How Propaganda Conquers Democracy
In recent decades, the U.S. propaganda system has grown more and more sophisticated in the art of “perception management,” now enlisting not only government PR specialists but careerist journalists and aspiring bloggers to push deceptions on the public, a crisis in democracy that Nicolas J S Davies explores.
By Nicolas J S Davies
Do we live in a country where citizens are critically informed on the issues of the day by media that operate independently of the government? Or do our political leaders deliberately plant a false view of events and issues in the mind of the public that complicit media then broadcast and amplify to generate public consent for government policy?
This is a basic test of democracy for the citizens of any country. But the very nature of modern propaganda systems is that they masquerade as independent while functioning as the opposite, so the question is not as straightforward as it seems.
In Democracy Incorporated; Managed Democracy and the Specter of Inverted Totalitarianism, political scientist Sheldon Wolin examined how America’s “managed democracy” has devolved into “inverted totalitarianism,” concentrating power and wealth in the hands of a small ruling class more efficiently and sustainably than 20th Century “classical totalitarianism” ever succeeded in doing.
Instead of sweeping away the structures of constitutional government like the Fascists, Nazis or Soviets, this “political coming-of-age of corporate power” has more cleverly preserved and co-opted nominally democratic institutions and adapted them to its own purposes.
Self-serving politicians and parties compete for funding in election campaigns run by the advertising industry, to give political investors the most corrupt President, administration and Congress that money can buy, while courts uphold new corporate and plutocratic political rights to ward off challenges to the closed circle of wealth and political power.
Oligarchic corporate control of the media is a critical element in this dystopian system. Under the genius of inverted totalitarianism, a confluence of corrupt interests has built a more effective and durable propaganda system than direct government control has ever achieved.
The editor or media executive who amplifies government and corporate propaganda and suppresses alternative narratives is not generally doing so on orders from the government, but in the interest of his own career, his company’s success in the corporate oligarchy or “marketplace,” and his responsibility not to provide a platform for radical or “irrelevant” ideas.
In this context, a common pattern in five recent cases illustrates how the U.S. government and media systematically deceive the public on critical foreign policy issues, to generate public hostility toward foreign governments and to suppress domestic opposition to economic sanctions and to the threat and use of military force.
1. Non-Existent WMDs in Iraq. This is the case we all know about. U.S. officials made claims they knew were false when they made them, and the media faithfully and uncritically amplified them to make the case for war. The result was the destruction of Iraq in a war based on lies. At meetings in 2001, according to Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neill, CIA Director George Tenet consistently told the National Security Council (NSC) that that the CIA had no “confirming intelligence” that Iraq possessed nuclear, chemical or biological weapons.
When Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld laid out the Pentagon’s plans to invade Iraq, Tenet reiterated that it was still only speculation that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction. Eying the junior staffers in the room, Rumsfeld replied, “I’m not sure everyone here has clearance to hear this.”
Senior officials knew their case for war was weak and unsubstantiated, but they treated the weakness of their case as a closely guarded state secret to be kept from the public, up to and including staffers at NSC meetings. They set up the Office of Special Plans at the Pentagon to “stovepipe” unvetted intelligence directly to senior officials to bolster the case for war, bypassing the review process that is supposed to filter intelligence for accuracy and reliability.
As the head of MI6 told the British cabinet in July 2002, “the intelligence and the facts were being fixed around the policy.” Chief UN weapons inspector Scott Ritter revealed how MI6 planted unsubstantiated stories in newspapers around the world to make the case for war. In June 2002, the CIA-backed Iraqi National Congress revealed that its “Information Collection Program” was the primary source for 108 media reports on Iraq’s WMDs and links to terrorism over the past eight months.
In July 2002, Ritter told CNN, “No one has substantiated the allegations that Iraq possesses weapons of mass destruction,” but CNN enthusiastically – and profitably – joined the rush to war.
When Congress debated the 2002 Iraq war resolution, the administration gave members a 25-page document it advertised as a summary of a new National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) on Iraq. The document was pure propaganda, produced months before the NIE, and included false claims that were nowhere to be found in the NIE, such as that the CIA knew the location of 550 sites in Iraq where chemical and biological agents were stored.
Sen. Bob Graham, D-Florida, chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, begged his colleagues to instead read the classified NIE, dramatically warning them, “Blood is going to be on your hands.” Only six Senators and a handful of Representatives did so, but the media clung to the propaganda narrative that the White House and Congress had seen “the same intelligence.”
