The Scarlet Letter Club by Matt Taibbi

The WMD fiasco wasn’t just one mistake about weapons. It was a grand slam of misreports and exaggerations – and most of the people who pushed it are still around

Note to readers: This is the first in a series of essays about modern press disasters, from WMD through #Russiagate. Call it an Appendix to Hate, Inc. I was about to move on to the next book project (which will now begin in April), but with some major news stories on the horizon, I wanted to talk a little about the “failing upward” phenomenon in this business.


Sixteen years ago this week, the United States invaded Iraq. What’s changed?

In the Middle East, our military presence has vastly expanded, as we now have combat operations in at least seven countries in the region.

In the media, most of the key players are still around, still screwing things up. We’re meant to have forgotten, but the journalists who bungled stories like the 2008 financial crisis, the rise of Donald Trump, the Venezuela mess, and even #Russiagate, were first actors in the WMD affair.

In the popular imagination, the case for invading Iraq was driven by Republicans and one over-caffeinated New York Times writer, Judith Miller. But the blue-state intelligentsia, especially the Upper West Side/Georgetown sect of northeast corridor pundits mostly still in place, also hyped Bush’s war.

Richard Cohen of the Washington Post said “only a fool – or possibly a Frenchman” could reject the WMD case. #Resistance hero David Remnick of the New Yorker chipped in for invasion with “Making the Case.”

Jonathan Chait of New York, a human wrongness barometer if there ever was one, supported the invasion in ’03, then wrote a snippy column ten years later warning that “sweeping out… the existing thought, and existing thinkers” who’d erred on Iraq (read: him) would be a “myopic” response.

New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman was wrong about Operation Iraqi Freedom turning around in the “next six months” 14 consecutive times, famously telling America’s enemies they could “Suck on this.” Current Atlantic editor Jeffrey Goldberg won an Overseas Press Club award for speculating about Saddam Hussein’s “possible ties to al-Qaeda.”

David Brooks is an on-again-off-again Republican, a famed mangler of words, the author of a book about the superior consumer taste of the American rich, and a self-described teacher of “humility” at Yale. When he was with the Weekly Standard in the Iraq years, he had a boner for war and dumped on “peaceniks.”

“Nobody from the peace camp will stand up and say that Saddam Hussein is not a fundamental threat to the world,” he exclaimed, double negatives be damned. Later, when he joined the lineup of hawk-editorialists then populating the New York Times opinion page, he said the same things, only more confusingly and wrapped in more nervous hedges.

Washington Post opinion page editor Fred Hiatt, who’d go on to be named the “fifth most influential liberal in America” by the Daily Beast, ran 27 house editorials in favor of the Iraq war. These featured classics like, “It is hard to imagine how anyone could doubt that Iraq possesses weapons of mass destruction” (“Irrefutable,” Feb. 6, 2003).

MSNBC did its part by removing antiwar Phil Donahue and Jesse Ventura from its lineup, CNN flooded the airwaves with generals and ex-Pentagon stoolies, and broadcast outlets ABC, CBS, NBC, and PBS stacked the deck even worse: in a two-week period before the invasion, the networks had just one American guest out of 267 who questioned the war, according to Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting.

The first rule of modern commercial media is you’re allowed to screw up, in concert. There’s no risk in being wrong within a prevailing narrative. So there was no reckoning for the WMD mess. The chief offenders kept perches or failed up.

As time passed, these media figures used an array of tricks to massage the scale of error out of public memory. Aspects of the WMD affair aren’t seen as mistakes even in hindsight, because the propaganda campaign was so far-reaching it made them invisible.

They altered public attitudes about everything from war to civil liberties to self-determination to countless other issues, creating an intellectual context for the “War on Terror” that remained mostly unchallenged even after the “error” was acknowledged.

With cosmetic touches, all was forgotten. Goldberg, for instance, won a National Magazine Award for speculating about a a Saddam-Hezbollah union that might “fire missiles at Israel” to provoke a “conventional, or even nuclear, response.” His bio today just says he won for “coverage of Islamic terrorism.”

Part of the concealing legend is the idea that the journalistic mistake was limited to believing Bush administration claims about the threat Saddam Hussein posed. But the screw-up wasn’t just about WMDs.

