May 28, 2008—Some may view ex-White House press secretary Scott McClellan’s new book as vindication for those who took grief – accused of “derangement,” “treason” and a bunch of less-printable things – for calling George W. Bush a liar over the past eight years.
But the more troubling point is that there has been little improvement in the Washington political/media structure that failed to call Bush out on his lies in a timely fashion.
In Iraq alone, the consequences for that dereliction of duty include more than 4,000 U.S. dead along with hundreds of thousands of slain Iraqis and possibly trillions of taxpayer dollars wasted.
Though Bush’s White House and his Republican allies may stand out as the principal villains in this tragic story, a large share of the blame also must fall on accommodating Democrats and careerists in the Washington press corps. They protected their political flanks and their nice salaries by playing along.
Indeed, McClellan calls the U.S. news media “complicit enablers” in the White House’s “carefully orchestrated campaign to shape and manipulate sources of public approval” for invading Iraq, according to a New York Times preview of McClellan’s book, What Happened: Inside the Bush White House and Washington’s Culture of Deception.
It’s significant, too, that McClellan’s title cites “Washington’s Culture of Deception” because the problem is truly broader than just Bush and his inner circle. The “culture of deception” both preceded and will surely outlast the current residents in the White House.
During the 1980s, when I was an investigative reporter for the Associated Press and Newsweek, I would sometimes ask myself what was the duty of an American journalist when you reached the conclusion that the U.S. government was lying pervasively – not just once in a while, but routinely.
That was a problem I encountered when covering the neoconservatives who entered the higher realms of government under Ronald Reagan. At the time, the neocons were pushing a concept called “perception management,” a domestic covert intelligence program for manipulating how Americans perceived dangers abroad.
The neocon testing ground was Central America and the Caribbean where minor threats like leftist regimes in Nicaragua and Grenada were exaggerated into grave dangers facing the United States. To accomplish these distortions required whipping the Washington press corps into line.
Journalists who resisted found their careers in jeopardy from a combination of right-wing attack groups and cowardly news executives who valued their social relationships and government contacts more than their journalistic responsibilities.
There was virtually no career danger – and indeed lucrative rewards – for collaborating with the Reagan administration’s powers-that-be. So, over the years, this corrupt way of doing business – pandering to well-connected Republicans – became Washington’s way of life.
In my writings – dating back to my first book Fooling America in 1992 through my last one Neck Deep (written with my sons, Sam and Nat) in 2007 – I have tried to explain how this process gradually allowed propaganda to substitute for reality and helped bring the nation to its current fix.
However, even the Iraq disaster – in which major news organizations disgraced themselves, from the New York Times to the Washington Post to network and cable TV news – has done little to change matters.
Except in a few rare cases – like Judith Miller leaving the New York Times – journalists responsible for spreading Bush’s disinformation have avoided significant punishment.
For instance, the Washington Post’s editorial section, which swallowed neocon propaganda whole, has undergone almost no change. Editorial-page editor Fred Hiatt remains in place, along with pro-invasion columnists, such as Charles Krauthammer, David Ignatius and Richard Cohen.
While news executives have lost careers over relatively minor offenses, like not catching Jayson Blair’s fabrications regarding a Washington-area sniper mystery, there has been no purge following the far more monumental falsehoods that led to the Iraq War.
It also wasn’t hard to figure out that President Bush was a brazen liar.
We often have noted that – just four months after the Iraq invasion – Bush began rewriting the history by telling reporters that Saddam Hussein was the one who “chose” war by barring United Nations inspectors.
“We gave him [Saddam Hussein] a chance to allow the inspectors in, and he wouldn’t let them in. And, therefore, after a reasonable request, we decided to remove him from power,” Bush told reporters on July 14, 2003.
Facing no serious challenge to this lie from the White House press corps, Bush continued repeating it in varied forms as part of his public litany for defending the invasion.
On Jan. 27, 2004, for example, Bush said, “We went to the United Nations, of course, and got an overwhelming resolution – 1441 – unanimous resolution, that said to Saddam, you must disclose and destroy your weapons programs, which obviously meant the world felt he had such programs. He chose defiance. It was his choice to make, and he did not let us in.”
As the months and years went by, Bush’s lie and its constant retelling took on the color of truth.
At a press conference on May 24, 2007, Bush offered a short-hand version, even inviting the journalists to remember the invented history.
“As you might remember back then, we tried the diplomatic route: [U.N. Resolution] 1441 was a unanimous vote in the Security Council that said disclose, disarm or face serious consequences. So the choice was his [Hussein’s] to make. And he made a choice that has subsequently caused him to lose his life.”
