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  Print view: WPost Downplays Iraq War Crimes

WPost Downplays Iraq War Crimes

by Robert Parry
Tuesday, 26 October 2010

The judges at Nuremberg after World War II had a much deeper understanding of the horrors of war than the neocon editors at the Washington Post do. Assessing the barbarity unleashed by the Nazis, the Nuremberg Tribunal identified “war of aggression” as “the supreme international crime differing only from other war crimes in that it contains within itself the accumulated evil of the whole.”

What those judges meant was that every evil that comes with war – the slaughter of civilians, the brutality faced by soldiers, the depredations of hunger and disease, the destruction of homes and businesses, the temptation to torture, and all other war crimes – can all be traced back to the original crime of invasion.

Yet, the Post’s editors, who aided and abetted President George W. Bush in building public support for his war of aggression against Iraq, have never been willing to stand up and take full responsibility for those deceptive editorials that parroted Bush’s WMD lies and contributed to the bloodbath that followed.

Instead, the Post editors have continued to cavil and quibble. On Tuesday, the Post attacked WikiLeaks for its latest release of secret U.S. military field reports from Iraq, though finding value in the documents' suggestion of a lower Iraqi death toll – about 122,000 – than some scholarly estimates.

“Claims such as those published by the British journal The Lancet that American forces slaughtered hundreds of thousands are the real ‘attack on truth,’" the Post editorial sniffed.

The Post editors also sought to shift responsibility for the death toll away from the Bush administration – and themselves – by noting that “the vast majority of Iraqi civilian deaths were caused by other Iraqis, not by coalition forces.”

But that argument misses the point understood by the Nuremberg Tribunals – that it is the original war of aggression that unpacks all the other evils of war, including the breakdown of civil order and the invitation to various ethnic and religious rivals to seek advantage and revenge.

The Nuremberg judges were well aware that many of the massacres in Europe were not carried out by the Germans directly, but rather by surrogates, like the Croats against the Serbs in the Balkans or local anti-Semites against the Jews. But those slaughters were made possible by the larger war which had been provoked by German aggression. Barbarity had been made the new normal.

Similarly, it was Bush’s invasion and occupation of Iraq – cheered on by the Washington Post – that created the hyper-violent environment in which longstanding grievances between Shiites and Sunnis were brought to critical mass and allowed to explode into sectarian savagery.

And, as for the Iraq casualty estimates, the Post’s determination to low-ball the death toll – and thus presumably minimize the newspaper’s shared guilt for these unnecessary deaths – is equally troubling.

The best that can be said about the 122,000 deaths tallied by the Iraq Body Count (after adding about 15,000 previously unreported deaths revealed in the WikiLeaks’ documents) is that it is a base figure, not a complete total.

The Iraq Body Count has simply talled violent deaths that were reported in Iraq from various public sources. However, in areas largely off limits to the news media or in neighborhoods where citizens don’t trust the authorities, many deaths surely have gone unreported.

Epidemiologists at the respected medical journal Lancet and elsewhere have sought to reach a more accurate estimate by applying sampling techniques that have been used to gauge the casualty figures in other conflicts. [For details, see’s “Undercounting the Iraq War Dead.”]

Minimizing the Crime

But the scientific estimates, placing the total excess death toll in Iraq in the hundreds of thousands and possibly over one million, would make the Iraq War seem like one of history’s great war crimes, so it is in the interests of the Post’s editors to minimize the numbers and ridicule anyone who disagrees.

This pattern has been common across the U.S. news media where many prominent journalists share in the complicity of promoting the Iraq invasion. So, most major American news outlets have shunned or denounced the higher estimates, a marked contrast to how they behave when a death toll can be blamed on a U.S. enemy.

For instance, when the Khmer Rouge took power in Cambodia in 1975, the Western press applied very loose standards to estimate the dead blamed on these agrarian communists who themselves had been on the receiving end of savage U.S. air bombardments.

Though the Khmer Rouge clearly conducted tens of thousands of executions with little or no judicial justification, they also were blamed for many other deaths because of their drastic decision to largely empty the cities and force people into the countryside.

A typical reference to the Khmer Rouge “genocide” can be found in Wikipedia, which writes “over a million Cambodians, out of a total population of 8 million, died from executions, overwork, starvation and disease.” Note the inclusion of indirect deaths from “starvation and disease” – problems that also could be laid, in part, at the devastation inflicted by the U.S. military.

However, since the brutal Khmer Rouge understandably had no defenders in the U.S. news media, the death toll could be safely bid up without anyone stepping forward to insist on more precise methodology. Some estimates went as high as three million dead blamed on the Khmer Rouge.

Clearly, the opposite rules apply when the Washington Post's neocons want to minimize the blood on their hands from the butchery in Iraq.

Dismissing the News

The Post's Tuesday editorial dismissed the significance of the nearly 400,000 secret military field reports released by WikiLeaks. Though one might have expected a newspaper to praise this bonanza of ground-level truth, the Post instead mocked the documents as adding little new.

“In fact the mass leak, like a dump of documents on Afghanistan in the summer, mainly demonstrates that the truth about Iraq already has been told,” the Post declared.

“The news organizations granted privileged access to the documents, including the New York Times and Britain's Guardian, have focused on reports that Iraqi security forces abused and tortured prisoners; that private security contractors often acted recklessly and violated rules of engagement; and that U.S. soldiers sometimes killed Iraqi civilians at checkpoints.

“All these stories are troubling. But the incidents were extensively reported by Western journalists and by the U.S. military when they occurred.”

