Anthony Lappé

Uncovering the Weapons of Mass Deception

The toppling of Saddam's statue at Fardus Square is just one scene in a campaign of lies, distortions and made-for-TV spectacles highlighted by authors Sheldon Rampton and John Stauber in their new, highly-informative book, "Weapons of Mass Deception: The Uses of Propaganda in Bush's War on Iraq." The authors, founders of the Wisconsin-based PR Watch, document how the Bush Administration played the U.S. media like a fiddle from the git-go: from planning the war months prior to "selling it," to manipulating the evidence to fit their agenda, to using the "big lie" tactic of repeating the same distortion over and over so that it becomes reality in the public's mind.

Tell us about your new book, "Weapons of Mass Deception: The Uses of Propaganda in Bush's War on Iraq."

It's the story of how the Bush Administration sold the War on Iraq to the American people and it's, like all our books, a case study in the use of propaganda.

Give us a short history of how propaganda and war in Iraq.

I think if you step back and you look at how the U.S. came to attack Iraq based on phony assertions of that country's involvement in 9/11, that country's connections with the terrorist group Al Qaeda, that country's possession of weapons of mass destruction, this whole deception really traces back to the first Gulf War, and it's very important to understand that Saddam Hussein did desire nuclear weapons. Saddam Hussein did use chemical and biological weapons, as we hear so often, against Iranians and Kurdish Iraqis, and that those weapons came from western countries -- especially U.S. and France -- and that Saddam Hussein was a close ally of the U.S. right up to the moment that he invaded Kuwait to take over their oil fields, and that precipitated a complete sea change ...

Right, what is amazing is that those arms sales -- this was a scandal in the late 80s that they called Iraq-gate that Ted Koppel himself said, quite possibly, could be worse than Watergate. But people forget that -- that we were selling arms to Saddam. It never really carried over. The first Gulf War happened and there was a collective amnesia about it.

A part of that is just due to the abysmal reporting on foreign policy issues in the American media and the tendency of the American media to take its lead on foreign policy from the U.S. government. During that time, the editorial writing in The Washington Post, for instance, essentially made light of Iraq's use of chemical and biological weapons against Iranians -- sort of saying, "What's the big deal here? Weapons of war are really nasty, and do some weapons deserve to be considered nastier than others?"

When April Glaspie, the U.S. ambassador, was meeting with Saddam shortly before he invaded Kuwait and took over their oil fields back in 1990, they were reportedly discussing how they could improve the dictator's image in the United States, because the press was beginning to report more and more on his atrocities and this was a political problem for the U.S. Well, that problem suddenly disappeared when Saddam invaded Kuwait, and many analysts think that Glaspie apparently unwittingly gave Saddam indications that the U.S. wouldn't be too concerned if Saddam happened to take over those oil fields. But once that happened, of course, everything changed, and then Saddam had to be turned into the great evil -- a Satanic or Hitler-like character.

I think one of the interesting things we discovered doing our research is that the scandal that surrounded the Hill & Knowlton campaign that sold the first Gulf War to the people of the U.S. involving phony testimony before a phony Congressional hearing by a 15 year-old girl who claimed that Iraqi soldiers were murdering babies in hospitals in occupied Kuwait by throwing them out of incubators, now we see in a new light. That was a bizarre story that came to light a year after the U.S. drove Iraq out of Kuwait.

One of the mysteries has always been: Why do these PR people always have to invent these atrocities and foist them upon the American people? I mean Saddam committed plenty of atrocities.

The answer I think now, as we discovered in writing this book, is that because Saddam was so much an ally of the U.S. and because the U.S. basically looked the other way when he was using poisonous gas against Iranians and against Iraqi Kurds -- drudging up those true atrocities where thousands and thousands of people were killed by Saddam -- innocent civilians, women and children -- would have really reflected badly on the U.S. since the weapons components came from us and he was our ally.

This whole campaign was built around these false perceptions of how an invasion was going to affect the Middle East, how the Iraqis would react to American troops coming in. It's almost like there was this huge facade of lies that they were telling themselves.

I think that's exactly right. And one of the problems with propaganda is that governments and corporations that use it tend to believe their own propaganda and really cut themselves adrift from reality. And the story of the war against Iraq is a story very much of hardcore neo-conservatives, neo-Reaganites who have for a decade wanted to see the U.S. attack Iraq and topple Saddam and assert U.S. power in the middle east and really create a new American empire. And the Project for the New American Century -- PNAC -- which was begun by Bill Kristol was a much under-analyzed under-publicized organization that really seized power with the election of George Bush and 9/11.