In his 2003 State of the Union speech, President George W. Bush cited gaps in Iraq’s accounting for weapons it destroyed in 1991 as a continuing threat, from 25,000 liters of anthrax to 500 tons of Sarin, VX nerve agent and mustard gas. Of all these, only mustard gas would have still been potent 12 years later – if it had existed.
Bush pretended that 81-mm aluminum rocket casings were tubes for centrifuges, a claim already dismissed by the International Atomic Energy Agency, and that Iraq was buying uranium in Niger based on a forgery that the IAEA spotted within hours. But Bush’s deceptive fear-mongering was uncritically embraced and amplified by the U.S. media.
Secretary of State Colin Powell’s presentation to the UN Security Council in February 2003 contained at least a dozen categorical but false statements about Iraqi weapons, based on recordings and photographs deliberately misinterpreted by the Iraqi National Congress and CIA agents. Security Council members were unconvinced, but the U.S. media uniformly and enthusiastically endorsed Powell’s “slam-dunk” case for war.
Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR) found that U.S. media coverage was unashamedly pro-war during the critical weeks leading up to the invasion, with only three anti-war voices among 393 “expert” interviews on major TV networks. A total of 76 percent of interviewees were present or former government officials, of whom only 6 percent were critical of the case for war, even as a CBS poll found that 61 percent of the public wanted to “wait and give the United Nations and weapons inspectors more time.”
The election of President Barack Obama was a chance for the U.S. to make a clean break from the destructive and deceptive policies of the Bush administration. But the U.S. propaganda system has instead evolved to embrace even more sophisticated techniques of branding and image-making, not least to build a deep sense of trust into the iconic image of a hip celebrity-in-chief with roots in African-American and modern urban culture.
The contrast between image and reality, so essential to Obama’s role, represents a new achievement in managed democracy, enabling him to maintain and expand policies that are the polar opposite of the change his supporters thought they were voting for.
2. Non-Existent WMDs in Iran. Incredibly, after their exposure and embarrassment over Iraq, the U.S. government and media didn’t skip a beat but immediately recycled their WMD narrative to justify a similar campaign of sanctions and threats against Iran.
We are finally on a more promising diplomatic trajectory, but it is still taboo for U.S. politicians or media to admit that Iran has almost certainly never had a nuclear weapons program, and the U.S. propaganda narrative still insists that a decade of brutal economic warfare has played a constructive role to “bring Iran to the table.” Nothing could be farther from the truth.
A 2012 study by the International Crisis Group found that ever-tightening sanctions had “almost no chance of producing an Iranian climb-down any time soon,” and could end up leading to war, not offering an alternative to it – just as in Iraq.
As Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Zarif remarked in November 2014, “The effect of sanctions can be seen in how many centrifuges are spinning in Iran. When we began the sanctions process, Iran had less than 200 centrifuges. Today it has over 20,000.” Zarif also reiterated Iran’s long-standing position that, “Nuclear weapons don’t serve our strategic interests and are against the core principles of our faith.”
Trita Parsi (president of the National Iranian American Council), Mohammed ElBaradei (former IAEA director-general), and Gareth Porter (an award-winning investigative reporter/historian) have each written enlightening books that demolish critical elements of the U.S. propaganda campaign against Iran:
In A Single Roll of the Dice: Obama’s Diplomacy With Iran, Trita Parsi explained that Obama’s “dual-track approach”, combining negotiations with sanctions, was a political compromise to appease doves and hawks in Washington. But this was a prescription for failure in the real world, because the two tracks were incompatible and the sanctions track gave the hardliners on both sides the upper hand.
After Brazil and Turkey persuaded Iran to agree to a comprehensive proposal offered by the U.S. only months earlier, the U.S. rejected its own plan because it would undermine its efforts to pass new sanctions in the UN Security Council. A senior State Department official told Parsi that the main obstacle to resolving the crisis was the U.S. inability to take “Yes” for an answer.
In The Age of Deception: Nuclear Diplomacy in Treacherous Times, ElBaradei recounted how the CIA and other Western intelligence agencies kept providing the IAEA with supposed “evidence” of an Iranian nuclear weapons program, but, just as in Iraq, there was nothing there to find.
Despite the “Key Lessons” of UNMOVIC’s final report on Iraq that UN inspection agencies should not be used “to support other agendas or to keep the inspected party in a permanent state of weakness,” nor be given the impossible political task of “proving the negative,” ElBaradei found himself back in exactly that position, even as the IAEA was already fulfilling its legitimate task of monitoring all Iran’s nuclear material and facilities.
