but there are political issues at steak. For the Coalition forces, it has appeared to be an utmost priority to keep civilian casualties low, so as to not lose support. However, it is also interesting to note something from the first Gulf War, in 1991. When asked by the New York Times, about the civilian casualties, Secretary of State, Colin Powell, who was then the highest ranking military officer, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, during the Gulf War, said It’s really not a number I’m terribly interested in. (New York Times, March 23, 1991). That is not to say that Powell cares or not about the current number, but more that this highlights that there may be political reasons to try and ignore this issue from mainstream discourse as much as possible.

A web site attempting to provide a count of Iraqi civilian casualties is the Iraq Body Count web site. It also quotes General Tommy Franks, of the US Central Command as saying We don’t do body counts.

Media Lens notes that more established research estimates the death toll to be 100,000 but that media response to that is muted in comparison:

Last week, the Independent noted that an October 2004 report in The Lancet had estimated Iraqi civilian deaths at nearly 100,000, but that the methodology was subsequently criticised. (Terry Kirby and Elizabeth Davies, Iraq conflict claims 34 civilians lives each day as anarchy beckons, The Independent, July 20, 2005)

But the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, which conducted the survey, is one of the world’s most prestigious research organisations. And The Lancet is one of the world’s leading science journals. I asked Terry Kirby, co-author of the Independent article, which criticisms he had in mind. Kirby replied: So far as I am aware, the Lancet’s report was criticised by the [British] Foreign Office. (Email to the author, July 22, 2005)

On the same day, an Independent leader added that the Lancet findings had been reached by extrapolating from a small sample... While never completely discredited, those figures were widely doubted. (Leader, The true measure of the US and British failure, The Independent, July 20, 2005)

Lead author Gilbert Burnham from the Johns Hopkins School told me the sample size was entirely standard:

Our data have been back and forth between many reviewers at the Lancet and here in the school (chair of Biostatistics Dept), so we have the scientific strength to say what we have said with great certainty. I doubt any Lancet paper has gotten as much close inspection in recent years as this one has! (Dr. Gilbert Burnham, email to the author, October 30, 2004)

By contrast, an independent website, Iraq Body Count, last week published a report estimating that nearly 25,000 Iraqi civilians have died since the invasion and occupation began. The report was not conducted by a leading research body, it was not peer reviewed, and yet it was broadly accepted and granted headline status by the BBC, ITV News, the Guardian and many other media. Even senior government figures were happy to mention the website’s results.

This is a perfect example of how the establishment tends to see only what it wants to see. That would be fine, except that the public is therefore unable to understand or address the real problems our governments have created. That means more suffering for everyone.

David Edwards, They just never meant very much to us, Media Lens, July 25, 2005

And two years after the above report from John Hopkins school of Public Health, it published another report in the Lancet this time finding the death toll to be in the rage of 400,000 to 950,000 (or 655,000 as the middle figure).

Given this was such a large number, it was expected that the Bush and Blair administrations would reject it. Bush, for example, simply said the methodology was long discredited. Yet, this was the exact methodology his government was teaching to others around the world, as one of the researchers defended in an interview:

This cluster survey approach, is the standard way of measuring mortality in very poor countries where the government isn’t very functional or in times of war. And when UNICEF goes out and measures mortality in any developing country, this is what they do. When the U.S. government went at the end of the war in Kosovo or went at the end of the war in Afghanistan and the U.S. government measured the death rate, this is how they did it. And most ironically, the U.S. government has been spending millions of dollars per year, through something called the Smart Initiative, to train NGOs and UN workers to do cluster surveys to measure mortality in times of wars and disasters. [Emphasis is original]

Co-Author of Medical Study Estimating 650,000 Iraqi Deaths Defends Research in the Face of White House Dismissal, Democracy Now!, Thursday, October 12th, 2006

The Bush Administration instead preferred to use a number that was similar to the Iraq Body Count’s number, which as Media Lens noted a couple of years earlier (above), is not by a leading research body, not peer reviewed, but broadly accepted by the establishment. In addition, it relies on media reports, which is heavily censored in Iraq by US authorities, anyway.

Nonetheless, Iraq Body Count did issue a press release criticizing the research because the implications were enormous.

In the report itself, the researchers explained why the numbers, as large as they are, might not be too far-fetched:

Our estimate of excess deaths is far higher than those reported in Iraq through passive surveillance measures. This discrepancy is not unexpected. Data from passive surveillance are rarely complete, even in stable circumstances, and are even less complete during conflict, when access is restricted and fatal events could be intentionally hidden. Aside from Bosnia, we can find no conflict situation where passive surveillance recorded more than 20% of the deaths measured by population-based methods. In several outbreaks, disease and death recorded by facility-based methods underestimated events by a factor of ten or more when compared with population-based estimates. Between 1960 and 1990, newspaper accounts of political deaths in Guatemala correctly reported over 50% of deaths in years of low violence but less than 5% in years of highest violence. Nevertheless, surveillance tallies are important in monitoring trends over time and in the provision of individual data, and these data track closely with our own findings.

… In Iraq, as with other conflicts, civilians bear the consequences of warfare. In the Vietnam war, 3 million civilians died; in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, conflict has been responsible for 3.8 million deaths; and an estimated 200,000 of a total population of 800,000 died in conflict in East Timor. Recent estimates are that 200,000 people have died in Darfur over the past 31 months. We estimate that almost 655,000 people—2.5% of the population in the study area—have died in Iraq. Although such death rates might be common in times of war, the combination of a long duration and tens of millions of people affected has made this the deadliest international conflict of the 21st century, and should be of grave concern to everyone.

Gilbert Burnham, Riyadh Lafta, Shannon Doocy, Les Roberts, Mortality after the 2003 invasion of Iraq: a cross-sectional cluster sample survey, The Lancet, Volume 368, Number 9545, 21 October 2006

The Lancet itself also

… defends this [report] noting a comment by a peer reviewer that this is an important piece of research which should be published because it is possibly the only non-government funded scientific study to provide an estimate of the number of Iraqi deaths since the US invasion.

Richard Horton, Iraq: time to signal a new era for health in foreign policy, The Lancet, Volume 368, Number 9545, 21 October 2006

Yet, as Media Lens also noted two years earlier, it seems the establishment continues to ignore these numbers, and instead prefers the more comfortable ones that their leaders prefer.

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Narrow Range of Views and Topics

As the link above from FAIR also highlights, much of the mainstream was also obsessed with the military technology as well as tactics, both contributing to a narrow range of discussion. It would appear then the shock of civilian deaths and the horrors of war were minimized, sheltering their populations, while the awe of military prowess and the highlights such as the toppling of Saddam, the celebrations were highlighted and praised whenever the chances arose, allowing more reasons to support the war, giving it a feel of somewhat minimal impact on ordinary lives. Geopolitical interests were rarely discussed.

War journalist and author Chris Hedges, as well as columnist for the New York Times provides powerful paragraphs to an article in The Nation magazine:

The reasons for war are hidden from public view. We do not speak about the extension of American empire but democracy and ridding the world of terrorists — read evil — along with weapons of mass destruction. We do not speak of the huge corporate interests that stand to gain even as poor young boys from Alabama, who joined the Army because this was the only way to get health insurance and a steady job, bleed to death along the Euphrates. We do not speak of the lies that have been told to us in the past by this Administration — for example, the lie that Iraq was on the way to building a nuclear bomb. We have been rendered deaf and dumb. And when we awake, it will be too late, certainly too late to save the dead, theirs and ours.

The embedding of several hundred journalists in military units does not diminish the lie. These journalists do not have access to their own transportation. They depend on the military for everything, from food to a place to sleep. They look to the soldiers around them for protection. When they feel the fear of hostile fire, they identify and seek to protect those who protect them. They become part of the team. It is a natural reaction. I have felt it.

But in that experience, these journalists become participants in the war effort. They want to do their bit. And their bit is the dissemination of myth, the myth used to justify war and boost the morale of the soldiers and civilians. The lie in wartime is almost always the lie of omission. The blunders by our generals — whom the mythmakers always portray as heroes — along with the rank corruption and perversion, are masked from public view. The intoxication of killing, the mutilation of enemy dead, the murder of civilians and the fact that war is not about what they claim is ignored. But in wartime don’t look to the press, or most of it, for truth. The press has another purpose.

Perhaps this is not conscious. I doubt the journalists filing the hollow reports from Iraq, in which there are images but rarely any content, are aware of how they are being manipulated. They, like everyone else, believe. But when they look back they will find that war is always about betrayal. It is about betrayal of the young by the old, of soldiers by politicians and of idealists by the cynical men who wield power, the ones who rarely pay the cost of war. We pay that cost. And we will pay it again.

Chris Hedges, The Press and the Myths of War, The Nation, April 3, 2003.

In Iraq Crisis, Networks Are Megaphones for Official Views was a report by media watchdog Fairness and Accuracy In Reporting (FAIR), highlighting how Network newscasts, dominated by current and former U.S. officials, largely exclude Americans who are skeptical of or opposed to an invasion of Iraq when looking at two weeks of coverage from the end of January 2003, to mid-February, a key time of political discussions. As highlighted on this section and through the various links on this and the previous page, such domination continues and is part of a number of techniques often employed in propaganda, or by media outlets that reflect the voices of power, with little questioning, as also detailed on this site’s section on propaganda.

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Majority of Foreign Militants are Saudi, not Iranian

As the violence in Iraq has continued, foreign militants involved in the fighting has increased. Mainstream reports often mention Iranian militants, with likely government backing.

While the Bush and Blair administrations have raised this and used this as one of the reasons to potentially set their sights on Iran, what has hardly been reported by the media, or mentioned at all by people such as Bush is that the US’s own military has concluded that most (nearly half) of the foreign militants are Saudi, not Iranian.

