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LMSM, the 'Lying Mainstream Media'

By Robert Parry
June 17, 2005

The Washington Post is reasserting its august judgment over what qualifies as news in the face of citizen complaints that it and other mainstream media outlets neglected leaked British memos about the deceptions behind George W. Bush’s war in Iraq.

The Post’s lead editorial on June 15 mixed a patronizing tone with derisive comments in assuring its readers that “the memos add not a single fact to what was previously known about the administration’s prewar deliberations. Not only that: They add nothing to what was publicly known in July 2002.”

Oh, really?

While it may be true that some people were alleging what the secret British memos now confirm, those people were vocal opponents of invading Iraq and were treated by the Post and other pro-war news outlets as fringe characters fit only to be ignored.

For example, many war critics asserted that Bush’s decision to take his case against Iraq to the United Nations was a ploy designed only to justify a predetermined course for invasion. In other words, the critics felt that Bush and his allies were not acting in good faith, but simply wanted some political cover for an illegal war.

That, of course, was not the judgment of editorialists at the Washington Post, the New York Times or other major newspapers who praised Bush for going to the UN on the advice of supposed moderates such as Secretary of State Colin Powell and British Prime Minister Tony Blair.

Indeed, looking back to late 2002 and early 2003, it would be hard to find any “reputable” commentary in the mainstream press calling Bush’s actions fraudulent, which is what the British evidence reveals them to be.

Willful Deception

That sense of willful deception – which pervades the British memos – is why so many American citizens are furious both at Bush for misleading the country to war and at the mainstream news media for failing to adequately challenge the administration’s claims about the need to invade Iraq. The Iraq War has now claimed the lives of more than 1,700 U.S. soldiers and tens of thousands of Iraqis – with no end in sight.

But the British memos show that much of the internal pre-war debate was how best to manipulate the public, including the charade of a last-ditch UN appeal for returning inspectors to Iraq.

In a March 14, 2002, memo to Blair, his chief foreign policy adviser David Manning recounts that he explained over dinner with then-U.S. National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice how important it was to maneuver Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein into a position where he would refuse to permit new UN weapons inspections.

“This issue of weapons inspectors must be handled in a way that would persuade Europe and wider opinion that the U.S. was conscious of the international framework, and the insistence of many countries on the need for a legal basis,” Manning wrote. “Renewed refusal by Saddam to accept unfettered inspections would be a powerful argument.”

Manning also indicated to Rice that Blair needed this UN initiative because the British media and people weren't the pushovers that their American counterparts were. “I said that you [Blair] would not budge in your support for regime change [in Iraq] but you had to manage a press, a Parliament and a public opinion that was different from anything in the States,” Manning wrote.

Wrong-Footing Saddam

On March 18, 2002, four days later, British Ambassador to the United States Christopher Meyer reported on a lunch with U.S. Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz at which they discussed how demands for weapons inspections might trip up Hussein.

Meyer told Wolfowitz that the United States could wage war on its own, “but if it wanted to act with partners, there had to be a strategy for building support for military action against Saddam. I then went through the need to wrong-foot Saddam on the inspectors and the [UN Security Council resolutions] …

“If all this could be accomplished skillfully, we were fairly confident that a number of countries would come on board.” [Los Angeles Times, June 15, 2005, from documents supplied by the London Sunday Times.]

This concept of trying to “wrong-foot Saddam” is a recurring theme in the British memos.

The next month, April 2002, Blair met with Bush in Crawford, Texas, to signal Blair’s support for Bush’s war plans, though the two men have insisted – as recently as at a joint press conference in Washington on June 7, 2005 – that they had not yet made the decision to invade.

Done Deal

The British documents from summer 2002, however, make clear that the invasion of Iraq was essentially a done deal. Three months after the Crawford summit, Blair’s foreign policy team reconvened to hash over new plans for arranging a pretext for war.

A July 21, 2002, briefing paper said it was “necessary to create the conditions” which would make an invasion legal. To achieve those conditions, the briefing paper suggested a UN Security Council resolution that would be insulting enough to goad the proud Hussein into rejecting inspections.

“It is just possible that an ultimatum could be cast in terms which Saddam would reject,” the briefing paper said.

Two days later, on July 23, Blair met at his offices at 10 Downing Street with his top foreign policy advisers to review the Iraq situation. According to the minutes, which have become known as the Downing Street Memo, Richard Dearlove, chief of the British intelligence agency MI6, described a recent trip to Washington at which he discussed Iraq with Bush’s National Security Council.

“Bush wanted to remove Saddam, through military action, justified by the conjunction of terrorism and WMD. But the intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy,” Dearlove said.

The minutes added, “It seemed clear that Bush had made up his mind to take military action, even if the timing was not yet decided. But the case was thin. Saddam was not threatening his neighbours, and his WMD capability was less than that of Libya, North Korea or Iran.”

Ultimatum

Again recognizing that an unprovoked invasion would violate international law, Blair favored first pursuing arms inspections with the hope that Hussein would say no.