People like Paul Wolfowitz and Donald Rumsfeld and others who have their ideological roots in PNAC and the neo-con movement, within hours of the 9/11 attacks, were seizing on the attacks as a green light to attack Iraq. And if you look today at the current situation in the U.S. with public opinion and the incredible ignorance and misunderstanding that surveys are picking up regarding Iraq's role in 9/11, Iraq's possession of weapons of mass destruction, Iraq's relations with Al Qaeda, what you see is that the 'big lie tactics' that were employed by the Bush Administration beginning with 9/11 to create the false beliefs that are held by Americans to justify the war, those big lie tactics were tremendously successful. The history of the Big Lie tactic (and we don't go into this in the book because we had to cut so much out of it) is simply that if those in authority repeat a falsehood over and over enough and it remains unchallenged by the media, it will become the truth. The history is that this was a tactic extensively employed by the Nazi propagandist Joseph Goebbels. And it's especially disturbing that something as crude as the big lie tactic could be used effectively to rally support for a pre-emptive war by the U.S.

Going back to the idea of believing their own hype, one of the lightning rods of controversy is that a lot of people within the CIA in particular have been leaking information anonymously about the Iraqi National Congress (INC). A lot of people in the U.S. Government are sort of split. A lot of people who were behind Ahmed Chalabi (INC leader) now view his information regarding Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction as part of the problem. They worked closely with a big PR firm, tell me about that.

The Rendon Group. If we had a more sane political situation in this country where we were pursuing aggressive investigations of the selling of this war, the Rendon group and its head, John Rendon, would be called as one of the very first witnesses, probably along with Torie Clarke, former head of the Hill & Knowlton office in Washington DC, who suddenly in June resigned as the under secretary of defense for public relations, or public affairs as they call it. The Rendon Group is a favorite CIA Pentagon public relations firm. Exactly what they do is top secret. They have received and spent tens of millions of dollars in the last decades working on foreign policy for the Pentagon and the CIA and a lot of that work has been in Iraq.

The Iraqi National Congress is actually in many ways a creation of the CIA through the Rendon Group, although it certainly seems to have taken on a life of its own, and as you say, it seems to fall out of favor with people in the CIA but remain in favor with people in the Pentagon. The name 'Iraqi National Congress' obviously is a knockoff name copying the 'African National Congress' of Nelson Mandella and that name was dreamed up by John Rendon. One of the interesting little footnotes that occurred during this war was that an Australian Broadcasting Corporation reporter named Paul Moran was killed by a suicide bomber in northern Iraq, and it turned out that while Moran really did work for the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, he was also on the payroll of the CIA's PR firm, Rendon. And John Rendon himself flew to Australia for this poor man's funeral.

It should be a huge ethical controversy for the Australian Broadcasting Corporation but they've just sort of glossed over it. And again, going back to the fact that the big lie was the primary tactic used to sell this war, it's impossible for the big lie tactic to work if the news media and the press is doing its job.

Exactly -- I mean it's an indictment of both institutions.

And Bush has been tossing around this sort of revisionist history charge, which is hilarious because most people are now realizing that the war didn't end when he engaged in his publicity stunt at taxpayer's expense, landing on the deck of that carrier. The war is very much ongoing. It's now a guerrilla war and we are not going to see the major media publicizing this information in a book. We are not going to see the major media calling for a thorough investigation of the deception and the selling of the war because they were so involved in promoting the war.

What do you see as the next move in this PR spin battle? What's going on right now in terms of the reorganization of the message?

If you look at what the Republicans are saying, they are sort of letting their longtime pollster Frank Luntz talk to them, and basically he is saying, "Look, people in the U.S. don't care, it was a good war, we didn't lose many troops, it played well on TV, it avenged 9/11, everyone loves the president and maybe we got into it for the wrong reasons, but once people found out how truly evil Saddam Hussein was, just overthrowing Saddam was reason enough." So the big spin now from the Republicans is that the American people loved this war, it was great theatre and was definitely worth it, and any Democrats who dare call for investigations or question the heroic struggle that overthrew the brutal dictator, are just setting themselves and their party up for defeat. Unfortunately, and not surprisingly, since so many Democrats voted for the war, that message does resonate within the Democratic Party.

