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Editors’ Note: We are pleased to present this excerpt from SHELDON RAMPTON and JOHN STAUBER’s excellent new book, Weapons of Mass Deception: The Uses of Propaganda in Bush’s War on Iraq (Tarcher/Penguin).
At a press briefing two weeks following the terrorist attacks of September 11, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld had an exchange with a reporter that deserves to be quoted in some detail. In the context of the "war on terrorism," a reporter asked, "Will there be any circumstances, as you prosecute this campaign, in which anyone in the Department of Defense will be authorized to lie to the news media in order to increase the chances of success of a military operation or gain some other advantage over your adversaries?"
Of course, this conjures up Winston Churchill’s famous phrase when he said-don’t quote me on this, OK. I don’t want to be quoted on this, so don’t quote me-he said, sometimes the truth is so precious it must be accompanied by a bodyguard of lies, talking about the invasion date and the invasion location, and indeed, they engaged not just in not talking about the date of the Normandy invasion or the location, whether it was to be Normandy Beach or just north off of Belgium, they actually engaged in a plan to confuse the Germans as to where it would happen. And they had a fake army under General Patton, and one thing and another.
That is a piece of history. And I bring it up just for the sake of background.
The answer to your question is no. I cannot imagine a situation. I don’t recall that I’ve ever lied to the press. I don’t intend to. And it seems to me that there will not be reason for it. There are dozens of ways to avoid having to put yourself in a position where you’re lying. And I don’t do it. And [Victoria Clarke] won’t do it. And Admiral Quigley won’t do it.
Reporter: That goes for everybody in the Department of Defense?
Rumsfeld: You’ve got to be kidding. (Laughter.)
A few months later, the New York Times reported that a new group within the Pentagon, the Office of Strategic Influence (OSI), was "developing plans to provide news items, possibly even false ones, to foreign media organizations." Headed by Brigadier General Simon P. Worden, the OSI had a multi-million-dollar budget and "has begun circulating classified proposals calling for aggressive campaigns that use not only the foreign media and the Internet, but also covert operations," the Times stated. "General Worden envisions a broad mission ranging from ‘black’ campaigns that use disinformation and other covert activities to ‘white’ public affairs that rely on truthful news releases, Pentagon officials said. ‘It goes from the blackest of black programs to the whitest of white,’ a senior Pentagon official said."
The proposal was controversial even within the military, where critics worried that it would undermine the Pentagon’s credibility and blur the boundaries between covert operations and public relations. Moreover, disinformation planted in foreign media organizations could end up being published and broadcast to U.S. audiences. The Times report sparked an uproar in Congress and outraged newspaper editorials, and within a week the White House closed down the OSI, disavowing any intent to ever use disinformation. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld claimed that he had "never even seen the charter for the office," even though the OSI’s assistant for operations said otherwise.
In fact, however, Rumsfeld seemed to care quite a bit about preserving the functions of an office whose charter he claimed never to have seen. Nine months later, he made the following remark during an airplane flight to Chile: "And then there was the Office of Strategic Influence. You may recall that. And ‘Oh, my goodness gracious, isn’t that terrible, Henny Penny, the sky is going to fall.’ I went down that next day and said fine, if you want to savage this thing, fine, I’ll give you the corpse. There’s the name. You can have the name, but I’m gonna keep doing every single thing that needs to be done, and I have."
As these anecdotes illustrate, the Bush administration had developed an uncommonly twisted way of discussing deception itself. In his own way, Rumsfeld is uncommonly candid about his willingness to deceive and about his techniques for doing so. But even the deceptions are delivered in a convoluted manner-usually through insinuations or evasive language games rather than outright falsehoods. If the OSI is caught planning to spread misinformation, the White House simply changes its name. And this is just one of the "dozens of ways" that Rumsfeld and company have used to deceive the public without "having to put yourself in a position where you’re lying."