This was reported by the LA Times but other media outlets have hardly mentioned that story in comparison to reporting on Bush’s claims of Iran being the biggest foreign problem. (A further complication is of course that many within Iraq see the US as the biggest foreign problem.)

It is a complex picture. Iran is mostly Shia, and most of the Arab world is Sunni. Shia’s now dominate in Iraq, reversing the situation during Saddam Hussein’s rule. This explains Iranian interest and involvement. But this may also explain Sunni involvement there, too. Saudi Arabia (which institutes a very extreme form of Islam) of course is a key ally of the US and while it is not as clear if there is government backing of Saudi militants, there is very little, if any, mention of this from Bush.

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Urging Support of Troops Regardless of Views on the War

Just as the war started, officials and leaders from the U.S. and U.K. highlighted to their populations that even if they had opposed the war, they should now support the troops. In a way that was a subtle guilt trip, while in another sense it served to try and minimize the fervour and opposition to the war. The BBC, for example, had notably reduced its anti-war demonstration coverage, reducing it to a few sound bytes compared to the coverage during the political build up, which was inescapable. Even a demonstration of some 400,000 in London and many around the rest of the country, was reduced to minimal coverage, concentrating mostly on the war as it had just begun. As FAIR suggested, Using Pro-Troops To Mean Pro-War Is Anti-Journalistic.

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Captured Soldiers

When American soldiers were captured, paraded and humiliated on television, it led to a lot of understandable anger and also the pointing out that this violated Geneva Conventions. Yet, Asia Times noted an irony in this:

Even US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld was forced to take the images into account, calling the showing of captured American troops a possible war crime. President George W Bush cut short his working getaway at Camp David to return to the White House on Sunday and tell reporters that I do know that we expect them [the US prisoners of war] to be treated humanely, just like we'll treat any prisoners of theirs that we capture — humanely.

Of course, the Arab media found much to mock in Bush’s comments. The Bush administration’s newfound affection for the Geneva Convention is remarkable, wrote an editorial in the Riyadh-based daily Arab News. The US does not believe that the prisoners now being held at Guantanamo Bay are prisoners of war under the Geneva Convention. Pictures of the men there, shackled and living in cages, were distributed by the Bush administration to the world’s media.

Nobody could accuse al-Jazeera of taking sides in the showing of prisoners; they had earlier broadcast images of Iraqi men believed to be soldiers surrendering to British troops near Basra. Rumsfeld had not complained.

Paul Belden, Free press and the face of war, Asia Times, March 25, 2003

An article in the Indian magazine, The Hoot, also noted that The [U.S. Defence] Secretary talked about the Geneva Convention and its violation by Iraqi television by showing captured soldiers. Ironically, hours before, these networks were beaming pictures of captured Iraqi soldiers ... with their hands tied and lined up.

This is not to say that parading captured soldiers on television and humiliating them is ok. It just highlights when and how such issues are portrayed, and the consistency (or lack of) concerns. Civilians were also humiliated in subtle ways. Take the following for example:

  • On April 3, 2003, BBC television news program (Newsnight I think) showed an embedded reporter interviewing a doctor asking him why he had a picture of Saddam Hussein in his office, what he thought of Saddam, and if he would take the picture down.
  • We were instructed by the presenter to note the fear in the eyes and response of the doctor.
  • While being asked, (and unsure of what the right response should be — perhaps he viewed the liberators as aggressors or feared that Saddam Hussein’s cronies would note his responses) a solider came and gently took down the photo. Without breaking down, you could see in the doctor’s eyes, as the presenter pointed out, just how distraught and uncomfortable he looked.
  • Such humiliation for this person was not met with any concern. With the fear of Saddam’s regime being so brutal to dissent, as we were constantly reminded then such humiliation was surely also risking that doctor’s life? (It turns out that about a week later, Saddam’s regime had fallen, so this might with hindsight seem ok, yet at the time the interview occurred, no-one knew for sure the events that would unfold.)

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The "Rescue" of Private Jessica Lynch

Consider the following as an example of manipulation for home audiences:

The US media splashed this story [about the rescue of Private Jessica Lynch] in April. Lynch was one of a group of 10 US soldiers captured by Iraqi troops. According to the approved narrative, she had been ambushed on 23 March and captured after firing at the Iraqis until her ammunition ran out. She had been hit by a bullet, stabbed, tied up, and taken to a hospital in Nasiriyah where she was beaten by an Iraqi officer. A week later US special forces freed her in a surprise operation: despite resistance from her guards, they broke into the hospital, rescued her and flew her by helicopter to Kuwait.

That evening, Bush, from the White House, announced her rescue to the nation. Eight days later the Pentagon supplied the media with a video made during the mission, with scenes up to the standards of the best action movies.

After the war ended on 9 April, journalists — particularly from The New York Times, the Toronto Star, El Pais and the BBC — went to Nasiriyah to find the truth. They were surprised by what they found. According to their interviews with Iraqi doctors who had looked after Lynch (and confirmed by US doctors who had later examined her), her wounds, a fractured arm and leg and a dislocated ankle, were not due to bullets but to an accident in the lorry in which she had travelled. She had not been maltreated. On the contrary, the Iraqi doctors had done everything possible to look after her.

She had lost a lot of blood, explained Dr Saad Abdul Razak, and we had to give her a transfusion. Fortunately members of my family have the same blood group: O positive. We were able to obtain sufficient blood. She had a pulse rate of 140 when she arrived here. I think that we saved her life.

Taking considerable risks, these doctors managed to contact the US army to return Lynch. Two days before the special forces arrived the doctors had even taken her in an ambulance to a location close to US lines. But US soldiers opened fire and almost killed her.

The pre-dawn arrival of special forces equipped with sophisticated equipment surprised the hospital staff. The doctors had already told the US forces that the Iraqi army had retreated, and that Lynch was waiting to be claimed.

Dr Anmar Uday told the BBC’s John Kampfner: It was like in a Hollywood film. There were no Iraqi soldiers, but the American special forces were using their weapons. They fired at random and we heard explosions. They were shouting Go! Go! Go! The attack on the hospital was a kind of show, or an action film with Sylvester Stallone.

The rescue was filmed on a night-vision camera by a former assistant of director Ridley Scott, who had worked on the film Black Hawk Down (2001). According to Robert Scheer of the Los Angeles Times, these images were then sent for editing to US central command in Qatar, and once they had been checked by the Pentagon they were distributed worldwide.

Ignacio Ramonet, State-sponsored lies, Le Monde diplomatique, July 2003

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Sanitizing The Horrors of War

On television reporting of civilian deaths was hard to avoid, but some of the details or depth of it was somewhat contained.

  • The International Red Cross said they were horrified by the number of dead civilians, as reported by Canadian Press (April 3, 2003).
  • As mentioned further above, the mainstream in the U.K. and U.S. typically minimized reporting of the horrors of war, though some details were of course mentioned.
  • The BBC for example, reported (April 8, 2003) that hospitals in Baghdad were overwhelmed.
  • The Guardian also detailed some gruesome aspects of the horrors of war (April 9, 2003) showing that such media reports in the western mainstream are available, occassionally.
  • However, in the first three weeks of the war, these aspects were not been given much priority, and when they were by media elsewhere, such as in the Middle East, there was accustation of pro-Saddam propaganda. A large amount of reporting in the rest of the world focused on the horrors of the war. For example, the New York Times highlighted (April 5, 2003) that the American Portrayal of a War of Liberation is faltering across the Arab world. USA Today presented the concern (April 2, 2003) that while Iraq gets sympathetic press around the world, international media [is] wary of U.S. reporting.
  • The above-mentioned USA Today article also added that

    Some media voices, in fact, say the U.S. media’s view of the war is similarly and dangerously monochromatic. Feeling much of the heat is the ubiquitous CNN, some of whose correspondents have been criticized for being more cheerleaders than reporters.

    CNN’s Walter Rodgers’ style of reporting resembles the live coverage of the Super Bowl, noted an editorial in Germany’s liberal Suddeutsche Zeitung. (It is) anecdotal, full of metaphors, enthusiastic and bubbling with admiration for the overwhelming technical advantages of the Abrams tank.

    Journalists in Asia echo that complaint. A Sunday Bangkok Post column scolded Thai television stations for using U.S. feeds without investigating (or) challenging them. And a recent critique of coverage in the English-language South China Morning Post ran under the headline U.S. television networks losing the fight against biased coverage.

    Todd Gitlin, professor of journalism and sociology at Columbia University, says these charges have some merit.

    Our coverage is a little worse than I expected. (Reports from embedded journalists) are basically snippets of enthusiastic travelogue and up-close and personal stuff with the troops, Gitlin says. There’s been a disappearance of political commentary. We don’t seem to want to know why others are angry.

    Marco R. della Cava, Iraq gets sympathetic press around the world International media wary of U.S. reporting, USA Today, April 2, 2003

    The same article notes for example, that even though U.S. media might be monochromatic, in Britain and some other nations that support the U.S. stance, there are some media outlets openly against it, while others are for it.

In the days after the main war was over, the British media for example, started to concentrate more on the emergency issues of access to water, health, the issues of looting security in general and so forth. This pattern tended to fall in line with the timetable of the official position. That is during the time of the war, a lot of television coverage was about the military, with occassional reporting on the horrors and the controversial nature of the war. When the main thrust of the war had ended, only then questions began to be askd about the effects (while overall, coverage still seemed supportive of the war).

And months after the war ended, in October 2003, the Washington Post revealed that with the increasing death toll amongst American troops in Iraq, the Bush administration decided to enforce a policy that would ban news coverage and photography of dead soldiers’ homecomings on all military bases.

