In their groundbreaking 1988 book Manufacturing Consent, professors Ed Herman and Noam Chomsky not only explained but documented with extensive case studies how mass media and public opinion are shaped in a democracy. Twenty years later, can their "propaganda model" still be used to explain modern media distortions? That was one of the main questions discussed last week at a conference in Windsor, Ontario, titled "20 Years of Propaganda?" Organized by Dr. Paul Boin, the conference drew hundreds of scholars and activists including myself, and more than 1,000 people attended a closing speech by Chomsky on May 17.
The "propaganda model" that Herman and Chomsky put forward in Manufacturing Consent has made the book notable (some would say notorious) as the most influential book by serious academics to challenge the common dogma of media objectivity in the United States. When it first appeared, it was almost unheard-of to suggest that U.S. media such as the New York Times, Time and Newsweek magazines and CBS News were propaganda vehicles.
Today things are somewhat different. Across the political spectrum, there is a widespread belief that disinformation, deception and propaganda pervade the media. On the internet, the initials MSM have become a standard term of disparagement for untrustworthy "mainstream media." The right has in fact far surpassed the left at denouncing the myth of media objectivity and has developed an entire industry of think tanks, media watchdogs and pundits such as Michelle Malkin or Anne Coulter, who devote themselves to discovering and denouncing purported instances of media bias -- while enjoying privileged media access themselves.
Based on my own experiences -- as a Central American solidarity and anti-war activist during the 1980s, as the co-author of two books about Iraq titled Weapons of Mass Deception and The Best War Ever, and as someone who studies the public relations industry and propaganda in general at the Center for Media and Democracy (CMD) -- I see no shortage of evidence showing that propaganda is very much alive and well as a force shaping public opinion and public policy.
Propaganda model holds true for Iraq
When considering media coverage of the current war in Iraq, much of Herman and Chomsky's propaganda model is directly relevant. For example, they identify the differential treatment given to "worthy" vs. "unworthy" victims of violence as a signature characteristic of propaganda. "A propaganda system," they wrote, "will consistently portray people abused in enemy states as worthy victims, whereas those treated with equal or greater severity by its own government or clients will be unworthy. The evidence of worth may be read from the extent and character of attention and indignation."
In The Best War Ever, John Stauber and I examined this aspect of media coverage of the war in Iraq in a chapter titled "Not Counting the Dead." One of the things that distinguishes the current war from past wars -- including World War II or even the Vietnam War -- is that even the U.S. soldiers who have died or suffered injuries are included among the "unworthy victims" whose suffering is to be treated in a sanitized, minimal way. As an example, we examined ABC-TV Nightline's broadcast of "The Fallen," an April 2004 program that consisted in its entirety of a narrator reading the names of the soldiers who had died by that date in Iraq, accompanied by still photographs of their faces. This broadcast, more than a year after the war began, was considered controversial at the time for its unusual frankness in mentioning the dead at all. One media company, the Sinclair Broadcast Group, ordered its ABC affiliates not to carry the broadcast on grounds that "appears to be motivated by a political agenda designed to undermine the efforts of the United States in Iraq." In reality, the broadcast was an exercise in minimalism if we compare it to the photos that were published documenting the horrors of past wars. During the U.S. Civil War, for example, Mathew Brady's photographs of bodies sprawled across the battlefield at Antietam were incomparably more graphic, shocking and evocative than the limited, ceremonial and sanitized report that appeared on Nightline.
When it comes to Iraqi victims of the war, the coverage has been even more limited. Whereas there is at least an available count of the American war dead, U.S. journalists have not challenged military spokespeople's claim that counting Iraqi civilian deaths would be "irresponsible" because of the difficulties in giving "firm estimates given the wide range of variables" that make it "impossible for us to maintain an accurate account." Researchers from Johns Hopkins University and Al Mustansiriya University in Baghdad have conducted two separate surveys of Iraqi mortality. By 2006, they concluded that the war had claimed an estimated 650,000 lives, but their research was largely ignored in the America media, aside from brief mentions in the New York Times, Washington Post and Wall Street Journal, which declared that their findings were "controversial," "cooked up," "bogus" or "politically motivated" -- even though the researchers had used state-of-the-art survey techniques widely recognized as the best methodology for estimating deaths in other war zones previously.
For examples of other propaganda patterns predicted in Manufacturing Consent, such as media reliance on information supplied by official sources, we have Judith Miller's credulous reports in the New York Times about aluminum tubes and other alleged proof of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction. We have numerous studies conducted by FAIR of guests on evening newscasts, in which they found that 75 percent of the sources quoted were either current or former government or military officials, only one of whom expressed opposition to the war. Official sources are also the main ones cited in more recent "news analysis" in the New York Times, such as Michael Gordon's piece titled "Get Out of Iraq Now? Not So Fast, Experts Say," or David Sanger's "The Only Consensus on Iraq: Nobody's Leaving Right Now."
In short, the war in Iraq offers plenty of evidence showing that the information presented in U.S. media distorts reality and that those distortions have been the basis for the degree of public support for the war that still exists -- even though public support has fallen. These aspects of the critique by Herman and Chomsky therefore remain relevant and important today.
The five filters
At the same time, the history of the past 20 years since the book was written suggests that the five "filters" highlighted in the first chapter of Manufacturing Consent -- media ownership, the importance of advertising, reliance on official sources, "flak" produced by wealthy interest groups, and anti-communism as an ideological control mechanism -- serve better as descriptions of the media as they existed then in the United States than they do of media as they exist today.
The five filters are an essential part of the Herman-Chomsky propaganda model, because they provide a way of explaining how propaganda can enter the media in a Western democratic society, without an overt system of outright coercion or censorship. It is easy, of course, to understand how propaganda enters the media in authoritarian systems like the former Soviet Union or Saddam Hussein's Iraq: Anyone who fails to recite official dogma simply gets imprisoned or killed.
The propaganda filters described in Manufacturing Consent explain how the "free market" system itself can screen out "unacceptable" ideas without the use of guns and gulags. This analysis provides a structural explanation for propaganda, unlike most right-wing critiques of the media, which rely simply on psychological assumptions about journalists (they "hate America" or have a "liberal bias") to explain why the media fail to more fully reflect their own values.
I would argue, however, that the five filters described by Herman and Chomsky are specific to the mass media in the United States during the period when they wrote their book. Today, the media are changing.
The rise of propaganda during the 20th century in part reflected the cultural and political effects of two world wars as well as the Cold War. It was reflected in the culmination of the industrial revolution and the dominance of certain specific communications technologies -- newspapers, radio, television -- capable of mass-producing and broadcasting messages for public consumption. As the word "manufacturing" in Manufacturing Consent suggests, the mass media throughout the 20th century were largely based on a model of mass production similar to the assembly lines and railroads of the industrial revolution: a command-and-control system overseeing the production of messages that emanate outward from major hubs. This model was envisioned metaphorically in the now-iconic logo of RKO Pictures, which depicted a huge radio tower atop the earth, from which messages radiated electronically to the planet.
These were the technologies and political forces that defined the media when Manufacturing Consent was written. In 1988, cable and satellite television had only recently emerged as important media and were only briefly mentioned in the text of the book, while the internet was not mentioned at all.
Today, in place of "broadcasting" we hear increasingly of "narrowcasting." Rather than a single mass audience consuming the same broadcast information, we have multiple audiences, interests and information channels. The emergence of new communications media challenge the propaganda/broadcast model by increasing the number of channels through which information reaches the public and also by lowering the costs of entry to previously excluded voices. On the internet in particular, blogging, virally distributed email and collaboratively written wikis have changed the traditional distinction between "broadcaster" and "audience." Instead of relying on "one-to-many" broadcasts, people can now get information through "one-to-one" and "many-to-many" systems in which they themselves choose and create their own media from diverse sources.
Let's look at how the internet functions with relation to the five filters described by Herman and Chomsky.
1. Media ownership
In Manufacturing Consent, Herman and Chomsky state that "the cost of machinery alone, of even very small newspapers, has for many decades run into the hundreds of thousands of dollars" and call this "the first filter -- the limitation on ownership of media with any substantial outreach by the requisite large size of investment."
On the internet, however, someone can set up their own website with its own domain name for a hosting fee as low as a few dollars per month. At no additional charge, they can download and install free open source software to add interactive features comparable in sophistication to those available on internet versions of major newspapers.
A number of highly successful websites have begun in just this fashion. Craigslist, which now has local versions in every major city in the United States and many mid-sized cities, began as a personal online mailing list maintained by Craig Newmark. Wikipedia, which is currently one of the ten most highly visited websites in existence, only had a single employee during the first two years of operation (and laid him off for lack of funds shortly before its traffic began to hit the stratosphere).
For large, heavily trafficked websites, obviously there are expenses involved in maintaining servers, software upgrades, content creation and so forth. However, the price of entry into internet publishing is dramatically lower than the price of entry into traditional media such as newspapers and television. 2. Advertising
Herman and Chomsky consider advertising "the second filter," arguing that "the advertisers' choices influence media prosperity and survival. The ad-based media receive an advertising subsidy that gives them a price-marketing-quality edge, which allows them to encroach on and further weaken their ad-free (or disadvantaged) rivals."
On the internet, by contrast, advertising-heavy websites may attract more revenue than ad-free sites, but the ads themselves are perceived as such a nuisance by readers that they hardly provide a quality advantage. Moreover, the advertising model used by many sites, including bloggers in particular, relies heavily on Google ads, in which the selection of advertisements for inclusion on a page is based on search engine-driven keyword matches in which advertisers seek to place their ads on sites relevant to their products. In practice virtually any website will contain content that matches some advertiser's keywords, so this system does not impose much pressure on sites to tailor their content to advertisers' wishes (although it probably does create an incentive for the creation of online porn).
Moreover, many of the top websites in existence have challenged the influence of advertising in other ways. Wikipedia's users have generally opposed placing even Google ads on their site, even though doing so would generate tens of millions of dollars annually. Instead, they have raised funds through appeals for donations from users and, only recently, though corporate and foundation grants. The Craigslist website actually runs free advertisements and has been a source of consternation for traditional newspapers, which are seeing their own revenues from classified ads as marketing money shifts to online venues.
3. Reliance on official sources
The internet has given rise to a phenomenon called "citizen journalism" which assumes, from the outset, that any amateur can be a journalist -- a trend that has drawn both complaints and interest from conventional journalists.
In South Korea, OhmyNews became popular and commercially successful with the motto, "Every citizen is a reporter." It has a staff of some 40-plus traditional reporters and editors who write about 20 percent of its content, with the rest coming from other freelance contributors who are mostly ordinary citizens. Similar examples of this trend include websites like Wikinews, ePluribusMedia, NewAssignment.net and CMD's own wiki, SourceWatch.
Much of traditional journalists' reliance on official sources is based on their regular "beats." It happens at all levels of journalism. I used to work as a newspaper reporter for a small daily paper (circulation: 7,000) in the town of Portage, Wis. Simply by virtue of the fact that I covered city council and county board meetings, I quickly became acquainted with the mayor, the local sheriff, local businesspeople, etc. When those are the people you bump into regularly, they become your sources. That dynamic is somewhat different, however, with citizen journalists. Just as anyone can become a journalist, anyone can become a source.
The first photograph of flag-draped coffins returning from Iraq was not taken by a traditional journalist but by Tami Silicio, a cargo worker in Kuwait who worked loading the coffins into airplanes for shipment home. She took the picture with a digital camera, emailed it to a friend back home, who took it to the Seattle Times. (After it was published, Tami was fired from her job.) The damning photos of human rights abuses at Abu Ghraib were also not taken by journalists but by the abusers themselves, who documented their own crimes. And it was another soldier, Sgt. Joseph Darby, who discovered the photos, copied them onto a CD, and exposed the scandal. In both of these instances, the ease with which digital media can be reproduced and transmitted helped bypass the filter of official sources.
Herman and Chomsky define "flak" as "negative responses to a media statement or program. It may take the form of letters, telegraphs, phone calls, petitions, lawsuits, speeches and bills before Congress, and other modes of complaint, threat and punitive action."
(Note that "flak" is different from "flack," a derogatory term for publicists.)
Many of the new internet media are sources of flak, and people across the spectrum of American politics have learned to use flak for their own purposes. On the internet itself, however, flak is not much of a deterrent to free discourse. Lawsuits are difficult to mount and even more difficult to win, especially given the ease with which people can blog or email anonymously. If anything, the "negative responses" that Herman and Chomsky describe help fuel the popularity of popular websites like the Daily Kos or Drudge Report, which attract much of their audience precisely by stirring passionate and even ugly debate.
With the end of the cold war, anti-communism has faded somewhat as a national ideology. These days much of this sort of rhetoric is couched in the language of "anti-terrorism" or "anti-Islam" -- or, more generally, anti-anti-Americanism. The use of anti-communism as a filtering ideology should probably be seen, therefore, as simply one example of a broader filter, namely, "nationalism as an ideological control mechanism."
Rhetoric vs. reality
Enthusiasts of new media are fond of declaring that the internet "changes everything." Today, we are told, "markets are conversations." Corporations and other elites must therefore listen to their stakeholders as never before. Secrecy and manipulation from above can supposedly no longer survive the harsh glare of public scrutiny in this new media environment.
