Weapons of mass deception

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This article is part of the Center for Media & Democracy's focus on the fallout of nuclear "spin."

The following essay, written by PR Watch editors Sheldon Rampton and John Stauber at the beginning of the war in Iraq (and subsequently revised by other SourceWatchns), was the seed for their book, Weapons of Mass Deception: The Uses of Propaganda in Bush's War on Iraq:

Led into war by U.S. President George W. Bush, more than 300,000 U.S., British and Australian soldiers--many of whom no doubt sincerely believe that they are helping to make the world a better, safer place for themselves and their loved ones--are risking their lives. Outside the United States, however, most nations have refused to support the Bush administration's plans (W*), and there is strong popular opposition to war against Iraq. (W*) [1] [2] The absence of broad domestic and international support for unilateral action prior to the war [3] [4] [5] was striking in light of the administration's aggressive public relations campaign to win the "hearts and minds" of the world. (W*) Now that the war has begun, international opinion remains opposed to the war[6] although a majority Americans now support the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq--but with "wide disparities among demographic groups."

Experts warn that the war in Iraq violates international law [7] [8] and will increase the likelihood of domestic and international terrorism, making the world more dangerous. In spite of these warnings, few anti-war viewpoints penetrate the major U.S. media or other institutions responsible for informing public opinion. [9] Indeed, the media appear to have adopted President Bush's philosophy: "Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists." [10] This binary worldview of "good" and "evil" nations has come to form the basis of the Bush administration's foreign policy communication strategy, with potentially dangerous consequences. Raising standard of evidence also characterizes many Bush administration arguments, which often render it literally impossible for opponents to respond without appearing to challenge hidden 'sources' that the administration claims it 'can't reveal'.

The Bush administration and its multi-national corporate sponsors have already squandered the worldwide sympathy that the United States government enjoyed following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. Unilateral U.S. military actions around the world, coupled with the administration's refusal to cooperate on many international issues such as global warming, land mine proliferation, and resource conservation have contributed to rising anti-U.S., or more likely anti-Bush, sentiments throughout the world. These sentiments are especially strong in countries that are likely recruiting grounds for Al Qaeda and other terrorist organizations. Moreover, it is precisely because the U.S. military seems so invulnerable that America's adversaries have chosen to turn its citizens into targets. Meanwhile, vast but obsolete expenditures on a sort of modern Maginot Line of aircraft, ships, and armor, all utterly useless against opponents employing civilian infrastructure and infiltrators, continue to be justified by ever more bizarre propaganda, e.g. Bush's claim after 9/11 that the attack "proved" the "need" for an ABM system.

Self-fulfilling Prophecies

The first example of the Bush mentality in practice came in his January 2002 State of the Union address, in which he described Iran, Iraq and North Korea as an "axis of evil." [11] In reality, not a shred of evidence suggested any alliance, practical or otherwise, among them. [12] Moreover, Iran and Iraq have been bitter enemies for decades. Indeed, the Bush administration has produced no evidence linking any of the three countries to the terrorists of September 11. The main thing each country had in common was that the Bush administration hated them. A logical rationale for the inclusion of North Korea would be to distance the US from giving any impression of being anti-Islam (an impression reinforced strongly by its own rhetoric, see the "war of definitions" below).

Nevertheless, the Bush equation has acquired the characteristics of a self-fulfilling prophecy. As the U.S. administration fans the flames of war, Iraq and North Korea have found themselves thrust for the first time into an alliance of convenience, as North Korea opportunistically uses the administration's preoccupation with Iraq to push forward its effort to develop nuclear weapons, convinced it is on Washington's next hit list W*.

The Iranians also realize that they are next on the administration's list of nations to invade, and they too have begun to respond in kind. There is every chance that danger is increased, not decreased, by the Bush administration's tactics, but, "if you have a hammer then every screw looks like a nail", the infrastructure bias of the military industrial complex deems invasion as the only rational response to attack. Or, now, suspected attack.

The Bush administration's attempt to link Iraq with Al Qaeda has also become a self-fulfilling prophecy. On the eve of war with Iraq, Osama Bin Laden emerged briefly from his fortress of solitude to call for jihad against Jews and the United States.[13][14][15] Like the hostilities between Iran and Iraq, Bin Laden's hatred for Saddam Hussein is long-standing and well-known, but thanks to the Bush administration they now see a need to fight together against a common enemy - namely, the people of the United States.