By mid April, 2004, the New York Times (as well as others) reported that the Pentagon’s ban was briefly relaxed as hundreds of photographs of flag-draped coffins at Dover Air Force Base were released on the Internet by The Memory Hole, a Web site dedicated to combating government secrecy.

The New York Times also revealed that the Pentagon had pursued a policy during the Gulf War of 1991, forbidding news organizations to showing images of the homecomings of the war dead at military bases. In addition, in March 2003, the Pentagon issued a directive it said was established in November 2000, saying, There will no be arrival ceremonies of, or media coverage of, deceased military personnel returning to or departing from air bases.

The Pentagon claims this is for sensitivity to the families of lost loved ones, while critics have argued that this amounts to image and media manipulation. Up to April 2004, at a time when more than 700 American servicemen and women have died in the Iraq war, including at least 100 in combat in April alone, news organizations decided to show these pictures.

As had happened during the brief war itself, media outlets such as Al Jazeera continued to face accusations of bias, or even stirring up hatred by showing images that would not look favorable to the U.S./U.K. occupation. In April 2004, when the town of Falluja came under intense fire from the U.S. and where numerous civilians were killed by U.S. bombing, Al Jazeera faced more criticisms from the U.S. and others. While the U.S. have tried to manage the image and impression of the war and occupation, such alternative images and perspectives threaten their efforts:

According to columnist Molly Ivins, the Bush media team’s press releases — with headlines such as Beautification Plan for Baghdad Ready to Begin, and The Reality Is Nothing Like What You See on Television — reflects just how out of touch the occupation press people are.

Since the situation in Fallujah started heating up, Brig. Gen. Kimmitt has taken to accusing the Qatar-based Al-Jazeera network of spreading lies and stirring up the Iraqi people by its reports and graphic images of dead civilians in that beseiged city. Brig. Gen Kimmitt angrily suggested that Iraqis should Change the channel to a legitimate, authoritative, honest news station. The stations that are showing Americans intentionally killing women and children are not legitimate news sources. That is propaganda, and that is lies. You could hear echoes of the Vietnam-era Damn that Walter Cronkite in Kimmitt’s remarks.

Bill Berkowitz, Managing the Message, Alternet, April 16, 2004

Perhaps then one could note that a legitimate, authoritative, honest news station might be hard to find and may not be in the U.S. or U.K. as the implied alternative, as they too are filled with propaganda or various forms. As Berkowitz continues:

Attacking the messenger, in this case Al-Jazeera and the United Arab Emirates-based Al-Arabiya, is a time-honored U.S. practice that may get the adrenalin pumping on the front lines, but it has resulted in deadly consequences for journalists from both networks: A recent Al-Jazeera documentary called The Murder of the Witnesses called attention to the U.S. bombing of its offices early in the invasion, and last month, two Al-Arabiya journalists were shot and killed by U.S. soldiers as they covered a nighttime rocket attack on Baghdad hotel.

In the long run, however, occupation authorities recognize that the best way for the U.S. to control the news coming out of Iraq is to control the major news outlets in the country.

Thus far, however, most of the millions of tax payer dollars spent sponsoring pro-U.S. television networks have gone to naught.

... And here’s the best that Max Boot, the Olin Senior Fellow for National Security Studies at the Council for Foreign Relations and an ardent supporter of the invasion and occupation, can come up with regarding managing the message. In a recent Los Angeles Times column Boot suggested that the U.S. replace Kimmitt and Senor with an Iraqi face. By having them make all the announcements, it gives the rebels exactly what they want by furthering the impression that they are fighting against a U.S. occupation rather than an emerging democracy with broad international support.

Why not put an Iraqi face on current operations by having Iraqi officials brief reporters? Boot asks.

Bill Berkowitz, Managing the Message, Alternet, April 16, 2004

Fairness and Accuracy In Reporting also noted similar issues:

And Al Jazeera is not alone in reporting a reality very different from the one U.S. officials describe. Authorities have been able to keep a tight rein on the information flow from Fallujah, with only one small television network pool in the city that travels and operates under the watch of the Marines. (It’s noteworthy that the U.S. has reportedly demanded, as a condition for lifting the siege of Fallujah, that Al Jazeera cameras be removed from the city.)

But independent journalists reporting from Fallujah have described a scene consistent with the one broadcast by Al Jazeera. Rahul Mahajan, a U.S. journalist in Fallujah, estimated that of the 600 Iraqis killed in Fallujah, 200 were women and 100 young children, with many of the adult male casualties also non-combatants. He reported witnessing a young woman, 18 years old, shot in the head and a young boy with massive internal bleeding at a clinic. Mahajan recounted that during the cease-fire, Americans were attacking with heavy artillery but primarily with snipers — with ambulances among the targets. The sniper activity was also reported by U.S. journalist Dahr Jamail: Fallujah residents say Marines are opening fire randomly on unarmed civilians and have attacked clearly marked ambulances.

When reports from the ground are describing hundreds of civilians being killed by U.S. forces, CNN [who suggested that civilian deaths may not be the main story] should be looking to Al Jazeera’s footage to see if it corroborates those accounts — not badgering Al Jazeera’s editor about why he doesn’t suppress that footage.

CNN to Al Jazeera: Why Report Civilian Deaths?, Fairness and Accuracy In Reporting, April 15, 2004

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Bombing the Media

Towards the end of March, Coalition forces bombed Iraqi TV. On the one hand, there were understandable questions about bombing Iraqi television because it was an outlet for propaganda, yet, on the other hand, there were many issues of double standards arising:

  • As Amnesty International pointed out, attacking the TV station is illegal under international law, and amounts to a war crime:

    The bombing of a television station simply because it is being used for the purposes of propaganda is unacceptable. It is a civilian object, and thus protected under international humanitarian law, said Claudio Cordone, Senior Director for International Law at Amnesty International.

    Attacking a civilian object and carrying out a disproportionate attack are war crimes. The onus is on the Coalition forces to demonstrate the military use of the TV station and, if that is indeed the case, to show that the attack took into account the risk to civilian lives.

    Daily Digest: War Crimes during military operation, Amnesty International, March 26, 2003, News Service No: 068
  • FAIR reported the comments of the general secretary of the International Federation of Journalists, Aidan White, who suggested that there should be a clear international investigation into whether or not this bombing violates the Geneva Conventions. Once again, we see military and political commanders from the democratic world targeting a television network simply because they don’t like the message it gives out.
  • As FAIR summarized in the same link above, U.S. mainstream media supported the bombing, with some outlets even encouraging the bombing of Iraqi TV before it happened. FAIR added, Given such attitudes, perhaps it’s not surprising that discussions of the legality of attacking Iraqi TV have been rare in U.S. mainstream media. Yet when the White House accused Iraq of violating the Geneva Conventions by airing footage of American POWs, media were eager to engage the subject of international law. It’s a shame U.S. media haven’t held the U.S. government to the same standards.

On April 8, U.S. forces in central Baghdad fired at the Al Jazeera station and a hotel where many journalists stayed. Three journalists were killed, including a well known Al Jazeera correspondent.

  • Media organization, Reporters Without Borders, accused the U.S. of firing on journalists deliberately.
  • The U.S. had claimed that they were reacting to shots fired from those areas, but journalists on the scene pointed out that they did not hear any shots before the U.S. tanks fired.
  • In addition, Lindsey Hilsun, from UK’s Channel 4 News reported from the scene adding that the U.S. tanks were some distance away from the hotel and supposed rifle fire and rocket propelled grenades would not have reached those tanks. She also added that no shots were fired at those tanks.
  • An Australian daily, The Daily Telegraph, also reported that French TV caught this on camera too. British journalist Robert Fisk was also on the scene, and commented that Sky News, another British outlet, who also had a journalist at the hotel when it was hit, had pointed out that the Pentagon knew that this hotel housed journalists. In addition, Al Jazeera had constantly updated Coalition forces of its stations whereabouts, even though it had been bombed too. (Asia Times (April 10, 2003) also quoted this same Sky News journalist, David Chater, that the shell fired at the hotel was aimed directly at this hotel and directly at journalists. This wasn’t an accident, it seems to be a very accurate shot. The article also highlights the targeting of of independent journalists.)
  • As the Indian media organization, The Hoot also suggested, the targeting was deliberate: Events leading to the march of the coalition soldiers into Baghdad this week clearly proved that Pentagon was deliberately targeting Arab media. What other explanation could there be for the bombing of the buildings housing Al-Jazeera and Abu Dubhai stations on April 8? Of course the Palestine Hotel, which accommodated hundreds of western journalists, was also bombed. Pentagon sought to justify its attacks as a response to sniper fire from these buildings. Significantly, not a single journalist from any country corroborated the Pentagon version.
  • The next day, the famous images of the toppling of the large statue of Saddam Hussein was broadcast around the world, in effect, marking the fall of the regime.

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Fall of Saddam and Vindication of the War

Inter Press Service pointed out (April 9, 2003) that while there were celebrations at Saddam being toppled, there was caution in some areas as well.