Gareth Porter has maybe done more than anyone to expose the bankruptcy of the U.S. propaganda narrative on Iran. In Manufactured Crisis: the Untold Story of the Iran Nuclear Scare, he explained how this entire campaign has been based on falsehoods and fabrications for two decades.
There is no real evidence that Iran has ever taken the first step toward weaponizing its civilian nuclear program, and each suggestion that it has is based on sloppy analysis poisoned by mistrust and false assumptions, or in some cases on evidence actually fabricated by Iran’s enemies, like the infamous “laptop documents” that were most likely supplied by the Mujahedeen-e-Kalq (MEK).
And yet mainstream media reports in the U.S. still parrot the false premises of an unjust campaign of economic warfare that has devastated Iran’s economy and the lives of its people, to say nothing of cyber-warfare, the assassinations of four innocent Iranian scientists, and threats of war.
In the U.S. media narrative, we are still the “good guys,” and the Iranians are still the “bad guys” who can’t be trusted. But, of course, that’s the whole point. The underlying purpose of campaigns like this is to frame U.S. disputes with other countries in Manichean terms to justify brutally unfair and dangerous policies.
3. Sarin Attack at Ghouta in Syria. Hundreds of Syrian civilians were killed by a missile filled with about 60 kg of the nerve agent Sarin on Aug. 21, 2013. U.S. officials immediately blamed the Syrian Army and President Bashar Al-Assad. President Obama was soon ready to launch a massive assault on Syria’s air defenses and other targets, a major escalation of the covert, proxy war he had been waging since 2011.
Three weeks after the Sarin attack, Obama declared in a televised speech, “Assad’s government gassed to death over a thousand people… we know the Assad regime was responsible.” Following reports by UN investigators and investigative journalists with good access to U.S. military and intelligence sources, it now seems almost certain that the chemical attack was conducted by Jabhat Al-Nusra (al-Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria) or other rebel forces, with help from either Turkish or Qatari military intelligence.
The missile was fired from a rebel-held area 2 km from its point of impact, only a fraction of the distance to the Syrian military base from where U.S. officials claimed it was fired, and the chemical impurities in the Sarin suggest that it was improvised, not military-grade.
The question of motive suggests that this was a rebel “false-flag” attack that almost succeeded in drawing the U.S. deeper into the war, acting as the air force of Al-Nusra and its allies. On the other side, there is no plausible reason why the Syrian government could have expected to gain by conducting such an attack (especially since UN inspectors had just arrived in Damascus to begin a study of another chemical attack that had been blamed on the rebels).
The “Who Attacked Ghouta?” web site is a good effort to bring together and analyze all the evidence, and both Seymour Hersh and Robert Parry have written good articles based on U.S. intelligence sources. But U.S. officials and media pundits still talk as if their dangerous and irresponsible charges are beyond question.
Their assertions are so well established in the U.S. media that they have effectively become part of American popular culture. When Americans think of President Assad, they think “gassed his own people.”
When we examine the words and actions of President Obama, Secretary Kerry and other U.S. officials, only one thing is certain: that their expressions of certainty regarding responsibility for the chemical attack were false, both then and now. Like Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld and Powell, they simply lied when they told the world that the intelligence pointed only in one direction.
As in other cases, this was a deliberate propaganda strategy to so strongly establish a false narrative in the mind of the public that it would be hard to dislodge, even once evidence emerged that it was probably just plain wrong.
As we watch this strategy play out in each of these cases, we can see that Iraq was the exception that proved the rule, the case where U.S. propagandists were caught out and embarrassed before the American public and the whole world. But this has not stopped them or their successors from doubling down on the same propaganda strategy, nor has its exposure in Iraq rendered it ineffective as a means of misleading the public in other cases.
4. Who shot down Malaysian Airlines MH17? President Vladimir Putin is the latest foreign leader to be targeted by a classic U.S. vilification campaign.
Since the State Department and CIA engineered a violent coup in Ukraine that literally tore that country apart, U.S. politicians and media have marched in lockstep to pretend that the crisis was caused, not by the U.S.-backed overthrow of the elected government, but by Russia’s subsequent reintegration of the Crimea based on a popular referendum.
Almost 5,000 people (with some estimates even higher) have been killed as the Western-backed government that seized power in Kiev has dispatched its Army and new National Guard units to attack cities in Eastern Ukraine. It recruited some of them, like the Azov Brigade, from the neo-Nazi Svoboda and Right Sektor militias who provided the muscle for the coup in February.
