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The Decline and Fall of American Journalism

by ALEXANDER COCKBURN

As a million Shi’ite pilgrims streamed toward Karbala earlier this week, shouting “No to America, no to Saddam, no to tyranny, no to Israel!” (slogans recorded by a reporter for Agence France Presse) can’t you just imagine the plash of complacent ‘I Told Him So’s’ from the lips of George Bush Sr., on the phone to Brent Scowcroft and other members of the old gang like Bush Sr.’s Secretary of State Lawrence Eagleburger, who recently took audible pleasure in telling the BBC that “If George Bush [Jr.] decided he was going to turn the troops loose on Syria and Iran after that he would last in office for about fifteen minutes. In fact if President Bush were to try that now even I would think that he ought to be impeached. You can’t get away with that sort of thing in this democracy.”

Until Judith Miller’s piece showed up on the front page of the New York Times on April 21, I’d thought the distillation of disingenuous US press coverage of the invasion came with the images of Iraqis cheering US troops in the Baghdad square in front of the Palestine Hotel on April 9 as they hauled down Saddam’s statue. I know the world has moved on, and now we’re wondering if Saddam is putting up his Vargas girls with thumbtacks on some motel wall in Minsk, but let’s make record for posterity that the April 9 Baghdad demonstration was a put-up job, a fake from start to finish.

Remember, the photos of the statue going down, the flag on Saddam’s face, the cheering Iraqis, were billed as the images that showed It Was All Worthwhile, up there in the pantheon with Joe Rosenthal’s photograph of the raising of the US flag on Iwo Jima and the news film of the Berlin wall going down. Obviously, there were plenty of Iraqis in Baghdad delighted at the realization that the Age of Saddam was drawing to a close (though it turns out Baghdad will probably be run by the same cops, the same bureaucrats, the same torturers, all now Ba’ath Party members who taken Saddam’s picture off their office walls and are proclaiming their fealty to the free market). And probably there were some Iraqis prepared to wave at Saddam’s conquerors riding in on their tanks. All the same, the clamorous masses in the square never existed.

I’ve yet to see the full image reproduced in any mainstream US newspaper, but I have seen photographs on the web of the entire square when that statue was being pulled down. In one small portion of the square, itself sealed off by three US tanks, there’s a knot of maybe 150 people. Close-up photographs suggest that the active non-US participants were associates of Ahmad Chalabi, leader of the exile group that rode in on the back of those US tanks, the Iraqi National Congress. (Go to www.counterpunch.org/statue.html and see for yourself.)

So here, concocted by Pentagon or CIA news managers, we had a “virtual” demo in front of the Palestine Hotel, where the international press was housed. The “event” was obviously a huge political plus for the Bush Administration and gave Americans back home the false tidings that their troops were being greeted as liberators. Predictably, the US media were somewhat coy in offering the news, not long thereafter, that US troops had shot at least ten in a crowd in Mosul that shook their fists instead of offering flowers. Promote a lie, and it’s sometimes not long before that lie comes home to roost.

As for the Weapons of Mass Destruction, their non-appearance has become a huge embarrassment for both Bush and Blair. Last Sunday’s British Independent carried the following huge frontpage banner headlines: “SO WHERE ARE THEY, MR BLAIR? NOT ONE ILLEGAL WARHEAD. NOT ONE DRUM OF CHEMICALS. NOT ONE INCRIMINATING DOCUMENT. NOT ONE SHRED OF EVIDENCE THAT IRAQ HAS WEAPONS OF MASS DESTRUCTION IN MORE THAN A MONTH OF WAR AND OCCUPATION.”

The days passed, and each excited bellow of discovery of WMD caches on the road north from Kuwait yielded to disappointment. Then came Judith Miller’s story in the New York Times. The smoking gun at last! Not exactly, as we shall see. But first a word about the reporter. If ever someone has an institutional interest in finding WMD in Iraq it’s surely Miller, who down the years has established a corner in creaking Tales of Terrorism, most of them bottle-fed to her by Israeli and US intelligence.

It was Miller who served up Khidir Hamza, the self-proclaimed nuclear bombmaker for Saddam, later exposed as a fraud. It was Miller who last year whipped up an amazing confection in the Times, blind-sourced from top to toe, about a Russian biowar scientist (sounding suspiciously like Lotte Lenya in From Russia With Love, and since deceased) ferrying Russian smallpox to Saddam. At least the Times’s headline writer tried to keep things honest this time. “Illicit Arms Kept Till Eve of War, An Iraqi Scientist Is Said to Assert.”

What did who say and who did the asserting? It turns out that Miller, in bed with the entire 101st Airborne, had been told by “American weapons experts” in a group called MET Alpha that they have been talking to “a scientist who claims to have worked in Iraq’s chemical weapons program,” that the Iraqis destroyed chemical weapons days before the war and that “Iraq had secretly sent unconventional weapons and technology to Syria, starting in the mid-1990’s, and that more recently Iraq was cooperating with Al Qaeda.”

Now isn’t that just what you’d expect him to say? And if you were an Iraqi scientist looking for quick passage out of Iraq to the USA, isn’t that just what you would say, in a series of unverifiable claims all fragrant to American nostrils?

Miller does concede that the MET Alpha group would not tell her who the scientist was, would not allow her to question him (assuming it wasn’t a “her,” maybe Lotte Lenya in a later incarnation) or do anything more than look at him from a great distance as he stood next to what was billed to Miller as a dump for “precursors” for chemical weapons. (Come to think about it, it’s probably a recycling facility for used cans of Roundup).