In an October 2002 opinion poll by the Pew Research Center for People and the Press, 66 percent of Americans said they believed Saddam Hussein was involved in the September 11 attacks on the United States, while 79 percent believed that Iraq already possessed, or was close to possessing, nuclear weapons. The same poll looked at why many people supported war and found that the main reason was their belief that it would reduce the threat of terrorism. The principal reason cited by 25 percent of war supporters related to their perceptions of Hussein or the nature of his regime (he’s "evil," a "madman," "represses his own people"). However, more than twice that number-60 percent-gave a reason related to their concerns stemming from 9/11 (getting rid of weapons of mass destruction, preventing future terrorism).
In January 2003, Knight-Ridder Newspapers conducted its own, separate opinion poll. "Two-thirds of the respondents said they thought they had a good grasp of the issues surrounding the Iraqi crisis, but closer questioning revealed large gaps in that knowledge," it reported. "For instance, half of those surveyed said one or more of the Sept. 11 terrorist hijackers were Iraqi citizens. In fact, none was." Moreover, "The informed public is considerably less hawkish about war with Iraq than the public as a whole. Those who show themselves to be most knowledgeable about the Iraq situation are significantly less likely to support military action, either to remove Saddam from power or to disarm Iraq."
This gap between reality and public opinion was not an accident. If the public had possessed a more accurate understanding of the facts, more people would probably have seen a "pre-emptive" war with Iraq as unwise and unwarranted. The public’s erroneous beliefs developed through a steady drumbeat of allegations and insinuations from the Bush administration, pro-war think tanks and commentators-statements that were often false or misleading and whose purpose was to create the impression that Iraq posed an imminent peril.
Iraq and Al Qaeda
The idea of an alliance between Al Qaeda and Iraq was unlikely, since Osama bin Laden’s hatred for the "infidel" regime of Saddam Hussein was long-standing and well-known before September 11. Much of the public speculation about a link between Al Qaeda and Iraq was based on an alleged meeting between 9/11 hijacker Mohammed Atta and Iraqi intelligence officials that supposedly took place in Prague, Czech Republic between the dates of April 8 and 11, 2001.
Reports of this meeting first came from Czech officials in October 2001, during the period of intense speculation that followed the terrorist attacks. According to Czech Republic’s interior minister, Atta had met with Ahmed Khalil Ibrahim Samir al-Ani, a second consul at the Iraqi Embassy. According to Czech intelligence, however, the factual basis for the story was thin from the beginning. Its sole source was a single Arab émigré, who came forward with the information only after 9/11, when photographs of Atta appeared in the local press. As the New York Times reported in December 2001, the story may have been simply a case of mistaken identity, since al-Ani "had a business selling cars and met frequently with a used car dealer from Germany who bore a striking resemblance to Mr. Atta."
The story was thoroughly investigated by the FBI in the United States. "We ran down literally hundreds of thousands of leads and checked every record we could get our hands on," FBI Director Robert Mueller said in an April 2002 speech in San Francisco. The records revealed that Atta was in Virginia Beach, Virginia in early April, during the time he supposedly met al-Ani in Prague.
After conducting his own separate investigations, Czech Republic president Vaclav Havel laid the story to rest. The Times reported in 2002 that Havel "has quietly told the White House he has concluded that there is no evidence to confirm earlier reports that Mohammed Atta, the leader in the Sept. 11 attacks, met with an Iraqi intelligence official in Prague." Havel did this quietly "to avoid embarrassing" the other Czech officials who had previously given credibility to the story. "Today, other Czech officials say they have no evidence that Mr. Atta was even in the country in April 2001," the Times reported.
Despite the lack of any credible evidence that the Atta-Iraq meeting ever occurred, Bush administration officials continued to promote the rumor, playing a delicate game of not-quite-lying insinuations. In February 2002, for example, San Francisco Chronicle reporter Robert Collier interviewed Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, a leading advocate of war with Iraq. "Have you seen any convincing evidence to link Iraq to Al Qaeda or its international network?" Collier asked.
"A lot of this stuff is classified and I really can’t get into discussing it," Wolfowitz said, adding, "We also know that there are things that haven’t been explained … like the meeting of Mohammed Atta with Iraqi officials in Prague. It just comes back to the fact that-"
"Which now is alleged, right?" Collier said. "There is some doubt to that?"