  • For much of the mainstream media, the underlying theme implied how this vindicates the leaders, Bush and Blair.
  • The concern for many around the world is that such quick, decisive and effective wars may mean that future wars may be supported and waged, even if their cases may also be questionable or even perhaps illegal.
  • It is by no means certain what the future of Iraq is. The Coalition claims that occupation will only be as long as until an Iraqi democracy is in place, not a moment longer, while others fear that they will remain as long as it takes to get a puppet regime (which may still be democratic for its people, but a puppet for geopolitically regional and international issues). This is an understandable concern given the decades of supporting brutal regimes and malleable puppet regimes, while in some cases actually overthrowing popular regimes around the world (though in this case, overthrowing an unpopular regime that had been assisted by some Coalition nations and others for many years).
  • How the vindication is being portrayed as well has been of interest. Tony Blair himself for example has been quite measured and avoided a told you so and vindicative attack on his critics directly, though indirectly, this has been quite marked. Mostly by the media. Media watchdog Media Lens provide a lot of critique on even the liberal media in Britian in how they have sought to vindicate Blair:

    For a political leader, few therapies compare with military victory. For a leader who went to war in the absence of a single political ally who believed in the war as unreservedly as he did, Iraq now looks like vindication on an astounding scale. ('So begins Blair’s descent into powerless mediocrity, Victory in Iraq risks being effaced by imminent surrender over the euro', Hugo Young, The Guardian, April 15, 2003)

    This is the role of the establishment media — to vindicate the crimes of the powerful, to whitewash the bloodbath. Young raises doubts on the side (the glory could quickly fade for Blair), but power is vindicated — the crucial point.

    It doesn’t matter how many people died, how fraudulent the reasons for war, how blatant the greed for oil and power, how vast the domestic and international public and political opposition, how blatant the contravention of international law, how horrendous the aftermath. The priority, always, after one of our wars, is to vindicate the decision to fight.

    ... for our political commentators these deaths [of Iraqis in the Iraq war] don’t really count, they aren’t touched by them — Third World people are always dying, that’s just what they do, and they would have died anyway under Saddam. Sometimes grotesque attempts are even made to rationalise this prejudice.

    ... It is true that the direct effects of this war were less destructive than some other wars (the indirect effects are only beginning to come to light) but that is not how we judge the legitimacy of war. The question is to what extent a war is based on lies, self-interest and deception — and this war was based on nothing but lies, self-interest and deception. The US/UK simply decided to invade another country, obscuring their motives — oil, power, influence, intimidation — under a veil of propaganda.

    It might be difficult to accept, but the truth is that every person who died in the war was killed for Western corporate and strategic interests. Does anyone seriously believe that the US would send a quarter of a million troops to Iraq only to have the Iraqi people freely vote to have nothing to do with the United States government? But wouldn’t genuine 'liberty' and 'democracy' have to include that possibility?

    If we approve of the war, then we must approve of every lesser Mafia and gangland killing now and in the past, every imperial slaughter throughout history. We must accept that 'might makes right', that morality is of consequence only as a cover for criminality. We have to vindicate the right of a criminal to break into houses, of a rapist to brutalise at will, of a torturer to inflict agony on any victims he has the power to torment.

    It makes no difference that 'only' a few thousand Iraqis died, or that 'only' a few hundred died — would the Germans have been right to invade the Soviet Union if only 100 people had been killed?

    Moral Meltdown — The Guardian and Observer, Media Lens, April 18, 2003
  • Consider also the amount of propaganda to vilify the enemy, to help create the shock, disgust, even hatred that would provide support for the war. No doubt Saddam Hussein and his regime have been brutal, and no-one seriously argues that. However, what is less considered is that he was well-armed by the west, including countries such as the U.S. who provided chemical and other WMD capabilities. In addition, the grim reality of the sanctions regime is said by people like Tony Blair to be solely at the fault of Saddam Hussein in the way he chose to implement the sanctions policy. No one challenged Tony Blair’s claims about this, that the U.N. Sanctions Committee — heavily influenced by U.S. and U.K. members — make life and death decisions on what materials could be allowed into Iraq or not, including things like Chlorine for water disinfection. Consider also the following, which highlights how in the propaganda battle, some of the more difficult truths were simplified:

    But consider the logic of the argument on its own terms: war is bad, this war was not as bad as other wars, therefore this war was not so bad. Saddam was bad, this war was not as bad as Saddam, therefore this war was not so bad. In this kind of propaganda there are only ever two choices, black or white: war to bestow liberty by deposing a dictator, or freedom for a dictator to slaughter his people. But of course nothing is that simple.

    Moral Meltdown — The Guardian and Observer, MediaLens, April 18, 2003

    And a summary of some of those uncomfortable truths:

    There is something especially disgusting about the lurid propaganda coming from these PR-trained British officers, who have not a clue about Iraq and its people. They describe the liberation they are bringing from the world’s worst tyranny, as if anything, including death by cluster bomb or dysentery, is better than life under Saddam. The inconvenient truth is that, according to Unicef, the Ba'athists built the most modern health service in the Middle East.

    No one disputes the grim, totalitarian nature of the regime; but Saddam Hussein was careful to use the oil wealth to create a modern secular society and a large and prosperous middle class. Iraq was the only Arab country with a 90 per cent clean water supply and with free education. All this was smashed by the Anglo-American embargo. When the embargo was imposed in 1990, the Iraqi civil service organised a food distribution system that the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation described as a model of efficiency . . . undoubtedly saving Iraq from famine. That, too, was smashed when the invasion was launched.

    John Pilger, Crime Against Humanity, April 10, 2003

    These aspects are detailed on the previous page on this site about building the case, and on the next page about the effects of sanctions.

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U.S. Army Sent Fake Iraq Letters To U.S. Media Outlets

As reported by Britain’s Channel 4 news program, the U.S. Army sent fake letters to many U.S. media outlets to show positive results from the war, such as how a city near Baghdad was transformed after the war.

Each of the 12 letters, whose contents are identical, were signed by different soldiers from the 2nd Battalion, 503rd Infantry, Channel 4 noted. They pointed out that, The fraud was discovered when two letters arrived at the same newspaper in Washington state.

As the Channel 4 broadcast on October 14, 2003 also noted, this happened to be the same perspective being presented by the Bush Administration, and George Bush himself as he went on various interviews with local media outlets, because, as some critics believed, they are easier to deal with than the major nationwide outlets. If you combine this with say the example mentioned further above about the Bush Administration enforcing a policy to ban coverage of dead soldier' homecomings, then it looks more like a one-sided picture is likely to emerge in the minds of ordinary Americans.

History is said to be written by the victor, and newspapers are said to be modern sources and recorders of history. Yet, this would appear to show an example of how history can be re-written.

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PR Firm, Hired By Pentagon, Pay Iraqi Newspapers to Plant Pro-American Articles, Secretly Written by US Military

Democracy Now! radio broadcast in August 2006 that the Lincoln Group, the Washington-based government contractor … gained notoriety last November [2005] after the Los Angeles Times first revealed it was being paid by the Pentagon to plant stories in the Iraqi press as part of a secret military propaganda campaign. A subsequent Pentagon investigation in March cleared the Lincoln Group of any wrongdoing.

Although it would seem obvious that the Pentagon would find no wrongdoing, the same broadcast had an interview with an intern for the PR firm describing how he was propaganda Intern in Iraq, paying to plant pro-American articles in the Iraqi press that were secretly written by the US military.

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US Tenders New Contract For Monitoring Iraq War Coverage

Democracy Now! also notes that in August 2006, President Bush started a PR campaign to criticize the Democrats who were against the war in Iraq as appeasing terrorists, and wanting to cut off funding for troops stationed in Iraq. This, shortly after Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld likened critics of the war in Iraq to those who tried to appease Nazi Germany during the 1930s. Bush insisted his new speeches are not political, though clearly they are. Furthermore, internationally there is increased effort to massage news reporting and coverage of events in Iraq:

And as President Bush begins his PR effort, the Washington Post is reporting the Pentagon has tendered a new twenty-million dollar contract to promote more “positive” news coverage of the Iraq war. The contract calls on bidders to monitor and analyze news coverage in the US and international media. The stories would be analyzed for their tone and attitude towards US military operations and used as part of a program to provide "public relations products" that would improve coverage of the military. A public relations industry source said the Pentagon has been “overwhelmed” by news stories that have differed from how the military originally wanted them transmitted.

Headlines for August 31, 2006, Democracy Now!

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A Free and Uncensored Press in Iraq?

Consider the following:

You know, I just came in from Baghdad, and there are now over 100 newspapers in the free press in Iraq in a free Iraq, where people are able to say whatever they wish. People are debating, people are discussing — something they have not done for decades."

Donald Rumsfeld, in response to protesters, September 10, 2003

Rumsfeld made an attempt to divert attention from the substance of protests calling for his resignation with talk of the establishment of a free press in Iraq. Rumsfeld did not remind the audience of the countless instances of censorship exercised by the U.S. over mostly Arab journalists expressing anti-occupation views.

Victoria Cunningham (One of the protestors on who interrupted Rumsfeld’s speech in Washington), Context: Governing Council’s Crackdown on Al-Jazeera, Institute for Public Accuracy, September 24, 2003

Inter Press Service also reports that media watchdogs such as Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) and Reporters Sans Frontiers (Reporters Without Borders) are highlighting concerns about the clamp down on media stations for airing anti-occupation views and giving time to recordings of Saddam Hussein,, thus raising issues of press freedom. Penalising media outlets sets a poor precedent and raises serious questions about how Iraqi authorities will handle the broadcast or publication of negative news. The governing council should encourage open media, IPS quoted a CPJ member as saying.

IPS continues, The controversy comes amid growing concerns about the CPA’s attitude toward the press and a number of recent incidents in which media workers were assaulted by occupation troops.

IPS also notes that a number of media outlets have been closed after the CPA accused them of incitement against occupation forces. Furthermore, as IPS also says, the Iraq Media Network (IMN), a CPA-run project put together by a major U.S. defence contractor, has reportedly taken over a number of radio stations in various parts of the country, effectively silencing independent voices.

And consider the following propaganda strategy used by the CIA to create certain impressions on the general public of Iraq:

The CIA paid mullahs and created fake Islamic religious leaders to preach a moderate message and counter anti-American sentiment in the Arab world after the 11 September attacks, a new book claims.