Exactly where this all is going to go, I think, is going to be answered in large part by the peace movement. And what I find interesting is that so far, the peace movement has sort of sat back on its haunches and seems to be somewhat in disarray and coalescing more around the political theme of 'anybody but Bush,' and hoping that somehow one of these Democratic candidates will pull a rabbit out of the hat and topple this dastardly regime a year from November. I think that is a strategy for losing, because back in Vietnam, the term 'hearts and minds' was used by the military and the Johnson and Nixon Administrations -- they realized the importance of winning the hearts and minds. And what I really feel the peace movement needs to do in the U.S. is to gain the offensive and become very proactive and educate our fellow citizens to the ways in which we were masterfully duped by the Administration and by the media, and to force politicians to investigate this outrageous political scandal. And since it is becoming pretty clear that, with the Republicans in control of both Houses and the Democrats somewhat divided and really afraid to do the right thing, I would like to see the peace movement organize commissions of inquiry at the grassroots.

I am old enough to remember the war in Vietnam. I was in high school when Bertrand Russell was convening public inquiries into U.S. atrocities and war crimes in Vietnam, and eventually that was picked up here in the U.S. and that helped heighten a lot of contradictions, and veterans of that war came forward and talked about the reality as opposed to the government media sell job. And it really took the peace movement mobilizing and educating the populace to get out the message of what was going down in Vietnam. I think that if the peace movement doesn't coalesce and force the media and force the politicians to fully investigate the selling of this war, it is unlikely that there will be any regime change in the U.S. in 2004 because the incredible misinformation campaign that got the U.S. into this war will simply continue to cloud the minds of a majority of citizens.

I really think that the next move is up to the anti-war movement. It's all well and good to run virtual primaries and get excited about the former governor of Vermont or whomever, but no Democrat on a white horse with a tremendous cash disadvantage is going to topple this regime here in the U.S. I think -- I am hoping in the months ahead as the scales fall from the eyes of the American public, we will be seeing a new peace and justice movement galvanizing and really leading a movement for democratic regime change here in the U.S. But it's gonna take a mobilization at the grassroots and so far the peace movement still seems a little stunned. And hoping that just casting a flag for whatever Democrat manages to stumble forward is going to be enough, won't be enough.

Anthony Lappe is the Executive Editor at the Guerrilla News Network.

Prisoners of Hypocrisy

"American intelligence agents have been torturing terrorist suspects, or engaging in practices pretty close to torture. They have also been handing over suspects to countries, such as Egypt, whose intelligence agencies have a reputation for brutality."
-- The Economist, London, January 11

You probably haven't heard this said too many times on progressive sites like this one before, and you most likely won't hear it again soon, so enjoy: Donald Rumsfeld is right.

When Iraqi television aired footage of five American POWs being interrogated by Iraqi officials they did in fact violate the Geneva Conventions, as the visibly pissed off Secretary of Defense charged Sunday in interviews with CNN and other networks.

"It is absolutely clear that POWs have to be protected against insult and public curiosity under Article 13 of the [Third] Geneva Convention," Dina Dinah PoKempner, General Counsel for Human Rights Watch, told GNN. "Public humiliation isn't part of humane treatment."

The footage, which also included grisly images of dead American soldiers, aired around the world on the Arab-language Al-Jazeera network. The footage showed a prisoner who identified herself as Shoshana, 30, from Texas. Her eyes darted back and forth as she was interviewed and she held her arms tightly in her lap as she was questioned.

At one point, the camera panned back, showing a massive white bandage wrapped around her ankle. Her voice was very shaky.

The prisoners looked scared. One captive, who said he was from Kansas, answered all his questions in a shaky voice, his eyes darting back and forth between an interviewer and another person who couldn't be seen on camera.

Iraqi TV attempted to interview a wounded man lying down, at one point trying to cradle his head so it would hold steady for the camera.

Geneva Rules

The first Geneva Convention was held in 1864 to adopt a universal code of conduct for nations at war. In 1949 the Third Geneva Convention was signed in an effort to address the many abuses of prisoners and civilians suffered during World War II. It included provisions to protect captured soldiers from being used as propaganda tools.

With images of thousands of surrendering Iraqi troops being treated decently by U.S. and British forces over the last couple of days, it seems the Americans have, at least for now, scored a grim PR victory. Despite claims they are not mistreating the prisoners, the Iraqis appear thuggish.

However, the U.S. is in a precarious position to be complaining about Iraqi war crimes. In the already ignored Afghanistan campaign (which Dan Rather called the "forgotten war" this evening), the U.S. has a dismal human rights record.

