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 evildoers".
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
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
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
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 of
foreign elements having 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 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 in effect provides a measure of
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, okay?"
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
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 again to 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
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 the media."
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
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."
(Copyright 2004 Asia Times Online Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact email@example.com
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