The Chilcot report, released today by the British government, concluded what most have known for a long time: that Tony Blair took Britain to war on the basis of “flawed intelligence” before all peaceful means were exhausted. The US has never called for such an inquiry; if it did, the media’s dereliction of duty would loom large, as it did in this chapter from Robin Andersen’s A Century of Media, a Century of War (Peter Lang, 2006).
A year after the invasion of Iraq, with 500 Americans dead and no weapons of mass destruction discovered, the front page of the Style section of the Washington Post referred to George W. Bush as the “Entertainer-in-Chief.” The date was March 24, 2004, and Bush was the invited speaker at annual black-tie dinner of the Radio and Television Correspondents Association.
In front of the assembled 1,500 journalists, Bush showed a series of slides of himself looking under papers, behind drapes and out the window of the oval office. A smiling Bush narrated, “Those weapons of mass destruction have got to be somewhere,” followed by, “Nope, no weapons over there,” and “Maybe under here?” The transcript shows that this stand-up routine was greeted with “laughter and applause.”
News coverage of the event was equally jovial and expressed no outrage at the performance; as Greg Mitchell of Editor and Publisher (AlterNet, 6/21/05) observed:
It is hard to find any immediate account of the affair that raised questions over the president’s slide show. Mitchell called Bush’s performance and its reception, “one of the most shameful episodes in the recent history of the American media, and presidency,” yet is rarely mentioned today.
Laughing with Bush seems to indicate knowledge of a shared amusement, a mutual understanding that the threat of Weapons of Mass Destruction was always mythic, little more than a contrived persuasion from a focus-group inquiry. This jovial applause may help explain one of the most curious media failures regarding coverage of the war in Iraq, about a secret meeting finally brought to the light of day, but not by US media.
The Downing Street Memo
On May 1, 2005, the London Sunday Times printed secret, leaked minutes from a meeting Prime Minister Tony Blair held with close advisors on July 23, 2002. Blair and his cabinet discussed the Bush administration plans for war in Iraq, and the political and military contingencies for British support for an invasion. Richard Dearlove, head of M16, the British Intelligence service, reported to the group what he learned during a visit to Washington:
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.
British coverage of the document was thorough. In addition to analysis, the Times also published the meeting minutes in full. Press reports rocked Blair’s reelection campaign. The document was seen as clear evidence that the decision to go to war had been made fully eight months before the invasion, and that making the case for war came later, as the “facts were being fixed.” The US had shaped intelligence to support the drive to war, and Blair had gone along with it. Elections in Britain took place a week after the Times published the memo. While Tony Blair won reelection, largely understood as a consequence of the country’s strong economy, his majority in Parliament fell from 161 to 67.
In the United States, press coverage of the Downing Street memo was hard to find. Some reports mentioned it as a tie-in to British election coverage, but no front-page headlines of exposés appeared in the papers of record or on network television. On May 6, CNN’s Jackie Schechner observed that the document was a hot topic in the blogosphere, but wondered why it didn’t get more coverage in the US media. By May 8, Washington Post ombud Michael Getler noted that readers had complained about the lack of coverage, though no explanation for the omission was offered. Noting the missing media reports, Joe Conason of Salon referred to “fresh and damning evidence of lies” and a media “simply too timid” to report.
By May 10, FAIR issued a Media Advisory titled, “Smoking Gun Memo? Iraq Bombshell Goes Mostly Unreported in the US Media.” It lauded Knight Ridder wire service reporting that provided the only widely circulated story in the mainstream press. The story quoted an anonymous US official saying that the memo contained “an absolutely accurate description of what transpired” during Dearlove’s meeting in Washington.
‘Secret Way to War’
Serious analysis of the memo, its meaning and importance did not come from any mainstream news organization in the US. It came instead from Mark Danner in a piece headlined “Secret Way to War” for the New York Review of Books (6/9/05), which also published the original memo in its entirety for the first time in the US.
Danner began by taking readers back to October 16, 2002, just after the 107th Congress voted to authorize the administration to go to war with Iraq. Bush is addressing the American people from the East Room of the White House, “in a somber mood befitting a leader speaking frankly to free citizens about the gravest decision their country could make.” Bush declares: “Though Congress has now authorized the use of force, I have not ordered the use of force. I hope the use of force will not become necessary.” Bush claimed that Iraq had the power to prevent war by “declaring and destroying all its weapons of mass destruction.” But if those weapons were not destroyed, the US would “go into battle, as a last resort.”
Bush’s speech, widely viewed by Americans was easily compared to the contents of the memo, illustrating that even by October 2002, Bush was claiming war was a last resort when invading Iraq had been a priority for months.
