As hecklers at a speech in Atlanta on May 4 accused
the Bush administration of lying and then were dragged away one by one,
Rumsfeld appealed for civility and for renewed faith in George W. Bush’s
“You know, that charge [of lying] is frequently
leveled against the President for one reason or another, and it’s so
wrong and so unfair and so destructive of a free system, where people
need to trust each other and government,” Rumsfeld told a crowd of
international affairs experts.
Anyone who’s followed the twisted course of Iraq
War rationales had to marvel at Rumsfeld’s chutzpah, putting
citizen accusers on the defensive and turning government deceivers into
defenders of “a free system.” How could he expect such a transparent
ploy to work?
But the cagey Pentagon chief may have recognized
that he could still score with two target audiences: die-hard Bush
loyalists and the Washington press corps. The word “lie” – when applied
to Bush – sends Bush's backers into a fury and thus is studiously
avoided by the mainstream press.
The two groups especially reject the l-word when
the evidence shows that Bush and his top advisers have lied about the
Iraq War. Indeed, one of the most enduring and successful lies has been
Bush’s insistence that he treated war with Iraq as a “last resort” and
that Saddam Hussein was the one who “chose war” by refusing to let
United Nations weapons inspectors in.
The reality, however, was that Hussein told the
truth when he said his country no longer had weapons of mass
destruction, as U.S. weapons inspectors later discovered, and he did let
in U.N. inspectors to search wherever they wanted for several months
before Bush launched the invasion on March 19, 2003. But Bush is almost
never challenged when he misrepresents these facts. [For details, see
Bush, With the Candlestick…”]
Insider accounts from former Bush administration
officials, such as Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neill and counterterrorism
chief Richard Clarke, also revealed that Bush and his senior aides were
spoiling for a war with Iraq from their earliest days in office – and
that they exploited the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks as a pretext.
British government documents, including the
so-called “Downing Street Memo,” supplied additional corroboration that
Bush “fixed” the intelligence and sought other excuses to justify a war,
such as trying to trick the Iraqis into firing on a U-2 spy plane
painted in U.N. colors. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “George
W. Bush IS a Liar.”]
Yet, despite this now well-established history, the
Washington press corps still acts aghast or mystified when some citizens
accuse Bush and his aides of lying about the Iraq War.
Sometimes, the mainstream journalists explain to
the citizenry that Bush didn’t lie; he was just misled by mistaken
intelligence. Other times, the journalists assert that the President
was, beyond doubt, well-meaning and thus his critics must have some dark
political agenda for attacking his integrity.
That pattern repeated itself when Rumsfeld jousted
with the angry citizens in Atlanta and got more than he had bargained
for. After Rumsfeld bemoaned the harm done by calling Bush a liar,
former CIA analyst Ray McGovern rose to ask several pointed questions.
“Why did you lie to get us into a war that was not
necessary and that has caused these kinds of casualties? Why?” asked
“Well, first of all, I – I haven’t lied. I did not
lie then,” Rumsfeld said as he fell back on the argument that the
problem was simply bad intelligence. “I’m not in the intelligence
business. They gave the world their honest opinion. It appears that
there were not weapons of mass destruction there.”
Persisting in his questions, however, McGovern
cited Rumsfeld’s earlier certainty about where Iraq’s WMD caches were
hidden. McGovern also noted the administration’s now-discredited claims
that Hussein’s government had ties to al-Qaeda terrorists.
Rumsfeld responded first by (falsely) denying that
he had said what McGovern said he said about the WMD caches. The Defense
Secretary then pulled out an old canard that supposedly proved a
Hussein-al-Qaeda connection by noting that Jordanian terrorist Abu Musab
al-Zarqawi had spent time in Baghdad.
“Zarqawi was in Baghdad during the prewar period,”
Rumsfeld said. “That is a fact.”
Some news coverage of the Atlanta confrontation,
such as the clip on NBC’s Nightly News, ended with that Rumsfeld
statement, leaving his Zarqawi point unchallenged.
However, CNN and other news outlets did carry a
fuller version, in which McGovern put Rumsfeld’s claim in context:
“Zarqawi? He was in the north of Iraq in a place where Saddam Hussein
had no rule. That’s also ...”
“He was also in Baghdad,” Rumsfeld interjected.
“Yes,” McGovern said, “when he needed to go to the
hospital. Come on, these people aren’t idiots. They know the story.”
But Rumsfeld’s Zarqawi-in-Baghdad line demonstrates
why the Bush administration still deserves no trust on Iraq.
While superficially the Zarqawi-in-Baghdad line may
sound like damning evidence against Iraq, it actually means almost
nothing since there’s no proof that Hussein’s government was aware of
Zarqawi’s presence, let alone collaborated with him.
By this Rummy logic, the U.S. military should have
invaded Florida and jailed its governor, Jeb Bush, because terrorist
Mohammed Atta and other 9/11 hijackers lived in the state for more than
a year before the attacks. Some even attended Florida flight schools.
But no administration official has ever accused Jeb
Bush of complicity in the 9/11 attacks just because Atta operated under
the nose of George W. Bush’s younger brother.
Yet, Rumsfeld justifies invading a nation halfway
around the world because its government failed to detect a then-obscure
terrorist getting medical treatment in a hospital.
