For months, the Bush administration has been pushing war with Iraq. The stated reason? Saddam Hussein is an "evildoer" who is likely to strike against the U.S. with weapons of mass destruction. Although initial efforts to provide evidence for Hussein's designs on America were an unmitigated failure, Americans at last learned on Sunday why the U.S. must send hundreds of thousands of troops to invade (or, in the lexicon of William Safire, "liberate") Iraq: Hussein tried to buy some aluminum tubes.
That such a piece of information could be credibly presented as a casus belli is a strong indictment of the mainstream press. The report is the claim of an administration fixated on overthrowing Hussein, and should be treated as such. Yet like most things administration officials say, it was taken at face value by a compliant press.
The story has served as the focal point for the administration's latest drive for war. Realizing that the public might want some justification for war, Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, Colin Powell and Condoleeza Rice all appeared on last Sunday's morning talk shows to address Hussein's nuclear potential.
Dick Cheney's interview on Meet the Press (hosted by Tim Russert) was the centerpiece of those efforts. Cheney talked extensively about the aluminum tubes. Yet what was most interesting was not the story itself, but Cheney's emphasis on his source: "[Hussein] now is trying ... to acquire the equipment he needs to be able to enrich uranium to make [nuclear] bombs. Specifically aluminum tubes. There's a story in the New York Times this morning ? and I want to attribute the Times."
By citing the Times, Cheney adds considerable credibility to his case. It is no longer seen as the claim of the Bush administration, but as an established fact.
But where did the story come from? The headline reads, "U.S. Says Hussein Intensifies Quest for A-Bomb." And the first sentence of the article? "Iraq has stepped up its quest for nuclear weapons and has embarked on a worldwide hunt for materials to make an atomic bomb, Bush administration officials said today."
Let's reconstruct this coordinated public relations campaign. First, Bush administration officials call up the Times and make their announcement. Because the Times reporters are hearing from an official source, the story automatically has sufficient credibility to print; and because Iraq has been in the headlines all summer, it is easily important enough to run on the front page. Then, it is cited on television news shows -- where most Americans get their news -- as authentic journalism.
Independent reporting does not occur in the article. No opposing views are sought by the reporters, although they concede in the body of the article that "there is no indication that Iraq is on the verge of deploying a nuclear bomb," as they observe that even in the absence of strong evidence, "Iraq's pursuit of nuclear weapons has been cited by hard-liners in the Bush administration to make the argument that the United States must act now." Much of the rest is devoted to apocalyptic visions of biological warfare.
A fair press would treat the administration's claims as what they are -- the arguments of a group of people attempting to rally an entire citizenry to war. Russert, had he been doing his job, would have instantly jumped on Cheney when he asserted that the Times reported independently on the aluminum tubes. The Times, had it been doing its job, would have put the administration's allegation immediately in context.
Neither happened, and it is not an isolated incident. The Bush administration has virtually been given a free pass by the media. Hawks like Richard Perle are allowed to make the laughable claim that Iraq has more than 400 facilities for enriching uranium without prompting skepticism (if true, why would the U.S. not have bombed them as it has already bombed numerous other Iraqi installations in past months?). That Cheney felt the need to "attribute the Times," only indicates how little evidence there really is.
The consequences of the media's continued collusion with the U.S. government could be disastrous. The Gulf War was replete with American atrocities, from war planes strafing an immobile column of retreating Iraqi troops (American pilots called it a "turkey shoot") to the bombing of the al-Amariyah civilian bombing shelter, in which 400 Iraqis perished. The latter required two separate passes -- one to blow a hole in the reinforced concrete, and a second to finish the job -- indicating that the shelter was not bombed by accident, but was targeted.
When it comes to Iraq, there is a grave threat to thousands of innocent lives. That threat is American foreign policy. Since 1990, American sanctions have caused at least 350,000 deaths for children under the age of five in Iraq. Sanctions continue today, operating as their architects predicted they would in a January, 1991 Defense Intelligence Agency document: "Iraq depends on importing specialized equipment and some chemicals to purify its water supply. Failing to secure supplies will result in a shortage of pure drinking water for much of the population. This could lead to increased incidences, if not epidemics, of disease."
This week, much will have been spoken about the American people's strength and courage. Yet if we allow Bush to push us to war, and our disastrous sanctions policy continues, we betray those very qualities. The blood of Iraqi civilians will be both our own hands and those of the media, which apparently is as gullible as Colin Powell surmised during his confirmation hearings when he boasted, "we have succeeded, because we stopped the talking about Iraqi children, and instead are talking about weapons of mass destruction, not sanctions to hurt civilians."
Far from making the case for war, Cheney and his cohorts have made the case for peace. If aluminum tubing is the best they can come up with, that much is perfectly clear.