Covert manipulation of the Iraqi news media certainly must have seemed like a brilliant idea to some civilian genius in the Pentagon. In a conflict that is costing us billions every week, even the projected cost of $300 million must have seemed cheap. What could possibly go wrong with a plan to pay journalists in Baghdad for favorable coverage of the coalition war effort?
The practical problem with such schemes—as any historian of the Cold War might have told the Bush administration’s eager beavers—is their inevitable exposure. That’s what happened decades ago, when C.I.A.-financed journalists and publications were exposed at home and abroad. Certainly that was the predictable conclusion of this misadventure, too, which relied rather heavily on the tradecraft of inexperienced and arrogant young Republican boobs at an outfit called the Lincoln Group.
Unlike their Cold War forebears, the Lincoln Group flacks couldn’t keep the secret for months, let alone years. But the end result is always the same: international embarrassment and severely diminished credibility.
Paying for favorable news stories is a morally defective strategy as well, of course. The fear of tainting our own democratic process is why the C.I.A. was, from the beginning, legally forbidden from conducting propaganda operations within the United States. Allowing the government to subvert public discourse with dirty money and phony information is a long step toward tyranny.
As explained by National Security Advisor Stephen Hadley—who claimed to be unaware of this program, as did Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld—this kind of behavior is inconsistent with our stated mission of promoting freedom and democracy in Iraq, and is “not the kind of policy we want to pursue.”
Or is it? Unfortunately, much evidence suggests that the Bush administration habitually engages in these unsavory activities. Not so long ago, we learned that government agencies had been paying two friendly conservative opinion columnists, Armstrong Williams and Maggie Gallagher, both of whom regularly promote administration policy in print and on the airwaves. But that scandal, however disturbing, cannot compare to what we now know about the domestic propaganda that led to the war in Iraq.
In the Dec. 1 issue of Rolling Stone magazine, James Bamford, one of the nation’s leading intelligence correspondents, exposes how a Pentagon contractor called the Rendon Group funneled alarming disinformation about Iraqi weapons of mass destruction into the news media, both here and abroad. The story begins with the C.I.A.-funded creation of the Iraqi National Congress by Rendon more than a decade ago, as a means to destabilize Saddam Hussein’s regime.
When the C.I.A. no longer trusted the I.N.C. and its dubious leader, Ahmed Chalabi, he moved on to the Pentagon—where he embarked on an even more ambitious and expensive plan to promote an American invasion of Iraq. According to Mr. Bamford, that campaign relied on Iraqi defectors like Adnan Ihsan Saeed al-Haideri, a civil engineer who told frightening stories about Saddam’s concealed chemical, biological and nuclear materials. He claimed to have built secret facilities to hide this imminently threatening arsenal in various wells, palaces, villas and hospitals.
He had also failed a C.I.A. polygraph test, but that didn’t prevent Mr. Chalabi from promoting his tale to the Australian Broadcasting Corporation and The New York Times, which published Judith Miller’s version on Dec. 20, 2001. “An Iraqi Defector Tells of Work on at Least 20 Hidden Weapons Sites,” blared the front-page headline. The rest of the malleable media obediently echoed the Miller story, which was amplified during the following year by the President and his cabinet.
That crass fabrication, as Mr. Bamford explains, was only the beginning of “a long line of hyped and fraudulent stories that would eventually propel the U.S. into a war with Iraq—the first war based almost entirely on a covert propaganda campaign targeting the media.” American taxpayers paid more than $100 million in secret government contracts that resulted in lies being “blown back” into our news media.
Given the contempt with which the President and his associates treat the news media, perhaps these scams should come as no surprise. Just the other day, after the Iraqi news payments were revealed, Mr. Rumsfeld complained (again) about coverage of the war. The media, which cannot travel within the country because Iraq is too dangerous, doesn’t report enough good news, he said, and concentrates too much on casualties and killings.
It isn’t hard to imagine that powerful officials frustrated by reality-based reporting, with billions of dollars at their disposal, would be tempted to buy news more to their liking. And if fake news is good enough for the Iraqis, why shouldn’t it be good enough for us?
Luckily, the same incompetence that plagues the war effort also guarantees that this government’s “secret” propaganda will ultimately be as conspicuous as a bad toupee. Let us hope that Congress will investigate these costly, humiliating and possibly illegal episodes and that the perpetrators will be fully exposed. That is the only way to remove this stain.