(Following this Rummy logic further, one would have
to conclude that the U.S. occupation forces and the new Iraqi government
are now colluding with Zarqawi because he has operated in and around
Baghdad for the past three years without being caught.)
Despite the irrationality behind the
administration’s Zarqawi-in-Baghdad argument, it has rarely been
challenged by major U.S. news outlets. After the May 4 confrontation,
the most any U.S. news outlet did was play McGovern’s retort without
further explanation or comment.
Besides not holding the Bush administration
accountable for these sorts of Iraq War deceptions, the U.S. news media
often goes on the offensive against Bush’s critics, painting them as
either unbalanced or vengeful.
For instance, after the exchange in Atlanta,
McGovern faced questions from CNN anchor Paula Zahn about the CIA
“How much of an axe do you have to grind with
Secretary Rumsfeld?” Zahn asked. (Note she didn’t ask if McGovern
had an axe to grind with Rumsfeld, but rather how much.)
“It’s not a matter of axes to grind,” McGovern
responded. “It’s a matter of telling the truth. And we pledged, in my
day at the CIA, to tell it without fear or favor, to tell it like it is.
And, when I see that corrupted, that is the real tragedy of this whole
Zahn then pressed McGovern to give Rumsfeld credit because the Defense
Secretary stopped security guards from throwing McGovern out.
“Donald Rumsfeld encouraged whoever I think had
their hands on you at the time to let you stay there,” Zahn said. “Does
he get any credit for that today?”
Rummy, the Believer
After wrapping up the segment with McGovern, Zahn
turned to CNN military correspondent Jamie McIntyre and repeated her
concerns about McGovern’s motives.
“Some fireworks there, as this speech unfolded, Mr.
McGovern claiming he has no axe to grind,” Zahn said, reiterating her
negative suggestion about McGovern that Zahn apparently had pulled out
of thin air.
Although Zahn and McIntyre agreed that Rumsfeld was
mistaken on a number of points about Iraq, they kept giving him the
benefit of the doubt about his own motivation.
“It comes down to the question of, was he wrong
because – for the right reasons, or did he intentionally mislead?”
McIntyre said. “And one thing I can tell you about Rumsfeld is he
intensely believes that what he says is true and that he’s got the right
version of events.”
Just as Zahn never explained why she thought
McGovern had an axe to grind, McIntyre didn’t explain how he knows that
Rumsfeld only says what he “intensely believes.” Typical, for the
mainstream news media, a negative inference was drawn against a Bush
critic while a positive inference was applied to a Bush ally.
Yet, the actual evidence on Rumsfeld suggests that
he routinely made statements about the Iraq War that any mildly informed
person would know to be false or at least highly dubious. Coupled with
his illogical arguments – like the Zarqawi-in-Baghdad claim – the only
rational conclusion is that the Defense Secretary is a conscious
deceiver, if not an inveterate liar.
But the major U.S. news outlets simply refuse to
make such harsh judgments, instead either choosing to look away when
incriminating evidence is presented or bending over backwards to find
Both tendencies were on display in the New York
Times in the days after the Rumsfeld-McGovern confrontation.
The day after Rumsfeld’s Atlanta speech, the New
York Times could have used the exchange as a peg to write about the long
history of Iraq War deceptions. Instead, the Times printed one paragraph
of a wire story that simply quoted McGovern saying that Rumsfeld had
lied and Rumsfeld responding, “I did not lie.”
The Times returned to the confrontation in a May 7
editorial in the context of urging the Republican-run Senate
Intelligence Committee to finally release a report on whether the
administration “deliberately misled the world” in its presentation of
Iraq War intelligence.
But even in that editorial, there was the continued
determination to evade the word “lie.” The Times phrased its criticism
this way: “It is bad enough that Mr. Rumsfeld and others did not tell
Americans the full truth – to take the best case situation – before the
Still, why – given the overwhelming case that the
administration has lied repeatedly – did the Times feel compelled “to
take the best case situation” and then simply say that the
administration “did not tell Americans the full truth.” Far from not
telling the full truth, the administration manufactured a case for war
out of whole cloth.
One answer to the question of why the Times and
other news outlets won't hold the Bush administration accountable in
clear English is that many journalists are still afraid they will be
accused of lacking patriotism and face career damage, as happened to
Iraq War skeptics during the jingoistic run-up to the invasion in 2002
and early 2003.
This fear remains strong even as Bush’s popularity
crumbles and the Republican attack machine breaks down.
The residual fear is like the terror that Butch
Cassidy and the Sundance Kid felt toward a relentless tracker named Jo
Lefors who wore a white straw hat. Even when facing far worse dangers,
the two outlaws always were spooked at the possibility that they might
spot Lefors’s white hat.
Similarly, journalists are so frightened of
accusations that they are undermining the President “at a time of war”
that they will do almost anything to avoid the charge, even as a growing
number of Americans are livid with the media for fawning over Bush and
enabling his disastrous war policies.
What the broader American public has begun to
understand is that Rumsfeld is wrong when he demands unconditional trust
from the people for President Bush. What truly destroys “a free system”
is the betrayal of the people's trust by dishonest government officials,
especially on matters of life and death.
At such moments, the news media only worsens the
destruction of democracy by pretending there is no problem or, worse,
blaming citizens who try to alert the country to the problem. The hard
truth is that the lying won’t stop – and the damage to democracy will
just grow worse – until the liars are called to account, however
unpleasant the task.