Over a period of years, reporters and pundits were asked to accept a whole range of ideas and concepts, many absurd: that the war would be over in months, that we’d be greeted with flowers as liberators, that sectarian conflict was unlikely because differences between Shia and Sunni Muslims were exaggerated or nonexistent, and so on.

Evidence was always over the next hill. It was a pioneering effort in a kind of journalistic Ponzi scheme, in which news organizations justified banner headlines in the present by writing checks against a balance of future revelations.

There’s an obvious current parallel with #Russiagate, whose early headlines were driven similarly by unnamed sources promising an ascending schedule of future bombshells.

A lot of people will balk at the comparison, which is fine. If you like, forget #Russiagate.

But it’s worth going back to remember exactly what many of today’s leading voices got away with before. It’s just been forgotten just how gargantuan the propagandistic pileup was.


Less than a month after the Twin Towers fell on September 11, 2001, American forces went to the Middle East in search of Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda. We invaded Afghanistan on October 7th, and many Americans assumed that would be the end of it.

Not so. Shortly after, we got hints about a next step.

John McCain appeared on the David Letterman Show less than two weeks into the Afghan operation, on October 18, 2001. In between laughs, he said “the next phase” of war would be Iraq.

He hinted Iraq was responsible for a recent series of anthrax attacks, a story that itself was on its way to becoming a historic journalistic blunder, as reporters and pundits like Nicholas Kristof would mistakenly pin those attacks on a scientist named Steven Hatfill. At the time, however, McCain insinuated the anthrax “may – and I emphasize may – have come from Iraq.”

Soon after that, on January 29, 2002, George W. Bush delivered his famed “Axis of Evil” speech, which named Iraq part of a troika of unconquered nation-states who could “attack our allies or attempt to blackmail the United States.” Bush added, “the price of indifference could be catastrophic.”

Within a few months after that speech, invasion of Iraq was an open secret. This was a key period for the press, because everyone knew we were going, but the official reason had not yet been articulated fully. This might have been a good time to go digging in search of a reason.

Instead, reporters somehow failed to notice key elements of the argument for invasion had been made public long before 9/11, by intellectuals with close ties to Bush.

Prominent neoconservatives in the mid-nineties publicly floated the idea of “regime change” in Iraq. “Saddam Hussein must go,” wrote Bill Kristol and Robert Kagan in a New York Times editorial, “Bombing Iraq isn’t enough,” way back in January of 1998.

If you’re wondering how we ended up invading one of the few Middle Eastern countries with no connection to 9/11, this was how. Invading wasn’t a response to the collapse of the Twin Towers, or an effort to keep safe from the spread of WMDs in the terror age. It was step one in an ambitious new foreign policy vision articulated before most people even heard the name Osama bin Laden.

Conservatives, said the authors, shouldn’t be intimidated into thinking it was politically necessary to cash in on the then-popular “peace dividend.” America should reject “unshouldering the vast responsibilities the United States acquired at the end of the Second World War.” They should also resist the urge to “concentrate… energies at home,” as both Democrats like Bill Clinton and, to an even greater degree, “America first” nationalists like Pat Buchanan were proposing back then.

Most are unaware neoconservatives were disappointed Democrats, who defected to Republicanism over LBJ’s social programs and George McGovern’s antiwar stance. Other liberals originally coined the term “neoconservative” as an insult; they meant it to mean the right wing of the Democratic Party. Many of these ex-Dems had a (very narrow) affinity for the thinking of Lev Trotsky, mainly being fans of his ambitious internationalism. The seeds of this could be found in the new policy Kristol and Kagan proposed, which was called “benevolent hegemony.”

Kristol argued the United States should seek to be “a leader with preponderant influence and authority over all others in its domain.” With the Soviets gone from the scene, the argument went, our “domain” should now be planet Earth. Securing “authority” meant pursuing policies “ultimately intended to bring about a change of regime” in countries like “Iran, Cuba, and China.” (China!)

America should apply a “continuing exertion of American influence” around the world, rejecting what Kagan and Kristol called “Armand Hammerism,” i.e. attempting to build relationships with non-satellite nations based on pragmatism.