"Now this gets you into classified areas again," Wolfowitz replied. "I think the point which I do think is fundamental, is that, the premise of your question seems to be, we wait for proof beyond a reasonable doubt. I think the premise of a policy has to be we can’t afford to wait for proof beyond a reasonable doubt."
Wolfowitz’s performance typifies the administration’s handling of the Atta-in-Prague story. Using vague references to "classified" information, he avoided specifics, while dismissing requests for actual proof as the bureaucratic concern of overly legalistic pencil-pushers. The pattern continued throughout a variety of subsequent pronouncements:
* In May 2002, William Safire, the conservative New York Times columnist and Iraq war hawk, cited an unnamed "senior Bush administration official" who told him, "You cannot say the Czech report about a meeting in 2001 between Atta and the Iraqi is discredited or disproven in any way. The Czechs stand by it and we’re still in the process of pursuing it and sorting out the timing and venue."
* In July 2002, Donald Rumsfeld told a news conference that Iraq had "a relationship" with Al Qaeda but declined to be more specific. The following month, the Los Angeles Times reported an interview with yet another unnamed "senior Bush administration official" who said evidence of an Atta meeting in Prague "holds up," adding, "We’re going to talk more about this case."
* In September 2002, defense department advisor Richard Perle was quoted in an Italian business publication, saying that Atta met personally with Saddam Hussein himself. "Mohammed Atta met Saddam Hussein in Baghdad prior to September 11," Perle said. "We have proof of that, and we are sure he wasn’t just there for a holiday." (Since then, nothing whatsoever has been heard about the alleged "proof.")
* On September 8, 2002, Vice President Dick Cheney was interviewed on Meet the Press. "There has been reporting," he said, "that suggests that there have been a number of contacts over the years. We’ve seen in connection with the hijackers, of course, Mohammed Atta, who was the lead hijacker, did apparently travel to Prague on a number of occasions. And on at least one occasion, we have reporting that places him in Prague with a senior Iraqi intelligence official a few months before the attack on the World Trade Center."
* "We know that Iraq and the Al Qaeda terrorist network share a common enemy," Bush himself said in an October 7, 2002 speech to the nation. In the same speech, he also mentioned "one very senior al Qaeda leader who received medical treatment in Baghdad this year." However, he did not mention that the terrorist in question, Abu Musab Zarqawi, was no longer in Iraq and that there was no hard evidence Hussein’s government knew he was there or had contact with him. At an election campaign rally a week later, Bush said that Saddam was, "a man who, in my judgment, would like to use Al Qaeda as a forward army."
The Atta-in-Prague story acquired solidity in the minds of the public through sheer repetition. Each new whisper from a Bush team insider yielded a fresh harvest of newspaper editorials, I-told-you-so’s and speculation on the Internet. Simply by mentioning Iraq and Al Qaeda together in the same sentence, over and over, the message got through. Where there is smoke, people were led to believe, there must be fire. But actually, there was only smoke.
Patterns of Global Terrorism
The State Department’s annual "Patterns of Global Terrorism" report, issued in May 2002, makes interesting reading in contrast to the Bush administration’s claim that Iraq was the leading world terrorist threat.
According to "Patterns of Global Terrorism," Iraq’s role as a state sponsor of terrorism consisted of being "the only Arab-Muslim country that did not condemn the September 11 attacks against the United States." Also, Iraq provided safe haven to a number of Palestinian organizations involved with the intifada, such as the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. Other terrorist groups that Iraq was reported to support included the Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK) and the Mujahedin-e-Khalq (MEK). In both of these cases, the terrorist link requires some qualification. The PKK, a Marxist political party that supports Kurdish separatism in Turkey, publicly abandoned armed struggle in 1999. The MEK is an armed guerrilla force that has been trying to overthrow the government of Iran. In all of these cases, Iraqi support for these groups reflects rivalries with its next-door neighbors and does not differ substantially from the type of support for terrorist groups that other governments practice in the region. According to "Patterns of Global Terrorism," in fact, it was Iran, not Iraq, that "remained the most active state sponsor of terrorism in 2001"-a title that Iran has held for several years running. But if that’s the case, why such a rush to go to war with Iraq?