The importance of these developments should not be underestimated, but they should not be exaggerated either. The trends I described above may seem to contradict some of the analysis presented in Manufacturing Consent, but thus far things haven't changed all that much. Far from it. Any serious contemplation of the process by which the United States went to war in Iraq tells us that propaganda is still a powerful force in shaping public opinion. As the growing public unrest with the war demonstrates, propaganda is not all-powerful, but it has been powerful enough to create war hysteria against a country that posed no threat to the American people and to keep Americans mired in that war for four years and counting.
One reason that things have not changed as much as the techno-utopians imagine is that the traditional broadcast media remain the dominant media today. Television is still the main medium through which Americans get their information about the world. Much of the ferment that I have been describing on the blogosphere actually consists of people discussing what they have seen on TV, read in newspapers or heard on the radio. New media such as the internet will undoubtedly continue to grow in importance as time progresses, but their actual impact to date is still limited.
Another equally important factor is that although the specific filtering mechanisms that Herman and Chomsky describe in Manufacturing Consent may not apply in the same ways to the internet, new techniques of molding and directing public opinion are emerging along with the new media.
The Edelman public relations firm, for example, has created what they call a "me2revolution" unit that focuses specifically on developing PR techniques for new internet media. Edelman recently partnered with Technorati, a leading search engine devoted specifically to bloggers. Edelman is funding an "accelerated development effort" to expand Technorati's search capabilities into languages including Chinese, Korean, German, Italian and French. In exchange, they hope to gain the ability to better monitor what bloggers are saying about their clients. And they're not just listening. Edelman is also responsible for the coinage of a new term: "flog" for "fake blog." On behalf of Wal-Mart Stores, their employees have posed as "grassroots" bloggers on two Wal-Mart-sponsored websites, "Working Families for Wal-Mart" and "PaidCritics.com," which -- rather ironically -- slams the "paid critics [who are] smearing Wal-Mart." Here we see a long-standing propaganda tactic -- the creation of front groups -- being retooled for the internet.
With regard to Iraq, we've also seen the military experimenting with various internet-based PR strategies, including posting its own videos on Google Video and YouTube and hired the PR firm of Manning, Selvage & Lee to help distribute pro-war content feeds to "milbloggers." More recently, they have tried blocking internet access for active-duty soldiers. While these may appear to be contradictory strategies, both seek to control the messages relayed online.
As new technology enters the mainstream, therefore, we can expect changes in the techniques used to influence public opinion, but institutions with wealth and power will continue to do so. Power still concedes nothing without a struggle.
Under the strange Bizarro rules that right-wing pundits use to interpret politics in the United States, election season is the time when no one is supposed to discuss any of the things that might actually have a serious impact on their voting decision. The Mark Foley scandal was dismissed as an election-season "October surprise" cooked up by Democrats (even though the people who exposed it were Republicans, not Democrats). And James Baker announced that his secret plan to help Bush turn things around in Iraq would not be released publicly until "after the election in order to try and take our report out of domestic politics."
Let's ignore for the moment the fact that this curious delicacy about political bombshells in an election season comes from the same people who chose September 2002 — the beginning of congressional midterm elections — as the moment to launch their public push for war with Iraq. Let's humor the pundits and pretend that there really is some reason why people should hold off on discussing matters of pressing political interest during elections. If that's the case, then now is the moment when those discussions ought to begin. Let's start by talking about the dead in Iraq.
Last month there was very little discussion of the study published in the Lancet, a highly respected British medical journal, which estimated that 650,000 Iraqis have died since 2003 as a result of the war. The Lancet study too was dismissed as an "October surprise," and it disappeared from the news within days of its publication. But now that the election is over, can we finally discuss it?
I was shocked myself when I saw the figure of 650,000. It seemed huge, much larger than I had imagined possible. It is approximately four times the Iraqi Health Ministry's recent estimate, and twice the figure of 300,000 that is often given as an estimate of the number of people killed by Saddam Hussein during his 23 years of brutal rule.
The Lancet study, with Gilbert Burnham as its lead author, was conducted by some of the same researchers from Johns Hopkins University and Al Mustansiriya University in Baghdad who conducted a previous study in 2004 which estimated that 98,000 people had died. The earlier study was attacked at the time by supporters of the war and was largely ignored by the mainstream news media in the United States, as John Stauber and I noted in our recent book, The Best War Ever: Lies, Damned Lies and the Mess in Iraq (for an excerpt, see the Third Quarter 2006 issue of PR Watch). The new study suggests that some half a million additional lives have been lost in the subsequent two years.
As the Lancet paper explains, this number is an estimate based on statistical sampling of Iraq's population, and due to limitations in the number of people surveyed, it has a fairly wide margin of error. The researchers followed standard scientific procedure and reported their findings using a "95% confidence interval" — a minimum and maximum value derived from statistical analysis which finds a 95 percent probability that the two limiting values enclose the true number. The minimum value in their confidence interval was 392,979, and their maximum value was 942,636, which means that although 650,000 is their most likely estimate, the true number could be substantially lower or higher. Even so, the low end of this range is nearly 400,000, while the high end is nearly a million.
Are these numbers credible? I looked at reactions to the Lancet study from several groups: American political pundits, scientists with expertise in health and mortality research, and Iraqis (as reflected in the views of Iraqis with English-language weblogs). Many of the political pundits (even those with anti-war views) either rejected the study or questioned its conclusions and methodology. The scientists, however, gave it high marks, and most of the Iraqis thought the number sounded like it was in the right ballpark.
What the Study Says
The full Lancet study is available online. Although it is a scientific paper, I found it easy to read and jargon-free. However, a couple of terms might need explanation.
The study uses a "cluster sampling" methodology that is commonly used in health and mortality research, especially in places hit by war or other humanitarian disasters such as floods or earthquakes. The methodology is somewhat less precise — but more cost-effective and practical — than simple random sampling, in which individual members of the population being studied are selected and interviewed at random. Rather than individuals, researchers interview randomly-selected clusters of individuals and use standard statistical techniques to reach conclusions about the entire population. As Daniel Engber explains in Slate magazine, "It's the same basic method used for political polls in America, which estimate the attitudes of millions of people by surveying 1,000 adults."
A survey of this type, in which researchers go out and methodically sample the population being studied, is called "active surveillance" as opposed to "passive surveillance," which relies on information collected by external sources such as government or news reports. Passive surveillance generally tends to produce unrealistically low estimates, because they miss cases in which someone has died but the death has simply gone reported. Consider, for example, the difference between the results that you would get if you attempted to estimate the health impact of tobacco smoking using passive rather than active surveillance. Epidemiologists have repeatedly and conclusively demonstrated that tobacco smoking causes several hundred thousand deaths per year in the United States, but individual cases of smoking-related death are rarely reported as such in newspapers, so you would get a much lower number if you attempted to compile statistics based on newspaper reports alone.
Currently the most comprehensive attempt to compile statistics on Iraqi death using passive surveillance is being done by the Iraq Body Count website, which as of this writing (November 2, 2006) has tallied 45,061 to 50,022 deaths — less than a tenth of the Lancet result. As the Lancet paper itself notes, "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."
Lancet editor Richard Horton made the same point in a commentary published in the Guardian:
Assessments from Scientists
Only when you go out and knock on the doors of families, actively looking for deaths, do you begin to get close to the right number. This method is now tried and tested. It has been the basis for mortality estimates in war zones such as Darfur and the Congo. Interestingly, when we report figures from these countries politicians do not challenge them. They frown, nod their heads and agree that the situation is grave and intolerable. The international community must act, they say. When it comes to Iraq the story is different. Expect the current government to mobilise all its efforts to undermine the work done by this American and Iraqi team. Expect the government to criticise the Lancet for being too political. Expect the government to do all it can to dismiss this story and wash its hands of its responsibility to take these latest findings seriously.
Here are some of the reactions from scientists who work in the field of mortality research:
- Ronald Waldman, an epidemiologist at Columbia University who worked at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for many years, told the Washington Post that the Lancet's survey method was "tried and true" and said its findings were "the best estimate of mortality we have."
- According to Professor Frank E. Harrell Jr., chairman of the biostatistics department in the School of Medicine at Vanderbilt University, "The investigators used a solid study design and rigorous, well-justified analysis of the data. They used several analytic techniques having different levels of assumptions to ensure the robustness of mortality estimates and the estimated margin of error. The researchers are also world-class."
- Francisco Checchi, an epidemiologist at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine who has worked on mortality surveys in Angola, Darfur, Thailand and Uganda, said that he found the survey's estimates "shockingly high," but added that dismissing it "simply on gut feeling grounds seems more than irrational." He noted that its "choice of method is anything but controversial" and found its results "scientifically solid" and "compelling."
- In Australia, 27 of the country's leading scientists in epidemiology and public health signed a letter supporting the study, noting that it "was undertaken by respected researchers assisted by one of the world's foremost biostatisticians. Its methodology is sound and its conclusions should be taken seriously. ... The study by Burnham and his colleagues provides the best estimate of mortality to date in Iraq that we have, or indeed are ever likely to have."
Asked about the study at a news conference, President Bush dismissed it out of hand, calling it "not credible" and saying its methodology was "pretty well discredited."
"That's exactly wrong," responded Richard Garfield, a public health professor at Columbia University who works closely with a number of the authors of the report. "There is no discrediting of this methodology. I don't think there's anyone who's been involved in mortality research who thinks there's a better way to do it in unsecured areas. I have never heard of any argument in this field that says there's a better way to do it."
Politicians and Pundits
Most of the methodological criticisms of the Lancet study actually come from people like Bush who have no expertise in epidemiology, and of course the boldest attacks have come from supporters of the war.
Writing in the conservative National Review, for example, Richard Nadler called the Lancet paper a "cooked up study." His only methodological critique, however, consisted of an odd claim that the researchers were guilty of "baseline bungling" because they "chose their 'base-line' for pre-invasion Iraq carefully: January 2002 through March 2003."
The baseline to which he referred is the study's pre-war estimate of the annual death rate in Iraq. The Lancet researchers arrived at that estimate the same way they arrived at their estimate of post-war deaths — by asking the people they interviewed whether any members of their household had died during that period. By comparing the pre-war baseline against the post-war death rate, they arrived at their estimate of 650,000 "excess" deaths in the post-war period.
Nadler's argument is that the period from January 2002 through March 2003 was less violent than earlier periods of Saddam Hussein's rule. If, therefore, the researchers had measured the post-war death rate against an earlier, more violent period, the comparison wouldn't look so bad. Of course, January 2002 through March 2003 wasn't chosen arbitrarily, since it happens to be the period that immediately preceded the actual invasion of Iraq. And if the period immediately before the invasion was relatively peaceful, why was the Bush administration so insistent on the urgent need for war?
Criticism of the baseline mortality rate was also a central element in another criticism of the Lancet, published by Fred Kaplan in Slate magazine. The Lancet estimated that 5.5 Iraqis per 1,000 were dying each year before the war. According to Kaplan, this estimate showed that the study was flawed because it differed from an estimate of 10 per 1,000 published by the United Nations. Moreover, he says, a 5.5 per thousand prewar mortality rate would have been "lower than that of almost every country in the Middle East" (a claim made also by columnist William M. Arkin in the Washington Post).
Australian computer scientist Tim Lambert demolishes this criticism in more detail than I'm prepared to, pointing out that 5.5 deaths per thousand was actually higher than the mortality rate in "all but one" of the other countries in the Middle East. The CIA Factbook also estimates Iraq's mortality rate at 5.37 per thousand, a figure that is very close to the Lancet estimate. Moreover, the United Nations estimate cited by Kaplan was itself just a guess, since prior to the Lancet studies, "No surveys or census based estimates of crude mortality have been undertaken in Iraq in more than a decade, and the last estimate of under-five mortality was from a UNICEF sponsored demographic survey from 1999."
Kaplan's other critique invoked an entirely new coinage and concept — the term "main street bias." He cited a letter published in Science magazine by a British physics professor and an economist who argue that the Lancet team's sampling technique was insufficiently random because it overselected people who live near main streets in Iraqi cities. This would skew the results, they claim, because people who live near main streets would have had higher death rates than the country's overall population.
There are two problems with this criticism. First, the Lancet researchers deny that they oversampled from main streets. The methodology section of the published study states that they surveyed homes selected randomly from "a list of residential streets crossing" a randomly-selected main street (emphasis added). But even if the study did overselect homes located near main streets, there is no evidence other than speculation to support the conclusion that "main street bias" would lead to an overcount.
Another attempt at methodological criticism came from Republican pollster Steven E. Moore, who conducted surveys in Iraq and served as an advisor to Paul Bremer. Moore blasted the Lancet paper, calling it a "bogus study." His criticism focused on the study's allegedly too-small sample size and imprecision. "Survey results frequently have a margin of error of plus or minus 3% or 5%--not 1200%," he wrote. This is generally true — with regard to the sort of opinion surveys that Moore performs (although his research in Iraq left Bremer forced to admit belatedly that "we really didn't see the insurgency coming"). The Lancet study, however, was studying mortality, and its sample size was dictated in part by the limited funds available to finance it and in part by concern for the safety of the Iraqi researchers who conducted the survey. It is true that the results are less precise than the results that would be needed to predict election outcomes in a political opinion poll, but that was not its purpose. As the Lancet paper itself explains, "A sample size of 12,000 was calculated to be adequate to identify a doubling of an estimated pre-invasion crude mortality rate of 5Ã‚Â·0 per 1000 people per year with 95% confidence and a power of 80%, and was chosen to balance the need for robust data with the level of risk acceptable to field teams."