Bush speechwriter David Frum was one of the people charged with coming up with the sales pitch for this charming new policy.

When he sat down to write the “Axis of Evil” speech, Frum looked back to World War II. He decided America’s enemies were so crazy with hatred, they could not be counted on to behave rationally, even if threatened with destruction. “If deterrence worked,” he noted, “there would never be a Pearl Harbor.”

Therefore, Iraq was not just about convincing America Saddam Hussein had links to 9/11, or had WMDs. It was about convincing Americans “containment” was no longer viable policy anywhere.

Although we’d successfully contained a more powerful Soviet enemy, Americans needed to be talked out of the idea that small, weak, “rogue” regimes should be allowed to exist at all. Long-term, we should have plans for “change of regime” in all such places, China included.

When we deride journalists as stenographers, it’s not about them repeating the words of powerful officials. The real crime is absorbing the ideas of powerful people (often crafted by groups of officials in a dreary corporate process) and repeating them as if they’re your own personal thoughts.

From beginning to end, the WMD editorialists parroted the language of others. In this sense neocons like Kristol, Kagan and Frum were less objectionable messengers, because they at least wrote their own material. The northeast corridor pundits, on the other hand, were infected with intellectual echolalia.

Remnick, who’d never argued for pre-emptive war in the past, suddenly told us “a return to a hollow pursuit of containment will be the most dangerous option of all.” Hiatt warned “not poking the hornet’s nest” was a “strategy of accommodation, half-measures and wishful thinking.”

Thomas Friedman’s infamous “Chicken a l’Iraq” editorial insisted America couldn’t risk containment and had to be willing to be as unpredictable as rogue enemies – that in a game of realpolitik chicken, we had to throw out our steering wheel and be “ready to invade Iraq tomorrow, alone.”

It’s easy to imagine one blockheaded Judith Miller believing killer weapons were over every hill. Far more amazing was everyone from Remnick to Hiatt to Friedman to Cohen and Chait embracing the revolutionary idea that containment was a failure and overnight supporting a fundamentally opposite policy, “benevolent hegemony.” This was a real-life version of “Oceania is at war with Eastasia. Oceania has always been at war with Eastasia.”

Moreover they didn’t just repeat the concept in broad strokes. They repeated all the talking points that had been cooked up by officials specifically with the aim of deceiving the press.

We know this because there was a British inquiry led by Sir John Chilcot into the reasons for the British-American invasion. The so-called “Chilcot Report” made public a tranche of communiqués between British and American officials, showing how the war case was built brick by brick, over a period of about six months between March and September of 2002.

The report got relatively little press in an America consumed with an election season. It was deeply embarrassing stuff for the British and American press.

In 2009, former British Prime Minister Tony Blair admitted he would have backed an invasion of Iraq even if there had been no WMD issue.

“I mean obviously,” he said, “you would have had to use and deploy different arguments.”

The Chilcot report, and the Downing Street memos released in 2005, outlined exactly what arguments Blair’s government did “deploy.”

The Blair-Bush interactions of that time roughly approximated the range of political debate we heard between Republicans and mainstream Democrats before the war. Republicans were unashamed of a real reason for war called “regime change.” Democrats, and Blair, were fine with “regime change,” but needed a different public reason.

The Brits from the start were wary of the Bush administration. British foreign office political director Peter Ricketts wrote a memo early in 2002 that said, “U.S. scrambling to establish a link between Iraq and al-Qaida is so far frankly unconvincing… For Iraq, ‘regime change’ does not stack up. It sounds like a grudge between Bush and Saddam.”

Sadly for Britain and for us, Blair was determined to maintain the “special relationship,” and endorsed “regime change” in private.

On March 14 of 2002, Blair’s foreign policy advisor David Manning had dinner with Condoleezza Rice, and afterward wrote a memo to Blair. “I said that you would not budge in your support for regime change,” he wrote.  “But you had to manage a press, a Parliament and a public opinion that was very different.”

Thus the public case for war was mostly an effort to create political cover for the British.