In November 2001, it's alleged that Northern Alliance warlord, heroin trafficker and U.S. top-ally Gen. Abdul Rashid Dostum rounded up hundreds of Taliban fighters on behalf of U.S. forces and stuffed them into cargo containers.

They were supposed to be headed for Sheberghan prison. But hundreds never made it. They were left to asphyxiate in the air-tight containers. Before dying, many licked each other's sweat, bit off their fingertips or tore into their own arms and legs -- and those of others -- in a desperate search for fluid.

A confidential UN memo leaked to Newsweek magazine in Sept. 2002 quoted a witness saying that 960 prisoners had died and were buried in mass graves near Dasht-i-Laili.

Taliban Johnny's Magic Carpet Ride

Then there's America's most famous "enemy combatant" Taliban Johnny, aka John Walker Lindh. Immediately after being captured following the the brutal prison rebellion at Mazar-e-Sharif, the frail, frightened American jihadist was interviewed by war zone aficionado Robert Young Pelton (who was staying at Dostum's compound at the time). According to an account in the New Yorker magazine, after asking his Special Forces buddies to wait to "shoot him" until he was done, Pelton interrogated the wounded Lindh under the gun of U.S. military personnel. Later the military stripped him naked, taped him to a gurney and threw him in the back of a transport plane back to the U.S. Pelton's interview ran on CNN and was used to convict Lindh for conspiracy to kill U.S. nationals and to provide material support to a terrorist organization. He is currently serving a 20-year sentence.

Gloves Come Off

Further complicating the United States' position on the top of the moral high ground are allegations of on-going mistreatment of Taliban and Al Qaeda prisoners at Camp X-Ray, in Afghanistan and other "undisclosed" locations.

In December, the Washington Post ("U.S. Decries Abuse but Defends Interrogations," 12/26/02) exposed how U.S. interrogators at Bagram Air Force Base in Afghanistan, on the Indian Ocean island of Diego Garcia, and at other overseas sites, have been systematically abusing al Qaeda and Taliban prisoners in a "brass-knuckled quest for information" to uncover future terrorist plots. "Take-down teams," consisting of U.S. Army Special Forces troops, FBI and CIA agents and Northern Alliance troops, blindfold and beat prisoners, throwing them into walls, binding them for long periods in contorted positions and depriving them of sleep for days at a time.

The teams then allegedly "package" some prisoners by hooding them, duct-taping them to stretchers and then flying them to friendly states less picky about the norms of human decency. According to the Post article, approximately 100 prisoners have been sent to basements in Jordan, Egypt, Morocco and Saudi Arabia for interrogations.

There has been little outcry over these charges because torture as an interrogation technique has largely been embraced by the American establishment.

When Cofer Black, then head of the CIA's Counterterrorist Center, told House and Senate intelligence committees in Sept. 2002 that "there was a before 9/11, and there was an after 9/11. After 9/11 the gloves come off" -- few politicians complained.

Influential Newsweek columnist Jonathan Alter wrote in a Nov. 2002 article that while he didn't support legalizing physical torture in the U.S., he did suggest we consider using "legal" forms of psychological torture at home, while "transferring some suspects to our less squeamish allies."

Even prominent liberals like celebrity civil rights attorney and death penalty opponent Alan Dershowitz have implicitly recognized a gray area between torture and humane treatment.

But human rights advocates have been clear. In a letter to President Bush, Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch, wrote: "Torture is always prohibited under any circumstances. U.S. officials who take part in torture, authorize it, or even close their eyes to it, can be prosecuted by courts anywhere in the world."

Rumsfeld has insisted that Taliban and Al Qaeda prisoners have been handled humanely. He will not, however, grant them "prisoner of war" status. The U.S. position is they are not part of a "regular" army, and are thus not protected by the Geneva Conventions -- a distinction that allows the Pentagon convenient wiggle-room.

Rumsfeld stated in Jan. 2002, "They will be handled not as prisoners of war, because they're not, but as unlawful combatants. Technically unlawful combatants do not have any rights under the Geneva Convention. We have indicated that we do plan to, for the most part, treat them in a manner that is reasonably consistent with the Geneva conventions, to the extent they are appropriate."

In other words, the law applies to us, only when we feel like it.

Let's hope, for Shoshana's sake, the Iraqis don't share such a flexible interpretation.

Anthony Lappé is Excutive Editor of He has written for The New York Times, New York, Details, and Salon, among many others.
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