Instead the Post maintained that the main value in the documents could be found in undercutting the higher estimates of Iraq War dead, placing most of the blame for those deaths on Iraqis, and bolstering U.S. claims that Iran “was behind much of the violence.”

“There is evidence that Iran supplied Iraqi militias with rockets, car bombs, surface to air missiles, and roadside explosives that killed or wounded hundreds of Americans,” the Post said as it resumed pounding its latest war drum, for “regime change” in Iran.

But the Post’s harshest criticism was directed at WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange who was mocked for believing “his leaks, like the Vietnam-era Pentagon Papers will radically change perceptions of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, which he says he is trying to end.

“Instead he has offered abundant evidence that there is no secret history of Iraq or Afghanistan. In Afghanistan, Wikileaks appears to have put the lives of courageous Afghans at risk, by identifying them as American sources. In Iraq, it has at least temporarily complicated negotiations to form a new government.

“We are all for the disclosure of important government information; but Mr. Assange's reckless and politically motivated approach, while causing tangible harm, has shed relatively little light.”

Downing Street Downer

Readers might remember that the Post’s editorial board adopted a similarly dismissive attitude toward the so-called “Downing Street Memos,” which were leaked in Great Britain in 2005. They revealed that the British government was aware in mid-2002 that President Bush was set on invading Iraq over its alleged weapons of mass destruction and that the intelligence was being “fixed” around the policy.

When this information was revealed three years later – and received virtually no attention in the pro-invasion Washington Post – a number of readers complained, prompting the Post’s august editorial board to publish a patronizing editorial on June 15, 2005, stating:

“The memos add not a single fact to what was previously known about the administration’s prewar deliberations. Not only that: They add nothing to what was publicly known in July 2002.”

As I wrote at the time: “Oh, really? While it may be true that some people were alleging what the secret British memos now confirm, those people were vocal opponents of invading Iraq and were treated by the Post and other pro-war news outlets as fringe characters fit only to be ignored.

“For example, many war critics asserted that Bush’s decision to take his case against Iraq to the United Nations was a ploy designed only to justify a predetermined course for invasion. In other words, the critics felt that Bush and his allies were not acting in good faith, but simply wanted some political cover for an illegal war.

“That, of course, was not the judgment of editorialists at the Washington Post, the New York Times or other major newspapers who praised Bush for going to the UN on the advice of supposed moderates such as Secretary of State Colin Powell and British Prime Minister Tony Blair.

“Indeed, looking back to late 2002 and early 2003, it would be hard to find any ‘reputable’ commentary in the mainstream press calling Bush’s actions fraudulent, which is what the British evidence reveals them to be.

“That sense of willful deception – which pervades the British memos – is why so many American citizens are furious both at Bush for misleading the country to war and at the mainstream news media for failing to adequately challenge the administration’s claims about the need to invade Iraq.” [For more, see’s “LMSM – the Lying Mainstream Media.”]

‘Vague but Intriguing’

In mid-2005, the Post’s editorialists deemed the “fixed” intelligence comment to be “vague but intriguing,” before dismissing its significance by noting that several official U.S. government investigations didn’t accuse the Bush administration of politicizing the intelligence.

Of course, the editorial didn’t mention that the Bush administration and the Republican congressional leadership had barred the investigations from examining that issue.

Similarly today, the Post appears more eager to dismiss and discredit Iraq War critics than to confess to its own incompetence and complicity. The simple truth is that the Post editorial pages have gotten the Iraq story wrong from the start.

As the nation lurched toward war in 2002-2003, editorial page editor Fred Hiatt not only fell for the Bush administration’s WMD claims, but he treated dissent toward those assertions as unthinkable.

“The [Post] editorials during December [2002] and January [2003] numbered nine, and all were hawkish,” wrote Columbia University journalism professor Todd Gitlin. “This editorial mood continued into February, culminating in a blast at the French and Germans headlined ‘Standing With Saddam.’ Apparently it’s not only George W. Bush who doesn’t nuance.” [American Prospect, April 1, 2003]

After Secretary of State Powell made his now-infamous presentation of the Iraq WMD evidence to the UN on Feb. 5, 2003, Hiatt’s editorial page judged Powell’s case “irrefutable” and added: “it is hard to imagine how anyone could doubt that Iraq possesses weapons of mass destruction.”

After the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq and the failure to discover WMD, Hiatt acknowledged that the Post should have been more circumspect.

“If you look at the editorials we write running up [to the war], we state as flat fact that he [Saddam Hussein] has weapons of mass destruction,” Hiatt said in an interview with the Columbia Journalism Review. “If that’s not true, it would have been better not to say it.” [CJR, March/April 2004]

Yes, it is a traditional rule of journalism that if something isn’t real, you’re not supposed to say it is.

But no accountability was demanded of Hiatt or almost anyone else who served at the propaganda front for George W. Bush’s war of aggression.

Now, with the grisly details of that unnecessary war spilling out, Hiatt is still there, still the master of the Post’s opinion pages, to do whatever he can to continue covering up this “supreme international crime” for which he and many other Washington opinion leaders share the blame.

Robert Parry

Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His latest book, Neck Deep: The Disastrous Presidency of George W. Bush, was written with two of his sons, Sam and Nat, and can be ordered at His two previous books, Secrecy & Privilege: The Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq and Lost History: Contras, Cocaine, the Press & 'Project Truth' are also available there. Or go to

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This story was published on October 26, 2010.

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