Danner’s feature offers the most widely circulated post-invasion discussion of exactly how the United Nations was cynically used by Bush and Blair The secret minutes reveal the calculated strategy behind building a “political context” through a “UN route.” Danner tracks the behind-the-scenes maneuverings essential for understanding the process by which the war was sold. The British were inclined to go to war with Bush, but as signatories to international law, they were concerned the war would be illegal: “The attorney general said that the desire for regime change was not a legal base for military action.”
Of three possible justifications, two were dismissed. Self-defense was not plausible, as British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw argued: “The case was thin. Saddam was not threatening his neighbors, and his WMD capacity was less than that of Libya, North Korea or Iran.” Nor would humanitarian intervention make the case: Saddam was not engaged in genocide. The foreign secretary solved the puzzle when he said: “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.”
At this point, Blair agreed that such an ultimatum could be politically critical, but only if “Saddam refused to allow in the UN inspectors.” As Danner points out, “Thus, the idea of UN inspectors was introduced not as a means to avoid war, as president Bush repeatedly assured Americans, but as a means to make war possible.”
But Saddam did let the weapons inspectors in, and though the US insisted it knew Saddam had WMDs and even where they were hidden, American officials were never compelled to say where. Yet even then, had the inspectors been able to finish their job and complete the search, there would have been no war—or at least not one justified by WMDs. Demonstrating the propaganda efficacy and power of the US, the inability to find WMDs before the war confirmed not that the threat was fabricated, but that Saddam was hiding weapons.
The Joint Press Conference
Though initially ignored in the US, the Downing Street memo would not be forgotten. On June 8, 2005, Dan Froomkin wrote in the Washington Post, “After six weeks in the political wilderness, the Downing Street Memo yesterday finally burst into the White House—and into the headlines.” The document that wouldn’t go away confronted Bush and Blair when they gave a joint press conference at the White House on June 7. A reporter asked:
On Iraq, the so-called Downing Street memo from July 2002 says intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy of removing Saddam through military action. Is it an accurate reflection of what happened? Could both of you respond?
Bush was visibly angered and gave a confused and rambling response: “And somebody said, well, you know, we had made up our mind to go to use military force to deal with Saddam. There’s nothing farther from the truth.” He insisted that facts had not been manipulated, rehashing the now-dated message that the war was a last option. He cut the press conference short.
At this point, another opportunity presented itself for thorough coverage of the British documents, yet the American media again missed a chance to expose the falsities that led to war and correct the historical record. The delayed coverage of the memo that finally “burst into the White House” reveals the current complexities of media failures. With the Iraq invasion, we see the reinvention of a war’s history even before it has ended.
The media, particularly the papers of record, now on the defensive for the lack of coverage adopted a unified themed: The memos contained no news. A Washington Post editorial (6/15/05) asserted: “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.”
The New York Times (6/14/05) claimed the documents were “not shocking,” arguing, “Three years ago, the near-unanimous conventional wisdom in Washington held that Mr. Bush was determined to topple Saddam Hussein by any means necessary.” NBC’s Andrea Mitchell agreed that you would have to be “brain dead not to know” what the White House was doing then.
Yet this knowledge and understanding did not inform reporting. For example, Mitchell presented the president’s prewar remarks as truthful articulations of his intentions, saying Bush’s dealings with the UN were part of “the diplomatic campaign to avoid war” (3/16/03). If the media knew the “UN route” amounted to nothing more than a PR campaign to sell the war, then why, as FAIR (6/17/05) posed the question, “were reporters not exposing this bad faith at every turn?” And even after the post–Downing Street joint press conference, when Bush said, “Nobody wants to commit military into combat. It’s the last option,” if this was known to be a manifest lie, why not identify it as such in news reports in 2005?
This case illustrates that what journalists know and understand is something quite different from what they actually report. For the most part, the known and the reported are two very different narratives. With a “nothing new” defense, reporters and editors are making astonishing admissions of complicity and redefining the role of journalism. Admitting to understanding at the time that justifications for war were a ruse, yet not challenging such claims, leaves them not only complicit, but compelling actors in promoting war.
Without the dissemination of official pronouncements and speeches presented in legitimating fashion, the public could not be convinced to commit their sons and daughters. Parroting a president known to be inventing justifications for war does not fulfill the mandate of the First Amendment, the Fourth Estate, or even journalists’ own professional canons that emphasize the obligation to the public, not to the president or the executive branch.
Robin Andersen teaches media studies at Fordham University. (Follow her @MediaPhiled.) This piece is adapted from her book A Century of Media, a Century of War (Peter Lang, 2006).