Even the State Department report was heavily influenced by spin. While condemning terrorism by Iran, Iraq and other long-time U.S. adversaries, "Patterns of Global Terrorism" praises allies such as Saudi Arabia, which it says have "played strong roles in the International Coalition against terrorism. In addition to condemning the September 11 attacks publicly, these governments took positive steps to halt the flow of terrorism financing and, in some cases, authorized basing and/or overflight provisions. In several cases, they did so despite popular disquiet over their governments’ military support for Operation Enduring Freedom." Beneath a photograph of U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell shaking hands with Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah, the report acknowledges that laws against solicitation of funds for terrorists "were not scrupulously enforced in the past," but says the Saudis have "agreed to cooperate with U.S. investigators."
The irony in all of this, of course, is that 15 of the 19 hijackers who flew the planes on September 11 were Saudi citizens, and links between the Saudi regime and Al Qaeda are much easier to draw than links between Iraq and Al Qaeda. Osama bin Laden and his terror network belong to a specific Muslim sect, Wahhabi fundamentalism, which is much more ideologically severe than the religion practiced by most Muslims throughout the world and which certainly differs from the largely secular ideology of Saddam Hussein’s Ba’ath Party. However, Wahhabi is the state religion of Saudi Arabia, the ideological underpinnings of the absolute monarchy which rules the country with an iron fist. Human rights groups such as Amnesty International have pointed to the country’s numerous cases of arbitrary arrest, prolonged detention and physical abuse of prisoners, which security forces commit with the acquiescence of the government. In addition, the government prohibits or restricts freedom of speech, the press, assembly, association and religion. Partly as a release valve for domestic dissatisfaction with the oppressive nature of the Saudi regime, the monarchy tolerates and even encourages anti-Semitism and America-bashing that scapegoats Israel and the United States for all of the problems of the region.
"It is worth stating clearly and unambiguously what official U.S. government spokespersons have not," stated Terrorist Financing, an October 2002 report sponsored by the Council on Foreign Relations. "For years, individuals and charities based in Saudi Arabia have been the most important source of funds for Al Qaeda, and for years the Saudi officials have turned a blind eye to this problem. This is hardly surprising since Saudi Arabia possesses the greatest concentration of wealth in the region; Saudi nationals and charities were previously the most important sources of funds for the mujahideen [Islamic fundamentalists who fought the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan]; Saudi nationals have always constituted a disproportionate percentage of Al Qaeda’s own membership; and Al Qaeda’s political message has long focused on issues of particular interest to Saudi nationals, especially those who are disenchanted with their own government."
In fact, it appears that some of those Saudi officials did more than merely turn a blind eye. In November 2002, the FBI investigated charitable payments by Haifa Al-Faisal, the wife of Saudi Ambassador to the United States, Prince Bandar bin Sultan. Beginning in early 2000, $3,500 a month flowed from Al-Faisal to two Saudi students in the United States who provided assistance to some of the 9/11 hijackers. One of the students who received the money threw a welcoming party for the hijackers upon their arrival in San Diego, paid their rent and guaranteed their lease on an apartment next door to his own. The other student, a known Al Qaeda sympathizer, also befriended the hijackers prior to their awful deed. At a party after the attacks, he "celebrated the heroes of September 11," openly talking about "what a wonderful, glorious day it had been."
Princess Haifa’s money did not flow directly from her to the hijackers, and there is no evidence that she had any prior knowledge of their plans. Nevertheless, the Bush administration’s willingness to accept her explanations at face value contrasts strikingly with the enthusiasm with which the Bush administration pursued every slim thread that might connect Iraq to Al Qaeda, it handled the news about Haifa Al-Faisal’s payments by urging people not to jump to conclusions. White House spokesman Ari Fleischer responded to the news by saying, "Saudi Arabia is a good partner in the war against terrorism but can do more."
