In his March 6 press conference, President George W. Bush once again issued a series of assertions that are unsupported and even contradicted by evidence. What is most disturbing is the failure of the US media to subject Bush’s statements to any form of scrutiny.
To take just one example, Bush, in listing justifications for a US attack on Iraq, asserted that: “There is a poison plant in Northeast Iraq.” This was merely a repetition of the claim Secretary of State Colin Powell made in the Security Council on Feb. 5, when he displayed a satellite photo of the alleged site.
The Observer newspaper’s Luke Harding who was among a group of journalists who visited the site, wrote: “If Colin Powell were to visit the shabby military compound at the foot of a large snow-covered mountain, he might be in for an unpleasant surprise. The US Secretary of State last week confidently described the compound in north-eastern Iraq run by an Islamic terrorist group Ansar al-Islam as a ‘terrorist chemicals and poisons factory.’ Yesterday, however, it emerged that the terrorist factory was nothing of the kind more a dilapidated collection of concrete outbuildings at the foot of a grassy hill. Behind the barbed wire, and a courtyard strewn with broken rocket parts, are a few empty houses. There is a bakery and no sign of chemical weapons anywhere only the smell of paraffin and vegetable ghee used for cooking. In the kitchen, I discovered some chopped up tomatoes but not much else.”(Revealed: truth behind US ‘poison factory’ claim, The Observer, Feb. 9, 2003).
The BBC and US network ABC carried reports from their journalists that concurred completely with Harding. Yet the issue got almost no attention, and neither Powell nor Bush has been asked to explain how such flimsy ‘evidence’ could be used to justify a war.
Another disturbing example involved the Jan.31 arrest of 28 Pakistanis in Naples, whom Italian authorities sensationally claimed were part of an Al-Qaeda cell. That same day, however, it was apparent that there was much less to the story: The Associated Press reported that an Italian “police official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said late Friday officers “might have gotten ahead of themselves” in announcing an Al-Qaeda link in the headline of their press release.” (Italian police arrest 28 Pakistanis, find explosives, maps, Associated Press, Jan. 31, 2003)
Bush, who always claims that he is defending “freedom” and American “values” did not accord the Pakistanis the presumption of innocence until guilt is proven, that is a basic tenet of the American legal system. Rather, at a joint press conference with Prime Minister Tony Blair, Bush announced boldly: “Today Italy rounded up yet another cell of people who are willing to use weapons of mass destruction on those of us who love freedom.”
Not even the Italians had alleged that “weapons of mass destruction” were involved in the case. And on Feb. 13 buried deep on page 27, The Washington Post carried a few sentences about the case, among them that: “An Italian judge ordered the release of 28 Pakistanis arrested last month on suspicion of plotting a terrorist attack, saying there was not enough evidence to hold them, according to a court statement. The ruling represented a blow to the Italian police, who have seen a number of high-profile terrorism investigations fall apart in recent months.” It would appear that the men were what they said all along: immigrants who happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.
These are just two of many cases where presidential assertions of “fact” turn out to be inconsistent with available evidence. The US president and other administration officials seem unwilling to take into consideration any alternative explanation. This phenomenon has not gone entirely unnoticed. The Washington Post reported last October: “As Bush leads the nation toward a confrontation with Iraq and his party into battle in midterm elections, his rhetoric has taken some flights of fancy in recent weeks. Statements on subjects ranging from the economy to Iraq suggest that a president who won election underscoring Al Gore’s knack for distortions and exaggerations has been guilty of a few himself.” (For Bush, Facts Are Malleable; Presidential Tradition Of Embroidering Key Assertions Continues, Washington Post, Oct. 22, 2002).
Alas the Post story was a remarkable aberration for a press corps which almost always defers to official pronouncements. This was evident in the March 6 press conference, where the tone of the journalists can only be described as obsequious and deferential in the extreme. Many place themselves rhetorically on the side of the government, when they regularly refer to “our armed forces,” “our allies,” and “our policy.” This kind of language, in which there is no distance between the journalist and the government creates the illusion of a national consensus in which the considerable opposition to the war in the US is marginalized as something which lies outside the norm.
No wonder then that Americans are so misinformed. Fifty-seven percent of Americans still believe that Iraq was involved in the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, according to a survey published by the Pew Research Center. Not even the Bush administration has ever advanced this theory. Few other democratic governments enjoy such carte blanche from the media. After Powell cited in the Security Council a “fine” British “intelligence analysis” about Iraqi deception, the UK media quickly revealed that the document was a shabby “cut and paste job” made up of old, published articles and plagiarized sections from a student paper. While the affair became a major story in the UK, it went unnoticed in America.
In an ominous sign of how determined Bush is to restrict what Americans see, the president advised that when the war begins: “The journalists who are there should leave.” There is little reason to hope that many will not obey this ‘advice’ and Americans will be left even more in the dark than they are now.
Ali Abunimah, a Palestinian-Jordanian analyst and media critic and co-founder of The Electronic Intifada, writes a regular commentary for The Daily Star
Courtesy Raja Mattar