Moore also claimed that the Lancet researchers collected no demographic data about survey respondents — a claim that was untrue but that is nevertheless repeated in a separate Wall Street Journal editorial which called the study a "fraud."
Similar vitriol came from Christopher Hitchens, the former Trotskyist turned pro-war polemicist, who dashed off a column that didn't so much critique the Lancet paper as urinate on it. After accusing the epidemiologists of "moral idiocy," Hitchens mocked the name "Lancet," called its editor an "Islamist-Leftist," and went on to claim that its mortality estimate is (1) "almost certainly inflated" and (2) actually justifies the war. Why? The study found that 31 percent of deaths were attributed to coalition forces, while 24 percent were attributed to "other" causes and 45 percent were "unknown" (because either the responsible party was not known, or the surveyed households were hesitant to specifically identify them). From this evidence, Hitchens concluded that insurgents are the true killers in Iraq and that the Lancet study is therefore "a reminder of the nature of the enemy we face."
Iraq Body Count
Other criticism of the study came from a source that may seem surprising: Iraq Body Count (IBC), the anti-war, London-based organization that has been tracking Iraqi deaths since the beginning of the war. IBC issued a news release questioning the wide gap that separates its own numbers and official Iraqi government statistics from the Lancet's much larger estimate. The discrepancy, they argued, is so large as to be implausible. For example, IBC doubts that the number of deaths estimated by the Lancet could have occurred "with less than a tenth of them being noticed by any public surveillance mechanisms." A gap that large, they argue, can only mean that either there has been "incompetence and/or fraud on a truly massive scale by Iraqi officials in hospitals and ministries," or else the Lancet authors "have drawn conclusions from unrepresentative data."
Les Roberts, one of the authors of the Lancet study, has responded to these criticisms in an interview with the British Broadcasting Corporation. Citing examples from other wars, he points out that "It is really difficult to collect death information in a war zone! ... I do not think that very low reporting implies fraud."
It should be noted that IBC's own methodology follows rules that should be expected to lead to a lower count than the Lancet survey:
- Whereas the Lancet study attempts to estimate all deaths — including the deaths of insurgents, police and Iraqi military — IBC only counts civilian deaths and excludes combatants.
- IBC only counts deaths that are reported in English-language news media, and Iraq is not an English-speaking nation. Many more deaths are reported in the Iraqi press in Arabic than in the Western-language wire services.
As for the gap between the Lancet figure and deaths reported by the Iraqi Health Ministry, a number of Iraqi commentators (some of whom I quote below) have noted that conditions in many parts of the country as so unstable as to prevent reliable government accounting. Moreover, the question of how many people have died in Iraq has been politically charged since the start of the war, and the United States has not only avoided issuing statistics of its own but on a number of occasions has also pressured Iraqi officials against doing so. Shortly after the invasion in 2003, Baghdad's medical officials were forbidden to release morgue counts. In December of that year, Iraq's Health Ministry ordered a halt to counting civilian deaths and told its statistics department not to release figures, according to the Associated Press. More recently, following a wave of Shiite-on-Sunni violence in February of this year, Iraqi officials originally estimated more than 1,000 deaths but lowered the estimate to 350 following what an international official described as political pressure. In October of this year, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's office even instructed the country's health ministry to stop providing mortality figures to the United Nations.
Complicating things still further, the Washington Post reported in August that Iraqi hospitals themselves have become killing fields where Sunni Muslims are kidnapped and killed because Iraq's Shiite-run Health Ministry has been taken over, along with several other government ministries, by the Mahdi Army, a militia controlled by radical cleric Moqtada al-Sadr. The resulting "reluctance of Sunnis to enter hospitals is making it increasingly difficult to assess the number of casualties caused by sectarian violence," the Post noted. As another indicator of the inadequacy of official Iraqi statistics, the most recent United Nations human rights report on Iraq states, "The Ministry of Health reported zero number of killed in Al-Anbar for July, which may indicate an under-estimation due to difficulties experienced in collecting information in that particular Governorate." Al-Anbar is one of the most violent provinces in the country, where the Lancet study found that more than 10 people per 1,000 have died annually in violence.
Iraqis Weigh In
Among Iraqi bloggers, the strongest challenge to the Lancet study came from Omar Fadhil, one of two brothers who contributes to a pro-occupation website called "Iraq the Model" (ITM). Fadhil emotionally blasted the study, accusing the Lancet researchers of
exploiting the suffering of people to make gains that are not the least related to easing the suffering of those people... They shamelessly made an auction of our blood, and it didn't make a difference if the blood was shed by a bomb or a bullet or a heart attack because the bigger the count the more useful it becomes to attack this or that policy in a political race and the more useful it becomes in cheerleading for murderous tyrannical regimes.
When the statistics announced by hospitals and military here, or even by the UN, did not satisfy their lust for more deaths, they resorted to mathematics to get a fake number that satisfies their sadistic urges...
These comments prompted an equally emotional outpouring from dozens of other Iraqi bloggers, who called ITM "a holocaust denier," "sucking up to the Americans," "a traitor," "like the Baathist apologist that they so despise," and "shameful." An Iraqi housewife declared that she was full of "Guilt and anger because the Iraq I always dreamt of has become one big nightmare. ... Guilt and anger because outside these walls are trashbins filled with decapitated bodies of women, children and men. ... Guilt and anger because after all the years of tyranny, people are now wishing for Saddam the criminal to come back. ... The so called freedom that everyone, every single person was hoping and dreaming of has gone."
I spent some time sampling discussions of the Lancet study from among the more than 200 blogs listed at the Iraq Blog Count website. Many of the bloggers there noted that they themselves have seen widespread death due to the war, including the loss of personal friends and family: "I don't know of anyone who hasn't lost at least some members of their extended family," wrote Iraqi blogger Raed Jarrar.
Riverbend, an anti-occupation blogger, wrote that she found found the figure of 650,000 dead entirely plausible:
For American politicians and military personnel, playing dumb and talking about numbers of bodies in morgues and official statistics, etc, seems to be the latest tactic. But as any Iraqi knows, not every death is being reported. As for getting reliable numbers from the Ministry of Health or any other official Iraqi institution, that's about as probable as getting a coherent, grammatically correct sentence from George Bush — especially after the ministry was banned from giving out correct mortality numbers. ... The chaos and lack of proper facilities is resulting in people being buried without a trip to the morgue or the hospital. During American military attacks on cities like Samarra and Fallujah, victims were buried in their gardens or in mass graves in football fields. Or has that been forgotten already?
We literally do not know a single Iraqi family that has not seen the violent death of a first or second-degree relative these last three years. Abductions, militias, sectarian violence, revenge killings, assassinations, car-bombs, suicide bombers, American military strikes, Iraqi military raids, death squads, extremists, armed robberies, executions, detentions, secret prisons, torture, mysterious weapons - with so many different ways to die, is the number so far fetched?
Similar comments came from a Zeyad at Healing Iraq. Zeyad's reaction is interesting in part because he initially supported the war as a means of getting rid of Saddam Hussein and bringing democracy to his country. After reading the Lancet study, he questioned whether its methodology was appropriate "in Iraq's case, where the level of violence is not consistent throughout the country," and he thought its estimate of 650,000 deaths was too high. "My personal guesstimate would be half that number," he wrote, adding, "but then I have a limited grasp on statistics and I stress that I may be wrong. ... The people who conducted the survey should be commended for attempting to find out, with the limited methods they had available. On the other hand, the people who are attacking them come across as indifferent to the suffering of Iraqis, especially when they have made no obvious effort to provide a more accurate body count." Moreover,
There also seems to be a common misconception here that large parts of the country are stable. In fact, not a day goes by without political and sectarian assassinations all over the south of Iraq, particularly in Basrah and Amara, but they always go unnoticed, except in some local media outlets. The ongoing conflict between political parties and militias to control resources in holy cities and in the oil-rich region of Basrah rarely gets a nod from the media every now and then, simply because there are very few coalition casualties over there. The same with Mosul and Kirkuk, both highly volatile areas. I am yet to see some good coverage on the deadly sectarian warfare in Baquba, northeast of Baghdad, which has the highest rate of unknown corpses dumped on the streets after the capital, and which was about to be announced an Islamic Emirate by the end of Ramadan. There are absolutley no numbers of civilian casualties from Anbar. There is no one to report them and the Iraqi government controls no territory there, while American troops are confined to their bases. And much, much less data from other governorates which give the impression of being "stable."
I have personally witnessed dozens of people killed in my neighbourhood over the last few months (15 people in the nearby vicinity of our house alone, over 4 months), and virtually none of them were mentioned in any media report while I was there. And that was in Baghdad where there is the highest density of journalists and media agencies. Don't you think this is a common situation all over the country?
A few days later, Zeyad noted the recent killing of another close friend before adding, "I now officially regret supporting this war back in 2003. The guilt is too much for me to handle."
Of course, no single survey should be regarded as the final word on a topic as important and complex as the death toll from this war. It's possible (although unproven) that Zeyad is correct in suspecting that the researchers may have somehow based their findings on an unrepresentative sample of the Iraqi population. One American who works on health projects in Iraq had a similar reaction, stating that "there appears to be an unintentional sampling bias toward the most violent governorates" and that "there could also be a trend to sample the more violent locations within each governorate. ... I offer these critiques as grains of salt. The report may in fact be accurate. I do not dispute the honesty of the researchers. I know from experience that one never has much control over operations in Iraq, and without a great deal of control, information errors can creep in. ... My own guess is that the death rate in the war is twice as much or more than Iraq Body Count, but probably half as much as reported in this study."
Even so, the results of the Lancet study, combined with what we know about the limitations of other attempts to count the dead, suggest that the war in Iraq has already claimed hundreds of thousands rather than tens of thousands of lives.
It is rather striking, moreover, that critics of this research have mostly avoided calling for additional, independent studies that could provide a scientific basis for either confirming or refuting its alarming findings.
The Lancet researchers themselves have called for such research. "At the conclusion of our 2004 study," they state, "we urged that an independent body assess the excess mortality that we saw in Iraq. This has not happened. We continue to believe that an independent international body to monitor compliance with the Geneva conventions and other humanitarian standards in conflict is urgently needed. With reliable data, those voices that speak out for civilians trapped in conflict might be able to lessen the tragic human cost of future wars."
The ABC television network is using the fifth anniversary of 9/11 as an opportunity to rewrite history. On Sept. 10 and 11, ABC/Disney will broadcast "The Path to 9/11", a six-hour, two-part "docudrama" written and produced by conservative filmmakers who place a lion's share of the blame for the 9/11 terrorist attacks on alleged failures of the Clinton administration.
This is not the first time that Hollywood has used 9/11 as a pretext to air pro-Bush propaganda in the guise of a docudrama. On the second anniversary of the terrorist attack, the Showtime cable network broadcast "DC 9/11: Time of Crisis," written by conservative Republican Lionel Chetwynd. Dubbed "a reelection campaign movie" by Washington Post TV critic Tom Shales, the film starred actor Timothy Bottoms in the role of George W. Bush, depicting him as a leader of Churchillian stature who takes personal charge in the 9/11 aftermath while brushing off worries about his own safety with declarations such as, "If some tinhorn terrorist wants me, tell him to come on over and get me. I'll be home!" In reality, as opposed to the bizarro world of docudrama, Bush's safety on 9/11 was guaranteed by hustling him off to an undisclosed location, while Cheney went into hiding for months.
What makes "The Path to 9/11" somewhat different is its claim to be based on the report of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States (also known as the 9/11 Commission). Thomas Kean, the Republican co-chairman of the 9/11 commission, served as an advisor to the film, although Lee Hamilton, the commission's Democratic co-chair, did not. ABC Entertainment president Steve McPherson is claiming that its miniseries is a public service that goes beyond mere entertainment. "Some things you do for commerce and some things because they are the right thing to do," he told Variety magazine.
If the goal were simply to inform the public, however, ABC would have produced an actual documentary rather than a docudrama, which gives the producers license to distort facts whenever and however they wish, while also pretending that their work is somehow a reenactment of reality.
The show's political slant is evident from the fact that Rush Limbaugh is talking up the movie, noting that its screenwriter, Cyrus Nowrasteh, is a personal friend. Several weeks prior to the broadcast, publicists sent out advance DVDs of the film to conservative bloggers, and screenings have been held for conservative pundits like U.S. News & World Report writer Michael Barone. Even relatively obscure right-wing blogs such as Patterico's Pontifications, written by Los Angeles County attorney Justin Levine, have been favored with advance screenings. Levine reciprocated by declaring that the film is "free of political spin, politically correct whitewashing and partisan wrangling" and "one of the best made-for-televison movies seen in decades. The Clinton administration will likely go ballistic over this film." In its politically spin-free way, Patterico pontificates, the film also "lays out viscerally powerful arguments in favor of the Patriot Act and airport profiling."
When challenged to explain why the right-wing blogosphere is abuzz with praise for the film, director David Cunningham responded that "we are also being accused of being a left-wing movie that bashes Bush" -- a claim for which there is absolutely no evidence. I searched Technorati for mentions of the film and found 260 references, mostly from conservative websites, every single one of which had nothing but praise for the film. And although I found numerous examples of conservative pundits and bloggers who reported seeing prebroadcast screenings, no leftist pundits or bloggers had been given a chance to see it (unless you count Salon.com's roundup of several 9/11-themed movies).
