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Right-Wingers Can't Cover Up Iraq's Death Toll Catastrophe

The warmongers who got us into Iraq are blaming everyone but themselves for the humanitarian disaster they created.
 
 
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Now I know what Hillary Clinton meant, firsthand, by that "vast right-wing conspiracy." When the Wall Street Journal editorial page and the Sunday Times in London are going after you -- along with about 100 right-wing bloggers -- rest assured you've hit a nerve.

Or is it just Soros Derangement Syndrome at work?

More than two years ago, I commissioned a household survey of Iraq to learn how many people had died in the war. This topic had been virtually ignored by the news media and the U.S. government. It was important to know for at least three reasons. The first was to try to understand the nature of the violence there, which was steadily growing and creating a humanitarian crisis, possibly a regional conflagration. Second, it might tell us something about how and when to exit. Third, we needed to know for the sake of our national soul. What had we wrought?

So I contacted the people who had done a previous, largely ignored survey -- top public health professionals at Johns Hopkins University. They had published a survey in October 2004 that showed 98,000 had died in the first 18 months of the war, which was greeted with disbelief and charges of politicizing science, and quickly dismissed.

I said: "Do a bigger survey to improve the accuracy, and I will make sure it gets the proper attention in the news media." They did do a bigger survey, and I managed a public education campaign that permitted the results to be considered more broadly, results that estimated total deaths at 600,000 by violence after 40 months of war. The survey was published in the Lancet, the British medical journal. And get attention it did, roundly disbelieved and scorned by war supporters but spurring a brief but intense debate about the human cost of the war.

Dozens of statisticians and other professionals scoured the study and its data to see if the methods and implementation were proper; a special committee at the World Health Organization was convened to review it, and the Lancet had also subjected it to rigorous peer review. The survey held up to this scrutiny, with quibbles and some lingering "should have done this" and "might have done that." But virtually every competent person agreed that the study provided the best estimate we have.

Then, earlier this month, the National Journal , a Capitol Hill "insider" weekly, ran a cover story titled "Data Bomb" by Neil Munro and Carl Cannon. In a note by Munro, published by the National Review blog, he asserts:

George Soros funded the survey. The U.S. authors played no role in data collection and did not apply standard anti-fraud measures. The chief Iraqi data collector had earlier produced medical articles to help Saddam's anti-sanctions campaign in the 1990s, and said Allah guided the prior 2004 Lancet/Johns Hopkins death survey. Some of the field surveyors were employed by Moqtada Sadr's Ministry of Health. The Iraqis' numbers contain evidence of fakery, and the Lancet did not check for fakery.

It's a neat summary of their allegations, which include dozens of unfounded charges, promiscuous innuendo, misquoting of the principals and misunderstanding statistics, and relies on two disgruntled critics. It was a hatchet job, pure and simple. Not a sentence of Munro's summary is truthful, and that goes for much of the National Journal article, too, which I have demolished elsewhere ( PDF). The principal author, Gilbert Burnham, M.D., Ph.D., and his colleagues have taken time from their clinics in Afghanistan and Jordan and Africa to answer the charges on the John Hopkins website, too ( with a letter here and a FAQ here).

But lies have a way of proliferating on the internet, and so it was with this set of schoolyard bully brickbats. What seemed most to get under the skin of the right-wing media was a small grant for public education funded by the Open Society Institute, a foundation created by George Soros.

The charges of fraud that National Journal clumsily made but never came close to proving were of course a tonic to the war supporters who were shamed by the estimate of 600,000 fatalities. There is nothing as devastating to the increasingly discredited case for war as the specter of the U.S. invasion having caused, directly and indirectly, more deaths than were attributed to the bloody reign of Saddam Hussein.

But it was news that Soros was a donor, and the wingnuts went berserk. The line that Munro and Cannon took was that Soros was somehow behind the survey from the start, which was timed to affect the 2006 elections. It was not only fraud, they contend, but the perversion of science for political ends backed by the disgruntled, Bush-hating billionaire.

It's classic right-wing defamation, and of course none of it is true. Munro and Cannon were painstakingly walked through the chronology and donors, but deliberately ignored it to fashion their paranoid fairy tale, and the Wall Street Journal , et al., lapped it up.

We commissioned the survey on Oct. 25, 2005, hoping to get it done as quickly as it could be done professionally, and perhaps have the results out in the spring. Why wait? But Iraq quickly became too violent to permit teams of questioners go out to 1,000 randomly chosen households. So it was not until late spring that they did begin the door-to-door work -- still very perilous -- and completed the survey in early July. It took another two months to enter the data, have biostatisticians at Johns Hopkins analyze it and write up the article. The Lancet then took weeks to peer review. It was released when ready. There was no political agenda; there didn't need to be. The results spoke for themselves.

