Lying by any other nameSouth County Independent, January 3, 2003
The old Soviet Union often found it necessary to revise history. The process was heavy handed and not particularly effective. For example when Lavrenti Beria, chief of the Soviet secret police, was executed in 1953, libraries across the country received orders to remove the Beria pages from their encyclopedias and replace them with some enclosed pages about the Bering Sea.
By contrast, manipulating public opinion in the United States is smooth and highly effective. I got an unforgettable lesson on this 37 years ago. Living in Albuquerque, N.M., at the time, I was astonished at a sequence of stories in the Albuquerque Journal. On Sept. 23, 1965, the paper reported that Nguyen Cao Ky, our South Vietnamese dictator du jour, had executed three South Vietnamese civilians for demonstrating against American bombing in South Vietnam. But the Administration and the media soon decided that it did not sound good to have our ally executing civilians. So by Sept. 27 the dead men were referred to as "Communist sympathizers." And on Sept. 28 the three were reclassified as "non-uniformed Viet Cong agitators." That still didn't sound like cause for capital punishment. So on Oct. 1, just eight days after they were executed, the three civilians who had protested the bombing of their farmland were branded "Viet Cong terrorists."
Virtually the same sequence of stories ran in papers across the country (including the Providence Journal). The New York Times was not publishing at the time due to a strike, but its international edition was being published and the sequence of stories appeared there. Why would the wire services send out such false stories? Why didn't the editors of the various newspapers reject them? And why was there no outrage from the public? Readers apparently accepted each day's version without questioning its contradiction with what they had seen a few days earlier. This was just one dramatic example of the use of misinformation. The deadliest years of the Vietnam War were based on another, the Tonkin Gulf incident, which remained largely unquestioned until after it had achieved its purpose -- getting the desired declaration from Congress.
Public opinion is still just as malleable. The Gulf War of 1991 was sold to Congress using two false stories: the incubator story and the tale of Iraqi troops amassed on the Saudi border. These falsehoods were later exposed in the St. Petersburg Times, on "60 Minutes", in John R. MacArthur's Second Front: Censorship and Propaganda in the Gulf War and elsewhere. But, because Congress and the public believed the misinformation, more than a million Iraqis -- most of them children -- have died under the bombing and sanctions of the past 12 years. It is true that Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990, but only after getting the apparent go-ahead from U.S. Ambassador April Glaspie and other American officials.
The Administration and the media have convinced many Americans that the continued suffering in Iraq is because the Iraqi government misuses money from the sale of Iraqi oil under the oil-for-food program. But the fact is that the Iraqi government gets no money from that program. More than a third is skimmed off by the U.N. for "administration and reparations." The rest is controlled by the U.N. Sanctions Committee. Many of Iraq's sewage-treatment and water-purification plants which we and the British bombed in 1991 cannot be fully repaired because the U.S. and U.K. representatives on the Sanctions Committee veto or delay purchase of parts and supplies. (You can discover this at the web site of the U.N. oil-for-food program, www.un.org/Depts/oip/.) The result is that thousands of small children in Iraq are dying of acute diarrhea from intestinal infections caused by drinking polluted water -- a weapon of mass destruction if ever there was one.
The latest amazing example of manipulation of public opinion relates to the tragedies of Sept. 11, 2001. For a year we were told that the hijackers were Saudis. (So we attacked Afghanistan. Obviously we couldn't bomb our ally Saudi Arabia.) But one year after the attacks on the United States, the administration and the media started telling us that Iraq was responsible. Within days they had convinced 70 percent of us. We'd completely forgotten the CIA's finding that there was no link between Iraq and Sept. 11.
Today, despite all the misinformation we've been fed in the past, some Americans assume the Administration has genuine undisclosed information which justifies striking Iraq. Perhaps the Iraqis still have chemical and biological weapons capabilities. (We know they did have such capabilities because, in the 1980s, we sold them materials for anthrax, botulism, salmonella, E coli and VX nerve gas.) But in 2002 a critical listener might be bothered by the Administration's attitude toward inspections which might answer the question. The Bush Administration declared that the Iraqi weapons report was false weeks before it even existed. Why is the Administration so unwilling to let the weapons inspectors finish their work? Is war the desired outcome? Perhaps Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld inadvertently let the truth out when he told ABC News on Dec. 3 that "It doesn't matter if weapons inspectors don't find weapons of mass destruction."