The Bush administration at first didn’t want the U.N. involved; the British said they couldn’t support the invasion without the fig leaf. So they got work on a new argument based on Saddam Hussein’s defiance of U.N. inspections, and his possession of weapons of mass destruction.

To that end, the Brits cooked up a series of intelligence “dossiers” purporting to outline the Iraqi threat. Early drafts outlined the weapons possessed by Iraq but also by Libya, North Korea, and Iran. Foreign Secretary Jack Straw, upon reading an early draft in March of 2002, blanched.

“Good, but should not Iraq be first and also have more text?” he wrote. “The paper has to show why there is an exceptional threat from Iraq. It does not quite do this yet.”

They went back to the drawing board and made the report Iraq-ier. Sir John Scarlett, chairman of Britain’s Joint Intelligence Committee, wrote the following by way of suggestion on March 15 (emphasis mine):

The new draft highlights…violation of SCRs [UN Security Council Resolutions]; use of CW [Chemical Warfare] agents against own people). You may still wish to consider whether more impact could be achieved if the paper only covered Iraq. This would have the benefit of obscuring the fact that in terms of WMD, Iraq is not that exceptional.

Tim Dowse, head of counter-proliferation at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO), wrote a memo full of suggestions for how to get around what he called “the presentational difficulty” of the war case:

If it appears we do have to change our public line, I wonder if we might finesse the presentational difficulty by changing the terms? Instead of talking about tonnes of precursor chemicals (which don’t mean much to the man in the street anyway), could we focus on munitions and refer to ‘precursor chemicals sufficient to produce x thousand SCUD warheads/aerial bombs/122mm rockets filled with mustard gas/the deadly nerve agents tabun/sarin/VX…

Dowse added:

I realise that this would not in the end hoodwink a real expert… But the task… would be impossible for a layman. And the result would, I think, have more impact on the target audience.

All of this history is necessary to explain the depth of the reporting failure. Journalists and pundits, before they even got to the question of whether or not Iraq actually had WMDs, had to swallow every one of these clumsy deceptions.

It was a huge gamble for Bush and Blair to imagine that not one news outlet would sniff out that the real reason for war was a goofball global domination plan cooked up in public years before, by overgrown Risk players like Kristol and Kagan.

We now know officials were pessimistic this patchwork effort at hiding “regime change” would fly with the public, and especially the media. An assistant to Blair spokesman Alistair Campbell named Phillip Bassett wrote on September 11, 2002: “Think we’re in trouble with this.”

Bassett among other things worried the dossier had been over-prepared and  journalists would catch its excess rhetorical flourishes.

“Think it needs to be written in officialese, lots of it is too journalistic as it now stands,” he wrote. “Some of it (eg the opening chapter as a biog of Saddam!) reading like Sunday Times.”

Officials began to discuss aiming their report and their rhetoric at the ordinary person, bypassing meddlesome journalists who might ask too many questions. Some worried their intelligence dossier needed to be “more exciting,” while others thought neither the public nor the press would buy the “slightly iffy claims about big buildings.”

They even discussed refraining from pre-publication communications with the press altogether. They were afraid even off the record communications would fuel expectations that we “come up with the goods.”

Foreign Office communications chief John Williams was the biggest doubter. He thought the dossier was “unlikely to be enough… There is no ‘killer fact… that proves Saddam must be taken on now.”

Williams suggested he and his colleagues “reinforce the broad case, so that it strikes a chord with more and more people, as opposed to journalists.” He added:

Our target is not the argumentative interviewer or opinionated columnist, but the kind of people to whom ministerial interviewers are a background hum on the car or kitchen radio…

Williams and the others shouldn’t have worried. If anything, the opposite proved true. Huge portions of the public reacted with skepticism, while journalists mostly ate the bait.

The Brits released their intelligence findings via a pair of dossiers, one in September of 2002 and another in February of 2003. In response, somewhere between six and thirty million people worldwide were unconvinced enough to march in the streets in protest on February 15th, 2003 (I was one).

Journalists meanwhile repeated official language down to the last details.

The British and American authors of the intelligence dossiers “sexed” up their language, afraid reporters would trip on the hedges. One official wrote to Sir Scarlett, saying, “You will clearly need to judge the extent to which you need to hedge your judgments with, for example, ‘it is almost certain’ and other caveats.”

