< Stagecrafting the War

Transcript

Friday, March 21, 2008

BOB GARFIELD:
The Iraq hostilities began five years ago but the government's propaganda war for a conflicted, compliant and sometimes culpable media began more than a year earlier in February 2002.
[CLIP]

PRESIDENT GEORGE BUSH:
Saddam Hussein needs to understand I'm serious about defending our country. I think one of the worst things that could happen in the world is terrorist organizations mating up with nations which have had a bad history and nations which develop weapons of mass destruction.
[END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD:
Almost from the moment the World Trade Center towers fell, President Bush sought a connection between Saddam Hussein and 9/11, a connection that there was no evidence of then nor any since, yet which he has repeatedly invoked for six and a half years to frame the invasion of a neutered and isolated police state as a defense of America's borders.

To support the case came the next gambit, leaking phony intelligence to key reporters, notably The New York Times' Judith Miller, in order that the independent media be seen as validating administration claims about Saddam's nuclear weaponry ambitions. Here's Vice-President Dick Cheney talking on Meet the Press about aluminum tubes.
[CLIP]
VICE-PRESIDENT DICK CHENEY:
There's a story in The New York Times this morning that says – and I want to attribute The Times. I don't want to talk about, obviously, specific intelligence sources.
[END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD:
And finally, the war drumbeat at its loudest – Secretary of State Colin Powell's notorious briefing to the United Nations, which found in an innocuous trailer telltale evidence of weapons of mass destruction. And much of the media lapped it up.
[CLIP]
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT:
Flanked by CIA Director George Tenet, Powell presented a multimedia show of sorts using previously classified satellite photos and intercepted phone recordings, all intended to show how Saddam Hussein is keeping banned weapons hidden from inspectors.
[END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD:
But in terms of managing public opinion, this was mere prologue. The past five years have seen a perverse symbiosis – the yin of government deception joined with the yang of media credulousness. And it began quickly. A few weeks into the war came iconic images of ecstatic Iraqis toppling Saddam Hussein's statue in the city square.

The earliest footage was strangely undramatic – a sparse crowd, more milling around than euphoric, and Marine vehicles visible in the frame. No problem. That soon vanished for a close-up view of the same scene focusing on the most raucous elements, and played and replayed endlessly on cable news.
[CLIP]
[YELLING AND CHANTING]
MALE CORRESPONDENT:
They’re smashing it to pieces. They're waving their fists in the air. They're chanting, “Death to Saddam.”
[END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD:
The tight shot, of course, also obscured the role of U.S. forces, a role that, as Los Angeles Times reporter David Zucchino told us more than a year later, was even greater than first understood.
DAVID ZUCCHINO:
And I'll read from a long interview by the team leader of a psy-ops team assigned to the Marines who reached Firdos Square where the statue was. He writes: "The Marine Corps colonel in the area saw the Saddam statue as a target of opportunity and decided that the statue must come down."

