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comment | Posted March 20, 2003

The Big Lie
by Russ Baker

H ow bad can things get, how fast? Are we already at the point where literally nothing can derail the war machine? That's exactly what some powerful media outlets seem to have decided, with predictable effects on public opinion and policy. In its March 3 issue, Newsweek disclosed that the Bush Administration had deliberately suppressed information exculpating Iraq--information from the same reliable source previously cited by the Administration as confirming that Iraq had developed weapons of mass destruction since the 1991 Gulf War. As damning as this disclosure was, Newsweek chose to underplay it, perhaps out of a belief that the Bush Administration's Big Lie techniques have become so pervasive that another instance of tendentious truth-twisting is no longer front-page news.

Here's the background: In the summer of 1995 Saddam's then-son-in-law, Lieut. Gen. Hussein Kamel, former minister of Iraq's military industry and the person in charge of its nuclear/chemical/biological programs, defected and provided what was deemed scrupulously accurate, detailed accounts of those weapons. Kamel's information has been cited as central evidence and a key reason for attacking Iraq. In his February 5 presentation to the UN Security Council, Secretary of State Colin Powell said: "It took years for Iraq to finally admit that it had produced four tons of the deadly nerve agent VX. A single drop of VX on the skin will kill in minutes. Four tons. The admission only came out after inspectors collected documentation as a result of the defection of Hussein Kamel, Saddam Hussein's late son-in-law."

But Newsweek's John Barry revealed that the Administration had excised a central component of Kamel's testimony--that he had personal knowledge that Iraq had "destroyed all its chemical and biological weapons stocks and the missiles to deliver them." To be sure, Kamel said, Iraq had not abandoned its WMD ambitions, had retained the design and engineering details, and was likely to return to production given an opportunity. But his last information was that Iraq's VX arsenal no longer existed.

According to the story, UN inspectors had reasons to hush up this revelation, as they were trying to bluff Saddam into revealing more. But what is Powell's excuse for using only half of Kamel's claim? And why did Newsweek and the rest of the American media make so little of this major story?

Newsweek chose to run a short, 500-word item in its "Periscope" section rather than put the story on the cover or make it the focal point of a longer article showing that the Bush Administration is rushing to war for no reason at all.

I was curious why Newsweek did not think this warranted a more muscular presentation. Communications director Ken Weine argued that the mag breaks many of its best stories in short sections like "Periscope," citing as an example a brief piece two years ago showing that Sony had fabricated print movie reviews, a piece, he noted, that garnered worldwide attention.

But fake movie reviews flacking dubious entertainment and fake missile reviews flacking a war in which thousands may die are two different things entirely, and it is a sad comment on the media that such comparisons would even be made.

Newsweek, and Barry in particular, deserve kudos for bringing this important item to the public's attention at all. But if Newsweek's editors had the guts to put something like this on the cover, with the kind of dramatic headline they use for lesser subjects, they could really affect the debate. Instead, that issue of Newsweek featured a cover story on the African-American gender gap in jobs, education and other areas--a worthy story, but nothing that could not have waited a week.

For what it's worth, one insider explained that Newsweek has changed and no longer tries to shake the earth on major issues of the day, preferring to tweak the zeitgeist on softer things or muse elegantly about the "big picture" behind the details.

Perhaps it's not surprising that other media failed to pick up on the Kamel story: The big papers and magazines hate to acknowledge they've been scooped by competitors. Of course, you might think they'd want to outdo Newsweek with some hard-hitting inquiries of their own. You'd be wrong. It's not that the American media have ignored Iraq--obviously, it's been a near-obsession. But in the absence of intrepid investigative reporting and editorial courage, they smothered the audience in inconsequential material about the most consequential of topics.

The Hussein Kamel revelation is probably the biggest Iraq story to get punted, but it isn't the only significant example. It's worth noting that British revelations that the National Security Agency spied on diplomats representing UN Security Council members during the Iraq deliberations got a small mention in the Washington Post and prompted no questions at Bush's press conference. Another revelation, that a British government employee was arrested for allegedly leaking this information, which Daniel Ellsberg says is more timely and potentially more important than his own Pentagon Papers in informing the public, again got little notice in this country. And the unprecedented resignations of two career US diplomats over Iraq policy hasn't generated any noteworthy examinations of how people inside the government really feel about the race to hostilities.

Cumulatively, Barry's item on Kamel, the revelation that Colin Powell was citing a graduate student's thesis as British "intelligence" and a new revelation that more British "evidence" of Iraqi nuclear arms development cited by the Administration was (according to weapons inspectors themselves) fabricated suggest that a monstrous Big Lie is in process--an effort to construct falsified evidence and to trick this country and the world.

How's that for zeitgeist material, Newsweek?

Russ Baker

Russ Baker, a longtime Nation contributor, can be reached at

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