The press ended up doing the same stripping on its own. Within months after the release of the first British dossier, words like “alleged” and “potential” began to vanish from all the national news reports, even though nothing had changed factually. This was especially true after the New Year, when invasion began to look inevitable.

“Today Mr. Bush left it to his spokesman to answer critics who asked what precise threat Iraq and its weapons of mass destruction pose to America,” said David Gregory on NBC in late January of 2003, in a typical report a few months before invasion.

Even questions came in the form of statements. “The CIA is being urged to make public more of its intelligence about Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction,” noted would-be skeptic Dan Rather on January 6, 2003.

Even before they got to the issue of whether or not Iraq had WMDs, reporters bought the Frankenstein’s monster of a rationale that had been fabricated across months by British and American propagandists: that Saddam was a unique and “exceptional” evil, that containment wouldn’t hold, the credibility of international law wouldn’t survive without invasion, etc.

Had the British-American intelligence collective worked in a lab to create the perfect war salesman, they couldn’t have improved upon Jeffrey Goldberg.

Then writing in Slate and The New Yorker, Goldberg hit nearly all desired themes. Remember the suggestion that the government sources stress “precursor chemicals sufficient to produce x thousand SCUD warheads”?

In Slate on October 3, 2002, just a few weeks after the British released their first dossier to reporters, Goldberg quoted a former weapons inspector discussing the Iraqis’ potential use of alfatoxin, which Goldberg said “causes liver cancer… particularly well in children.” Goldberg added he’d been told Iraqis:

Had loaded aflatoxin into two warheads capable of being fitted onto Scud missiles…

Goldberg hammered the “exceptional” theme. He quoted an ad taken out in the New York Times by antiwar activists. The ad had to be bought, because it asked the question Times reporters wouldn’t: “Of all the repugnant dictatorships, why this one?”

Goldberg answered, becoming among the first to stress the “Saddam Hussein is both Hitler and Satan” theme:

Saddam Hussein is a figure of singular repugnance, and singular danger… No one else comes close… to matching his extraordinary and variegated record of malevolence…

Goldberg talked of visiting Kurdistan and meeting “barren and cancer-ridden women,” and added:

Saddam Hussein is uniquely evil, the only ruler in power today—and the first one since Hitler—to commit chemical genocide…

Brooks hissed at the peace activists who refused to face the dangers inherent if “Saddam is permitted to remain in power in Baghdad, working away on his biological, chemical, and nuclear weapons programs, still tyrannizing his own people…” He added years later that his thinking at the time was, “If you could go back in time and strangle Hitler in his crib, would you do it?”

George Will derided critics of the invasion as being like “Lord Haw Haw,” a character who’d broadcast Hitlerian propaganda to Britain during World War II. He said U.N. secretary Kofi Annan was Saddam’s “servant” and doing a “Neville Chamberlain impersonation.” He added Democrat House members who’d supported inspections, Jim McDermott and David Bonior, were two “specimens“ of the sort of “useful idiots” (sound familiar?) who’d denied “the existence of Lenin’s police-state terror.”

Mussolini, Hitler, Lenin – how about Stalin? “He’s in league with a Stalin in terms of internal repression,” chimed in Jonathan Chait, making what was then considered the “Liberal case” for war.

Remnick also stressed Saddam’s “use of chemical weapons on neighbors and his own citizens,” then went further back in history in search of a tyrannical comparison. This technique often comes up, by the way, when a dictator gets in America’s way. The ruler in question is often described as a deluded fantasist, determined to undermine the benevolent Western order in search of past nationalist glory. He is an Ozymandias, indifferent to the accumulating sands of progress. From Remnick’s “case”:

We are reminded, too, of Saddam’s vision of himself as the modern Saladin, the modern Nebuchadnezzar II, who (after massacring the Kurds, invading Kuwait, and attacking the marsh Arabs of the south) vows to “liberate” Jerusalem, vanquish the United States, and rule over a united Arab world…

Think about all of this from the perspective of those British intelligence chiefs like Scarlett. They must have been blown away by their good fortune.

