Washington spinning out of control
By Ritt Goldstein
With political and military setbacks steadily sinking public perception of the
Bush administration's Iraq efforts, a marked increase in both slanted and
outright erroneous official pronouncements has occurred. Taking advantage of
media briefings, congressional testimony, and even the creation of both an
Arabic television channel (al-Hurra) and a Pentagon news service (DVIDS), the
administration of US President George W Bush has vastly escalated its
long-employed efforts to "spin" its way to success. As Iraq civil administrator
L Paul Bremer highlighted last week, the message is "triumph over the
Yet in a measure of how warmly the administration's al-Hurra channel is
welcomed, Saudi clerics issued a fatwa (religious ruling) this week
stating that Muslims are forbidden to watch it. The station was explicitly
charged with being "an extension of anti-Islamic propaganda". But while TV
stations can be tuned out, political figures are more difficult to avoid.
Ever since Colin Powell's loosely based United Nations address of February
2003, Palestinian-Jordanian militant Abu Musab al-Zarqawi has in effect been
broadcast as the administration's "evildoer" of choice. The recent level of
accusations against Zarqawi even threatens Osama bin Laden's status as
villain-in-chief, though questions surrounding Thursday's Madrid blasts may
change that. Nevertheless, Zarqawi is alleged to be firmly established with
al-Qaeda and the figure responsible for apparently endless carnage, an
administration-led chorus has claimed.
The Iraq war commander, US General John Abizaid, testified on March 2 before
the US Congress, telling the House Armed Services Committee that he had
"evidence" to support the ongoing Zarqawi and al-Qaeda assertions. When US
officials were subsequently pressed by media as to what the general's
"evidence" was, a revealing retreat was then beaten to evidence "being
Highlighting the nature of such evasions, according to transcripts of both
Pentagon and Coalition Provisional Authority news conferences, the
administration has yet to reveal any firm evidence linking Zarqawi to any Iraq
violence, any whatsoever. But as propaganda specialist Dr Nancy Snow revealed
to Asia Times Online, "I don't think the public is too terribly concerned with
evidence," highlighting why the Bush administration's stream of unfounded
On March 3, the Coalition Forces deputy commander, General Mark Kimmitt, said
there was "solid evidence" on Zarqawi, though refusing to present it. But
providing a remarkable explanation for such evidence deficits, a March 4
Pentagon press conference proved extraordinary in both its revelations and
Brigadier-General David Rodriguez of the Joint Chiefs of Staff revealed that
the Pentagon didn't even have "direct evidence of whether he [Zarqawi] is alive
or dead", providing scathing commentary on the nature of so-called evidence
linking Zarqawi to attacks and bombings. But that same day it emerged that an
Iraqi resistance group claimed that Zarqawi had been killed months ago in the
US bombing of northern Iraq, and that a letter he had allegedly written to
al-Qaeda seeking aid in promoting an Iraqi civil war was "fabricated".
The resistance group Leadership of the Allahu Akbar Mujahedeen also claimed
that al-Qaeda was not involved in Iraq, and that most of the foreign fighters
who had come to resist US efforts had left long ago. Notably, this latter
information matches reports this journalist had received about a month prior
from an Italian correspondent who had been in Iraq and had established links to
the resistance there. It also flies in the face of repeated assertions by US
and Iraqi Governing Council (IGC) officials that foreign fighters and
terrorists are behind the recent violence. But unpleasant facts are what
propaganda is used to counter.
In off-the-record revelations, both the US intelligence and military
communities have quietly admitted they possess increasingly little knowledge
regarding those dominating Iraq's bloodletting. But a consensus has emerged
that reports of foreign elements has been vastly overblown. And unresolved
issues in blaming al-Qaeda for allegedly seeking to instigate civil war are
compounded by a previous al-Qaeda message.
Months ago, al-Qaeda was widely acknowledged as having urged Sunnis and
Shi'ites to put aside their differences, to unite and jointly resist the United
States, not fight each other. And a rare denial of responsibility for the
Shi'ite blasts was issued in the group's name, though the text of the denial
did build upon anti-American sentiment, and in so doing contained propaganda of
its own. But many Middle East experts agree that while an Iraq civil war may
well happen, it will be the US-precipitated power vacuum's release of latent
factional forces, not outside efforts, that will ignite it.
Addressing civil-war "spin", media at the March 4 Pentagon press conference
questioned the legitimacy of the much-publicized alleged Zarqawi letter to
al-Qaeda. But regardless of its authenticity, the letter provides the
centerpiece of the administration's efforts to deflect the blame for the
surfacing and mishandling Iraq's internal civil-war pressures.