“We should work up a plan for an ultimatum to Saddam to allow back in the UN weapons inspectors. This would also help with the legal justification for the use of force,” according to the minutes. “The Prime Minister said that it would make a big difference politically and legally if Saddam refused to allow in the UN inspectors.”

Ultimately, the UN Security Council did approve a toughly worded resolution demanding the return of UN inspectors. But Hussein crossed up Blair and Bush by letting the inspectors return to Iraq in November 2002 and giving them access to suspected WMD sites of their choosing.

Despite praise for this cooperation from chief UN inspector Hans Blix and no WMD discoveries, Bush pressed ahead with his war plans in mid-March 2003. Bush forced the UN inspectors to leave Iraq just days before the invasion on March 19.

The U.S.-led invasion ousted Hussein in three weeks, but U.S. inspectors failed to locate any WMD. As the initial euphoria over Hussein’s toppled statue faded, replaced with widespread chaos and growing casualties, Bush seemed to realize that he needed to create a justification for the war, at least some words he could tell the American people.

So, by summer 2003, Bush had begun rewriting the recent history to assert that the war was justified because Hussein had not let the UN arms inspectors in, precisely the rationale that Bush and Blair had hoped to have. Though it hadn’t worked out that way, Bush solved the problem by simply lying about the history.

On July 14, 2003, Bush said about Hussein, “we gave him a chance to allow the inspectors in, and he wouldn’t let them in. And, therefore, after a reasonable request, we decided to remove him from power.” Bush repeated this formulation in slightly varied forms over the following two years, including during a presidential debate in 2004.

Yet, like so many other examples of Bush misstating or exaggerating facts, this falsified history drew little notice or objection from the U.S. mainstream media. [For our latest story on Bush’s manufactured history, see Consortiumnews.com’s “President Bush, With the Candlestick…”]

'Hegemon'

Another stunning feature of the British memos was the sense of resignation felt by London and the other world capitals once Bush had marked out the path to war.

“In practice, much of the international community would find it difficult to stand in the way of the determined course of the U.S. hegemon,” according to the July 21, 2002, briefing paper, which added: “US views of international law vary from that of the UK and the international community.”

Particularly, the British found themselves caught between a rock and a hard place because Bush was determined to attack Iraq and would use British military facilities regardless of London’s desires, the briefing paper said.

“US plans assume, as a minimum, the use of British bases in Cyprus and Diego Garcia,” which meant that the issue of British complicity in an illegal American war “would arise virtually whatever option ministers choose with regard to UK participation,” the July 21 briefing paper said. [London Sunday Times, June 12, 2005]

These secret British memos, obtained by foreign policy correspondent Michael Smith of the London Sunday Times, offered an extraordinary inside view of power politics as played by the Bush administration. But much of the U.S. mainstream media yawned when the documents surfaced in early May 2005. Stories were either relegated to the inside pages or not written at all.

This time, however, liberal activists and Internet bloggers pressed the issue, essentially accusing the mainstream media – or MSM – of toadying up to the Bush administration or cowering before right-wing pressure groups.

Striking Back

Finally, the hectoring from the anti-war side grew too much. A few front-page stories about the documents appeared, but prominent national commentators denied that any cover-up had occurred. They dismissed the British memos as old news or weak evidence.

On June 12, 2005, for instance, the Washington Post carried an opinion column by Los Angeles Times editorial page editor Michael Kinsley, who mocked readers who had peppered him with demands for coverage of the Downing Street Memo.

Kinsley said he only read the memo after getting about 200 e-mails. In a column entitled “No Smoking Gun,” he then proceeded to ridicule Americans who saw the memo as “proof positive that President Bush was determined to invade Iraq the year before he did so” or who thought “the whole ‘weapons of mass destruction’ concern was phony from the start, and the drama about inspections was just kabuki: going through the motions.”

In this derisive tone, Kinsley wrote, “Although it is flattering to be thought personally responsible for allowing a proven war criminal to remain in office, in the end I don’t buy the fuss.” Kinsley then dismissed the value of the Downing Street Memo’s contents, some of which were attributed to MI6 chief Dearlove, who is referred to in the memo as “C.”

“Even on its face, the memo is not proof that Bush had decided on war. It says that war is ‘now seen as inevitable’ by ‘Washington,’” Kinsley wrote. “C is saying only that these people believe that war is how events will play out.”

Kinsley then speculated that those viewpoints of “Washington” may be just the views of “the usual freelance chatterboxes.”

But Kinsley either is a very sloppy reader or a liar. The context of Dearlove’s information is clear. It came from a meeting that Dearlove had in Washington with Bush’s National Security Council, the most authoritative source on Bush’s thinking outside of the president himself, not just from some “freelance chatterboxes.” Dearlove doesn't cite “Washington” as his source the way Kinsley says the intelligence chief does.

The relevant paragraph from the Downing Street Memo reads as follows:

“C reported on his recent talks in Washington. There was a perceptible shift in attitude. Military action was now seen as inevitable. Bush wanted to remove Saddam, through military action, justified by the conjunction of terrorism and WMD. But the intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy. The NSC had no patience with the UN route. … There was little discussion in Washington of the aftermath after military action.”