Had these intelligence officers surveyed each pundit individually ahead of time, they might have guessed they’d get George Will going the Hitler route.

But Remnick? Chait? Goldberg? Even the token “dissenter” on the invasion front in the Times, Kristof, conceded Saddam was “as nasty as Hitler,” but less capable of invading neighbors. Nobody questioned the key propaganda objective, getting people to accept the idea of Hussein as an “exceptional” evil.

On their own, without prompting, American journalists went beyond what the intelligence chiefs hoped, even piling abuse upon the French, whose Security Council opposition imperiled the backroom deal cooked up by the British and Americans.

Friedman ranted that France should be “voted off the island,” while others blasted critics of the war as being in league with France, or tabbed them with the dreaded moniker “useful idiots” (everyone from Jonah Goldberg to Robert Pollack to Brian Blomquist in the New York Post went there).

Meanwhile, there was exactly one major American news organization that didn’t buy the British-American war story: the Knight-Ridder newspaper chain. Their Washington bureau chief, John Walcott, offered a simple explanation:

Our readers aren’t here in Washington. They aren’t up in New York. They aren’t the people who send other people’s kids to war. They’re the people who get sent to war and we felt an obligation to them.

The northeast corridor pundits with whom Wolcott contrasted himself spoke later of different pressures. Chait was a particularly amazing case.

Even at the time, Chait spoke of having an initial reaction that the war case was idiotic. “Originally,” he said in October of 2002, “I thought, ‘These justifications make no sense whatsoever.”

But “then I thought about it,” and decided liberal principles “didn’t get in the way” of a case for war. He ultimately explained that while he did publicly support the war, he “had a lot of unpublished thoughts,” only peer pressure was a problem. “I wasn’t afraid to alienate my colleagues, editors, and employer,” he wrote, “but I didn’t go out of my way to do it, either.”

NPR’s Brooke Gladstone of On The Media, a person I typically like and respect very much, offered a startling defense of the press. She blamed politicians:

Usually the press is able to question the government, if Congress is questioning the government. But if Congress keeps quiet, the media have no protective cover… They felt the anguish of their audience and the sensitivity of their advertisers to criticizing the government directly. They wished they had Congress to do it for them.

In addition to being incorrect (there were members of congress who opposed the war), this amazing take explains a lot about how the commercial press views itself. We’re meant to be outside the tent, a “fourth estate” acting as a check on others in power. We should be professional jerks who examine every press release the way accountants look at numbers, i.e. as if each villainous digit potentially conceals lies.

Instead, there’s a fear of losing one’s place. Reporters in large commercial organizations make mistakes as a group because they do everything as a group: they’re always amplifying each others’ messages, which means a tacit agreement to trust others in a wide social group that includes high-level sources, advertisers, and other influential players.

If any one of these people had even included as a possible variable the notion that intelligence chiefs were lying to them, the paucity of the case for war would have come into focus rather quickly, as it did for the millions of people around the world who protested.

And why not? Officials have been lying their faces off to the press for a century. From World War I-era tales of striking union workers being German agents, to the “missile gap” that wasn’t (the “gap” was leaked to the press before the Soviets had even one operational ICBM) to the various Gulf of Tonkin deceptions, to the smearing of people like Martin Luther King, it’s a wonder newspapers listen to security sources at all.

In the Reagan years National Security Adviser John Poindexter spread false stories about Libyan terrorist plots to The Wall Street Journal and other papers, and the tales were only retracted because Bob Woodward found out and ran a story in 1986 revealing the scheme. Yet even Woodward wasn’t terribly suspicious of initial Iraq war claims, saying later he succumbed to “groupthink”. He added, “I blame myself mightily for not pushing harder.”

After we invaded, and the WMD hunt turned out to be an oopsie, nearly all of these professional chin-scratchers found ways to address their error. Most confessions followed a script: I was young (Ezra Klein literally said, “I was young and dumb”), I believed the intel, and on the narrow point of WMDs being in Iraq, I screwed up.

None walked back the rest of the propaganda, which is why even as the case for invading Iraq fell apart, our presence in the Mideast expanded. While Judith Miller became a national punchline, the “continuing exertion of American influence” became conventional wisdom.