The Russian-speaking people in the eastern Ukraine expect no mercy or justice from these anti-Russian Ukrainian nationalists, so they fight on despite heavy losses and dire conditions, with limited support from Russia. Like the chemical weapons attack in Syria, U.S. officials and media immediately blamed the shoot-down of Malaysia Airlines MH-17 on U.S. enemies and claimed once again that the evidence pointed only in one direction. But once again, the only thing that is sure is that they can’t be sure of that.
A Dutch team is leading an investigation, as each side accuses the other of responsibility. Concerns about the impartiality of the investigation have led to calls for a fully independent investigation, including a public online petition. U.S. officials and media claim that the airliner was shot down by a Russian surface-to-air missile fired by Ukrainian rebels.
An alternative narrative is that it was shot down by one of two Ukrainian fighter planes that were reported to be tailing it. The cockpit appears to be riddled with bullet-holes, but these might have been caused by shrapnel from an exploding missile. But the only forces known to have deployed such missiles in the area were Ukrainian government forces, so the Western narrative remains doubtful at best.
Even if the rebels captured and fired a Ukrainian missile, there is no evidence of Russian involvement. Yet the U.S. used Russia’s presumed guilt to trigger new U.S. and European Union sanctions against Russia, taking the world ever closer to the “new Cold War” that Mikhail Gorbachev warned of recently in Berlin.
The petition for an independent inquiry reads, “With the U.S. and Russia in possession of 15,000 of the world’s 16,400 nuclear weapons, humanity can ill-afford to stand by and permit these conflicting views of history and opposing assessments of the facts on the ground to lead to a 21st century military confrontation between the great powers and their allies.”
But by engineering a coup in Ukraine and rejecting reasonable Russian proposals to resolve the crisis, U.S. leaders have deliberately provoked such a confrontation. The U.S. media have provided political cover, blaming everything on Russia and President Putin, to give U.S. leaders the political space to play the most dangerous game known to mankind: nuclear brinksmanship.
5. North Korea vs. Sony? Now the U.S. is imposing new sanctions on North Korea based on claims that it is behind a cyber-attack on the Sony Corporation. Once again, U.S. officials claim to be sure of their accusations. And once again, the only sure thing is that they’re only pretending to be sure, in this case risking a new conflict with a government whose actions they’ve consistently failed to accurately predict or understand for decades.
Cyber-security experts are already challenging the U.S. narrative. Marc Rogers of Cloudflare, who manages cyber-security at hacker conferences, thinks the attack on Sony was probably the work of a vengeful ex-employee. He wrote in an article for Daily Beast, “I am no fan of the North Korean regime. However I believe that calling out a foreign nation over a cyber-crime of this magnitude should never have been undertaken on such weak evidence.”
But calling out foreign nations on weak evidence is an essential core element of U.S. propaganda strategy. U.S. officials quickly and loudly establish the narrative they want the public to believe, and leave it to the echo chamber of the complicit U.S. media system to do the rest. The media’s roles are then to “work the story” through rote repetition and supporting analysis, and to suppress and ridicule alternative narratives.
U.S. officials believe they can win a global propaganda war, much as they think they won the Cold War. But they seem to be losing the global struggle for hearts and minds. The Obama charm offensive is wearing thin and worldwide opinion polls consistently identify the U.S. as the greatest threat to peace.
On the domestic front, as the lies that clothe our emperor and our empire become ever more transparent, Americans are inevitably growing more skeptical than ever of politicians and the media. Skepticism in the face of propaganda is vital, but the post-WW II record low turnout in the November 2014 election (36.4 percent) suggests that more Americans are reacting to the corruption of our political and media environment with disengagement than with the kind of activism that could awaken the sleeping giant of democracy.
But this is only one stage of a long and complex history. Growing democratic activism and independent media are the green shoots of a grassroots renewal of democratic politics that offers real solutions to our country’s problems, not least to rein in its dangerous and destabilizing foreign policy and the web of lies that sustains it.
One thing we can do, in the words of Bob Dylan, is to let the masters of war and their media hacks know we can see through their masks.
Nicolas J. S. Davies is the author of Blood On Our Hands: The American Invasion and Destruction of Iraq. Davies also wrote the chapter on “Obama At War” for the book, Grading the 44th President: A Report Card on Barack Obama’s First Term as a Progressive Leader.