The Open Society Institute came late to the process, announcing to me that a grant had been made for public education on May 4, 2006. That is six and a half months after the survey process began. We had already paid for the survey out of internal funds. Less than half of the cash needs of the survey, the analysis and the public education effort was paid for by OSI. (If the real cost of the effort were totaled to include salaries of Burnham, myself and many others who were not compensated directly, then the OSI contribution would have offset about 10 percent of the cost.) I doubt very much whether Soros himself was ever aware of the grant. OSI is a very large humanitarian foundation, and its $46,000 grant to MIT is small by their standards.

And, needless to say, OSI and Soros had no influence over the initiation, conduct or findings of the survey. Neither Burnham and his colleagues nor the Lancet editors knew OSI was one of the donors. The contract was with MIT.

I carefully told this to Munro on the telephone, and Burnham's colleague Les Roberts emailed the same information to Cannon last autumn. Munro had asked, among other hostile questions, whether any Muslims or Arabs were supporting the survey, a racism reflected in his remark about Allah above and a charge in the National Journal piece that the survey teams lacked American oversight and were thereby suspect. But he was emotionally fixated on Soros, and asked about his role repeatedly. When I tried to offer corroborating evidence for the survey, he screamed at me that none of that mattered. I could see where this was going.

Of course, Munro himself has been a rabid supporter of the war from the start. In the tradition of former National Journal editor Michael Kelly, who called opponents of the war traitors, Munro agitated for the "destruction of Iraq" as early as November 2001. He had elsewhere insisted that the peace in Northern Ireland was the result of the British Army's iron fist. His sentiments were on display through the hatchet job on us, not least in alleging that the Lancet article was a spur to jihadists.

So the headlines "Soros Underwrites Osama's Talking Points," and "$oros Iraq Death Claim was a Sham" are typical. The Soros Derangement Syndrome derives, I suspect, from his special status as a traitor to his class, as the right used to refer to FDR. Someone so intelligent, articulate, actively compassionate and rich cannot be tolerated.

In an odd twist, a new mortality survey -- approvingly mentioned by the National Journal piece -- appeared earlier this month in the New England Journal of Medicine. Conducted by the Iraqi Ministry of Health, it found 151,000 deaths by violence as of June 2006, about the same period as the Lancet article. Newspaper coverage duly noted that their estimate was only one-quarter that of the Lancet. But a little digging would have revealed much more: The total deaths attributable to the war, nonviolent as well as violent, was about 400,000 for that period, now 19 months ago. If the same trends continued, that total today would be more than 600,000.

But the deaths-by-violence in that latter survey remained the same from year to year, which is not plausible -- all observers agree that violent deaths were rising sharply in 2005 and 2006. The discrepancy is found in how the survey was conducted: Interviewers identified themselves as employees of the Ministry of Health, then under the control of Shiite cleric Moktada al Sadr. Those interviewed, therefore, would be wary of saying a brother or son or husband had been killed by violence, fearing retribution. And, indeed, there are nonviolent categories in the survey that suggest just such equivocation: "Unintentional injuries" would equal about 40 percent of the death-by-violence toll, for example. Road accidents were ten times their pre-war totals-if someone is run off a highway by a U.S. convoy, is that a "nonviolent" death?

The researchers, to their credit, acknowledge that their estimate is likely too low due to several factors. They did not go into dangerous neighborhoods, which made up 11 percent of the sample, and could not accurately estimate the death toll in those, which would of course have been high. Still, the survey is revealing on the nonviolent mortality, too: Deaths by kidney failure, cancer, diabetes and others rose by several times, signaling the near-collapse of the healthcare system.

The MoH survey is the fifth trying to measure mortality during the war, and there is significant congruence among all. (The Lancet estimate is not actually the highest; that belongs to the private British polling firm, Opinion Research Business, which found that as of August 2007, 1.2 million Iraqis were dead due to the war.) But all the surveys point to one thing: A colossal amount of killing and dying has been going on, far more than numbers used in most discussions of the issue in the fleeting instances when concern for Iraqis appears.

And that, of course, should be the real issue here, not whether Soros is interested in the issue. The National Journal calumny and the many gleeful references to it are a sign that the pro-war legions are really at wit's end. The catastrophe they created and supported must be blamed on others -- the conveyors of bad news, the quisling liberals and the Iraqis themselves.

But the dead in Iraq cannot be silenced as long as we have courageous researchers who will go into the war zone to gather data and tell us the truth. That's what five surveys -- against perilous of odds -- have done, and the findings should haunt us every day.

John Tirman is executive director of MIT's Center for International Studies .