News & Politics

War and Forgetfulness -- A Bloody Media Game

Major news outlets demonstrate a remarkable ability to downplay or totally jettison facts that Washington policymakers don't want to talk about.
Three and a half years ago, some key information about U.N. weapons inspectors in Iraq briefly surfaced on the front pages of American newspapers -- and promptly vanished. Now, with righteous war drums beating loudly in Washington, let's reach deep down into the news media's Orwellian memory hole and retrieve the story.

"U.S. Spied on Iraq Under U.N. Cover, Officials Now Say," a front-page New York Times headline announced on Jan. 7, 1999. The article was unequivocal: "United States officials said today that American spies had worked undercover on teams of United Nations arms inspectors ferreting out secret Iraqi weapons programs.... By being part of the team, the Americans gained a first-hand knowledge of the investigation and a protected presence inside Baghdad."

A day later, a followup Times story pointed out: "Reports that the United States used the United Nations weapons inspectors in Iraq as cover for spying on Saddam Hussein are dimming any chances that the inspection system will survive."

With its credibility badly damaged by the spying, the U.N. inspection system did not survive. Another factor in its demise was the U.S. government's declaration that sanctions against Iraq would remain in place whether or not Baghdad fully complied with the inspection regimen.

But such facts don't assist the conditioned media reflex of blaming everything on Saddam Hussein. No matter how hard you search major American media databases of the last couple of years for mention of the spy caper, you'll come up nearly empty. George Orwell would have understood.

Instead of presenting a complete relevant summary of past events, mainstream U.S. journalists and politicians are glad to focus on tactical pros and cons of various aggressive military scenarios. While a few pundits raise cautious warning flags, even the most absurd Swiss-cheese rationales for violently forcing a "regime change" in Baghdad routinely pass without challenge.

In late July, a Wall Street Journal essay by a pair of ex-Justice Department attorneys claimed that the U.S. would be "fully within its rights" to attack Iraq and overthrow the regime -- based on "the customary international law doctrine of anticipatory self-defense." Of course, if we're now supposed to claim that "anticipatory self-defense" is a valid reason for starting a war, then the same excuse could be used by the Iraqi government to justify an attack on the United States (even setting aside the reality that the U.S. has been bombing "no fly zones" inside Iraq for years).

Among the first to testify at the Senate Foreign Relations Committee's recent hearing on Iraq was "strategy scholar" Anthony Cordesman, a former Pentagon and State Department official. He participated in the tradition of touting another round of taxpayer-funded carnage as a laudable innovation -- "our first preemptive war."

Speaking alongside Cordesman was Richard Butler, the head of the U.N. weapons inspection program in Iraq at the time that it was spying for Washington. At the Senate hearing, Butler suggested that perhaps the Russian government could be induced to tell Baghdad: "You will do serious arms control or you're toast."

Like countless other officials treated with great deference by the national press corps, Butler strives to seem suave and clever as he talks up the wisdom of launching high-tech attacks certain to incinerate troops and civilians. As a matter of routine, U.S. journalists are too discreet to bring up unpleasant pieces of history that don't fit in with the slanted jigsaw picture of American virtue.

With many foreign-policy issues, major news outlets demonstrate a remarkable ability to downplay or totally jettison facts that Washington policymakers don't want to talk about. The spy story that broke in early 1999 is a case in point. But the brief flurry of critical analysis that occurred at the time should now be revisited.

"That American spies have operations in Iraq should be no surprise," a Hartford Courant editorial said on Jan. 10, 1999. "That the spies are using the United Nations as a cover is deplorable."

While noting "Saddam Hussein's numerous complaints that U.N. inspection teams included American spies were apparently not imaginary," the newspaper mentioned that the espionage operatives "planted eavesdropping devices in hopes of monitoring forces that guarded Mr. Hussein as well as searching for hidden arms stockpiles."

The U.S. news media quickly lost interest in that story. We should ask why.

Norman Solomon's latest book is "The Habits of Highly Deceptive Media." His syndicated column focuses on media and politics.