As further evidence of the filmmakers' fundamental dishonesty, "Path to 9/11" had its own blog until recently, where screenwriter Nowrasteh attempted to explain away the right-wing blogobuzz about the film by saying, "We can't control who writes what." It's clear, however, that they did carefully control who could see the film prior to broadcast. And in response to criticisms and questions posted in the comments section of their own blog, they airbrushed it out of existence Sunday afternoon, which is why my links above to the apologetics by Cunningham and Nowrasteh no longer work, although the Google cache to the original blog still exists.
The Honest Truthiness
So what is it that conservatives love so much about this film? According to Barone, one "gripping scene" shows "CIA agents surrounding bin Laden's encampments and then being called back when National Security Adviser Sandy Berger refuses to give a go-ahead for the operation." Conservative filmmaker Govindini Murty was also impressed by the same scene, writing a glowing review that was published both on her own blog and on Human Events, the "national conservative weekly." She writes:
One astonishing sequence in "The Path to 9/11" shows the CIA and the Northern Alliance surrounding Bin Laden's house in Afghanistan. They're on the verge of capturing Bin Laden, but they need final approval from the Clinton administration in order to go ahead. They phone Clinton, but he and his senior staff refuse to give authorization for the capture of Bin Laden, for fear of political fall-out if the mission should go wrong and civilians are harmed. National Security Adviser Sandy Berger in essence tells the team in Afghanistan that if they want to capture Bin Laden, they'll have to go ahead and do it on their own without any official authorization. The episode is a perfect example of Clinton-era irresponsibility and incompetence.
The only problem with this "perfect example," which Murty praises because it "honestly depicts how the Clinton administration repeatedly bungled the capture of Osama Bin Laden," is that it didn't happen. In reality, it was CIA director George Tenet, not Berger, who called off the operation, which never got anywhere near "surrounding Bin Laden's house in Afghanistan." According to the 9/11 commision report on which the movie is supposedly based, Tenet told us that, given the recommendation of his chief operations officers, he alone had decided to "turn off" the operation. He had simply informed Berger, who had not pushed back. Berger's recollection was similar. He said the plan was never presented to the White House for a decision.
The CIA's senior management clearly did not think the plan would work. Tenet's deputy director of operations wrote to Berger a few weeks later that the CIA assessed the tribals' ability to capture Bin Ladin and deliver him to U.S. officials as low.
In an interview with the far-right Front Page Magazine, "Path to 9/11" screenwriter Nowrasteh said that the 9/11 report "details the Clinton's administration's response -- or lack of response -- to Al Qaeda and how this emboldened Bin Laden to keep attacking American interests. The worst example is the response to the October 2000 attack on the U.S.S. Cole in Yemen, where 17 American sailors were killed. There simply was no response. Nothing."
Again, the actual commission report described thing differently:
As evidence of Al Qaeda's responsibility for the Cole attack came in during November 2000, National Security Advisor Samuel Berger asked the Pentagon to develop a plan for a sustained air campaign against the Taliban. Clarke developed a paper laying out a formal, specific ultimatum. But Clarke's plan apparently did not advance to formal consideration by the Small Group of principals. We have found no indication that the idea was briefed to the new administration or that Clarke passed his paper to them, although the same team of career officials spanned both administrations.
The commission's executive summary explains that by the time Al Qaeda was definitely identified as the party responsible for attacking the Cole, Clinton had left office, and it was Bush who declined to take action:
After the October 2000 attack on the USS Cole, evidence accumulated that it had been launched by Al Qaeda operatives, but without confirmation that Bin Ladin had given the order. The Taliban had earlier been warned that it would be held responsible for another Bin Ladin attack on the United States. The CIA described its findings as a "preliminary judgment"; President Clinton and his chief advisers told us they were waiting for a conclusion before deciding whether to take military action. The military alternatives remained unappealing to them.
The transition to the new Bush administration in late 2000 and early 2001 took place with the Cole issue still pending. President George W. Bush and his chief advisers accepted that Al Qaeda was responsible for the attack on the Cole but did not like the options available for a response.
Bin Ladin's inference may well have been that attacks, at least at the level of the Cole, were risk-free.
There is another political wrinkle to this that should be noted. The attack on the Cole occurred in October 2000, near the end of Clinton's presidency and at the peak of the election campaign between George W. Bush and Al Gore. A military strike under those circumstances, in the absence of clear evidence linking Al Qaeda to the Cole attack, would have been instantly denounced by Republicans as an election-season publicity stunt designed to benefit Gore. And it was the FBI and CIA that failed to provide the clear rationale that Clinton would have needed to justify such action. In Richard Clarke's book, "Against All Enemies," he describes the handling of the Cole attack as follows:
The Yemeni government also dragged its feet in the investigation, leading to President Clinton's becoming personally involved. The U.S. government left the Yemenis in no doubt about the two alternative paths that Yemeni-American relations could take.
Meanwhile in Washington neither CIA nor FBI would state the obvious: Al Qaeda did it. It was difficult to gain support for a retaliatory strike when neither FBI nor CIA would say that Al Qaeda did it.
Clinton left office with bin Laden alive, but having authorized action to eliminate him and to step up the attacks on Al Qaeda. He had defeated Al Qaeda when it attempted to take over Bosnia by having its fighters dominate the defense of the breakaway state from Serbian attacks. He had seen earlier than anyone that terrorism would be the major new threat facing America, and therefore had greatly increased funding for counterterrorism and initiated homeland protection programs. He had put an end to Iraqi and Iranian terrorism against the United States by quickly acting against the intelligence services of each nation.
Because of the intensity of the political opposition that Clinton encountered, he had been heavily criticized for bombing Al Qaeda camps in Afghanistan, for engaging in "Wag the Dog" tactics to divert attention from a scandal about his personal life. For similar reasons, he could not fire the recalcitrant FBI director who had failed to fix the Bureau or to uncover terrorists in the United States.
When Clinton left office many people, including the incoming Bush administration, thought that he and his administration were overly obsessed with Al Qaeda. Why was Clinton so worked up about Al Qaeda, and why did he talk to President-elect Bush about it and have Sandy Berger raise it with his successor as National Security Advisor, Condi Rice? In January 2001, the new administration really thought Clinton's recommendation that eliminating Al Qaeda be one of its highest priorities to be rather odd, like so many of the Clinton administration's actions.
William Rivers Pitt has written a detailed account of the initiatives initiated under Clinton to deal with Al Qaeda and the threat of terrorism. PBS has produced a documentary (not a docudrama) that offers fascinating insights into the life and career of John O'Neill, the counterterrorism expert who presciently warned about Al Qaeda prior to 9/11 and who is portrayed in "The Path to 9/11" by actor Harvey Keitel. The New Yorker has also written a nuanced, detailed profile of O'Neill that avoids political spin.
If people want to understand the failures that led to 9/11, they should turn to these and other examples of actual journalism rather than the mix of fact, fantasy and deliberate distortion that ABC/Disney plans to broadcast on the fifth anniversary of America's deadliest terrorist attack.
For ABC counterterrorism analyst Richard Clarke's debunking of the movie go HERE.
Years of writing about public relations and propaganda has probably made me a bit jaded, but I was amazed nevertheless when I visited America's Army, an online video game website sponsored by the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD). In its quest to find recruits, the military has literally turned war into entertainment.
"America's Army" offers a range of games that kids can download or play online. Although the games are violent, with plenty of opportunities to shoot and blow things up, they avoid graphic images of death or other ugliness of war, offering instead a sanitized, Tom Clancy version of fantasy combat. Overmatch, for example, promises "a contest in which one opponent is distinctly superior... with specialized skills and superior technology ... OVERMATCH: few soldiers, certain victory" (more or less the same overconfident message that helped lead us into Iraq).
Ubisoft, the company contracted to develop the DoD's games, also sponsors the "Frag Dolls," a real-world group of attractive, young women gamers who go by names such as "Eekers," "Valkyrie" and "Jinx" and are paid to promote Ubisoft products. At a computer gaming conference earlier this year, the Frag Dolls were deployed as booth babes at the America's Army demo, where they played the game and posed for photos and video (now available on the America's Army website). On the Frag Dolls blog, Eekers described her turn at the "Combat Convoy Experience":
"You have this gigantic Hummer in a tent loaded with guns, a rotatable turret, and a huge screen in front of it. Jinx took the wheel and drove us around this virtual war zone while shooting people with a pistol, and I switched off from the SAW turret on the top of the vehicle to riding passenger with an M4."Non-virtual realities
Unsurprisingly, the babes-and-bullets fantasy world celebrated in these games contrasts markedly with the experiences that real soldiers are facing in Iraq. A report by the Pentagon's own Mental Health Advisory Team -- completed in January but only released last week -- found that 54 percent of soldiers stationed in Iraq described morale in their individual units as "low or very low." In recent testimony to the House Armed Services Committee, U.S. Undersecretary for Defense David Chu, who is in charge of personnel recruitment for the military, admitted that "there is a reduced propensity to join the military among today's youth. Due to the realities of war, there is less encouragement today from parents, teachers, and other influencers to join the military."
Chu said parents and other "older advisers to young Americans" whose views on military service were shaped by the Vietnam War have become a chief obstacle to military recruiters, adding that he was also "lamenting the failure" of the media to report all of the "positive successes" of the military along with the news of bombings and growing insurgency.
In reality, as Editor and Publisher reported the day before Chu gave his testimony, the news media has actually been failing to report the horrors of war, as "few graphic images from Iraq make it to U.S. papers." And as Newsweek war correspondent Joe Cochrane observed just three days before Chu gave his testimony, one reason for the lack of positive news from Iraq is that reporters no longer dare venture out from Baghdad's barricaded Green Zone "unless they're embedded with U.S. soldiers. That wasn't the case early last year, when foreigners could walk the streets outside the Green Zone, shop in local markets, and, most important to journalists, talk to the Iraqi people. Those days are long gone."
And even inside the Green Zone, the situation is scarcely better: "Heavily armed troops guard government buildings and hospitals, menacingly pointing their weapons at any one who approaches. Soldiers manning checkpoints can use deadly force against motorists who fail to heed their instructions, so the warning signs say, and I have no doubt they'd exercise that right in a heartbeat if they felt threatened. All this fear and tension, and inside a six square mile area that's supposed to be safe."
Cochrane says he has "always been something of an optimist" but reached his "breaking point" during his recent visit to Iraq. "Say what you will about whether the United States was justified to invade this country," he wrote. "We're well into the game, and it's too late to argue over who got the ball first. But prior to April 2003, there were no suicide bombers in Baghdad, there was 24-hour electricity and people went out at night. Now, if you drive into town from the airport, there is a legitimate possibility you will get killed."
Military officials have also developed an elaborate PR strategy for outreach to schools. In Fall 2004, the army published a guidebook for high school recruiters. Colin McKay, a public relations pro in Canada, took a look at and thought it could serve as a useful reference for anyone needing a "step by step guide to building influence in a school setting. ... It's full of practical student activities (tactics), promotional opportunities for Army reps (brand building), and a detailed explanation of how to track school performance, recruiter visits and identify potential recruits (research and evaluation)."
Specific advice included the following:
- "Be so helpful and so much a part of the school scene that you are in constant demand."
- "Cultivate coaches, librarians, administrative staff and teachers."
- "Know your student influencers. Students such as class officers, newspaper and yearbook editors, and athletes can help build interest in the Army among the student body."
- "Distribute desk calendars to your assigned schools."
- "Attend athletic events at the HS. Make sure you wear your uniform."
- "Get involved with the parent-teacher association."
- "Coordinate with school officials to eat lunch in the school cafeteria several times each month."
- "Deliver donuts and coffee for the faculty once a month."
- "Coordinate with the homecoming committee to get involved with the parade."
- "Get involved with the local Boy Scouts. ... Many scouts are HS students and potential enlistees or student influencers."
- "Order personal presentation items (pens, bags, mousepads, mugs) as needed monthly for special events."
- "Attend as many school holiday functions or assemblies as possible."
- "Offer to be a timekeeper at football games."
- "Martin Luther King, Jr's birthday is in January. Wear your dress blues and participate in school events commemorating this holiday. ... February ... Black History Month. Participate in events as available."
- "Contact the HS athletic director and arrange for an exhibition basketball game between the faculty and Army recruiters."
Grand theft privacy
The Pentagon's recruitment effort also entails massive information-gathering efforts aimed at both students and their parents. Under a little-publicized aspect of Bush's "No Child Left Behind" education program, the military has gained what the Chicago Tribune described as "unprecedented access to all high school directories of upperclassmen -- a mother lode of information used for mass-mailing recruiting appeals and telephone solicitations." Before No Child Left Behind took effect in 2002, 12 percent of the nation's public high schools -- some 2,500 -- denied the military access to student databases. According to the Washington Post, "Recruiters have been using the information to contact students at home, angering some parents and school districts around the country."
In addition, the Post reported in June that the Pentagon has contracted with BeNOW, a private database marketing company, to "create a database of high school students ages 16 to 18 and all college students to help the military identify potential recruits." The new database is described on a Pentagon website as "arguably the largest repository of 16-to-25-year-old youth data in the country, containing roughly 30 million records." According to the military's Federal Register notice, the information kept on each person includes name, gender, address, birthday, e-mail address, ethnicity, telephone number, high school, college, graduation dates, grade-point average, education level and military test scores.