In The CIA at War, Ronald Kessler, an investigative reporter and author of several books about the CIA and the FBI, also details espionage activity in Iraq which supported the March invasion that toppled the Iraqi president, Saddam Hussein.

[Interviewing top CIA officials], Mr Kessler claims the CIA used agents from intelligence services in Arab countries, including Jordan, Syria and Egypt, to infiltrate al-Qaeda and develop intelligence.

These agents were also used to sow suspicion, so that members of the network would kill each other. The book blames al-Qaeda for 11 September.

Tabassum Zakaria, CIA paid mullahs to counter anti-US feeling, The Scotsman, September 24, 2003

The above may or may not appear shocking, but as part of a war strategy, such propaganda operations are common place, and there are probably many that we will never hear about.

And what would appear to be a part of the above-mentioned attempt by the CPA to silence dissenting media, at the beginning of August 2004, the new Iraqi government shut Al Jazeera for 30 days. This was due to claims that Al Jazeera was inciting hatred by showing negative pictures. Yet, as mentioned further above, Al Jazeera has long been criticized by those in power because they didn’t like its independence and that it would give voice to critics of Arab rulers and those critical of U.S. foreign policy.

Ironically, the U.S. claimed to invade Iraq (amongst other reasons) to help bring democracy and freedom. In doing so, one of the foundations of freedom and democracy (a free, independent media), is curtailed for reporting things the leadership does not like. Many suspect the relationship between some in the new Iraqi government and the the U.S. allowed the U.S. to pressure this decision. And, as the New York Times noted in an editorial/op-ed, continued violence will now go unreported and human rights violations by the government could also go unaccounted for:

Thwarting Al Jazeera’s news coverage will not halt the violence that has been tearing Iraq apart for the past 16 months. But it may spare Mr. Allawi the embarrassment of having that violence so visible to a worldwide audience. It may also give his government a freer hand to abuse human rights and pursue personal political vendettas in the name of restoring law and order.

... [Al Jazeera] often stands almost alone in holding the actions of previously unaccountable governments up to public view and encouraging broader public debate. Mr. Allawi’s government is supposed to be pointing the way toward a more democratic Iraq in a more democratic Middle East. By moving against Al Jazeera, it does just the opposite.

Banning Bad News In Iraq, August 10, 2004

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Censorship in the Free World

As noted on the Building The Case For War section on this site, during the lead up to the war it was revealed that the U.S. was spying on U.N. delegations in early 2003 in an attempt to win approval over an Iraq war resolution. In addition, it was also found out that this was not new and this sort of thing was done by the U.S. for many years. A former British government employee revealed this latest scandal. However, as the Institute for Public Accuracy notes, she now faces imprisonment for telling the truth:

Katharine Gun, a British former government employee, now faces two years imprisonment in England for the crime of telling the truth. She is charged with leaking an embarrassing U.S. intelligence memo indicating that the U.S. was spying on U.N. delegations in early 2003 in an effort to win approval of the Iraq war resolution. The leaked memo was big news in parts of the world.

England has no First Amendment that might protect Ms. Gun. It does have a repressive Official Secrets Act, under which she is being prosecuted by the Blair government.

The Katherine Gun Case, Institute for Public Accuracy, January 29, 2004

It has also been revealed by The Guardian/Observer newspaper in Britain that U.K. helped the U.S. in this espionage at the United Nations.

Ironically, as the above article also notes, the spying was almost certainly in breach of the Vienna conventions on diplomatic relations, which strictly outlaw espionage at the UN missions in New York.

Blair and Bush tried to claim the war was legal, yet, it appears this is yet another case for an illegal war. The legality of the war was a highly sensitive issue for senior military officers on the eve of war, who were wary of being accused of war crimes in the aftermath of the conflict, the article further noted.

Britain’s Attorney-General in the end argued that there was a legal case (even though most experts in international law disagreed). But as the former assistant chief of defence staff Sir Timothy Garden noted the legal basis of the war is all the more important now that Britain has signed up to the International Criminal Court. We did it on the best advice that was available in a democratic country. But following an order is not an excuse in the end.

In addition, U.N. Chief Weapons Inspector Hans Blix declared the war on Iraq was illegal, in an interview with The Independent (March 5, 2004). Blix noted that a second U.N. resolution was required, and furthermore, no individual country had the right to legally decide to go to war, because the U.N. Security Council created the resolutions, so the Council had to decide on war or not, not individual nations. (And as noted near the beginning of this page, even the U.S. and U.K. had initially admitted that war was not possible without a second U.N. resolution). This all came at a time when more pressure was being put on the British government to reveal the full legal advice it was given for war, especially in light of the collapse of the case against Katharine Gun.

The Independent also added that a Foreign Office memo, sent to the [British] Foreign Affairs Select Committee on the same day that Lord Goldsmith’s summary [saying there was a legal basis for war] was published, made clear that there was no automaticity in resolution 1441 to justify war. (U.N. resolution 1441 adopted in November 2002 was the resolution to get weapons inspectors in Iraq. A second resolution was required for war, as the U.K. and U.S. themselves had admitted in November 2002. See the quotes near the beginning of this page regarding that admission.)

The previous section on this site, regarding the build up to the war, discusses this aspect in more detail, as well.

The Observer further exposed in February 2004 that

  • A joint British and American spying operation at the United Nations thwarted a last-ditch initiative to avert the invasion of Iraq. This was revealed by new evidence from Senior U.N. diplomats from Mexico and Chile, two countries that faced U.S. and U.K. pressure at the United Nations during the build up to the war.
  • That is, war could have been avoided but the U.S. and U.K. undermined such efforts at the United Nations. Side NoteOne of the reports from The Observer also noted that a minister in the U.K. has asked the government if they knew, for that willcause an uproar at the U.N. for such illegal activity, done knowingly by a government in order to go to war. Yet, on the other hand, if ministers did not know about this, then the concern is who is in charge? In a democratic country, where is the accountability?
  • Despite agreeing to more time to find a resolution, the U.S. secretly used intelligence gathered from spying on those negotiations to kill the last hope of a UN resolution.

Weakening Democracy by Stifling Debate

President George Bush, who rarely does press conferences and television interviews, was interviewed by NBC’s Tim Russert on Meet the Press. In that interview, Bush unconvincingly defended his decision to go to war on Iraq. When a documentary producer wanted to use the clip, NBC denied permission, even though this was the words of a public figure. This raised a number of inter-related issues in one go:

  • Larger media organizations and politicians can attempt to hide behind copyright law (although the documentary producer in this example used the clip under Fair Use copyright clause anyway);
  • While NBC claimed to be neutral by not allowing others to use the clip, it was more like censorship for no-one was able to use the clip;
  • An aspect of democracy is thus weakened by corporate media stifling wider debate.

Wired magazine captures this well:

Many are concerned about the ever-expanding reach of copyright law. More are concerned about the ever-increasing concentration of the media.... As media becomes more concentrated, competition to curry favor with politicians only increases. This intensifies during an election cycle. Networks able to signal that they will be friendly — for example, by ensuring that embarrassing moments from interviews won’t be made available to others — are more likely to attract candidates for interviews and so on, than networks that don’t. Concentration tied to copyright thus gives networks both the motive and the means to protect favored guests.

NBC insists it is remaining neutral by denying others use of the interview. But there’s nothing neutral about restricting either critics or supporters from repeating the president’s words. But the issue here isn’t really NBC’s motive. It is the president’s. Why would any president allow a network to copyright his message? No self-respecting president would speak at a club that excluded women: Whatever rights a private organization may enjoy, a president stands for equality. So why did the current leader of the free world, who rarely holds press conferences, agree to speak on a talk show that refuses to license on a neutral basis the content he contributed? Is vigorous debate over matters as important as going to war less important than protecting his image?

This question is crucial, and thus Greenwald [the documentary producer] has decided to defend his fair use right, even if it means staring down a bunch of lawyers in court. The argument: It’s hard to tell the whole truth about the Iraq war when you censor bits of that truth because a network tells you to. But what this incident demonstrates most is what many increasingly fear. Concentrated media and expansive copyright are the perfect storm not just for stifling debate but, increasingly, for weakening democracy as well.

Lawrence Lessig, Copyrighting the President, Wired Magazine, August 2004

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Torture Revelations

In May, 2004, a scandal broke where pictures were revealed in major newspapers around the world, of coalition troops committing torture on Iraqi prisoners and gloating about it.

The major incidents published worldwide were about U.S. troops. There was also a scandal about British troops. The editor of The Mirror newspaper was sacked for publishing hoax photos of British troops abusing Iraqi troops. The anti-war tabloid paper had fallen victim to a calculated and malicious hoax it said in a statement.

But two other types of issues came out from this hoax:

  • On the one hand, as critics noted, such lies provided excuses for retaliating against occupation forces, thus endangering lives of soldiers doing their job.
  • However, it turned out that even if these photos were a hoax, it was later spun as a reconstruction of real events (though that did not save the paper’s editor). But the event revealed that there were other soldiers who had expressed such concern, and that the British government knew about such problems some time ago, as raised by human rights groups such as Amnesty International and the International Red Cross.

Furthermore, as Media Lens notes, the sacking highlights another contradiction: those that have inadvertently produced lies that are pro-war are usually unaffected compared to those that have inadvertently produced lies that are anti-war.