And later on, he adds, they get a U.S. Marine recovery vehicle to come in and they pack the back of it with some very excited and shouting Iraqi kids, and then the Marine vehicle pulls the statue down. But from the way the TV cameras were situated, the way it showed, it looked like there were crowds and cheering Iraqis pulling the statue down.
BOB GARFIELD:
Almost simultaneous with the statue incident came the heroic rescue of Private Jessica Lynch, the soldier liberated from a Baghdad hospital by an extraction team of her comrades. According to The Washington Post and hundreds of other papers that ran the story, the team stormed the ward to snatch Lynch from her captors whereupon she and her rescuers bravely shot their way to freedom.
[CLIP]
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT:
The story that everybody is talking about, though, today is this daring rescue of Jessie Lynch. I mean, this is the stuff of which movies are made, really.
MALE CORRESPONDENT:
Yes. You know, we try to get our POWs out of Vietnam. We're not successful. We try to get our hostages out of Iran. We're not successful. But we now have this wonderful force – the J-SOC, it's called – it has Delta Force Seal people, Air Force people, and they know how to get in there, and deception, with a lot of night activity, and grab somebody. It's a wonderful story.
[END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD:
Shortly thereafter, the British press began to report that the heroic details had been fabricated. As one hospital employee told the BBC -
[CLIP]
HOSPITAL EMPLOYEE:
We surprised at that time. Why they do this? There is no military, no Iraqi soldier in the hospital.
[END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD:
Yes, the Pentagon's feel-good story was exposed as a lie. But, as Brooke observed in her interview with documentarian Sandy Smith, the truth emerged at the wrong moment to generate much outrage.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:
Now, partly it's because the war is over. But I wonder whether you think there may be another reason why there's no great rush to correct the record.
SANDY SMITH:
What Jessica Lynch played to was the overwhelming feeling of relief in America that we were doing okay. It wasn't as bad as it looked like –
[OVERTALK]
BOB GARFIELD:
Wait. Wait, wait, wait. Did she say the war is over - in May, 2003? Well, yeah. But believe me, she had that on good authority.
[CLIP]
PRESIDENT GEORGE BUSH:
My fellow Americans, major combat operations in Iraq have ended. In the battle of Iraq, the United States and her allies have prevailed.
[APPLAUSE AND CHEERS]
[END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD:
The President flew in by fighter jet, tail-hooking to the aircraft carrier U.S.S. Abraham Lincoln and declaring mission accomplished. The only problem was the mission wasn't accomplished.

Three weeks later, I asked New York Times White House correspondent Elizabeth Bumiller whether we should be concerned about a government better at spectacle than at truth, one that conceals harsh and complex reality beneath martial and vainglorious imagery along Leni Riefenstahl lines.
ELIZABETH BUMILLER:
I don't perhaps think it's as dangerous as you think it is. I just think it's American politics. To be a successful politician you have to be good on television. We've known that for many decades now.
BOB GARFIELD:
Now, see, I wouldn't say dangerous. I would just say vaguely creepy – at taxpayer expense.
ELIZABETH BUMILLER:
Well, I'm [LAUGHS] not going to say that. I don't know – what is the alternative? If you're the president, you know, and you're going to be on television, they've got to shine a light on you because otherwise you're not going to be seen. Where would you draw the line?
BOB GARFIELD:
I don't know. But I do know it has long since been crossed by an administration that spun Corporal Pat Tillman’s friendly fire death in Afghanistan as Silver Star heroism; that barred the media from photographing the arrival of coffins at Dover Air Force Base lest the human toll of the war be too forcefully rendered; that promoted a candid and unscripted Q&A between the President and U.S. soldiers in Iraq, only to deliver – this.
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PRESIDENT GEORGE BUSH:
Can you give us a sense for the reception of the people there in Tikrit toward coalition forces, as well as the Iraqi units that they encounter?
CAPTAIN DAVID WILLIAMS:
Sir, in North Central Iraq, voter registration is up 17 percent. That's 400,000 new voters in North Central Iraq and 100,000 new voters in the al-Salahuddin province.
[END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD:
This time, though, thanks in part to some careless satellite transmission from the Pentagon, the press was on to the con and said so on the evening news. NBC's Andrea Mitchell.
[CLIP]
ANDREA MITCHELL:
The White House had said the exchange would be spontaneous, but there was something they did not expect you to see. The troops were coached on how to answer the commander-in-chief.

This is Allison Barber. She works for the Pentagon.
ALLISON BARBER:
Master Sergeant Lombardo, when you're talking about the President coming to see you in New York, take a little breath before that so you can actually be talking directly to him.
[END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD:
This was not 2003. It was October 2005. A chastened press corps had begun to express the skepticism and even indignation that it had suppressed, or underplayed, or was duped out of for the first half of the war.

As for the administration, well, to stage fiction you need willing suspension of disbelief. And that is long gone. On Wednesday, extolling his war achievements, the President once again invoked the name al Qaeda – 14 times, in fact. And, once again, he claimed he was defending our shores.
[CLIP]
PRESIDENT GEORGE BUSH:
Because we acted, the world is better and the United States of America is safer.
[END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD:
But nowadays, as someone once said, this will not stand. In the news coverage of the President's speech, any linkage between Iraq and 9/11 was delicately but conspicuously debunked – about six and a half years too late – but better late than never.