WEAPONS OF MASS DECEPTION: The Uses Of Propaganda in Bush’s War On Iraq
Tarcher /Penguin Books; c. 2003 by Center for Media and Democracy, 204pgs.
Book/Mark, Fall, 2003

They’re coming. They’ve already started to hit the mainstream. I expect it will be a booming industry blossoming for the 2004 elections. Books, articles, essays, studies, and documentary films that expose the lies and the enormous propaganda campaign executed by the Bush administration to convince the public that the war on Iraq was necessary to protect the nation from disaster are now emerging and in this election year will undoubtably become the focus of much debate and controversy far beyond the usual world of the politically active and the “corridors of academia”. There’s no way to avoid it, the documentation of fabrications, distortions, and half-truths is overwhelming.

For those who are interested and want to be a part of the debate “Weapons of Mass Deception” by Sheldon Rampton and John Stauber is perhaps the ideal place to start. It is a very readable account written for the general public. Issued in August it was inspired by the Bush administration’s advertising campaign to build public support for the war on Iraq. But the book has a wider focus, it tries to provide some historical depth as it covers a wide range of topics from media coverage of the war, the public debate on the war, and the way language is carefully used by officialdom and establishment pundits. It attempts to give a broad overview of the growing role of public relations firms, and specialists in the techniques of persuasion and actual deception employed by government to carry on the work of “perception management” or what in another age would be simply called “propaganda”. What Stauber and Rampton have revealed is that Pentagon programs of “information warfare” originally designed for foreign consumption to deceive “enemies” are now being turned towards the American people. Psy-ops or “Psychological operations” “electronic warfare” “information attack”, and “counterdeception” are all part of the jargon. Here is a quote from a 1998 Air Force document on Information Operations .

“There is a growing information infrastructure that transcends industry, the media, and the military and includes both government and nongovernment entities. It is characterized by a merging of civilian and military information networks and technologies.............In this environment, psyops are designed to convey selected information and indicators to foreign leaders and audiences to influence their emotions, motives, objective reasoning, and ultimately their behavior. Military deception misleads adversaries causing them to act in accordance with the originator’s objectives”.

The authors are quick to point out that as applied to military operations there is nothing new here. Deception is as old as warfare itself. What is disturbing is when strategies and techniques from these programs are employed for domestic use and find their way into politicians’ methods for swaying public opinion at home. This is not an admonition that we are headed for an Orwellian nightmare where reality, myth, and fantasy are all blurred. It is an admonition that we are in fact already in it, and it is in a rather mature phase of development!

The book begins by discussing the famous footage of the toppling of the statue of Saddam Hussein on April 9, 2003 in Firdos Square in Baghdad. At the time, it was covered by the media to promote and reinforce the theme of a jubilant Iraqi population grateful to their American “liberators”. This was a theme developed by the Pentagon along with the infamous Ahmed Chalabi long before the war even started. Chalabi is an Iraqi whose family fled Iraq in 1957 with the fall of the monarchy. He was just 13 years old at the time and hadn’t set foot in Iraq since! Nevertheless he is the favorite of the Neo-Conservatives now dominating US foriegn policy to lead the “new” Iraq. The TV and newspaper coverage of the falling statue carefully avoided a wider view of the scene which revealed that there were only about 200 persons present, for the most part American soldiers, some journalists, and a small group organized by Chalabi and his group of Iraqi exiles. No one ever seriously doubted that the vast majority of Iraqis would be glad to see Saddam go. But what was consistently promoted in the buildup for war, and what has proven thus far to be one of the colossal miscalculations of the war’s most fervid supporters is the idea that “anti-Saddam = pro-Bush”. Media coverage during that period of the considerable expressions of Iraqi discontent with the American presence through demonstrations numbering in the thousands was minimal and in some cases non-existent. Thus, early on, a paradigm of inflated coverage of what fits the pre-established narrative and neglect of what contradicts it, is established.

The book goes on to explore the ever important role politicians give to public relations firms and advertising agencies in selling policy. Whether it is John W. Rendon, a public relations consultant who worked with the Pentagon and the CIA , who referred to himself as an information warrior and a perception manager, or Charlotte Beers, who went straight from the world of Madison Ave. advertising to managing the Bush administration’s campaign to mold perceptions of America in the Arab world, or the Hill & Knowlton PR firm from which Victoria Clarke emerged to become the Pentagon spokesperson, a symbiotic relationship has evolved between two very different worlds which undermines the crucial distinction between reality and fantasy.

All of this plays out in the Bush administration’s strategy to “sell” the war on Iraq to the American people. That strategy was to exploit the public’s post 9/11 trauma and fear through the theme of 1) Saddam’s possession of Weapons of Mass Destruction as a direct threat to the USA and 2) Saddam’s links to Osama Bin Laden and to Al Qaeda. Sprinkled over these two fundamental themes was the theme of Saddam’s brutality towards his own people. (How many times did we hear the phrase “He gassed his own people”? How many times did we hear that at the time we were supporting him!?)

As for the weapons of mass destruction, well, despite Colin Powells theatrical performance deserving an academy award at the UN on Feb. 5, a performance that has now been effectively debunked by many in the intelligence community, they simply haven’t been found. The documents from Niger have been exposed as forgeries, the mobile labs to produce biological weapons turned out to be for legitimate purposes, the same with the aluminum tube story, the capacity to launch missles in 45 minutes...etc. The list goes on and is quite amazing. As Rampton and Stauber suggest in the book, the Bush administration knew or simply didn’t care, since they had many indications that the arsenal of chemical and biological weapons that Saddam once possessed had been destroyed or were no longer useful. They ignored all of that evidence and time and time again chose to hear only what they wanted to hear, what fit their pre-established conclusions. As for the links to Al Qaeda, the same pattern is also evident. Stories like that of Mohammad Atta meeting in Prague with an Iraqi intelligence agent turned out to be unfounded but was constantly spun by members of the administration or the Al Qaeda training camp in Iraq that turned out to be in a region not under Saddam’s control. True, there were sporadic contacts between Saddam and Islamic extremists but nothing suggesting any significant link. That was the conclusion of the CIA and the intellegence community who struggled to maintain professional objectivity under the constant pressure from the administration to confirm their pre-established convictions. Certainly there was nothing that would counter the overwhelming evidence of mutual hostility that went back decades between Saddam and OBL.

The book is not the “encyclopedic” version of the issue in the sense that there is an enormous compilation of examples of the many false stories or even rumours reported as fact. That is being done by others. This is not to say that what is presented is meager, on the contrary there is much in the way of very concrete information, all of it responsibly documented with ample footnotes to satisfy the most fastidious professor. It also avoids the kind of technical language appropriately found in the more academic analyses of politics, propaganda, and media. But what this book does is weave together a whole complex set of themes and establishes their connectedness for a general readership. That is important and that it does very well.

For some this book will be an illumination and should be a spur to further study and investigation. In others it will certainly provoke hostility. Much of that depends on where and how you get your news, a notion that I think validates the book. More and more, Americans are becoming divided, not so much on their own ideas, but based on where they get their news. For those of us who listen to alternative media sources such as Democracy Now! or Free Speech TV, or WBAI here in New York, Weapons of Mass Deception is a pleasant reinforcement of information and analysis that is all too familiar. For others it could be a door to a whole new way of thinking and that’s not so bad when you think about it.

Russell Branca
New York