The scandal about U.S. troops torturing Iraqis in the Abu Ghraib detention center and elsewhere has put the Pentagon and the Bush Administration on the defensive. Many are debating whether this whole saga was from a few bad apples where it was an isolated case of some soldiers committing deplorable acts, or whether this was indeed official policy coming from very high up. It would be futile to try and investigate all those points here, and the mainstream media appears to be pursuing this in detail:

  • U.S. Defense Secretary, Donald Rumsfeld claimed he was stunned by the grotesque revelations of abuse. However, it turns out that groups such as Amnesty International are pointing out that the U.S. has known about these and it should not be a new revelation:

    ... Amnesty International said that abuses allegedly committed by US agents in the Abu Ghraib facility in Baghdad were war crimes and called on the administration to fully investigate them to ensure that there is no impunity for anyone found responsible regardless of position or rank.

    Despite claims this week by Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld to be stunned by abuses in Abu Ghraib, and that these were an exception and not a pattern or practice, Amnesty International has presented consistent allegations of brutality and cruelty by US agents against detainees at the highest levels of the US Government, including the White House, the Department of Defense, and the State Department for the past two years.

    USA: Pattern of brutality and cruelty — war crimes at Abu Ghraib, Amnesty International Canada, 7 May 2004
  • Veteran journalist, Seymour Hersh, perhaps produced the most visible damning report to date, in The New Yorker citing intelligence sources that the decision to use torture ultimately came right from the top, maybe not in those words, but in the way policy was formulated. Furthermore, harsh interrogation policies had been devised in secret for a long time. Citing Hersh at length:

    The roots of the Abu Ghraib prison scandal lie not in the criminal inclinations of a few Army reservists but in a decision, approved last year by Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, to expand a highly secret operation, which had been focussed on the hunt for Al Qaeda, to the interrogation of prisoners in Iraq....

    According to interviews with several past and present American intelligence officials, the Pentagon’s operation, known inside the intelligence community by several code words, including Copper Green, encouraged physical coercion and sexual humiliation of Iraqi prisoners in an effort to generate more intelligence about the growing insurgency in Iraq. A senior C.I.A. official, in confirming the details of this account last week, said that the operation stemmed from Rumsfeld’s long-standing desire to wrest control of America’s clandestine and paramilitary operations from the C.I.A.

    ...Who was in charge of Abu Ghraib — whether military police or military intelligence — was no longer the only question that mattered. Hard-core special operatives, some of them with aliases, were working in the prison. The military police assigned to guard the prisoners wore uniforms, but many others — military intelligence officers, contract interpreters, C.I.A. officers, and the men from the special-access program — wore civilian clothes. It was not clear who was who, even to Brigadier General Janis Karpinski, then the commander of the 800th Military Police Brigade, and the officer ostensibly in charge.

    ...In a separate interview, a Pentagon consultant, who spent much of his career directly involved with special-access programs, spread the blame. The White House subcontracted this to the Pentagon, and the Pentagon subcontracted it to Cambone, he said. This is Cambone’s deal, but Rumsfeld and Myers approved the program. When it came to the interrogation operation at Abu Ghraib, he said, Rumsfeld left the details to [Stephen] Cambone, [U.S. Under-Secretary for Intelligence]. Rumsfeld may not be personally culpable, the consultant added, but he’s responsible for the checks and balances. The issue is that, since 9/11, we’ve changed the rules on how we deal with terrorism, and created conditions where the ends justify the means.

    ...One puzzling aspect of Rumsfeld’s account of his initial reaction to news of the Abu Ghraib investigation was his lack of alarm and lack of curiosity. One factor may have been recent history: there had been many previous complaints of prisoner abuse from organization like Human Rights Watch and the International Red Cross, and the Pentagon had weathered them with ease. Rumsfeld told the Senate Armed Services Committee that he had not been provided with details of alleged abuses until late March, when he read the specific charges. You read it, as I say, it’s one thing. You see these photographs and it’s just unbelievable. . . . It wasn’t three-dimensional. It wasn’t video. It wasn’t color. It was quite a different thing. The former intelligence official said that, in his view, Rumsfeld and other senior Pentagon officials had not studied the photographs because they thought what was in there was permitted under the rules of engagement, as applied to the sap. [A special-access program — subject to the U.S. Defense Department’s most stringent level of security] The photos, he added, turned out to be the result of the program run amok.

    The former intelligence official made it clear that he was not alleging that Rumsfeld or General Myers knew that atrocities were committed. But, he said, it was their permission granted to do the sap, generically, and there was enough ambiguity, which permitted the abuses.

    ...The former intelligence official told me he feared that one of the disastrous effects of the prison-abuse scandal would be the undermining of legitimate operations in the war on terror, which had already suffered from the draining of resources into Iraq....

    In an odd way, Kenneth Roth, the executive director of Human Rights Watch, said, the sexual abuses at Abu Ghraib have become a diversion for the prisoner abuse and the violation of the Geneva Conventions that is authorized. Since September 11th, Roth added, the military has systematically used third-degree techniques around the world on detainees. Some jags [Judge Advocate Generals, senior military legal officers] hate this and are horrified that the tolerance of mistreatment will come back and haunt us in the next war, Roth told me. We’re giving the world a ready-made excuse to ignore the Geneva Conventions. Rumsfeld has lowered the bar.

    Seymour M. Hersh, The Gray Zone: How A Secret Pentagon Program Came to Abu Ghraib, The New Yorker, May 15, 2004 (for the May 24, 2004 Edition)
  • Newsweek International also makes similar claims to Hersh whereby the policies that led to torture were set out after 9/11 when Washington wrote new rules to fight a new kind of war.
  • Senators in the U.S. had privately been shown many, many more pictures of horrific torture. At the time of writing, the Pentagon is resisting releasing even more pictures.
  • Appearing to be in retaliation for these terrible acts, extremists responded in cruel fashion in Iraq by beheaded an American captive (which groups such as Amnesty International likewise condemned).
  • Yet, as with some British soldiers, some American soldiers are coming forward with abuse stories and claims of cover-ups, The Sacramento Bee for example, interviewed a staff sergeant who was in Iraq but then resigned because he had raised concern about what was going on and that U.S. troops were killing many civilians. We killed a lot of innocent people in Iraq, the soldier noted in an interview As ABC News reported, they had spoken to a witness who had revealed a possible coverup but was stripped of his security clearance and told he may face prosecution because his comments were not in the national interest. It is ironic that standing up against incredible pressure for some truth would result in such an excuse of national interests. The torture tactics themselves should not be in the national interest in the first place, itself, it could be argued.
  • It turns out also, that women have also been raped, some made pregnant, resulting in their suicide or killings when eventually released:

    Astonishingly, the secret inquiry launched by the US military in January, headed by Major General Antonio Taguba, has confirmed that the letter [claiming US guards had been raping women detainees, some of whom were now pregnant] smuggled out of Abu Ghraib by a woman known only as Noor was entirely and devastatingly accurate. While most of the focus since the scandal broke three weeks ago has been on the abuse of men, and on their sexual humilation in front of US women soldiers, there is now incontrovertible proof that women detainees — who form a small but unknown proportion of the 40,000 people in US custody since last year’s invasion — have also been abused. Nobody appears to know how many. But among the 1,800 digital photographs taken by US guards inside Abu Ghraib there are, according to Taguba’s report, images of a US military policeman having sex with an Iraqi woman.

    … Honour killings are not unusual in Islamic society, where rape is often equated with shame and where the stigma of being raped by an American soldier would, according to one Islamic cleric, be unbearable. The prospects for rape victims in Iraq are grave; it is hardly surprising that no women have so far come forward to talk about their experiences in US-run jails where abuse was rife until early January.

    … According to Swadi [one of seven female lawyers now representing women detainees in Abu Ghraib], who managed to visit Abu Ghraib in late March, the allegations against the women [as to why they are at the prison] are absurd. One of them is supposed to be the mistress of the former director of the Mukhabarat. In fact, she’s a widow who used to own a small shop. She also worked as a taxi driver, ferrying children to and from kindergarten. If she really had a relationship with the director of the Mukhabarat, she would scarcely be running a kiosk. These are baseless charges, she adds angrily. She is the only person who can provide for her children.

    The women appear to have been arrested in violation of international law — not because of anything they have done, but merely because of who they are married to, and their potential intelligence value. US officials have previously acknowledged detaining Iraqi women in the hope of convincing male relatives to provide information; when US soldiers raid a house and fail to find a male suspect, they will frequently take away his wife or daughter instead.

    Luke Harding, The Other Prisoners, The Guardian, May 20, 2004
    Note that in the above there is an implication that the U.S. may also be blackmailing Iraqis by threatening their wives, etc.

U.S. News and World Report summarized a major review that found pressure for torture came right from the top because of the need to squeeze intelligence out of detainees:

The most comprehensive view yet of what went wrong at Iraq’s Abu Ghraib prison, based on a review of all 106 classified annexes to the report of Major General Antonio Taguba, shows abuses were facilitated — and likely encouraged — by a chaotic and dangerous environment made worse by constant pressure from Washington to squeeze intelligence from detainees.

Daily life at Abu Ghraib, the documents show, included riots, prisoner escapes, shootings, corrupt Iraqi guards, filthy conditions, sexual misbehavior, bug-infested food, prisoner beatings and humiliations, and almost-daily mortar shellings from Iraqi insurgents. Troubles inside the prison were made worse still by a military command structure that was hopelessly broken.

U.S. News Obtains All Classified Annexes to the Taguba Report on Abu Ghraib, U.S. News and World Report, July 9, 2004

In discussing both Iraq and the wider war on terror, in early September 2006, President Bush acknowledged for the first time that the CIA has been operating a secret network of overseas prisons. However, he denied that the U.S. ever uses torture but he admitted the CIA had used what he described as alternative procedures to force some prisoners to talk.