Questioned about the database, Undersecretary David Chu responded, "If you don't want conscription, you have to give the Department of Defense, the military services, an avenue to contact young people to tell them what is being offered. And you would be naive to believe in any enterprise that you're going to do well just by waiting for people to call you."
"Then why not simply restrict the data fields to name, address, telephone number?" a reporter asked.
"The information that goes beyond that comes off of commercial lists. Anybody could buy that information. We're not, this is not a government file. This is off a commercial file, commercial providers. So we're not intruding -- And typically that information has come off of forms people have voluntarily filled out to a commercial source. So I don't see the --"
"They may not have intended it to be the property of the U.S. military," the reporter observed.
Privacy rights groups have been sharply critical of the database. According to a joint statement by a coalition of 8 privacy groups, the database violates the Privacy Act, a law intended to reduce government collection of AmericansÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ personal data. The database plan, they wrote, "proposes to ignore the law and its own regulations by collecting personal information from commercial data brokers and state registries rather than directly from individuals."
The Electronic Privacy Information Center, one of the signers of the joint statement, also issued its own separate statement: "The Privacy Act and the DOD's internal regulations require the agency to collect information directly from the citizen where possible," it explained. "However, the database would be largely populated from other sources, including from state motor vehicle department databases, school enrollment data, and commercial information vendors. The main commercial vendors that sell students' data, American Student List and Student Marketing Group, were both pursued recently by consumer protection authorities for setting up front groups that tricked students into revealing their personal information."
Privacy groups also warned that data collected by the Pentagon could be used for other purposes besides military recruiting. According to the Washington Post, "The system also gives the Pentagon the right, without notifying citizens, to share the data for numerous uses outside the military, including with law enforcement, state tax authorities and Congress." Defense Department spokesperson Ellen Krenke said the Pentagon does not do this, but the Federal Register notice says the military retains the right to do so.
One of the biggest mistakes made by the Democratic Party during the recent election is that, once again, it "misunderestimated" George W. Bush.
Rather than focusing on the big picture – the growing power of the conservative movement in the United States – much of the liberal rhetoric during the campaign focused on Bush's incompetence, his character flaws and the failings of his administration. These themes found expression in books with titles such as "The Lies of George W. Bush," the "I Hate Bush Reader" and the "Bush Hater's Handbook." In "Fahrenheit: 9/11," Michael Moore dwelt on Bush's rich-kid background, his frequent vacations, his Saudi connections and the frozen, deer-in-the-headlights way he continued reading "My Pet Goat" to schoolchildren after he first heard about the attacks on the World Trade Center towers.
The implicit message was that Bush was a uniquely flawed individual and that literally "anybody but Bush" would be an improvement. The flaw in this argument is that it really isn't true. The problem with George W. Bush is that he isn't unique. He sits atop a political movement that has been building for 30 years. In 2002, the Republican Party won majority control of every branch of the federal government for the first time since 1932: both houses of Congress, the U.S. Supreme Court, the Presidency – not to mention most state legislatures and governor's offices. The 2004 elections didn't just give Bush four more years. It also consolidated Republican majorities in every other branch of government.
Our own contribution to the sea of election-year books was titled "Banana Republicans: How the Right Wing is Turning America into a One Party State." Rather than Bush-bashing, we looked at how conservatives have succeeded in building a dominant political juggernaut. The reality, which progressives need to face if they wish to turn the tide, is that the right wing has simply done a better job than anyone else of organizing from the grassroots up. This isn't because their ideas are more popular or palatable – they aren't – but because the right has been serious and strategic in its commitment to winning and wielding power.
Republican successes have not come quickly or easily. For more than four decades, conservatives have worked to build a network of grassroots organizations and think tanks that formulate and promote their ideas. They are now enjoying the fruits of this long-term investment. Unhappy with what they regard as the "liberal bias" of the news media, they have attacked from both the outside and the inside, building their own, unabashedly conservative media such as Fox News and talk radio at the same time that they have systematically set about promoting the careers of conservatives within the mainstream media. They have built ideological alliances between industry, government and regulatory agencies. And although entertainers like Barbra Streisand or Martin Sheen may be more liberal than the leading figures in, say, the tobacco or construction industries, Republicans have been more effective than Democrats at capitalizing on the ways entertainment has transformed politics – last year's election of Arnold Schwarzenegger being a case in point.
Conservatives have also understood that politics involves more than dominating the news cycle or influencing public opinion, and they have not hesitated to use hardball tactics in pursuit of power. Blacks and other minorities consistently vote Democratics, so conservatives have developed techniques for suppressing voter turnout or have used old-fashioned gerrymandering to effectively marginalize minority votes.
What progressives are facing, in short, is a sophisticated, many-faceted strategy.
The good news for progressives during the 2004 election is that they showed more vigor than we have seen in a long time. During the Democratic primary, the Howard Dean campaign pioneered successful new methods of grassroots fundraising. Air America proved that liberal talk radio could compete with conservative talk radio, while the MoveOn.org Voter Education Fund and other 527 organizations showed that Democrats could use the internet successfully to raise funds, disseminate their message, and mobilize grassroots activism.
The outstanding question, however, is whether this flurry of election-year activism will translate into a longer-term commitment to building institutions and movements that can successfully challenge the right's dominance. Conservatives understand very well that elections are only one aspect of a successful organizing strategy. They are already hard at work planning campaigns for the 2006 elections and beyond. Before progressives can seriously hope to turn the tide, they will need to show similar foresight and discipline.
And what should that foresight be? Share your views with AlterNet.
One of the differences between liberals and conservatives in the United States is that liberals tend to see politics as a debate over issues and policies, whereas conservatives view politics as "the continuation of war by other means." The recent attacks on John Kerry by the GOP-front "Swift Boat Veterans for Truth" is a fine example of this philosophy in action.
There is an old saying that "all's fair in love and war," and this is certainly true of the communications strategies employed by propagandists engaged in war, whether it be actual battlefield combat or political warfare. Consider, for example, the leaflets that airplanes drop on enemy soldiers, telling them that they are fighting in a lost cause and will die unless they surrender. Maybe this is true, maybe not. From the point of the propagandist, the question of whether it is true doesn't really matter. The point is simply to influence the behavior of the enemy soldiers who read the leaflets.
Similarly, there is very little reason to believe that the Swift Boat veterans and their handlers seriously believe the charges that they have recently made against Kerry's conduct as a soldier in Vietnam. Swift Boater George Elliott, author of an affidavit publicly criticizing Kerry's conduct and the merits of his Silver Star, is the same man who, as Kerry's commander, recommended him for a Bronze Star in 1969 and wrote several evaluation reports that praised Kerry as "highly courageous in the face of enemy fire," someone whose "independent, decisive action" was "unsurpassed," and "the acknowledged leader in his peer group. His bearing and appearance are above reproach." Roy Hoffmann, another Swift Boater and harsh Kerry critic, also seems to have conveniently forgotten his praise back in 1969, when he wrote glowingly that Kerry had provided a "shining example of completely overwhelming the enemy."
The Swift Boaters' main grievance against Kerry has nothing to do with his actions in Vietnam, but rather with Kerry's public opposition to the war after he returned to the United States. But even in this regard, the Swift Boat Veterans are fighting a war against the truth, not for it. They resent Kerry for having testified before Congress about war crimes committed in Vietnam by U.S. soldiers, but the historical record is quite clear that war crimes were committed. (Kerry gave his testimony shortly after Lieutenant William Calley's court martial for the My Lai massacre.)
The point to all of these attacks is not, as the Swift Boat Veterans pretend, concern for "the truth." Rather, they are engaged in a propaganda campaign aimed at influencing the behavior of a "target population" – in this case, voters.
The Swift Boat attack on Kerry uses a classic propaganda tactic: have PR professionals organize and launch a well-funded smear attack, an ad hominem barrage against Kerry's integrity, and do it through a front group with enough separation from the Bush campaign to pretend independence. Then use the right-wing echo chamber to keep the issue alive and churning, spitting plenty of mud and confusion. It's a strategy that is virtually guaranteed to hurt Kerry in the polls.
What seems surprising is that the Kerry campaign was so unprepared for this attack, especially since this standard tactic has been used for decades by Bush's political mentor, Karl Rove. According to Dallas Morning News political writer Wayne Slater, "It's amazing how similar this type of attack is to the pattern of attacks I have seen over two decades – in some cases involving Bush's campaigns, in other cases they involved campaigns in which Karl Rove was a participant. In every case, the approach is the same: You have a surrogate group of allies, independent of the Bush campaign, raising questions not about the opponent's weakness but directly about the opponent's strength. In every case, it works."
One example of this strategy occurred in 1994, when Bush first ran for governor of Texas against Ann Richards. The Bush campaign benefited then from a seemingly "independent" whisper campaign criticizing her appointments of gays and lesbians to state positions, thus turning one of her greatest strengths – the inclusiveness of her administration – into a political liability.
During the Republican presidential primary in 2000, other "independent" Bush supporters ferociously attacked John McCain (another Vietnam veteran in the U.S. Senate), questioning McCain's commitment to veterans. Yet another front group, calling itself "Republicans for a Clean Environment," spent $2.5 million (covertly provided by Dallas billionaires Sam and Charles Wyly, investment bankers and friends of Bush) to run TV ads in California, Ohio and New York attacking McCain's environmental politicies. Bush distanced himself personally from the attacks on McCain while letting the "independents" do his dirty work for him – the same stance he has taken recently with respect to the Swift Boat attacks on Kerry.
The attack on Kerry is merely the latest incarnation of this standing Bush strategy. The Swift Boat Veterans even use some of the same personnel: people like Merrie Spaeth of Spaeth Communications, a public relations professional with deep Republican ties who served as the spokeswoman for "Republicans for a Clean Environment"; Benjamin Ginsberg, an attorney who represented the Bush campaign during the 2000 Florida recount debacle and was also counsel for the Bush 2004 re-election campaign; and Chris LaCivita of the DCI Group, a Republican lobbying firm with ties to Karl Rove.
The "third party technique" is a standard PR tactic, and is at the heart of the Bush campaign's successes. As one PR pro describes it, the technique is fairly simple: "Put your message in someone else's mouth" – the mouth of someone the public will believe, or at least who will be believed sufficiently to influence the opinions of your "target audience."
We examined the third party technique at length in our 2001 book, "Trust Us, We're Experts!" The technique offers several advantages for the propagandists out there:
It helps hide the vested interest that lurks behind a message. If George W. Bush were to come out himself and attack Kerry's battle record in Vietnam, the message would be quickly dismissed, and in fact would backfire in light of Bush's inability to prove that he even showed up for National Guard duty back when Kerry was patrolling the Mekong Delta. By putting the attack in the mouths of Vietnam veterans, the Bush campaign has given its message a degree of credibility that it would not otherwise enjoy.
Emotions Over Facts:
It replaces factual discourse with emotion-laden symbolism. Sometimes the identity of the third-party messenger becomes more important than the content of the message itself. The Swift Boat Veterans are designed to symbolize "veterans versus Kerry," evoking associations and emotions that are difficult to address through logic or debate. For the Bush campaign, evoking these emotions provides a welcome distraction from rational discussions about policies on health, the environment, the economy or foreign policy.
None of these attacks would work, of course, if the news media did their job and provided careful fact-checking to help separate fact from fiction. Professional journalists are supposed to act as information filters as well as information providers, but their ability to do this has been undermined by the 24-hour news cycle and the orchestrated propaganda campaigns of the right-wing echo chamber – the combined voices of websites such as the Drudge Report, right-wing talk radio and Fox News – which work in concert to push Republican talking points into the mainstream media.
What's needed, therefore, is some new way of filtering the news by exposing the propagandists behind the scenes who manipulate the news. If traditional media aren't doing their job, perhaps the Internet can help the public do it ourselves.
A year ago we launched a new website to help track front groups. We call it the "Disinfopedia." Among other things, it is an experiment in citizen journalism, using web-based "wiki" technology that invites visitors to not just read the information they find there, but to also edit and add to it. Our online editor, Bob Burton, helps us root out vandal attacks and misinformation, as does a growing community of online journalists who use the Disinfopedia.
John Kerry was slow to respond to what he eventually branded a "front group" for Bush, but the Disinfopedia wasn't. By the time "Swift Boat Veterans for the Truth" started to make front-page headlines with their dishonest attacks on Kerry, Disinfopedia contributors had compiled an impressively detailed article about the group.
We like to think that the Disinfopedia is one reason why, unlike cable TV, the print reporting on this topic has been relatively good. Journalists who start with a Google search for "Swift Boat Veterans" will see the Disinfopedia link at the top and have the opportunity to avail themselves of the research on that page.
When the Swift Boat Veterans story exploded in August, we thought it was interesting to see how the right wing responded to the Disinfopedia. Since anyone can contribute, conservatives attempted to edit the article along with everyone else. Rather than fact-checking or adding new facts, however, most of their contributions consisted of trivial attempts at vandalism, such as deleting facts that they found embarrassing or even deleting the entire article and replacing it with profanity, insults or invitations to worship Jesus.