Even traditional U.S. allies in Europe are rapidly becoming enemies, thanks to the Bush doctrine. Even as the administration attempted, through PR gestures, to dispel the world's growing perception of the United States as an arrogant superpower, Donald Rumsfeld helped reinforce that perception by publicly dismissing the anti-war positions of France and Germany as fuzzy-minded thinking from "old Europe." As if that weren't enough to anger Europeans, Rumsfeld went further a few days later and equated Germany with long-time U.S. adversaries Libya and Cuba.[16] If Germany is not "with the United States," in other words; it too must be "with the terrorists." France, Canada, Mexico, and fully half of the UK's legislators likewise now appear to be "hostile" by this rule.

These kind of statements contradict the beneficial role Germany and Canada in particular have played in the war on terrorism. Canada accepted all air traffic inbound for the US on 9/11 without complaint, despite not being asked, hosting US-bound passengers for days. US officials also fail to mention how German soldiers helped protect US military personnel and families at US bases in Germany after September 11 along with the investigative and intelligence assistance Germany has provided - to say nothing of hosting the Afghan peace conference. The German news magazine Der Spiegel reveals that Donald Rumsfeld, who is of German descent, had for a long time -- until September of last year -- strong relations with and a very positive view of Germany. It is uncertain if and when the American-German relations will be reconciled. The ironic spectacle of German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer lecturing Rumsfeld on the necessity of 'convincing not coercing' his allies of the necessity of an attack on Iraq demonstrated to many that Germany now seems to understand democratic norms better than its original tutor in that subject.

For supporters of the current U.S. policy, the Bush doctrine has the emotional appeal of all simplistic equations. As a solution to the problems we face, however, it is dangerously misguided. Perhaps the most dangerous aspect of the Bush doctrine is its circular reasoning. If you agree with us, the doctrine says, you are a friend and your views are worth hearing. If you disagree, you are an enemy and your views are suspect. This has made it impossible for the Bush administration to listen to the views of its critics. It is, perhaps, the attitude one might expect of two MBAs, Bush and Powell, who focused their education not on inquiry, but on "management", "marketing", "persuasion" and "operations", all of which seem to sum to the modern vision of militarism.

Ensuring Consistency

In January 2003, the Bush administration signed an executive order creating an Office of Global Communications (OGC), whose mission is to "ensure consistency in messages that will promote the interests of the United States abroad, prevent misunderstanding, build support for and among coalition partners of the United States, and inform international audiences." [17] To achieve this goal, the OGC is sponsoring a "Global Messenger" e-mail of talking points sent almost daily to administration officials, U.S. embassies, Congress and others. It is also organizing daily telephone conference calls to coordinate foreign policy messages among U.S. government agencies and representatives of British Prime Minister Tony Blair.[18]

These activities may sound rather innocuous. The idea of "ensuring consistency" is a cardinal rule of PR crisis communications, whose practitioners try whenever possible to make sure that all messages flow through a single, controlling channel. In practice, however, ensuring consistency leads to a concerted effort to enforce a "party line" on all messages emanating from the U.S. government, effectively silencing anyone whose point of view contradicts the official institutional message.

The Bush executive order also says that the OGC will "coordinate the creation of temporary teams of communicators for short-term placement in areas of high global interest and media attention." Here, what they are contemplating is the deployment of crisis teams to respond quickly to controversies. The State Department is creating an Islamic media center in London to manage U.S. communications with the al Jazeera satellite television network. The State Department is also dispatching U.S. teams abroad to counter statements issued by the government of Iraq or other critics of U.S. policy.


The administration's obsession with "staying on message" is also reflected in Bush's reluctance to hold press conferences and its insistence on tightly scripting those few conferences it does allow. Activist and journalist Russell Mokhiber says the administration's March 6, 2003 news conference "might have been the most controlled presidential news conference in recent memory. Even the President admitted during the press conference that 'this is a scripted' press conference. The President had a list of 17 reporters who he was going to call on. He didn't take any questions from reporters raising their hands. And he refused to call on Helen Thomas, the dean of the White House press corps, who traditionally asks the first question." [19]

White House communications director Dan Bartlett explained, "If you have a message you're trying to deliver, a news conference can go in a different direction." However, "In this case, we know what the questions are going to be, and those are the ones we want to answer." [20]