Radio station Democracy Now! talked to an attorney with the Center for Constitutional Rights who noted the following:

And when [President Bush] says the United States doesn’t torture and I never authorize torture, that is a very interesting word play, because all of the government’s documents, all of the White House documents, go to this issue of redefining torture in a way that we don’t define it in the United States or in the world. And that definition says torture only occurs when someone’s at the risk of immediate full organ failure or death. So that’s the word “torture” that the president is using. That’s not our constitutional definition of torture. That’s not the international definition of torture. And you know what? That’s not the American people’s definition of torture.

Barbara Olshansky, As CIA Detainees Transferred to Guantanamo, President Bush Acknowledges Secret Prisons, Interviewed by Democracy Now!, September 7, 2006

Campaign organization, Alliance for Justice has created this short video looking at the role lawyers played in authorizing torture, and calls for a full investigation of those who ordered, designed, and justified torture:

Tortured Law, Alliance for Justice, October 7, 2009

An irony in this is that one of the justifications for the war (later on, when the Weapons of Mass Destruction argument was meeting stern criticism) was that Iraq had to be freed from the tyrant, Saddam Hussein. There is no argument that Saddam Hussein was a tyrant, especially in earlier decades (with U.S. support, as mentioned before). Yet, in the views of many Iraqis, how are things different now if torture still continues, especially in the name of freedom and other such values?

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Chalabi provides detailed insights into world propaganda campaign to gain support for a war against Iraq

Ahmed Chalabi may no longer be Washington’s most favored Iraqi and may not, for now, hold any of the top positions in the Iraq government, but the lessons from Chalabi, his background, his long relation with the U.S., and how he helped the U.S. in creating the climate for a war are very important to understand how some aspects of power, foreign policy and propaganda work. The following summarizes a report from The Manipulator by Jane Mayer, in The New Yorker, May 29, 2004:

Propaganda and lobbying to convince a people to go to war

Chalabi followed very closely the example of how U.S. President Roosevelt, who abhorred the Nazis, at a time when isolationist sentiment was paramount in the United States, managed to persuade the American people to go to war. (Chalabi lobbied for the Iraq Liberation Act, which Congress passed in 1998, making regime change an official priority for the U.S.)

Chalabi succeeded in getting the U.S. to invade Iraq. Judith Kipper, the Council on Foreign Relations director, said that, [in the mid-1990s] Chalabi made a deliberate decision to turn to the right, having realized that conservatives were more likely than liberals to back the use of force against Saddam. But subsequent political fallouts and problems for the U.S. can’t solely be blamed on Chalabi, for that would be scapegoating and by-passing accountability.

U.S. Government funnelling lots of money to agitators

The U.S. government, from 1992 until Chalabi fell out of favor, funnelled more than 100 million dollars to the INC, 39 million of which came from the current Bush Administration. This was used to create the false and exaggerated claims to help rouse an opposition and justify war.

Support in future Iraqi government

In the case of Chalabi, Mayer reported that a U.S. State Department official told her that Every list of Iraqis they wanted to work with for positions in the government of postwar Iraq included Chalabi and all of the members of his organization.

U.S. Government out-sources creation of opposition

A technique to avoid direct implication in something is to get others to do it, and help them if needed. Sometimes this is covert (where a lot of conspiracy theories come from, or, when real leaks about darker operations from CIA and others are revealed, they can easily be dismissed as conspiracy nonsense, if needed).

With Iraq, as Mayer noted, In addition to generating anti-Saddam news stories and creating a travelling atrocity exhibit, which documented the human-rights abuses of Saddam’s regime, the Rendon Group — a public relations firm, specializing in perception management, was charged with the delicate task of helping to create a viable and unified opposition movement against Saddam.

This involved out-sourcing the global propagana and media campaigns using expert public relation companies and planting false stories as part of a disinformation campaign:

Out-sourcing global propaganda campaign

Chalabi’s key lobbyist in Washington was Francis Brooke. During the 1990s the company Brooke worked for, the Rendon Group, received funding from the C.I.A to help create an external opposition movement to Saddam Hussein. Rendon Group, set out to influence global political opinion against Saddam. The C.I.A. could’t do this directly due to scandals surrounding similar things in previous decades, so they out-sourced the propaganda operation. (This technique also serve to distance a government from claims of direct involvement.)

Out-sourcing global media management

Planting stories (some true, some false, some exaggerated or twisted), is a common technique. In the case of Iraq, The [Rendon] group began offering information to British journalists, and many articles subsequently appeared in the London press. Occasionally, [Brooke] said, the company would be reprimanded by project managers in Washington when too many of those stories were picked up by the American press, thereby transgressing laws that prohibited domestic propaganda. But, for the most part, Brooke said, It was amazing how well it worked. It was like magic. (Emphasis Added)

Disinformation campaigns

Mayer notes the length that the INC went to, with the knowledge of the U.S:

In 1994, [former C.I.A. officer Robert] Baer said, he went with Chalabi to visit a forgery shop that the I.N.C. had set up inside ... Kurdistan. It was a room where people were scanning Iraqi intelligence documents into computers, and doing disinformation. There was a whole wing of it that he did forgeries in. Baer had no evidence that Chalabi forged any of the disputed intelligence documents that were used to foment alarm in the run-up to the war. But, he said, he was forging back then, in order to bring down Saddam. In the Los Angeles Times, Hugh Pope wrote of one harmless-seeming prank that emerged from Chalabi’s specialty shop: a precise mockup of an Iraqi newspaper that was filled with stories about Saddam’s human-rights abuses. Another faked document ended up directly affecting Baer. It was a copy of a forged letter to Chalabi, made to look as if it were written on the stationery of President Clinton’s National Security Council. The letter asked for Chalabi’s help in an American-led assassination plot against Saddam. It was a complete fake, Baer said, adding that he believed it was an effort to hoodwink the Iranians into joining a plot against Saddam; an indication of American involvement, Chalabi hoped, would convince them that the effort was serious. Brooke acknowledged that the I.N.C. had run a forgery shop, but denied that Chalabi had created the phony assassination letter. That would be illegal, he said. To Baer’s dismay, the letter eventually made its way to Langley, Virginia, and the C.I.A. accused him of being involved in the scheme. Baer said he had to pass a polygraph test in order to prove otherwise.

Jane Mayer, The Manipulator, The New Yorker, May 29, 2004

While the above were in the mid-1990s, in the lead up to the 2003 war, the I.N.C. were planting many stories (products as they called it) in the mainstream media. Some outlets reported fake stories as front-page items.

And consider the following:

In an unusual arrangement, two months before the invasion began, the chief correspondent for the [New York] Times, Patrick E. Tyler, who was in charge of overseeing the paper’s war coverage, hired Chalabi’s niece, Sarah Khalil, to be the paper’s office manager in Kuwait. Chalabi had long been a source for Tyler. Chalabi’s daughter Tamara, who was in Kuwait at the time, told me that Khalil helped her father’s efforts while she was working for the Times.

Jane Mayer, The Manipulator, The New Yorker, May 29, 2004

Noting how information can become propaganda, Mayer told of how the Iraqi nuclear scientist who defected wrote the influential memoir Saddam’s bombmaker, even though he had not been involved in Iraq’s nuclear program for nearly a decade, and even then did not have a prominent role, and had made various false claims. Furthermore, Chalabi’s people helped Hamza to promote his story to the media, and the tale became widely known. Cheney began giving alarmist speeches about the imminent Iraqi nuclear threat. On August 26, 2002, he declared that Saddam had resumed his efforts to acquire nuclear weapons, and might soon be able to engage in nuclear blackmail with his enemies. For a population that had suffered its worst terrorist attacks on U.S. soil just under a year earlier, such scaremongering would likely be effective.

Indeed, for those wondering why the Bush Administration simply didn’t build the case for war on humanitarian grounds (no-one could seriously deny Saddam’s ruthlessness), it seems that the Bush Administration felt the really effective way to try and build the case would be to play on fears of American citizens by asserting claims of rogue/terrorist links and weapons of mass destruction. As a result, Mayer concluded, the war was largely marketed domestically as a scare campaign, and the I.N.C. was enlisted to promote the danger posed by Saddam’s regime.

The huge list of things the U.S. claimed regarding Iraq has been discussed at length in other parts of this site, so is not repeated here, other than to say that many of the claims fed to the media, the Security Council, and, as it seems to appear, to other governments, were part of a campaign to get support for war. (Mayer’s report also lists many examples of disinformation that have not been mentioned on this site.) Some of the techniques used are highlighted a bit further below.

Chalabi’s own agendas

In the case of Iraq and Chalabi, Mayer details Chalabi’s rise, numerous connections to top world politicians, and a lot of corruption and manipulation that Chalabi was capable and accused of. Adding an interesting perspective, Mayer describes in detail that Chalabi came from a family that was extremely wealthy and powerful in Iraq (and somewhat ruthless according to some accounts). When Saddam Hussein came to power, the previous ruling elite (which his family was part of) lost out immensely. Democracy and freedom might be words used for the general public, but since then, Mayer implies, Iraq regime change has been a personal agenda for Chalabi.

Pitting American Politicians and institutions against each other

Chalabi had made many close political ties but had a falling out with the CIA and the Clinton Administration. Brooke and Chalabi used this to bring the neoconservatives into the picture:

The I.N.C.’s disastrous history of foiled C.I.A. operations under the Clinton Administration could be turned into a partisan weapon for the Republicans. Clinton gave us a huge opportunity, Brooke said. We took a Republican Congress and pitted it against a Democratic White House. We really hurt and embarrassed the President. The Republican leadership in Congress, he conceded, didn’t care that much about the ammunition. They just wanted to beat up the President. Nonetheless, he said, senior Republican senators, including Trent Lott and Jesse Helms, were very receptive, right away..