These vandalisms are easy to fix, since the Disinfopedia keeps a history of each editorial revision. What the experience demonstrated, though, is that when a forum like the Disinfopedia requires contributors to present evidence and logic in support of their political positions, right-wing attackers are left helpless. They have become very good at waging political war, but they've forgotten how to engage in civil discourse. There will always be propaganda and deception, but Disinfopedia is proving a powerful tool for getting to the truth.
Ralph Nader's run for the presidency of the United States has brought him some strange right-wing bedfellows, such as Citizens for a Sound Economy, who hope his candidacy will lead to the election of George Bush by drawing votes from John Kerry. CSE has been working hard to place Nader on the presidential ballot in Oregon, and will do so too in Wisconsin and other states, according to press accounts describing them as a conservative anti-tax organization. Such a description is a little like saying Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell are Christian ministers.
We reveal much more about Citizens for a Sound Economy in our new book Banana Republicans: How the Right is Turning America into a One-Party State.
To understand CSE, you have to know a little about their founding benefactors Charles G. and David H. Koch who each has a net worth of $4 billion apiece, earning them separate spots in the Forbes list of the 50 richest people in America. Like their father, Fred Koch, an oil-and-gas entrepreneur who was a founding member of the far-right John Birch Society in 1958, they have used their wealth in concert with a handful of other extraordinarily wealthy individuals to build a political machine that spreads their ideas about law, culture, politics, and economics throughout the political and media establishment. The Kochs are part of a network of conservative benefactors that support industry-friendly think tanks, experts, and subsidized media that repeat, embellish, and reinforce their core message that corporations are good while government regulations, labor unions, environmentalists, liberal Democrats, and anything else that might restrict corporate behavior are bad. They have lavished tens of millions of dollars on "free market" advocacy in and around Washington. According to their filings with the Internal Revenue Service, they gave away more than $9 million in 2001 alone, almost all of it to conservative groups such as the libertarian Cato Institute (which Charles co-founded in 1977), Citizens for a Sound Economy (which David helped launch in 1986), the American Legislative Exchange Council, the Reason Foundation, Heritage Foundation, Landmark Legal Foundation, and Young America's Foundation.
Citizens for a Sound Economy describes itself as an organization of "grassroots citizens dedicated to free markets and limited government," but according to internal documents leaked to the Washington Post in January 2000, the bulk of its revenues ($15.5 million in 1998) came not from its 250,000 members but from contributions of $250,000 and up from large corporations. CSE is co-chaired by former Republican Majority Leader Dick Armey and C. Boyden Gray, a Washington attorney who served as counsel to former president George H.W. Bush. The Koch Family Foundations continue to provide some of CSE's funding, but the bulk of its income now comes from corporations including Allied Signal, Archer Daniels Midland, DaimlerChrysler, Emerson Electric Company, Enron, General Electric, Johnson & Johnson, Philip Morris, and U.S. West. Other funding comes from the same conservative foundations that finance other conservative think tanks: Castle Rock, Earhart, JM, Olin, Bradley, McKenna, and Scaife.
CSE's activities have ranged from a major press and public relations campaign to defeat the Clinton administration's 1993 proposal for an energy tax to filing "friend of the court" briefs in 1999 that sought to declare the Clean Air Act unconstitutional. It produces more than 100 policy papers each year, delivering them to every single congressional office, while also distributing its message via direct mail, advertising, placements of op-ed pieces and outreach to journalists that generates thousands of news articles in print, radio and television. CSE argues that "environmental conservation requires a commonsense approach that limits the scope of government," acid rain is a "so-called threat [that] is largely nonexistent," and global warming is "a verdict in search of evidence." CSE also engages in "grassroots" lobbying, sending out activists to collect signatures on petitions for its various causes.
Although tax-exempt nonprofit organizations are supposed to refrain from endorsing specific legislation or candidates, CSE has intervened in elections on occasion, as in 1999 when it worked during the primary election to defeat Joseph Negron, a Republican running for the Florida state assembly. CSE ran a series of television ads blasting Negron, funded by $460,000 from major corporate donors including rent-a-car companies and Associated Industries of Florida, which represents 10,000 Florida businesses and opposed Negron's position on tort reform. "Our political department orchestrated the whole thing," said Jon L. Shebel, the president of Associated Industries. "We called CSE and said here's the plan, can you do something? They did TV. We did radio, direct mail and all the analytical work."
On other occasions as well, CSE has acted as a conveyor belt for the views of its funders. In 1998, it launched a project to derail a multibillion-dollar plan by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to restore the Florida Everglades. In news releases and other publicity materials, CSE claimed that the project would cost every household in Florida $120 and cost the state nearly 3,000 jobs. Shortly after launching the project, CSE received $700,000 in contributions from Florida sugar companies, which stood to lose thousands of acres of land if the federal plan went into effect. As the Washington Post reported in January 2000, this was only one of several occasions on which CSE has taken money from specific corporate interests while lobbying on their behalf. It received more than $1 million from Philip Morris while opposing cigarette taxes, and another $1 million from the U.S. West phone company while it pushed a deregulation plan that would let U.S. West offer long-distance service. CSE president Paul Beckner dismissed warnings about global warming as "junk science," shortly before receiving $175,000 from ExxonMobil to fund its work on "global climate" issues. Another $380,000 came in from Microsoft while CSE was lobbying in Congress to limit the Justice Department's budget for antitrust enforcement against the software giant.
The Center for Media and Democracy investigates and follows the work of corporate front groups including CSE through our Disinfopedia website at www.disinfopedia.org. There you can find out the latest and help us report and keep tabs on CSE and other corporate fronts. You never know what they might be up to, even helping their sworn nemesis Ralph Nader.
In a democracy, Alexander Hamilton believed: "The differences of opinion, and the jarrings of parties . . . often promote deliberation and circumspection; and serve to check the excesses of the majority." Although these jarrings and clashings sometimes seem messy, contentious and wasteful, in fact they are one of the great strengths of democracy in both peacetime and wartime.
If, however, a single viewpoint or party is able to drown out or suppress the views of others, a different dynamic sets in. One-party dominated states and hierarchical, command-driven social systems are notorious for their tendency to make disastrous decisions, in the areas of both domestic and foreign policy. China's cultural revolution and the Soviet Union's failed economic development plans are among the most extreme but not the only cases in point. In the field of foreign affairs, Napoleon and Hitler both disdained dissenting advice and found doom attacking Russia. Saddam Hussein met a similar fate when, after fighting a debilitating war with Iran, he invaded Kuwait and triggered the wrath of other nations. As we detailed in our previous book, Weapons of Mass Deception, the Bush administration seems to have made the same mistake when it believed its own propaganda promoting war with Iraq.
The U.S. military has a term for this type of information system: "incestuous amplification," which Jane's Defense Weekly defines as "a condition in warfare where one only listens to those who are already in lock-step agreement, reinforcing set beliefs and creating a situation ripe for miscalculation." Psychologists have a similar term: "group polarization," which describes the tendency for like-minded people, talking only with one another, to end up believing a more extreme version of what they thought before they started to talk.
The Republican Party's philosophy and political organizing strategies have been remarkably successful at helping the party achieve and consolidate power in the late 20th and early 21st centuries. Simultaneously, however, they have created conditions that make incestuous amplification and group polarization more likely in disparate areas of America's political arena.
The Revolving Door
Shortly after President Bush took office, one of his most trusted campaign advisors, Ed Gillespie, took a brief break from heading up his own lobbying and PR firm, Quinn Gillespie & Associates. Gillespie, whose clients have included Microsoft, Enron and Verizon, as well as the steel and logging industries, went to work for a few days as acting director of public affairs for the U.S. Commerce Department, where he assisted Secretary Donald Evans with the agency's reorganization under the newly elected Bush administration. Among his other activities, Gillespie arranged for the department to hire as its press secretary one of his own employees at Quinn Gillespie, Jim Dyke. Gillespie finished his work at the Commerce Department on February 15, 2001, and the following day he was back at work in his own office.
"Federal law requires departing government officials to wait one year to lobby agencies that employed them," observed Wall Street Journal reporter Jim VandeHei. "But that doesn't apply to Mr. Gillespie; his brief, 15-day tenure made him a temporary worker exempt from the cooling-off period. As a result, Mr. Gillespie is free to contact Mr. Evans on behalf of clients."
Gillespie was not alone. More than 150 Republican lobbyists worked on Bush's transition team. Diane Steed of the Coalition for Vehicle Choice, which was created by the Motor Vehicle Manufacturers of America to fight against higher fuel efficiency standards, advised the Department of Transportation. Jack Abramoff, a Republican lobbyist for Indian gambling, advised the Interior Department.
Many of Bush's permanent employees have also come from an inner circle of party-affiliated industry lobbyists. For the number-three spot at the Department of Labor, for example, Bush tapped Eugene Scalia, the son of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia and a labor lawyer who has specialized in representing management in labor disputes related to worker safety, especially the dangers of repetitive-stress injuries.
With regard to environmental-policy jobs, virtually all of Bush's appointees have consisted of attorneys and lobbyists for the very industries they were appointed to oversee. Timber industry lobbyist Mark Rey became assistant secretary for agriculture with responsibility for national forests. Steven Griles, a leading lobbyist for the oil, gas and coal industries, became deputy secretary at the Department of the Interior. A lobbyist for drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge went to work as the Interior's envoy to Alaska. At the U.S. Justice Department, Wyoming attorney Tom Sansonetti -- a Republican activist who has lobbied on behalf of coal-mining operations -- was appointed to head the enforcement of environmental and natural-resource laws.
The revolving door between private lobbyists and government officials existed, of course, long before George W. Bush became president -- but Bush has taken it to new levels. When Bill Clinton assumed the presidency, people who assisted with his presidential transition were barred from lobbying agencies they helped for six months. The Bush administration, by contrast, saw no problem with having someone like Gillespie work for the White House one day and literally go to work as a lobbyist on the following one. "Helping out this administration is good for the country," Gillespie told the Wall Street Journal. "Anything we can do to help President Bush initially or from here on out we are happy to do."
Send My Regards to K Street
Much of the real power and influence peddling in Washington, DC begins on K Street, a nondescript corridor of office buildings located a few blocks north of the White House. K Street is where the big lobbying firms and corporate trade associations have their headquarters. It is sometimes referred to as the fourth branch of government. Many of the top K Street lobbyists are, in fact, former government officials -- senators, congressmen and their staffs that, after retiring from office (or after losing their last election) go to work as hired advocates for companies and industries. Their ability to influence government policy comes in part from the personal relationships they have with their former colleagues, and from the campaign contributions that corporations can channel to politicians who do their bidding. Lobbyists, as columnist Michael Kinsley has observed, are "a group of people who charge a lot of money to give disproportionate influence in our democracy to people with even more money."
Historically, however, the power of corporate lobbyists has been somewhat mitigated by the two-party system. Since the party in power could vary from one election to the next, K Street had to hire top names from both major parties as a way of ensuring access. Ideological differences between the parties therefore limited the ability of corporations to control the policy agenda. In addition to corporations, the Democratic Party needed to appeal to constituencies including the labor movement, minorities, environmentalists and other liberals who have historically turned out as voters and activists in support of the party's candidates.
As Nicholas Confessore observed in the July/August 2003 issue of the Washingtonian, the relationship between Democrats and lobbyists contained an "inherent tension": "For the most part, K Street groups supported Democrats because they had to and Republicans because they wanted to. The Democrats needed corporate money to stay competitive, but were limited by the pull of their liberal, labor-oriented base. Although the party became generally more pro-business during the 1980s, it had few natural constituencies on K Street." After Republicans achieved control over all sectors of the federal government in the early 21st century, however, corporate lobbyists were happy to jettison bipartisanship and throw their weight solidly behind the Republican machine, which targeted control of K Street by pressuring the major lobbying firms to hire only Republicans.
Party strategist Grover Norquist is one of the leading masterminds of this strategy. Working with Tom DeLay, the House majority leader, he launched the K Street Project in 1995 to compile a database of lobbyists. The database lists lobbyists' names, where they work, which party they belong to, where they have worked politically and how much money they have contributed to the candidates and causes of both parties. The purpose of the list is to decide who "deserves" access to the White House, Congress and federal agencies. Contributions to the wrong party can "buy you enemies," explained Congressman Thomas M. Davis III of Virginia, chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee. According to Marshall Wittmann, a former Christian Coalition staffer who now works for Senator John McCain, the pressure on lobbyists has made Republican Majority Leader Tom DeLay "the Dirty Harry of Capitol Hill, the bad cop. Every K Street lobbyist is shaking in their boots because K Street lives on access, and DeLay can shut off their oxygen."
Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum is another key player in the K Street Project. In the months following the 2000 elections that gave Republicans the White House, Santorum began convening a private meeting each Tuesday morning of Republican lobbyists, attended sometimes by representatives from the White House and other senators. Democrats and journalists were not invited.
"The chief purpose of these gatherings is to discuss jobs -- specifically, the top one or two positions at the biggest and most important industry trade associations and corporate offices," Confessore reported. "Every week, the lobbyists present pass around a list of the jobs available and discuss whom to support. Santorum's responsibility is to make sure each one is filled by a loyal Republican -- a senator's chief of staff, for instance, or a top White House aide, or another lobbyist whose reliability has been demonstrated. After Santorum settles on a candidate, the lobbyists present make sure it is known whom the Republican leadership favors."