All of these plans fall within the framework of a "propaganda model" of communication, whose strategies and assumptions are fundamentally contrary to a democratic model. Propaganda consists of attempts to manipulate or coerce the thinking of an enemy or captive population. Some scholars refer to propaganda as a "hypodermic approach" to communication, in which the communicator's objective is to "inject" his ideas into the minds of a "target population." It is characterized by such tactics as raising standard of evidence, shifting burden of proof and credentialism. This is quite different from the democratic model, which views communications as a dialogue between presumed equals. The goal of the propaganda model is simply to achieve efficient indoctrination, and it therefore tends to regard the assumptions of the democratic model as inconvenient obstacles to efficient communication. (See propaganda versus democracy.)

These may seem like merely a theoretical point, but it has serious practical consequences. The Bush administration's approach to communication through the Office of Global Communications is bound to fail, and it is failing already. In reality, it is impossible to "ensure consistency" and control the channels of communications on an international scale, and glaring contradictions are already evident in the Bush administration's message strategy.

The World's Biggest Focus Group

The first contradiction comes when the Bush administration tries to counter the growing worldwide perception of the United States as an arrogant nation while simultaneously refusing to listen to its critics. Rumsfeld's dismissal of France and Germany as "old Europe" is only one example of the administration's inability to listen to other points of view. The same pattern was also evident following February 15, 2003, when more than 11 million people protested in cities throughout the world to oppose an invasion of Iraq. Conservative pundits disingenuously characterized the protesters as "treasonous" and as "giving comfort to Saddam Hussein." [21] Bush himself airily dismissed the protests, saying that he doesn't "decide policy based upon a focus group." [22]

Bush's statement speaks volumes, both about his disregard for real opinion, and about his inability to think outside the framework of a propaganda model of communication. There is a world of difference between a focus group and a mass citizen protest (which attracted 500,000 people in New York alone, and more than a million in London). Marketers use opinion polls and focus groups to design strategies for selling products and policies to the public, but their purpose is simply to facilitate the delivery of propaganda. Polls are not intended to influence what to do but simply how to sell it. It is inconceivable that Pepsi would let a focus group tell it whether to sell fizzy brown soda. All it wants to know whether the Britney ads are working better than the Ozzy ads. The people who show up at political rallies, however, are trying to send a message about what to do.

Bush's claim that he doesn't rely on focus groups is also spin. U.S. politicians routinely use focus groups, and the Bush administration has been using them both in the United States and abroad. Writing in the Washington Monthly in April 2002, Joshua Green noted that "the Bush administration is a frequent consumer of polls, though it takes extraordinary measures to appear that it isn't." In 2001, the administration spent close to $1 million for polling, using political advisors like Jan van Lohuizen and his focus-group guru, Fred Steeper. "Policies are chosen beforehand, polls used to spin them," Green wrote. "Because many of Bush's policies aren't necessarily popular with a majority of voters, Steeper and van Lohuizen's job essentially consists of finding words to sell them to the public." [23]

Polling is also being used to sell the United States abroad. In May 2002, Franklin Foer reported in The New Republic that the Rendon Group, one of the Pentagon's PR firms, "monitors Muslim opinion with polls and focus groups, and then it generates plans for influencing it." [24]

Charlotte Beers, the former advertising executive who recently resigned her position as U.S. Undersecretary of State for Public Diplomacy, also used focus groups in her work. Testifying before Congress in April 2002, Beers promised to "increase polling … in Muslim countries and communities to provide policymakers with information on foreign publics' attitudes, perceptions, and opinions so public diplomacy messages can be more effectively targeted. … These surveys will include regular polls in Afghanistan and in Muslim-majority countries to track public opinion over time. … Other enhancements include increased polling in sub-Saharan Africa on HIV/AIDS, democracy, and the economy; focused polling in Indonesia, Thailand, and the Philippines; research into Western Hemisphere countries, especially Mexico, Brazil and Venezuela and the Caribbean; … regular focus groups and polls in Russia and the former Soviet republics; studies in Europe on missile defense and anti-Americanism; and targeted polling in the Middle East on a variety of issues." [25]

The real problem with the Bush administration is that it doesn't consider anything but focus groups and opinion polls. It never thinks of public opinion as worth considering in its only right, and instead merely uses it to refine the message points that go out each day in its "Global Messenger" e-mails.