Defense budgets exploded. NATO expanded. The concept of a “peace dividend” faded to the point where few remember it. We built and now maintain a vast global archipelago of secret prisons, routinely cross borders in violation of international law using drones, and today have military bases in  80 countries, to support active combat operations in at least seven nations (most Americans don’t even know which ones).

The WMD episode is remembered as a grotesque journalistic failure, one that led to disastrous war that spawned ISIS. But nobody’s sorry about the revolutionary new policies that error willed into being. They are specifically not regretful about helping create a continually-expanding Fortress America with bases everywhere that topples regimes left and right, now with or without congressional or UN approval.

They’re sorry about Iraq, maybe, but as Chait now says, “Libya was not Iraq.” This he said years ago to the “liberal anti-interventionists,” in explaining why “I have not embraced their worldview.”

You might get a reporter to apologize for getting a fact wrong, if you hassle him or her enough over a period of many years. But they never apologize for the subtext in which their errors came wrapped. The usual play is an “I was right even though I was wrong” retrospective, often involving not-inconsiderable revisionist history.

Fred Hiatt’s Post had the stones five years after the Iraq invasion to congratulate itself for having once pooh-poohed Bush’s “Mission Accomplished” stunt. He left out that a) the Post never backed away from its support for the invasion, and b) the paper didn’t even get through a week before it was back writing of Bush’s critics: “Their real gripe with Mr. Bush is that he looked great; the president pulled off his ‘Top Gun’ act as much as Michael Dukakis flubbed his spin in a tank.”

They all did some version of this. David Remnick blanched at the idea The New Yorker beat the war drum, calling it “ridiculous.” He admitted that yes, “as an individual” he’d argued for war, but his writer Rick Hertzberg had been skeptical in his pages, and really, as far as the WMD question went, “nobody got that story completely right.”

The idea that “nobody got that story completely right” is a worse legend than the idea that Saddam had weapons. Nobody got that right? Millions and millions got it right.

There were no protesters in Washington or London or Rome who were on the streets because they were sure Saddam had no weapons. They were there because they knew the whole WMD issue was at best a bullshit excuse for a wrong war that had some other, darker, still-unreleased explanation the incompetent press wasn’t seeking out. Only the reporters themselves were was dumb enough, or dishonest enough, to pretend that narrow factual question was important. And even by that fake standard, the war case was more comic than difficult.


At the end of Franz Kafka’s The Trial, two men knock on the door of the hero, Joseph K. They are dressed “in frock coats, pale and fat, wearing top hats that looked like they could not be taken off their heads.” They are K’s assassins, come to execute him for the never-articulated crime that triggered his never-explained trial. The men don’t look fearsome, though. K. seems to recognize them as third-rate theater performers.

“Some ancient, unimportant actors, that’s what they’ve sent for me,” he thinks. “They want to sort me out as cheaply as they can.”

K. laughs at the absurdity of his demise as they drag him away, but at the end of the chapter the men in top hats really do kill him, driving knives into his heart. In Kafka’s world, the hand of fate is both terrible and ridiculous. He seems to say, you cannot have one without the other. Cruelty and monstrousness inherently come wrapped in absurdity, which makes sense, because without conscience or decency, the human animal is just an ape in a hat.

The aim of the British-American war was deathly serious. It would eventually cost well over a hundred thousand lives and trillions of dollars. But the case was made with laughable sloppiness. When fate knocked on the door of the American press, its slip was showing.

For example, the British released a second intelligence dossier in February of 2002, just before invasion. This second work, known today in Britain as the “dodgy dossier,” was so fake, the bureaucrats who put their name on it didn’t even write it.

Parts of it had been plagiarized wholesale from a student thesis written thirteen years earlier, by an assistant professor at California State University named Ibrahim Al-Marashi. This “dodgy dossier” was edited to sound more authoritative. Quotes by former UN weapons inspector Scott Ritter to the effect that Hussein had abandoned his WMD program were removed.

The punchline is that the plagiarism job was uncovered before the invasion. By February 7th, 2003, a month before attack, Tony Blair’s government was under fire. The “dodgy” dossier, supposedly a high-level intelligence analysis written by Mi6, was actually put together by “mid-level officials” from… Blair’s communications department!