Republican dominance on K Street has further enhanced the party's fundraising advantage over Democrats. "An analysis of political donations by industry groups shows that over the past decade, 19 major sectors have shifted from a roughly 50-50 split between the two main parties -- or in some cases, a slightly pro-Democratic tilt -- to a solid alignment with the Republican Party, which now enjoys advantages exceeding 5 to 1 in some of these sectors," the Washington Post reported in November 2002.
Key industries that have shifted Republican include accounting, aerospace, alcoholic beverages, commercial banking, defense, health care and pharmaceuticals. "Just like the Democrats get a 90-10 split from the trial lawyers and labor, we will have 90-10 in the staffing on K Street and 90-10 business giving," Grover Norquist gloated in November 2002. But trial lawyers and labor give only a fraction of the amount that corporations donate to election campaigns. In 2002, contributions from businesses accounted for 73 percent of all election giving, compared to only 7 percent for labor. (Most of the remainder came from "ideological" or "other" donors, such as environmental groups, the National Rifle Association, clergy or nonprofit organizations.)
In place of the "inherent tension" that existed between Democratic politicians and K Street lobbyists, their ideological closeness with Republicans has made the party and its corporate supporters virtually indistinguishable. "Tom DeLay, Grover Norquist, and others have set up a K Street patronage operation that effectively obliterates the distinction between conservatives and corporatists," conservative columnist David Brooks observed in June 2002. "And remember, when they brag about the growing merger between conservatives and the business community, they are talking about something akin to a merger between Sam's Video Shack and Blockbuster. The culture of the corporate community is bound to dominate the culture of conservatism, not the other way around."
Another indicator of the growing closeness of the corporate-conservative relationship is that corporations and their trade lobbies have gone beyond merely trying to influence politicians in Washington and have become propaganda machines that work to sell the Bush administration's policies to the general public.
"Beginning in the 1990s, Washington's corporate offices and trade associations began to resemble miniature campaign committees, replete with pollsters and message consultants," Confessore writes. "To supplement PAC [Political Action Committee] giving, which is limited by federal election laws, corporations vastly increased their advocacy budgets, with trade organizations spending millions of dollars in soft money on issue ad campaigns in congressional districts. And thanks to the growing number of associations whose executives are beholden to DeLay or Santorum, these campaigns are increasingly put in the service of GOP candidates and causes."
During the Iraq war, for example, radio conglomerate Clear Channel Communications had its stations sponsor pro-war rallies nationwide and even banned the Dixie Chicks from their playlist after one band member criticized Bush. Companies such as General Motors, Verizon and Morgan Stanley have lobbied their stockholders and customers to promote Bush administration tax cuts, and the pharmaceutical industry both helped write and promote Bush's Medicare plan.
While Bill Clinton occupied the White House, the nonprofit Center for Public Integrity stirred a major public scandal when it obtained a list of White House guests and found that Democratic Party donors and fundraisers, who raised hundreds of thousands of dollars, were among the guests who spent nights at the historic Lincoln bedroom. The CPI's 1996 report, titled "Fat Cat Hotel," sparked a Republican-led Senate investigation and became the topic of thousands of news reports and critical editorials, with headlines such as "Clinton's Cash Hunt," "Lincoln Bedroom Becomes Another Soiled Symbol," "Dozing for Dollars," and "Anatomy of a Scandal."
By contrast, there was almost no reporting -- let alone outrage or Senate investigation -- when the CPI reported, seven months after Bush took office, that the "fat cat hotel" was "still open for business." According to a list released by the White House, many of the new administration's guests had been major political donors, including at least six "Bush Pioneers" -- people who raised more than $100,000 for his presidential campaign. In a Republican-dominated political climate, no one raised an eyebrow about this sort of thing, because the investigating body -- the U.S. Senate -- was controlled by the same political party that ran the hotel.
Haley Barbour, who was elected governor of Mississippi in 2003, exemplifies the synergistic relationship between lobbying and fundraising. Barbour is the former chairman of the Republican National Committee and also owns his own lobby shop, Barbour, Griffith & Rogers, which represents 50 major clients, including representatives of the tobacco, automobile, pharmaceutical, health care and transportation industries. Shortly after Bush took office, the company was named by Fortune magazine as the number one lobbying firm in Washington. It is also all male and all Republican. "Even receptionists and secretaries have to be Republican to be hired," noted the New York Times in a July 2001 profile.
Barbour is also the man in charge of raising money for Republican Senate campaigns. For some of them, including Mississippi Senator Trent Lott, he has raised millions of dollars, much of it coming in the form of large contributions from Barbour's own clients. Not surprisingly, money translates into influence. According to Charles Lewis, executive director of the nonprofit Center for Public Integrity, Barbour gave his corporate clients "a pipeline into Republican members of the Senate," and Barbour himself pretty much agrees. "People in the Senate have already made up their mind about me," he says. "I can't improve on my standing with these guys. I've worked closely with them over the years. They've been nice to me, and doors open to me, and they are willing to listen to my opinion on issues that they are dealing with on behalf of my clients. If you called anyone in town, they would tell you I cannot improve my standing with these senators."
Barbour's company is also closely tied to another firm, New Bridge Strategies, which was set up in June 2003 to help companies get the sweetest contracts for rebuilding Iraq. The president of New Bridge is Joe Allbaugh, a longtime close advisor of President Bush and a member of the so-called "iron triangle" of advisors -- himself, Karen Hughes and Karl Rove -- who have formed Bush's inner circle since he first ran for governor in 1994. The other top officers at New Bridge Strategies are Ed Rogers and Lanny Griffith -- Barbour's partners at Barbour, Griffith & Rogers, where Allbaugh's wife Diane also happens to work as an attorney. You might think these guys waste a lot of time shuttling back and forth between their jobs at BG&R and their jobs at New Bridge. Fortunately, that's not much of a problem, because they all share office space on the same floor of the same building, a couple of blocks from the White House.
And Barbour isn't the only well-connected Republican with one foot in government and the other in the Iraq contracting business. Douglas Feith is the U.S. Undersecretary of Defense and one of the most influential advocates within the Bush administration for war with Iraq. Feith is currently in charge of reconstruction at the Pentagon, while his former law partner, Marc Zell, is "assisting regional construction and logistics firms to collaborate with contractors from the United States and other coalition countries" through their former law firm -- previously called Feith & Zell, now rechristened Zell, Goldberg & Co.
With this kind of Republican clout, it isn't terribly surprising that the actual contracts for rebuilding Iraq have also gone to companies that give big donations to the Republicans. Weeks before the first bombs dropped in Iraq, the Bush administration began its plans for rebuilding the country. The plans were developed in secret, according to ABC News, with only a handful of companies allowed to bid on contracts for the reconstruction of Iraqi schools, airports, roads, bridges, hospitals and power plants. The companies allowed to bid were all generous political donors, mostly to Republicans: Bechtel, Fluor, Parsons, the Washington Group and Halliburton -- Vice President Dick Cheney's old firm.
In October 2003, the Center for Public Integrity tallied the contracts that had been awarded by then to projects in Iraq and found that the recipient companies "donated more money to the presidential campaigns of George W. Bush -- a little over $500,000 -- than to any other politician over the last dozen years." The biggest winner by far was KBR, a subsidiary of Halliburton. KBR got $2.3 billion in Iraq contracts, followed by Bechtel ($1 billion) and International American Products ($527 million).
The pattern is this: Companies like Halliburton give money to support Republican politicians, who in turn use their clout to ensure that the companies get fat contracts, who in turn give a portion of their profits to keep Republicans in power. Around and around the circle goes, and everybody gets a piece -- except, of course, for the rest of the American people, who pay the bill for all this fun with their tax dollars and the mounting federal deficit.
The danger in all of these interlocking relationships is that it breeds the "incestuous amplification" of one-sided thinking, leading to serious errors of judgment by policymakers. This helps explain how the Bush administration managed to convince itself that Iraq truly did possess awesome weapons of mass destruction, that it was closely tied to Al Qaeda, and that the people of Iraq would greet a U.S. invasion of their country as liberation.
Much of the administration's intelligence information about Iraq actually came from the Iraqi National Congress (INC), an organization created and funded by the U.S. government at the behest of the first Bush administration for the purpose of creating conditions for Saddam Hussein's overthrow. Not surprisingly, the information from the INC and its head, Ahmed Chalabi, tended to reinforce the already-existing assumptions of policymakers in the second Bush administration, even when that information contradicted other reports coming from the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency.
The INC's "intelligence isn't reliable at all," said Vincent Cannistraro, a former senior CIA official and counterterrorism expert. "Much of it is propaganda. Much of it is telling the Defense Department what they want to hear. And much of it is used to support Chalabi's own presidential ambitions. They make no distinction between intelligence and propaganda, using alleged informants and defectors who say what Chalabi wants them to say, [creating] cooked information that goes right into presidential and vice-presidential speeches."
John Stauber is the founder and director of the Center for Media & Democracy. He and Sheldon Rampton write and edit the quarterly 'PR Watch: Public Interest Reporting on the PR/Public Affairs Industry.
"I take personal responsibility for everything I say, of course. Absolutely," declared President Bush during his most recent news conference. And yet weeks of debate and discussion went into parsing a mere sixteen words from Bush's State of the Union speech in which he falsely claimed to have knowledge that Iraq had attempted to purchase uranium in Niger.
Rather than taking responsibility for his words, Bush and his advisors did everything to avoid taking responsibility. They first attempted to justify the inclusion of the Niger claim, which they knew was dubious, by attributing it to Tony Blair's government. CIA director George Tenet stepped forward to accept the blame for Bush's words and was rewarded by Bush declaring his confidence in Tenet.
The purpose behind this game of musical chairs, of course, is to muddy the waters so that no one has to take responsibility for the president's false remarks. Harry Truman had a plaque on his desk that read, "The buck stops here." If Bush had a plaque on his desk, it would say, "The buck stops with Blair, or Tenet, or Condoleeza Rice -- but I forgive them all." In addition to treating responsibility for the president's words like a hot potato, his public relations advisors have tried to pretend that expecting him to tell the truth about Iraq's alleged weapons of mass destruction is petty quibbling over details. The subtle spin behind all this talk about a mere 16 words was the insinuation that everyone is making a mountain out of a molehill. Why make such a big deal, they implied, over a single sentence in which the president may have misspoken.
The reality is that the Bush administration's phony claims about Iraq go well beyond those mere 16 words in the State of the Union address. With respect to weapons of mass destruction alone, those falsehoods included the following:
- On Sept. 7, 2002, Bush cited a report by the International Atomic Energy Agency which he said proved that the Iraqis were on the brink of developing nuclear weapons. "I would remind you that when the inspectors first went into Iraq and were denied, finally denied access, a report came out of the Atomic--the IAEA--that they were six months away from developing a weapon," he said. "I don't know what more evidence we need." Actually, no such report existed. The IAEA did issue a report in 1998, around the time weapons inspectors were denied access to Iraq, but what it said was, "Based on all credible information to date, the IAEA has found no indication of Iraq having achieved its program goal of producing nuclear weapons or of Iraq having retained a physical capability for the production of weapon-useable nuclear material or having clandestinely obtained such material." Responding to the Bush speech, IAEA chief spokesman Mark Gwozdecky said, "There's never been a report like that issued from this agency."
- In his Sept. 12, 2002 address to the United Nations, Bush spoke ominously of Iraq's "continued appetite" for nuclear bombs, pointing to the regime's purchase of thousands of high-strength aluminum tubes, which he said were "used to enrich uranium for nuclear weapons." In fact, the IAEA said in a January 2003 assessment, the size of the tubes made them ill-suited for uranium enrichment, but they were identical to tubes that Iraq had used previously to make conventional artillery rockets. Nevertheless, Colin Powell repeated the aluminum-tubes charge in his speech to the UN on Feb. 5, 2003.
- In an Oct. 7, 2002 speech to the nation, Bush warned that Iraq has a growing fleet of unmanned aircraft that could be used "for missions targeting the United States." Actually, the aircraft lacked the range to reach the United States.
- In the same speech, Bush also stated that in 1998, "information from a high-ranking Iraqi nuclear engineer who had defected revealed that despite his public promises, Saddam Hussein had ordered his nuclear program to continue." Bush's statement implied that this information was current as of 1998. In fact, the nuclear defector to whom he referred was Khidhir Hamza, who had actually retired from Iraq's nuclear program in 1991 and fled the country in 1995. Bush also neglected to note that Hussein Kamal, whose earlier defection and debriefing by UNSCOM investigators served as the basis for part of the Bush administration's claims about Iraqi weapons, told investigators that he regarded Hamza as a "professional liar."
- Hussein Kamal -- Saddam Hussein's son-in-law who was later murdered by the Iraqi regime as punishment for his defection from Iraq -- was also cited repeatedly by the Bush administration to bolster its case that inspections were not working and that Iraq's weapons programs were continuing. Actually, Kamal had told UNSCOM interrogators during his debriefing that "after the Gulf War, Iraq destroyed all its chemical and biological weapons stocks and the missiles to deliver them. ... Nothing remained. ... All weapons -- biological, chemical, missile, nuclear were destroyed." Kamal also told his debriefers that UN inspection teams were "very effective in Iraq."