Bullet Points

The Power of Propaganda

PR Watch has frequently reported on manipulative and deceptive propaganda practices of governments and corporations. One of PR's dirtiest little secrets, however, is that it is often fails to influence the "hearts and minds" of its "target audiences." The Bush administration has failed at persuading the Arab world to support its policies toward Iraq. It has failed also in Europe and throughout the rest of the world, and its hold on public opinion in the United States is shaky at best.

In fact, propaganda is often more successful at indoctrinating the propagandists themselves than it is at influencing the thinking of others. The discipline of "ensuring message consistency" cannot hope to succeed at controlling the world's perceptions of something as broad, sprawling, and contradictory as the Bush administration's foreign policy. However, it may be successful at enabling people like George W. Bush and Donald Rumsfeld to ignore the warnings coming from Europe and other quarters. As our leaders lose their ability to listen to critics, we face the danger that they will underestimate the risks and costs involved in going to war.

One indication of the Administration's credulity regarding its own propaganda is its reliance on information coming from the Iraqi National Congress (INC). The INC was created in the early 1990s with support from the Rendon Group. At the time, the first Bush administration hoped that by sponsoring a political opposition group, it might prompt Iraqi military leaders to overthrow Saddam Hussein in a "zipless coup." This never happened, but the INC remains active today. Its head, Ahmed Chalabi, openly dreams that the United States will install him as the country's next ruler.

Writing in the American Prospect, journalist Robert Dreyfuss noted in December 2002 that the Bush administration prefers the INC's analysis of conditions inside Iraq over the analysis coming from scholars and even from intelligence agencies like the CIA. "But most Iraq hands with long experience in dealing with that country's tumultuous politics consider the INC's intelligence-gathering abilities to be nearly nil," Dreyfuss wrote. "The Pentagon's critics are appalled that intelligence provided by the INC might shape U.S. decisions about going to war against Baghdad. At the CIA and at the State Department, Ahmed Chalabi, the INC's leader, is viewed as the ineffectual head of a self-inflated and corrupt organization skilled at lobbying and public relations, but not much else." [26]

Other indications of the Bush administration's success at self-indoctrination became evident shortly after the commencement of war. At the onset of war, several administration officials predicted a quick, easy victory. "Support for Saddam ... will collapse at the first whiff of gunpowder," predicted Richard Perle. The war will be "a cakewalk," said Ken Adelman. According to Donald Rumsfeld, "it will not be long." And Dick Cheney said the Iraqi people "will welcome as liberators the United States." [27] When those predictions failed to materialize, journalists began to hear leaks from the Pentagon saying that Rumsfeld and others had gravely underestimated the strength of Iraqi resistance and the resulting risks and costs of the war. "Intelligence officials say Rumsfeld, his deputy Paul Dundes Wolfowitz and other Pentagon civilians ignored much of the advice of the CIA and the Defense Intelligence Agency in favor of reports from the Iraqi opposition and from Israeli sources that predicted an immediate uprising against Hussein once the Americans attacked," reported Joseph L. Galloway, the military affairs correspondent for Knight Ridder. [28]

Following the First World War, Austrian journalist Karl Wiegand made an interesting observation. "How are nations ruled and led into war?" he asked. "Politicians lie to journalists and then believe those lies when they see them in print." This may seem cynical, but it was true then, and it is true today.

No one with any knowledge of history or politics would expect today's leaders to behave in a perfectly moral fashion. Few politicians have ever done that, and perhaps they never will. However, we should expect them at the very least to know what they are doing, and as Bush administration traps itself within the mirrored echo chamber of its own propaganda, the danger increases that it will miscalculate, with catastrophic consequences for the United States and the world. If Bush's invasion of Iraq triggers a pan-Islamic jihad against the United States, the religious fundamentalists close to the Bush administration may see their apocalyptic vision of the future of the Middle East become yet another self-fulfilling prophecy.

A war of definitions

An issue at the core of these conflicts, and reflected in many of the claims on all sides about the outcome of events in Iraq, and consequently in most arguments about this conflict, is that of "weapons of mass destruction" or "WMD".

