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Think Again: Are Journalists Any Less Gullible Today Than They Were 10 Years Ago?

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It's a tribute to the good sense of the broader American public that on the 10th anniversary of President George W. Bush's disastrous decision to invade Iraq, a majority of Americans are aware that the entire enterprise was a bad idea, according to a poll by the Gallup Organization. As Eric Boehlert noted on the Media Matters for America blog, "To date, that conflict has claimed the lives of nearly 8,000 U.S. service members and contractors and more than 130,000 Iraqi citizens, and is projected to cost the U.S. Treasury more than two trillion dollars."

The Gallup's write-up points out that, "Majorities or near-majorities have viewed the conflict as a mistake continuously since August 2005, the current 53 percent is down from the high point of 63 percent in April 2008." Despite this widely held view, the folks who battled to defend their misguided judgments 10 years ago--largely but not exclusively neoconservatives--are continuing their bloated claims about the purposes and benefits of the war. Former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, for instance, took to Twitter to proclaim that, "10 yrs ago began the long, difficult work of liberating 25 mil Iraqis. All who played a role in history deserve our respect & appreciation." And yet a majority of Americans are able to see the truth through this ongoing propaganda offensive.

It is no easy task to focus on just one deception when examining the Bush administration's success of selling the war to the public. There were so many lies--some deliberate and some believed to be true by the tellers who were possibly under the influence of self-hypnosis. But I am most fascinated by the case for Iraq's alleged cache of "weapons of mass destruction," or WMDs, and the belief that Baghdad possessed not only the willingness but also the capacity to use these weapons against the United States.

These quotes from a range of high-level Bush administration officials offer a glimpse into how the administration "proved" to Americans that Iraq posed a threat to our national security:

  • Vice President Dick Cheney: "Simply stated, there is no doubt that Saddam Hussein now has weapons of mass destruction." Speech to VFW National Convention, August 26, 2002.
  • Secretary Rumsfeld: "We know they have weapons of mass destruction. ... There isn't any debate about it." September 2002.
  • Gen. Tommy Franks, then-head of the Central Command: "There is no doubt that the regime of Saddam Hussein possesses weapons of mass destruction." Press conference, March 22, 2003.
  • Secretary of State Colin Powell: "I'm absolutely sure that there are weapons of mass destruction there and the evidence will be forthcoming. We're just getting it just now." Remarks to reporters, May 4, 2003.

As I noted in The Book on Bush, statements such as these enabled neoconservative pundits such as Robert Kagan and William Kristol to claim that, "No one disputes the nature of the threat," and that, "Nor is there any doubt that, after September 11, Saddam's weapons of mass destruction pose a kind of danger to us that we hadn't grasped before." Back then, this was the "price of admission" to be taken seriously in the debate regarding the decision to attack Iraq.

We now know that these claims were all false. We also know that members of the Bush administration knew they were lying at the time. In early October 2003, for instance, David Kay, the Bush administration's chief investigator, formally told Congress that after searching for nearly six months and spending more than $300 million, U.S. forces and CIA experts had found no chemical or biological weapons in Iraq, and had discovered that the nation's nuclear program was in only "the very most rudimentary" state.

Undoubtedly, the administration's most effective communicator on the issue was then-Secretary of State Colin Powell, who was widely thought to be the most cautious--and hence the most trustworthy--member of the administration's foreign policy team. In actuality, Secretary Powell personally doubted the case he was making to the media about the dangers Iraq presented to the United States and the world. At a meeting in New York just before he was to present the case for war to the United Nations, Secretary Powell expressed hesitation about the war to U.K. Foreign Secretary Jack Straw, according to a transcript of the conversation published in The Guardian. Secretary Powell allegedly told the British foreign secretary that he feared that the evidence might "explode in their faces" once the facts were known. U.S. News & World Report published a more lurid story recalling the interaction, in which the U.S. secretary of state threw the documents and called them "bullshit."

In fact, two years earlier in February 2001 at a meeting with Egypt's foreign minister in Cairo, Secretary Powell defended the U.N. sanctions program already in place against Iraq. He noted the success of U.S. containment of Hussein and regarding the sanctions, he explained that, "Frankly, they have worked. He has not developed any significant capability with respect to weapons of mass destruction. He is unable to project conventional power against his neighbors."

Of course, Secretary Powell was right the first time.

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