This list shows only a few of the lies and distortions related to the Bush administration's claims about Iraqi weapons. If space permitted, we could provide an even longer list of falsehoods with which the Bush administration made the rest of its case for war, such as its attempt to insinuate that Iraq was in cahoots with Al Qaeda, or its promises that the Iraqi people would welcome American troops as liberators.
Since Bush's news conference, the mass media has all but dropped the subject of the 16 words, and it has failed to press further with investigations into the many other instances of phony claims for war that we document in our book. The complacent pseudo-journalists who acted as state propagandists in helping sell this war show little interest now in examining the way it was sold. To look closely would risk exposing their own complicity. If the public wants a real investigation into the lies that led us into war, it will have to look outside the narrow window of the corporate media and seek alternative sources of information.
Bush claims to "take responsibility" for his words, but taking responsibility means facing the consequences, and thus far the Bush administration has suffered no consequences whatsoever. The people who have experienced the consequences of Bush's many deceptions are the U.S. soldiers who remain targets of daily attack inside Iraq, the Iraqi people themselves, and of course the American taxpayers who are footing the bill for it all. Everyone, it seems, is expected to shoulder some of the burden of responsibility for the President's words, except for Bush himself.
Sheldon Rampton and John Stauber are the authors of "Weapons of Mass Deception: The Uses of Propaganda in Bush's War on Iraq," published this month by Tarcher/Penguin. The book includes a chapter of false statements and deliberate distortions by Bush and his top officials.
"In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defense of the indefensible," George Orwell wrote in 1946. "Things like the continuance of British rule in India, the Russian purges and deportations, the dropping of the atom bombs on Japan, can indeed be defended, but only by arguments which are too brutal for most people to face, and which do not square with the professed aims of the political parties. Thus political language has to consist largely of euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness."
Orwell was a shrewd observer of the relationship between politics and language. He did not actually invent the term "doublespeak," but he popularized the concept, which is an amalgam of two terms that he coined in "1984," his greatest novel. Orwell used the term "doublethink" to describe a contradictory way of thinking that lets people say things that mean the opposite of what they actually think. He used the term "newspeak" to describe words "deliberately constructed for political purposes: words, that is to say, which not only had in every case a political implication, but were intended to impose a desirable mental attitude upon the person using them."
Hail the Noble Warriors
Doublespeak has accompanied war for thousands of years. English professor William Lutz has found examples as early as Julius Caesar, who described his brutal and bloody conquest of Gaul as "pacification." "The military is acutely aware that the reason for its existence is to wage war, and war means killing people and the deaths of American soldiers as well," he states. "Because the reality of war and its consequences are so harsh, the military almost instinctively turns to doublespeak when discussing war."
Doublespeak often suggests a noble cause to justify the death and destruction. Practically speaking, a democratic country cannot wage war without the popular support of its citizens. A well-constructed myth, broadcast through mass media, can deliver that support even when the noble cause itself seems dubious to the rest of the world.
Consider the now-famous phrase, "axis of evil," which was first used by President Bush in his Jan. 29, 2002 State of the Union address. The concept of an "axis," of course, evokes memories of the "Axis powers" of World War II and suggests an alliance or confederation of states that pose a significant danger precisely because of their common alignment – a menace greater than the sum of the parts. But, in fact, Iran and Iraq have been bitter adversaries for decades, and there is no pattern of collaboration between North Korea and the other two states. As for being "evil," while all three nations have been involved in horrible violations of human rights, so have many U.S.-supported nations, such as Colombia or Saudi Arabia. In reality, "axis of evil" is a term chosen to selectively stigmatize countries for the purpose of justifying military actions against them.
If the bad guys have an "axis," the good guys have a "coalition of the willing," to use the term preferred by Colin Powell and other U.S. officials and often repeated uncritically by major television news outlets. The word "coalition" attempted to evoke the feeling of international unity that existed in during the first Gulf War, when the first Bush administration persuaded the United Nations to endorse a broad international coalition of nations who came together to drive Iraq from Kuwait. At a press briefing on Mar. 20, 2003, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld said, "This is not a unilateral action, as is being characterized in the media. Indeed, the coalition in this activity is larger than the coalition that existed during the Gulf War in 1991."
In truth, the so-called "coalition of the willing" was almost entirely a U.S.-British campaign, with virtually no military contribution from other countries except Australia.
The code names used to designate wars have also become part of the branding process through which war is made to seem noble. Rather than referring to the invasion of Panama as simply a war or invasion, it became Operation Just Cause. (Note also the way that the innocuous word "operation" becomes part of the substitute terminology for war.) The war in Afghanistan was originally named Operation Infinite Justice, a phrase that offended Muslims, who pointed out that only God can dispense infinite justice, so the military planners backed down a bit and called it Operation Enduring Freedom instead. For the invasion of Iraq, they chose Operation Iraqi Freedom.
In PR Week, columnist Paul Holmes examined the significance of the term. "It's possible, I suppose, that Iraqi freedom might be a by-product of this campaign," he wrote, "but to pretend that it's what the exercise is all about is intellectual dishonesty at its most perverse."
However, the phrase served as a powerful framing device. Television networks including Fox and MSNBC used Operation Iraqi Freedom as their tagline for the war, with the phrase appearing in swooshing, 3-D logos accompanied by imagery of flags and other symbols of patriotism. Other phrases favored by the Bush administration – "the disarmament of Iraq," "coalition forces," the "war on terror," "America strikes back" – appeared frequently in visual banners, graphics, and bottom-of-the-screen crawls, repeating and reinforcing the government's key talking points in support of war.
Sometimes language is chosen for its ability to avoid the plain meaning of what its writers are talking about. Numerous examples of this can be found in "Rebuilding America's Defenses: Strategies, Forces and Resources for a New Century," a report published in 2000 by the Project for the New American Century (PNAC), whose members constitute much of the brain trust for the Bush administration's foreign policy. Criticized overseas as a blueprint for U.S. global domination, the report began by stating that the United States at present is a lone superpower that "faces no global rival. America's grand strategy should aim to preserve and extend this advantageous position as far into the future as possible." To achieve this goal, it recommended establishing permanent U.S. military bases in the Middle East and in regions of the world where they do not currently exist, including Southeast Europe, Latin America and Southeast Asia.
Of course, these ideas sound a bit radical if stated too clearly, so PNAC needed to find language that would soften their meaning. The PNAC report, hence, states that the United States needs to "perform the 'constabulary' duties associated with shaping the security environment in critical regions." The phrase "constabulary duties" is a vague way of transforming U.S. soldiers occupying foreign countries into friendly neighborhood cops. "Shaping the security environment" is polite language for controlling other people at gunpoint, and "critical regions" is a nice way of saying, "countries we want to control."
Similarly, U.S. nuclear weapons – which would be called "weapons of mass destruction" if someone else owned them – are described as "the U.S. nuclear deterrent," while missiles with global reach are "defenses to defend the American homeland." How do they "defend" us? They "provide a secure basis for U.S. power projection around the world."
Doublespeak enables PNAC to be simultaneously candid and ambiguous as it speaks of establishing "an American peace" that "must have a secure foundation on unquestioned U.S. military preeminence," in which U.S. troops are stationed throughout the world as the "first line of defense" of an "American security perimeter."
Shocking and Awful War
Sometimes doublespeak can seem very vivid and candid while nevertheless obscuring the real meaning of what is being discussed. For example, "shock and awe" was the term the Bush administration used to announce its strategy of massive, high-tech air strikes on Baghdad. As doctrine of warfare, this term was introduced in a 1996 book by military strategists Harlan K. Ullman and James P. Wade and published by the Command and Control Research Program (CCRP) within the Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense of the United States. Titled "Shock and Awe: Achieving Rapid Dominance," the book describes shock and awe as a strategy "aimed at influencing the will, perception, and understanding of an adversary rather than simply destroying military capability." It points to several examples in which this strategy has been successful in the past, including the dropping of atom bombs at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the Nazi blitzkrieg strategy of World War II.
In January 2003, as the Bush administration moved toward war with Iraq, "Shock and Awe" author Harlan K. Ullman again invoked the example of Hiroshima as he explained the concept to CBS News. "You have this simultaneous effect, rather like the nuclear weapons at Hiroshima, not taking days or weeks but in minutes," he said. "You're sitting in Baghdad and all of a sudden you're the general and 30 of your division headquarters have been wiped out. You also take the city down. By that I mean you get rid of their power, water. In two, three, four, five days they are physically, emotionally and psychologically exhausted."
Upon the onset of actual war, however, military and media pundits depicted "shock and awe" in sanitary terms, claiming that the high accuracy of laser-guided "smart bombs" would make it possible to decapitate the Iraqi military while leaving the country's infrastructure intact and limiting civilian casualties. Similar claims were made during the first war in the Persian Gulf and were later found to be exaggerated. Like other examples of doublespeak, the concept of "shock and awe" enables its users to symbolically reconcile two contradictory ideas. On the one hand, its theorists use the term to plan massive uses of deadly force. On the other hand, its focus on the psychological effect of that force makes it possible to use the term while distancing audiences from direct contemplation of the human suffering that force creates.
The Language of Imperialism
Sometimes doublespeak completely reverses the meaning of words. Paul Holmes observed that "the most Orwellian usage of all has been the recent application of the word 'relevance,' as in 'the United Nations faced a test of its relevance, and failed.' Relevance, in this context, means willingness to rubberstamp whatever demands the U.S. makes. If that sounds very much like irrelevance to you, perhaps you don't understand the might-makes-right world in which we are living."
In normal times, "diplomacy" refers to the process by which nations seek to resolve their differences peacefully, through negotiations and compromise. During the buildup to war, however, "diplomacy" became the process through which the United States attempted to pressure other nations into supporting the war. When they refused, this became the "failure of diplomacy."
Similarly, the Bush administration used the phrase "pre-emptive defense" to describe its decision to attack first, without an overt act of Iraqi provocation – a phrase that could be used to justify attacking anyone we want on the grounds that they might attack us one day. Note also the substitution of the word "defense" for "war" – a perennial use of doublespeak that dates back in the United States to 1947, when the Department of War was renamed the "Department of Defense."
Sometimes language merely fogs up the meaning of things. "Regime change," another phrase credited to the Project for the New American Century, sanitizes the imperial project of overthrowing a foreign government through a military invasion. It makes the process seem tidy, efficient, and rational. The phrase makes it possible to talk about invading Iraq without even thinking about the human consequences: assassination, occupation, or the deaths of thousands of innocents.
And indeed there was no debate in the United States about these realities prior to the war. No questions were raised in the administration or Congress about whether the social cost actually justified the military action. Of course, raising such questions does not necessarily mean you must oppose military action. It is possible to raise these issues and to still argue that the benefits of invading Iraq and overthrowing its government outweigh the costs. In the United States, however, the Bush administration never attempted to make such an argument. Instead, it used language to sidestep addressing the harms caused by war.
The Chicago Tribune's Bob Kemper reported that federal civilian employees and military personnel were told by the White House to refer to the invasion of Iraq as a "war of liberation." Iraqi paramilitary forces were to be called "death squads."
The War to Never End Wars
The idea of a "war on terrorism" is itself a form of doublespeak. It reflects a now-pervasive habit of using war as a metaphor for all sorts of things that are not really wars at all. "Do you ever notice in this country that when we have a problem with something, we always have to declare war on it?," the comedian George Carlin once quipped. "The War on Illiteracy, the War on AIDS, the War on Homelessness, the War on Drugs... We don't actually do anything about it, but we've declared war on it."
At the very beginning of the "war on terrorism," a reporter asked Donald Rumsfeld, "Sir, what constitutes a victory in this new environment? I mean, Cap Weinberger in 1987 laid down some pretty clear rules for engaging U.S. forces. One was, clear goals that are militarily achievable, that you can explain that there's an endgame. What's some of your early thinking here in terms of what constitutes victory?"
"That's a good question, as to what constitutes victory," Rumsfeld replied. "Now, what is victory? I say that victory is persuading the American people and the rest of the world that this is not a quick matter that's going to be over in a month or a year or even five years. It is something that we need to do so that we can continue to live in a world with powerful weapons and with people who are willing to use those powerful weapons. And we can do that as a country. And that would be a victory, in my view."
Rumsfeld is a clever man, and figuring out the meaning behind his words requires careful reading. At first glance, you might be tempted to think that he was saying the United States would win a victory by maintaining its own possession of "powerful weapons." Actually, though, he was admitting that even as a superpower, the United States will not be able to stop the rest of the world from obtaining powerful weapons with which to "impose damage on us."
If terrorism itself cannot be ended, Rumsfeld was saying, we therefore need to change the way we think about the problem, so that we know better than to expect an "endgame" to the war on terror. His definition of victory, in short, becomes "persuading the American people" that real victory will never happen, and that the war itself may continue indefinitely.
President Bush explained the concept more succinctly in April 2003, after visiting wounded soldiers from the war in Iraq. "I reminded them and their families," he said, "that the war in Iraq is really about peace."
Now that's doublespeak.
John Stauber, executive editor of PR Watch, and Sheldon Rampton editor of PR Watch, have co-authored three previous books: "Toxic Sludge Is Good For You: Lies, Damn Lies and the Public Relations Industry," "Mad Cow U.S.A.: Could the Nightmare Happen Here?" and "Trust Us, We're Experts: How Industry Manipulates Science and Gambles With Your Future."