The Search for the Real Killers
Several investigators-including Joel Mowbray of the conservative National Review, leftist BBC reporter Greg Palast, and an investigative team at the Boston Herald -have found evidence of links between prominent Saudis and the financing of Al Qaeda. Matthew Levitt, a senior fellow in terrorism studies at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, says that much of Al Qaeda’s funding has come through charities "closely linked to the Saudi government and royal family" including the Al-Haramain Islamic Foundation, Benevolence International Foundation, International Islamic Relief Organization, Muslim World League, Rabita Trust, and World Assembly of Muslim Youth. A Canadian intelligence assessment prepared on July 25, 2002, reported that individuals in Saudi Arabia " were donating 1 to 2 million a month through mosques and other fundraising avenues."
In August 2002, 600 family members of people who died on September 11, calling themselves "9/11 Families United to Bankrupt Terrorism," launched a $1 trillion lawsuit against parties that they allege have helped finance international terrorism. By March 2003, more than 3,100 plaintiffs had joined the lawsuit, whose list of terrorist financiers includes seven international banks, eight Islamic charities, several members of the Saudi royal family and the government of Sudan. But class action lawyer Ron Motley, the lead attorney in the case, said the Bush administration was providing no help. After three meetings with State Department officials, he said, "we received zero pieces of paper and zero help."
Saudi cooperation in the post-9/11 investigations was also lackluster. The Boston Herald reported in December 2001 that although terrorism suspects had been arrested in more than 40 countries following September 11, none had been announced in Saudi Arabia. The Saudis also balked at freezing the assets of organizations linked to bin Laden and international terrorism. The U.S. barely whispered about this lack of cooperation, for fear of disrupting what Herald reporters Jonathan Wells, Jack Meyers and Maggie Mulvihill described as "an extraordinary array of U.S.-Saudi business ventures which, taken together, are worth tens of billions of dollars." They cited examples of top Bush officials who have "cashed in on the Saudi gravy train," including the following:
* Vice president Dick Cheney’s old company, Halliburton, has done more than $174 million in business developing oil fields and other projects for the Saudis.
* National security adviser Condoleezza Rice is a former longtime member of the board of directors of Chevron, which does extensive business with the Saudis. Rice even has a Chevron oil tanker named after her.
* The president’s father, George Bush, Sr., works as a senior advisor to the Carlyle Group, which has financial interests in U.S. defense firms hired by the Saudis to equip and train their military.
"It’s good old fashioned ‘I’ll scratch your back, you scratch mine.’ You have former U.S. officials, former presidents, aides to the current president, a long line of people who are tight with the Saudis, people who are the pillars of American society and officialdom,” said Charles Lewis of the Center for Public Integrity. "No one wants to alienate the Saudis, and we are willing to basically ignore inconvenient truths that might otherwise cause our blood to boil. We basically look away."
The administration’s ties to the Saudis through the Carlyle Group are especially intricate. Carlyle, an investment equity firm, is America’s 11th largest military contractor and one of the biggest "old boys networks" in the modern business world, bringing together high-powered former politicians with Saudi financial moguls and other major investors. The chairman of the Carlyle Group is Frank C. Carlucci, a former secretary of defense under Ronald Reagan and old college classmate of current Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. Carlyle’s other employees include a roster of former top-level government officials from the United States and other countries, including former British prime minister John Major, former U.S. Secretary of State James A. Baker III, and former White House budget director Dick Darman. The former politicians work as rainmakers, using their reputations and contacts to help grease the wheels for weapons contracts and other high-stakes insider deals. "The revolving door has long been a fact of life in Washington, but Carlyle has given it a new spin," reported Fortune magazine in March 2002. "Instead of toiling away for a trade organization or consulting firm for a measly $250,000 a year, former government officials can rake in serious cash by getting equity cuts on corporate deals. Several of the onetime government officials who have hooked up with Carlyle-Carlucci, Baker, and Darman, in particular–have made millions."
