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
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?