Editorial Attack

The Washington Post followed up Kinsley’s salvo with its June 15 editorial, discounting the British disclosures as old and fuzzy news.

The Post, which beat the war drums loudly in 2002 and 2003, continued to insist that Bush was sincere in his belief about the WMD threat from Iraq, despite the British comments that “intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy.”

The “fixed” intelligence comment was “vague but intriguing,” the Post editorial said, but then it cited the fact that several official government investigations didn’t accuse the Bush administration of politicizing the intelligence. (The editorial doesn’t mention the rest of the story: that the Bush administration and the Republican congressional leadership barred the investigations from examining that issue.)

But the Post editorial pages have been getting the Iraq story wrong from the start. As the nation lurched toward war in 2002-2003, editorial page editor Fred Hiatt not only fell for the Bush administration’s claims about WMD, but he treated dissent toward that conventional wisdom as almost unthinkable.

After Secretary of State Powell made his now-infamous presentation of the Iraq evidence to the UN on Feb. 5, 2003, Hiatt’s editorial page judged Powell’s WMD case “irrefutable” and added: “it is hard to imagine how anyone could doubt that Iraq possesses weapons of mass destruction.”

The Post’s pro-war editorials were amplified by a pro-war echo chamber of Post columnists who are also under Hiatt’s jurisdiction.

“The [Post] editorials during December [2002] and January [2003] numbered nine, and all were hawkish,” wrote Columbia University journalism professor Todd Gitlin. “This editorial mood continued into February, culminating in a blast at the French and Germans headlined ‘Standing With Saddam.’ Apparently it’s not only George W. Bush who doesn’t nuance.” [American Prospect, April 1, 2003]

False Facts

After the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq and the failure to discover WMD, Hiatt acknowledged that the Post should have been more circumspect.

“If you look at the editorials we write running up [to the war], we state as flat fact that he [Hussein] has weapons of mass destruction,” Hiatt said in an interview with the Columbia Journalism Review. “If that’s not true, it would have been better not to say it.” [CJR, March/April 2004]

While Hiatt is only one of many successful Washington journalists whose careers have benefited from not rocking the Republican boat, he does stand out as one with a particularly long record of missing stories and getting rewarded for it.

Hiatt first came to my attention when I was with the Associated Press in the mid-1980s. Starting in spring 1985, I had been writing stories about Ronald Reagan’s NSC aide Oliver North’s secret Nicaraguan contra support operations. These AP stories had encountered fierce White House denials.

Adding to our troubles were two articles – published in 1986 by the New York Times and the Washington Post – purporting to explore the inner workings of Reagan’s NSC. Neither story made any mention of North. When I called a friend at the Post to ask why North had been left out, I was told that the Post had been assured by its White House sources that North was an inconsequential figure.

Only months later, the Iran-Contra scandal broke wide open, showing that North’s activities were not only consequential but caused the most memorable scandal of Reagan’s presidency. The reporter for the Post article about the NSC – the story that had failed to mention Oliver North – was Fred Hiatt.

Hiatt later was the Post’s bureau chief in Moscow where some critics of Russia’s “shock therapy” privatization considered Hiatt naïve about the corruption that pervaded the business activities of some “Russian oligarchs” as they manipulated the sell-off of state assets. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “Russia’s Ruling Robbers.”]

Still, despite this track record – or some might say, because of it – Hiatt landed the prestigious job of editorial page editor of the Washington Post, one of the most influential positions in American journalism. From that spot, he has lectured the Democrats – and now common citizens – not to be too critical of George W. Bush’s Iraq policies.

Sad Donkeys

Early this year in a Post column entitled “Bad News Donkeys,” Hiatt chastised Sen. John Kerry for not showing enough enthusiasm over the Iraqi election on Jan. 30. According to Hiatt, Kerry “grumped” his answer about the election when the senator told NBC’s Tim Russert that “I think it’s gone as expected.”

When House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi pressed for a clearer exit strategy for U.S. troops, Hiatt judged that her comments “sounded grudging and morose.” He finished up his column comparing the Democrats to the sad-sack donkey character Eeyore in the Winnie-the-Pooh stories. [Washington Post, Feb. 7, 2005]

Ironically, although Hiatt chastised Democratic leaders for their lack of enthusiasm about Iraq in February, his editorial page echoed those concerns in June.

“In fact, the U.S. mission in Iraq seems to be drifting dangerously – and the president, once again, is not talking frankly to the country about the sacrifice that may be required, or where the troops and other resources for such an effort will come from,” the June 15 editorial said. “Those ought to be the questions at center stage this summer” – as opposed to the British memos and the evidence of deception.

But it’s easy to see why George W. Bush thinks he can continue dissembling about the Iraq War, since he’s gotten away with it for three years, as the Post and other parts of the MSM have told the public, “move along, none of your business what happened here.”


Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His new book, Secrecy & Privilege: Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq, can be ordered at secrecyandprivilege.com. It's also available at Amazon.com, as is his 1999 book, Lost History: Contras, Cocaine, the Press & 'Project Truth.'

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