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Iraq: Washington spinning out of control

by Ritt Goldstein Tuesday, Mar. 16, 2004 at 2:41 AM

Investigative journalist Ritt Goldstein reveals the Bush administration's glaring use of "spin" to substitute for facts. Some both recent and outrageous manipulations of "official information" make the story.

Iraq: Washington spinning out of control

By Ritt Goldstein

ASIA TIMES Weekend Edition, 13-14 March

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 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 developed".

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 assertions continues.

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 flip-flops.

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 have 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 of 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, effectively 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, 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 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 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 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' 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 for information on our sales and syndication policies.)

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