Quite apart from the overt question of "does Iraq have them or not", and the trustworthiness issue of "whose evidence can be believed?" there are underlying struggles simply to define what constitutes "a weapon too dangerous for any but democratically elected leaders", or simply "a weapon too dangerous for anyone".

The term WMD is itself a fascinating conceptual metaphor, as all weapons by definition produce destruction, and more effective weapons do more destruction, also by definition. This is rarely or never reflected in the popular press, which tends to simply adopt the view that English-speaking people can control such weapons responsibly, or can build weapons to be so closely controlled or responsibly deployed as to avoid the negative outcomes implied by the term "mass" destruction. Such weapons as cluster bombs and land mines, in which the U.S. and U.K. lead, are defined as "safe".

Other poor assumptions behind the term "WMD" ought to be especially evident in the aftermath of the events of September 11, 2001, when terrorists demonstrated that simple implements such as boxcutters could be used to transform the everyday technology of industrial society, such as airplanes, into effective weapons of mass destruction. With selective targeting of sites such as nuclear power plants or hydroelectric dams, terrorists certainly do not need the assistance of regimes like Saddam Hussein's to wreak considerable havoc.

The aftermath

By September 2003, UK Prime Minister Blair stood in some danger of losing his post due to increasing questions about his office's role in "sexing up" the intelligence reports. An inquiry into former UN weapons inspector David Kelly's suicide spread to include the involvement of Blair's own spin doctor in revealing Kelly's name to various British media. Kelly had anonymously questioned, via Andrew Gilligan, then of the BBC, the validity of the intelligence reports on which Blair relied during his calls for war in the spring. This was subsequently whitewashed in the Hutton report with blame attributed to everyone except the cabinet. [29]

Meanwhile, G. W. Bush was heavily criticized for relying on reports about African uranium in his State of the Union, 2003 address. This speech is one in which the highest standards of truth are supposed to apply. CIA director George Tennant eventually took responsibility and resigned, although technically National Security Adviser Condoleeza Rice was responsible for vetting the speech.

George Lakoff, writing on 15 September 2003, states the issue bluntly: " The president has been criticized for using the following as justifications for the Iraq war: We went to war in Iraq because Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction that threatened us. He was reconstituting his nuclear weapons programs (the aluminum tubes, the uranium from Africa). He had huge stocks of chemical and biological weapons that could be launched quickly in aerial vehicles that threatened the US. Saddam was working with Al Qaeda. Iraqis had "trained Al Qaeda members in bomb-making and poisons and deadly gases."

"It appears these were all falsehoods. The tubes couldn't be used for enriching uranium, there was no uranium anyway, and no reconstituted nuclear weapons programs. The vast stockpiles of chemical and biological weapons have not been found, and would be well past their use-date anyway. The aerial delivery vehicles could not go more that a few hundred miles and could not threaten the US. There is no evidence that Saddam had anything to do with the Al Qaeda attack on the US, or that there was any cooperation between Saddam and Al Qaeda, although seventy percent of Americans believe it, (italics ours), according to a recent Washington Post poll, and perhaps a higher percentage of men and women in the military."

Thus, the lasting legacy of the 2003 invasion of Iraq is that the tactics, in effect, worked: the public accepts the dogma, and transfers its anger from Osama bin Laden to Saddam Hussein at will, under the weight of what is, at this point, obvious propaganda.

Nor is this manipulation confined to the facts. Lakoff notes that "President Bush's speech on September 7 used language that had the same implications. [We] "acted first in Afghanistan, by destroying training camps of terror, and removing the regime that harbored Al Qaeda. ... And we acted in Iraq, where the former regime sponsored terror, possessed and used weapons of mass destruction ... Two years ago, I told the Congress and the country that the war on terror would be a lengthy war, a different kind of war, fought on many fronts in many places. Iraq is now the central front."

The renewal of the rhetoric of War on Terror, abandoned simply for being absurd, here seems to indicate that the "big lie" is being revived:

Lakoff notes: "Here is the impression that a great many Americans have been left with, especially our men and women in the military and their families: We went to war in Iraq, first, to defend our country against terrorists, second, to liberate that country - selflessly, at great sacrifice, not out of self-interest."

"These are false impressions, and the president continues to create and reinforce them."

Related articles

Its report - "Rebuilding America's Defences: Strategies, Forces And Resources For A New Century" [30] - was published in late 2000 before Bush became president, and well before before the September 11 terrorist attacks.

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