When the expert authors turned out not to be intelligence analysts but mid-level press officers, this was an admission that this was a messaging operation whose real target was not Saddam Hussein but the media itself. That this crude cut-and-paste job was not even undertaken by the office’s best people should have told reporters something else, something profoundly insulting they should have taken personally. But they didn’t.

The war-makers left another clue lying out in the open, through a process muckraker Seymour Hersh outlined called “The Stovepipe.” The idea of “stovepiping” involved top officials obtaining access to raw intelligence data submerged in bureaucracies, and withdrawing it before the various compliance officers could get hands on it. “Their position,” wrote Hersh, “is that the professional bureaucracy is deliberately and maliciously keeping information from them.”

The “stovepiping” technique gave people like Dick Cheney access to nuggets like the idea Saddam had been purchasing aluminum tubes, without having to hear the objections of bureaucratic naysayers about whether or not that meant anything nefarious (or if the information was even true).

In this way, information somehow made it past internal controls to New York Times reporters Michael Gordon and Judith Miller, one of whom is still in the business, one of whom is not. On September 7, 2002, they wrote a crucial article, “U.S. Says Hussein Intensifies Quest For A-Bomb Parts,” that declared, “Iraq has stepped up its quest for nuclear weapons.”

Cheney infamously went on Meet The Press that same day and cited the article, saying, “it was public knowledge” Hussein was “trying to build a bomb.”

This kind of thing went on repeatedly during the Iraq debacle. The press was used as a laundry machine, tossed dirty information made “reputable” by attaching it to names of prestigious news agencies. This trick, delivering information as unnamed sources and then later referring to reports as having been independently confirmed, made reporters part of the con. The game should have been clear then. What possible excuse could the New York Times have for continuing to take the war seriously from there?

An additional trick was using foreign allies as primary sources of intelligence analysis: information developed abroad sounds authoritative, but can also be disavowed easily if need be. A foreign ally might be more willing to “sex up” intelligence, especially if the target audience is someone else’s media, with whom those agencies have no relationship. This is a critical angle non-journalists probably don’t get as easily — it’s harder for officials to lie to the local press, since they’ll have to keep talking to them in the future. If a key fact or two can be fobbed off on a foreigner flown in for a few days, so much the better.

This is one reason to always have ears up when you start hearing bits and pieces of important intelligence cases happen to have been uncovered within the borders of America’s closest intelligence allies, particularly England, Australia, the other “Five Eyes” nations, and key NATO members.

When officials use the press to launder information either offered off the record or developed by foreigners, what they’re telling you is they want you to put your name on assertions they won’t touch themselves.

It takes a special kind of sucker to want to be that person, but this, frankly, is why pundits and editors who make such screw-ups keep their jobs or get promoted. They’re not being paid to avoid factual errors. They’re being paid to push underlying narratives, and eat any errors that happen to be discovered along the way.

The Scarlet Letter club who pushed the Iraq debacle proved they could be relied upon to ignore inconsistencies and trumpet desired themes. They proved they wouldn’t consider the possibility they were being lied to.

If told an enemy was the worst dictator ever, they would write acres of text confirming it (even if it meant contradicting earlier claims they’d made that some other dictator was worse). If fed information that didn’t pan out or had to be retracted, they wouldn’t react with anger but would keep publishing more stuff from the same sources.

They proved they would not look back in time, to see if there were glaring clues for the context of current stories, like the Kristol-Kagan editorials about “regime change.” This would pop up in the financial crisis story, with reporters who failed to notice four year-old public warnings from the FBI about an epidemic of “liar’s loans.”

Finally, the WMD crew additionally proved that on their own volition, they would deride people who disagreed with prevailing narratives as traitors. This, too, would happen over and over again.

The WMD case is unique because thanks to the accident of the Chilcot report and a few other inquiries, we know the extent of official deceptions while those who did the deceiving still happen to be working. Normally the ugly truth comes out a generation later, when all are long dead.

In this case they’re still mostly all around, and it’s worth asking: have they made the same kinds of mistakes again?

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