Pentagon spokesman Lawrence DiRita did acknowledge that the letter's alleged
authenticity was not based upon "smoking-gun-type intelligence". He also
pointedly noted that he wasn't "responsible to or for" those who "believe that
it's authentic", revealing how shaky the document's pedigree actually is.
When the alleged Zarqawi letter was first revealed in February, the Washington
Post highlighted that "US officials provided no independent verification of
authenticity". But the letter has already proved its worth, broadly shifting
responsibility for ongoing Iraq violence from the Bush administration's lack of
foresight and planning. If at some future point the letter's fabrication is
proved, then every accusation against the administration that the letter's use
- until then - deflected or inhibited provides a measure of propaganda victory.
In apparent pursuit of such victories, the March 4 press conference's
presenters attempted to recoup momentum. A sensational and previously unheard
allegation was seized upon and raised as their means of doing so.
Pentagon spokesman DiRita suddenly claimed that Zarqawi is "one of the senior
al-Qaeda leaders that we have been pursuing since 11th September". Moments
later, in response to a reporter's question, General Rodriguez placed Zarqawi
as "one of the top 15 people in the al-Qaeda network".
Think "shock and awe" tactics.
After the Zarqawi/al-Qaeda bombshell, the conference moved on quickly until a
journalist noted: "That's the first time I've heard [Zarqawi] characterized as
top al-Qaeda leadership. He's always been characterized to me as a freelancer,
as tied to al-Qaeda, as a part of Ansar al Islam, but never directly in the top
10-15 of al-Qaeda." Trapped, Rodriguez replied: "Well, the - that's - you're
probably right. When I said that I probably didn't say that exactly correctly,
The Pentagon has explained the need for a news service of its own as emanating
from "increasingly combative" media that fail to "get out the message".
Both the general and DiRita subsequently pursued obscuring the revealed
misinformation under a broader, al-Qaeda related smokescreen. But the episode
does serve extremely well to again illustrate the tactics being employed
at the highest US levels. And it also shows why the Pentagon's DVIDS news
service is attempting to distribute news stories directly to the media,
bypassing potentially embarrassing journalistic queries.
DVIDS stands for Digital Video and Imagery Distribution System, and it was
created to target smaller and mid-size media outlets that can't afford their
own correspondent in Iraq or Afghanistan, the two areas coverage is planned to
focus upon. DVIDS was acknowledged as created to place "positive" stories, and
minimize the impact of "catastrophic events" - in effect, to propagandize.
While the future of DVIDS isn't yet completely clear, Mac McKerral, president
of the Society of Professional Journalists, has been quoted as observing: "This
is the kind of news that people get in countries where the government controls
As evidenced by the recently created Washington inquiries into the Bush
administration's handling of intelligence, a pattern of official but erroneous
information - propaganda - has marked every step of the administration's Iraq
effort. While incidents such as the staging of Jessica Lynch's "rescue", the
pulling down of Saddam Hussein's statue (with bused-in Ahmad Chalabi supporters
playing the part of outraged local citizenry), were aimed at public
consumption, the Bush administration faces accusations of repeatedly misleading
even those within the US government, propagandizing internally.
According to the US Senate's January 28 Congressional Record, Democratic
Senator Bill Nelson of Florida charged that prior to the vote authorizing the
Iraq war, "I, along with nearly every senator in this chamber, in that secure
room of this Capitol complex, was not only told there were weapons of mass
destruction - specifically chemical and biological - but I was looked straight
in the face and told that Saddam Hussein had the means of delivering those
biological and chemical weapons of mass destruction by unmanned drones called
UAVs [unmanned aerial vehicles]. I was looked at straight in the face and told
that UAVs could be launched from ships off the Atlantic coast to attack eastern
seaboard cities of the United States." Nelson added, "I am upset that the
degree of specificity I was given a year and a half ago, prior to my vote, was
not only inaccurate, it was patently false. I want some further explanations."
A reflection of similar concern was provided to this journalist by the
conservative Washington-based Cato Institute's noted constitutional scholar,
Bob Levy. In a December interview, Levy noted that being in office "doesn't
entail the right to lie". Speaking in regards to the myriad questions
surrounding the accuracy and use of US intelligence, Levy observed: "It's
possible it's been wrong, being it was cynically designed to promote an
existing proposition ... I do think it's Congress's place to find out ... and
they have failed to do so, and ought to do so."
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