On March 5, 2001, Leslie Wayne of the New York Times reported that George Bush Sr. had taken time off from campaigning for his son’s presidential election "to call on Crown Prince Abdullah of Saudi Arabia at a luxurious desert compound outside Riyadh to talk about American-Saudi business affairs. Mr. Bush went as an ambassador of sorts, but not for his government. Traveling with the fanfare of dignitaries, Mr. Bush and [former secretary of state James A. Baker III] were using their extensive government contacts to further their business interests as representatives of the Carlyle Group, a $12 billion private equity firm based in Washington that has parlayed a roster of former top-level government officials, largely from the Bush and Reagan administrations, into a moneymaking machine." Wayne noted that Bush Sr. was receiving $80,000 to $100,000 per speech for his activities on behalf of Carlyle and that the company had also helped Bush Jr. in 1990 by putting him on the board of a Carlyle subsidiary, Caterair, an airline-catering company."
The strange bedfellows at Carlyle’s slumber party included family members of Osama bin Laden, several of whom were in the United States doing business on the day of the September 11 attacks. Although the family has disowned him and publicly condemns his terrorist activities, the family’s $2 million investment in Carlyle raised eyebrows. At the request of other shareholders, the bin Ladens sold their stake in Carlyle immediately after 9/11. To handle PR aspects of the controversy regarding its links to the bin Ladens, the Carlyle Group hired Chris Ullman, a former official with the U.S. Office of Management and Budget, as its vice president for corporate communications. The bin Ladens (who now spell their last name Binladin to differentiate themselves from Osama) went shopping for a public relations firm of their own, approaching Steven Goldstein and his PR firm, Attention America. Goldstein, who is Jewish and pro-Israel, came to the conclusion that he was approached in part because of his religious and political stance. He turned them down, and the Binladins turned instead to the public relations firms of Hullin Metz & Co. and WMC Communications, headed by former Hill & Knowlton chairman David Wynne-Morgan. "We have checked them out and they have no links with terrorism," Wynne-Morgan said.
The Saudi monarchy also turned to public relations firms for assistance following September 11. Three days after the 9/11 attacks, the PR giant Burson-Marsteller signed an agreement to provide "issues counseling and crisis management" for the Kingdom and to place ads in the New York Times expressing Saudi support for the U.S. in its time of crisis. In November, it began paying $200,000 per month to another PR firm, Qorvis Communications and its affiliate, Patton Boggs. During the last nine months of 2002 alone, reported O’Dwyer’s PR Daily, Qorvis received $20.2 million from the Kingdom. "That amount exceeds the previous record $14.2 million that the Citizens for a Free Kuwait front group spent at Hill & Knowlton during a six-month period in 1990-`91 to build support for the Persian Gulf War," O’Dwyer’s reported. Qorvis helped the Saudis set up their own front group, called the "Alliance of Peace & Justice," described in the PR firm’s government filing as an American organization concerned about the Middle East process. Qorvis arranged media interviews for Saudi representatives with media figures including Ted Koppel, Bill Plant, Paula Zahn, Andrea Mitchell, Aaron Brown, Chris Matthews and Bill O’Reilly."
Hill & Knowlton also courted the Saudis, with H&K account manager Jim Cox giving an obsequious interview to Arab News, a publication owned by members of the monarchy. Described as "forthright and straight talking" by Arab News, Cox explained that "Saudi Arabia has a cadre of friends who know, respect and value it in terms of business relationships and the culture of the Kingdom. The trouble is that cadre is very small. It’s a real industry-based group, limited to those who have had business contacts with the Kingdom." Due to the fact that the majority of the 9/11 hijackers were Saudis, Cox said, the Kingdom had "this huge hurdle of disbelief to overcome." But who’s to blame? "It’s not the Saudis, it’s not the government, and it’s not anybody else in particular. It’s simply the world we live in." Hill & Knowlton signed deals in excess of $77,000 per month with state-owned companies including Saudi Basic Industries and Saudi Aramco, the world’s largest oil company. Another PR firm, the Gallagher Group, headed by Republican policy analyst Jamie Gallagher, signed a $300,000, one-year deal in early 2003 to assist Qorvis Communications in its PR work for the Kingdom.