Judith Kipper, the Council on Foreign Relations director, said that, around this time, Chalabi made a deliberate decision to turn to the right, having realized that conservatives were more likely than liberals to back the use of force against Saddam.

As Brooke put it, We thought very carefully about this, and realized there were only a couple of hundred people in Washington who were influential in shaping policy toward Iraq. He and Chalabi set out to win these people over. Before long, Chalabi was on a first-name basis with thirty members of Congress, such as Trent Lott and Newt Gingrich, and was attending social functions with Richard Perle, a former Assistant Secretary of Defense, who was now a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, and Dick Cheney, who was the C.E.O. of Halliburton. According to Brooke, From the beginning, Cheney was in philosophical agreement with this plan.

Jane Mayer, The Manipulator, The New Yorker, May 29, 2004

More manipulation was evident:

I should have asked him what [Chalabi] could give me, [Former U.N. weapons inspector Scott] Ritter said [when Chalabi offered evidence of Saddam Husseins weapons programs in the mid 1990s]. Instead, I let him ask me, What do you need? The result, he said, was that we made the biggest mistake in the intelligence business: we identified all of our gaps. Over the next several hours, Ritter said, he outlined most of the U.N. inspectors' capabilities and theories, telling Chalabi how they had searched for underground bunkers with ground-penetrating radar. He also told Chalabi of his suspicion that Saddam may have had mobile chemical- or biological-weapons laboratories, which would explain why investigators hadn’t been able to find them. We made that up! Ritter said. We told Chalabi, and, lo and behold, he’s fabricated a source for the mobile labs. (The I.N.C. has been accused of sponsoring a source who claimed knowledge of mobile labs.) When Ritter left the U.N., in August, 1998, there was still no evidence of mobile weapons laboratories. Chalabi’s people, Ritter said, eventually supplied detailed intelligence on Saddam’s alleged W.M.D. programs, but it was all crap.

Ritter had one other memorable encounter with Chalabi. Six months after the London meeting, Ritter was feeling dispirited. U.N. investigators had discovered trace evidence of VX nerve gas on warheads in Iraq; he was concerned that Saddam was still hiding something. Chalabi invited him to the town house in Georgetown, and they discussed the VX discovery. Chalabi then talked to Ritter about doing intelligence work for the I.N.C. In a demonstration of his seriousness, he showed Ritter two studies advocating Saddam’s overthrow. One was a military plan, written, in part, by a conservative friend, retired General Wayne Downing, who had commanded the Special Forces in the first Gulf War. The study suggested that Iraqi insurgents would be able to topple Saddam almost by themselves. Since the plan required few American troops, it could be easily sold to Congress. Ritter, a former marine, told me that he wasn’t impressed. He recalled, I said, I don’t think the small units could do the jobs you’re saying. It’s a ploy to get the Americans involved. Chalabi, he said, did not deny it. So how come the fact that you'd need more American assistance is not in the plan? Ritter asked. Because it’s too sensitive, Chalabi replied.

Jane Mayer, The Manipulator, The New Yorker, May 29, 2004

Iraq and September 11 link for Bush

The Bush Administration were keen from the beginning to address the Iraq issue, and September 11 provided an opportune moment:

When the Bush Administration took office, in 2001, neoconservatives such as Wolfowitz and Perle were restored to power. Brooke told me that in February of that year Wolfowitz called him late one night and promised that this time Saddam would be deposed. ...

After the attacks of September 11th, many in the Administration began to consider a pre-emptive strike against Saddam’s regime, and they eagerly received Chalabi’s intelligence briefings. In 2002, an Information Collection Program for I.N.C. intelligence, which had been funded by the State Department, was transferred to the Defense Intelligence Agency, a division of the Pentagon. Chalabi was the crutch the neocons leaned on to justify their intervention, [General Anthony] Zinni said. He twisted the intelligence that they based it on, and provided a picture so rosy and unrealistic they thought it would be easy.

The C.I.A. remained skeptical of the defectors that the I.N.C. was promoting, and insisted on examining them independently. President Bush was informed of the C.I.A.’s view of Chalabi soon after taking office, but he ultimately sided with Vice-President Cheney and the neocons. In the months before the invasion of Iraq, Bush and Cheney both referred in public addresses to Saddam’s mobile weapons laboratories. Six weeks before the U.S. invasion, in a February 5, 2003, address to the United Nations, Secretary of State Colin Powell - who had initially found the intelligence on W.M.D.s inconclusive - spoke of unnamed eyewitnesses, one of whom had supplied firsthand descriptions of biological weapons factories on wheels and rails. It was, he testified, one of the most worrisome things that emerges from the thick intelligence file we have on Iraq.


Chalabi and his supporters have argued that critics like Zinni have inflated the exiles' role in offering misleading intelligence about W.M.D.s. How can we be blamed for the failure of the entire world’s intelligence? Chalabi asked me. Certainly, there is blame to share, most notably among the war’s civilian planners in the Department of Defense and the White House, who flouted intelligence protocol by accepting the I.N.C.’s information without rigorous vetting. As Robert Baer, the former C.I.A. official, put it, Chalabi was scamming the U.S. because the U.S. wanted to be scammed.

Jane Mayer, The Manipulator, The New Yorker, May 29, 2004

(As an aside, the intelligence community appears to be taking the brunt of criticisms for failure in finding weapons of mass destruction. For a while many have thought the Bush Administration is trying to deflect criticisms of political accountability to technical issues of intelligence. The above would suggest that the President did know of the CIA’s reservations. If so, the decision to go to war seems less based on intelligence, more based on political decisions. Consequences should likely be political in nature too. Some are considering war crime charges against Bush, Blair and others, though these types of ramifications of their decisions are less discussed in the mainstream media.)

Some readers will point out that Saddam Hussein was a tyrant (true), so this criticism of Chalabi or the Bush Administration is unfair because of what they achieved. However, the point here is that the reasons they cite to the public versus the real goals can be wide off the mark, and so, questioning the motives of Chalabi, the Bush Administration and others is important. Fundamentally this is also about government accountability in deciding to go to war, because so many lives on all sides are affected. If concerns were truly humanitarian, it is likely that the massive global opposition would not be as large. Chalabi’s past suggests he is less than democratic, and the Bush Administraion is constantly being criticized for taking more draconian measures and being less and less democratic, especially in the international arena. Using human rights and democracy as the reason to invade Iraq from people who appear not to be so themselves is therefore a concern.

His popularity amongst Iraqis might be very limited, but Chalabi’s political acumen suggests he will be around for a long time.

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The BBC produced a short list (April 17, 2003) of some events and claims which turned out later to be false, inconclusive or unknown, though at the time used as propaganda, such as that Scud missiles were fired (none were), that there was a civilian uprising in Basra (none), chemical weapons find (none to date), etc. The Guardian also had a similar article earlier (March 29, 2003). As the weeks and months rolled by, more and more came to light. In June 2003, for example, Alternet, an alternative on-line media organization produced a list of 10 of the most outrageous and significant of the dozens of outright lies.

Note that a lot of the above comes from British and American mainstream sources. The mainstream do provide many articles and may often provide important and critical news items, and the main criticism here is around what is prioritized, what is under-reported etc.

  • A lot of these news items around the time of the war may be on the middle pages so to speak, or in the case of television, may either show important dissenters late at night, or provide less coverage of these aspects in comparison to the amount of pro-war coverage, etc.
  • As a result, a distorted view of issues may result, and people may end up supporting a war which could otherwise have had at least questionable reasons.
  • A report from the U.S. University of Maryland’s Programme on International Policy Attitudes (PIPA) for example, released a study in October 2003 highlighting how many misconceptions about the case for war on Iraq were propagated through the mainstream broadcast news channels. The study, as Inter Press Service reported on it, found that the more misperceptions held by the respondent, the more likely it was that s/he both supported the war and depended on commercial television for news about it.
  • What often seems to be lacking from mainstream media reporting, especially television, seems to be detailed context, and reporters that challenge questionable assertions and claims by leaders and their spokespeople.

Author and Page Information

  • by Anup Shah
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Document revision history

Most (nearly half) of all foreign militants are Saudi, not Iranian. The Bush administration of course mentions only Iran
Added information about the study in the Lancet noting some 400,000 to 950,000 estimated Iraqi deaths since the 2003 invasion and some of the controversy surrounding the study.
Added notes on the following:
  • New York Times appears to have revised history in its explanation of why Iraq was invaded by the US and UK;
  • A propaganda intern describes how he was paying to plant pro-American articles in the Iraqi press that were secretly written by the US military;
  • The US attempts a fresh push at massaging international coverage of the Iraq war;
  • Bush appears to be using a definition of torture that most do not recognize, and thereby being able to claim he doesn’t authorize the use of torture.
Added a small note about how civilian casualties are not cared about much and that reporting on it is skewed.
About how embedded journalism and the media briefings at Central Command were carefully and successfully managed by the Coalition forces
About NBC censoring part of an interview with Bush about justifying the war on Iraq; Al Jazeera temporarily banned from Iraq.
Torture report reveals pressure from Washington to squeeze out intelligence from detainees in effect encouraged more torture
An insight into Chalabi’s past reveals important information about how the campaign to wage war on Iraq came about.
Overview and issues regarding torture revelations by American and British troops and the impact on the British paper that revealed some of this.
Media outlets that have not shown images favorable to the U.S./U.K. efforts have been criticized as biased. Some details added. Update also added on Pentagon ban on coverage of dead American servicemen briefly being relaxed
More information on spy allegations
More regarding spy allegations and that war could have been averted
New section on censorship, and Katharine Gun revealing that U.S. was spying on U.N. delegations in early 2003

Alternatives for broken links

Sometimes links to other sites may break beyond my control. Where possible, alternative links are provided to backups or reposted versions here.