Furthermore, she wasn’t allowed to write about the unnamed Iraqi scientist for three days, and even then US military censors went over her copy line by line. What convenient disclosures this Iraqi allegedly offers, tailor-made to buttress Rumsfeld’s fist-shaking at Syria and Bush and Powell’s claims that Saddam and Osama bin Laden worked hand in glove, a claim that depended originally on an article by Jeffrey Goldberg in The New Yorker last year. At least Goldberg talked to the man claiming Osama/Saddam ties, although he made no effort to check the man’s “evidence,” subsequently discredited by less gullible journalists.

With Miller we sink to the level of straight press handout. I guess Miller, who’s apparently writing a sequel to her last book, on bioterror, needs to stay on the good side of MET Alpha. That’s the problem with embedfellows. Just one kiss is all it takes. And talking of embedfellows, I can’t imagine Laura Bush is too happy about Iraq’s national library being torched, even if the prime loss was a bunch of manuscript Korans, and what good Christian would care about them? As the joke went around the Pentagon after Franklin Graham held Good Friday services in the chapel normally used by the DoD’s Muslims, the scratches Graham found in the floor were the Devil’s fingernails.

An Anecdote about Judy Miller in Earlier Days

As a useful introduction to the history of onshore Kuwait, also as a literary curio, readers might hunt up a slim volume called Kuwait: Vanguard of the Gulf, by Peter Mansfield, ready for publication, just before Saddam’s 1990 invasion, by Hutchinson, a British subsidiary of Random House. Back in July of 1990, Alberto Vitale, head of Random House, went to London to attend a sales conference of the Random Century group, which includes Hutchinson.

Hutchinson had available two books about Iraq and Kuwait. One, Republic of Fear, by an Iraqi pseudonymously known as Samir al-Khalil, pseudonym of Kanan Makiya, and these days an aide to Chalabi of the Iraqi National Congress, who said the noise of bombs falling on Baghdad was music to his ears), did not excite Vitale. His enthusiasm was reserved for Kuwait: Vanguard of the Gulf, which had–aside from Mansfield’s amiable account of the emirate–the allure of a guaranteed purchase of several thousand copies by the government of Kuwait.

Clapping executives of Random Century on the back and counseling them to aim for more of this type of publishing, Vitale returned to New York. Saddam forthwith launched his invasion, thus annulling the promised bulk purchase of the book, priced at £14.99, which now jammed the warehouse. Belatedly Vitale’s attention shifted to al-Khalil’s Republic of Fear, a savage portrait of Iraq under Saddam. U.S. rights had been bought by University of California Press, which had sold the paperback rights to Pantheon, ironically part of the Random House group, for a tidy sum.

Scanning Republic of Fear, Vitale found it excessively scholarly and lacking the color and punch that a Judith Krantz or Jacqueline Susann might have brought to the theme. He announced to the folks at Random Century that he was summoning to England a fine writer who would work with al-Khalil to produce a version of Republic of Fear more accessible to the common man and woman. Judith Miller, a former New York Times Middle East correspondent and then the deputy editor of the Times media column, duly clambered off the plane at Heathrow, only to be told by al-Khalil that he did not care to partake in this refashioning of his work.

No problem, said Miller; she would stay up all night and by dawn descend with the synopsis of an entirely new work on Iraq on which they could collaborate. She went about her business, but when dawn came al-Khalil examined the fruit of her labors and exclaimed that this was indeed nothing but a remake of Republic of Fear. Exclaiming in her turn that she was not just a rewrite girl, Miller swept off.

On September 7, 1990, the Times carried a media item headlined “Crisis in Iraq Inspires Spate of Books.” The story by Roger Cohen underneath this energetic headline-while Miller was still deputy editor of the media page-showed that, as a word meaning something resembling a torrent, “spate” had come down in the world, here connoting just two books. One was Republic of Fear and the other a quickie to be put out by Times Books, an imprint of Random House, by none other than Judith Miller, writing with Laurie Mylroie, a Harvard professor specializing in Middle Eastern studies. In earlier years Mylroie was scarcely the foe of Saddam that she later became.

To his friends al-Khalil/ Makiya confided news of an encounter he later had with Miller, whose demeanor was unfriendly and conversation replete with suggestions that aside from her own influential position at The New York Times she had powerful friends and that al-Khalil’s future literary endeavors would not necessarily flourish this side of the Atlantic. (Miller confirmed she’d discussed a book project in London with al-Khalil. She described him as a “friend” and said she wouldn’t discuss the content of their conversations or where and when she might have met him later, since this could endanger his life. For its part, Hutchinson confirms that prior to the invasion, the emirate put down cash in part payment for the bulk purchase of Kuwait, which one U.S. publishing informant said at the time involved 15,000 books.)

Miller covered the invasion crisis nobly.. On October 1, 1990, for example, the Times published under her byline a most affecting story about Sheik Jaber al-Ahmed al-Sabah’s speech to the U.N. General Assembly the previous Thursday. It was of a tone surely gratifying to the Emir and to his public relations advisers, Hill & Knowlton, who no doubt be billed the offshore government of Kuwait for hundreds of thousands of dollars for due diligence in persuading The New York Times to decorate Miller’s story with such subheads as “Wrapped in Dignity, the Emir Manages to Dazzle.”

 

 

Alexander Cockburn’s Guillotined! and A Colossal Wreck are available from CounterPunch.

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