Patton Boggs, a Qorvis affiliate, distributed documents to journalists and members of congress portraying the Saudis as partners in the war on terror and victims themselves of terrorism. One document addressed "hot button" issues such as ‘Saudi Support for Osama bin Laden,’ ‘Alleged Saudi Funding for Terrorism,’ ‘Saudi Freezing of Assets,’ ‘Saudi Education System and Anti-Americanism,’ ‘Saudi Arabia and Suicide Bombers,’ and ‘Stability in Saudi Arabia.’" For the most part, however, the document stayed away from specifics on each of those points, preferring instead to rely on statements of endorsement for the Kingdom from U.S. officials including George W. Bush, Donald Rumsfeld, Pentagon spokesperson Torie Clarke, State Department spokesperson Richard Boucher, Colin Powell, White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer and General Tommy Franks.
Sometimes the Saudis were their own worst enemies in the PR war. In December 2001, for example, the Saudi defense minister drew criticism when he publicly accused the "Zionist and Jewish lobby" of orchestrating a "media blitz" against the desert kingdom.
Just as American propaganda has limited impact in the Middle East, the Saudi PR blitz fell on mostly deaf ears in the United States. Millions of Saudi dollars went into TV and print ads positioning Saudi Arabia as a trusted ally of the U.S. and a partner in the war on terror. "The ads are signed ‘The People of Saudi Arabia,’ but that’s a lie," commented Advertising Age columnist Bob Garfield. "And so is the premise. For decades, the U.S. relationship with Saudi Arabia and other so-called ‘moderate’ Arab states has been a deal with the devil. We sponsor their corrupt, repressive, authoritarian regimes with cash and weaponry. They sell us oil. Such unholy alliances, dictated by Cold War realpolitik, were bound to create backlash, and so they have, in the 1979 Iranian revolution and decades of state-sponsored terrorism. In Saudi Arabia and Egypt, meanwhile, we have continued to deal with the devils we know rather than risk the Pandora’s Box of popular Islamism. The results: A Saudi regime that pays protection money to radical fundamentalists by underwriting hate-spewing madrassas around the Muslim world, spreading the virus of radical Islam while inoculating itself from revolutionary threats within its kingdom."
Although most of the flacks on retainer to the Saudis had Republican connections, some of the most scathing critics of the Kingdom were conservatives like Wall Street Journal columnist William McGurn and Congressman Dan Burton (R-Indiana), who held hearings in October 2002 on charges that the American children born of mixed U.S./Saudi parents have been kidnapped to the Kingdom and held there. There are "hundreds of such cases," Burton said, adding that the U.S. State Department had done nothing to pressure the Kingdom to return American children held there against their will. U.S. reluctance to address the kidnapping matter made Burton wonder whether "we have the resolve to deal with Saudi Arabia on other issues, ranging from funding for terrorists to cooperation in the effort against Iraq?"
Qorvis helped the Saudis handle fallout from the charges, prompting Burton to subpoena the PR firm’s records. When the Saudis claimed that this would violate diplomatic privileges under the Vienna Convention, Burton responded with a scathing letter, stating that the convention "has no application to American citizens who choose to sell their services as public relations/lobbying mouthpieces for foreign interests. To the contrary, the Foreign Agents Registration Act, which was enacted by Congress in 1937, makes clear that the activities of such ‘propagandists,’ including the documents they generate, are to be subject to the ‘spotlight of pitiless publicity’ so that the American people may be fully informed of both the identity of the propagandists and the nature of the activities they undertake on behalf of their foreign masters."
Even within Qorvis, the Saudi account seemed to stir concern. In December 2002, three of the company’s founders quit to form their own PR firm. "Associates say their departure reflects a deep discomfort in representing the government of Saudi Arabia against accusations that Saudi leaders have turned a blind eye to terrorism," the New York Times reported on December 6, 2002. "Friends and associates, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the departures had been prompted largely by growing evidence of ties between prominent Saudis and the financing of the terrorism network Al Qaeda."
Sheldon Rampton and John Stauber are the editors of PR Watch, an investigative journal that exposes deceptive and manipulative public relations and propaganda campaigns. This article is excerpted from their latest book, Weapons of Mass Deception: The Uses of Propaganda in Bush’s War on Iraq, published by Tarcher/Penguin.