In the frequent repetition of this claim, Bush never acknowledged the fact that Hussein did comply with Resolution 1441 by declaring accurately that he had disposed of his WMD stockpiles and by permitting U.N. inspectors to examine any site of their choosing.
Prominent Washington journalists eventually began repeating Bush’s lie as their own. In a July 2004 interview, ABC’s veteran newsman Ted Koppel used it to explain why he – Koppel – thought the invasion of Iraq was justified.
“It did not make logical sense that Saddam Hussein, whose armies had been defeated once before by the United States and the Coalition, would be prepared to lose control over his country if all he had to do was say, ‘All right, U.N., come on in, check it out,” Koppel told Amy Goodman, host of “Democracy Now.”
Of course, Hussein did tell the U.N. to “come on in, check it out.”
In fall 2002, Hussein’s government allowed teams of U.N. inspectors into Iraq and gave them free rein to examine any site of their choosing. Then, on Dec. 7, 2002, Iraq sent to the United Nations a 12,000-page declaration explaining how its WMD stockpiles had been eliminated.
At the time, the Bush administration – and much of the Washington press corps – mocked those efforts as proof that the Iraqis were continuing their WMD cover-up.
The U.N. inspections continued into March 2003 when Bush decided to press ahead with war and forced the inspectors to leave. After the invasion, U.S. weapons inspectors also found no WMD and concluded that the Iraqis had been telling the truth.
But none of that reality is part of the history that Americans are supposed to know. The officially sanctioned U.S. account is that Saddam Hussein “chose war” by defying the U.N. over the WMD issue.
As recently as this year, a major U.S. news outlet was still spreading Bush’s false history.
In January, CBS’s “60 Minutes” ran a segment with Hussein’s FBI interrogator, George Piro, with correspondent Scott Pelley musing over the mystery of why Hussein didn’t simply stop the U.S. invasion by admitting his WMD was gone.
“For a man who drew America into two wars and countless military engagements, we never knew what Saddam Hussein was thinking,” Pelley said in introducing the segment on the interrogation of Hussein about his WMD stockpiles. “Why did he choose war with the United States?”
In the interview, Pelley presses Piro on the question of why Hussein was hiding the fact that his WMD was gone. Piro said Hussein explained to him that “most of the WMD had been destroyed by the U.N. inspectors in the ‘90s, and those that hadn’t been destroyed by the inspectors were unilaterally destroyed by Iraq.”
“So,” Pelley asked, “why keep the secret? Why put your nation at risk, why put your own life at risk to maintain this charade?”
After Piro mentioned Hussein’s lingering fear of neighboring Iran, Pelley felt he was close to an answer to the mystery: “He believed that he couldn’t survive without the perception that he had weapons of mass destruction?”
But, still, Pelley puzzled over why Hussein’s continued in this miscalculation.
Pelley asked: “As the U.S. marched toward war and we began massing troops on his border, why didn’t he stop it then? And say, ‘Look, I have no weapons of mass destruction,’ I mean, how could he have wanted his country to be invaded?”
Within the prestigious U.S. press corps, up had truly become down.
McClellan’s book may add weight to our argument that the major U.S. news media has been more than a little gullible. In our view, there is now an ingrained bias within the Washington press corps – after three decades of fat rewards and harsh punishments – to tilt stories to the right.
The new book also adds details about how Bush intentionally led the nation into war by shading the truth and manipulating events.
McClellan writes that Bush “managed the crisis in a way that almost guaranteed that the use of force would become the only feasible option.”
The sales campaign was laid out by Bush advisers in summer 2002, McClellan said.
“Top Bush aides had outlined a strategy for carefully orchestrating the coming campaign to aggressively sell the war,” McClellan writes. “In the permanent campaign era, it was all about manipulating sources of public opinion to the President’s advantage.”
However, McClellan remains unwilling to use direct language in addressing Bush’s long pattern of dishonesty. The former press secretary lays some of the blame for Bush's falsehoods on his “lack of inquisitiveness” or a tendency toward “self-deception.”
But the evidence is clear: Bush is liar.
If further evidence were required, there is McClellan’s anecdote about Bush telling aides during Campaign 2000 that he could not remember whether he had used cocaine. “I remember thinking to myself, ‘How can that be?’” McClellan wrote, according to the Washington Post’s preview of the book.
It would seem to be long past the time for anyone to be making excuses for George W. Bush – or the elite U.S. press corps – not with the horrendous price paid by the Iraqi people, American soldiers and U.S. taxpayers.
[For an earlier story on McClellan and the Plame-gate lies, see Consortiumnews.com’s “The Bush’s Rules of Evidence.”]
This article is republished in the Baltimore Chronicle with permission of the author.
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This story was published on May 28, 2008.