An Organized Campaign of Lies

by Paul on January 23, 2008

Nearly five years after the U.S. invasion of Iraq, an exhaustive examination of the record shows that the statements were part of an orchestrated campaign that effectively galvanized public opinion and, in the process, led the nation to war under decidedly false pretenses.

The fact that the administration lied us into war has become, finally, a fairly common accepted belief. But The Center for Public Integrity has now done the important work of trying to document and measure the mendacity. Their report, containing the passage above, was released today.

It’s grabbing headlines with the number 935, which it gives as the number of lies. What I found even more interesting was reading the methodology of what they were counting.

In press briefings, interviews, and other question-and-answer venues, each answer was categorized for purposes of this study as a distinct statement. In speeches or briefings, only when one statement clearly ends was the next statement considered, and then only if a “buffer” of at least 50 words separated the statements.

Direct false statements. False statements by the eight Bush administration officials were counted as “direct”—and included in the total count of false statements—when they specifically linked Iraq to Al Qaeda or referenced Iraq’s contemporaneous possession, possible possession, or efforts to obtain weapons of mass destruction (chemical, biological, or nuclear weapons). In addition, any use of the verb “disarm” was categorized as a direct statement because of the literal meaning of the word. (Example: “Saddam Hussein has got a choice, and that is, he can disarm.”) These false statements can be found within the passages that are highlighted in yellow in the project database.

Indirect false statements. Statements were classified as “indirect” if they did not specifically link Iraq to Al Qaeda but alleged, for example, that Iraq supported or sponsored terrorism or terrorist organizations, or if they referred to Iraq’s former possession of weapons of mass destruction or used such general phrases, for example, as “dangerous weapons.” These indirect false statements are not included in the total count of 935.

One of the rhetorical tactics I noticed from the administration was what I called “MIRVed lies”. Often, statements contained multiple, independent untruths. Usually, by the time one of the individual lies was knocked down, the others would be firmly lodged in the public consciousness.

I would want to count each individual “warhead” in such situations, but it’s clear that, if the study was using a ‘buffer’ of 50 words between statements, they may be counting them together as one single lie. For example:

In the closing days of September 2002, with a congressional vote fast approaching on authorizing the use of military force in Iraq, Bush told the nation in his weekly radio address: “The Iraqi regime possesses biological and chemical weapons, is rebuilding the facilities to make more and, according to the British government, could launch a biological or chemical attack in as little as 45 minutes after the order is given. . . . This regime is seeking a nuclear bomb, and with fissile material could build one within a year.”

It appears this counts as one lie toward the 935 total, but I’d count it as several untruths.

1. The Iraq regime possesses biological weapons.
2. The Iraq regime possesses chemical weapons.
3. It is rebuilding facilities to make more.
4. According to the British government
5. It could launch an attack in 45 minutes.
6. This regime is seeking a nuclear bomb.
7. With fissile material, it could build one within a year.

I salute the people at the Center for Public Integrity for undertaking their task, and I don’t fault them for having a restrictive methodology. Lines have to be drawn somewhere, and it’s important to pick a method that will get a report issued during the lifetime of the administration, (or the report writers.) This report is an outstanding effort to document a horrible violation of the public trust.

But the number 935 should be understood as a minimum number of lies.

Important to note upon reading the methodology is that there were many ‘indirect’ statements used as part of the campaign to sell the war. These were not counted in the study, but they certainly counted as part of the rhetorical effort. They magnified and echoed the power of the actual ‘direct’ lies. It would be interesting to see how many such statements were made.

Another limitation of the study is that it examines statements only public statements from President Bush and seven top officials. It doesn’t touch on statements made by their allies in Congress or among the punditry and press. Part of the power behind the administrations PR campaign was its use of these voices to echo and reinforce its lies through repetition. All of that is beyond the scope of this study, but is a key part of understanding how our nation found itself in this horrific mess.

One of the lasting, tragic legacies of the Bush era is the institutionalization of mendacity on an industrial scale. While misrepresentation has long been a feature of politics, in the past there was at least a pretense of concern with objective reality, and a hesitancy to simply lie outright. The Bush administration has lied outright over and over again. Nine-hundred and thirty-five times, by this count, and far more often by others. And that’s only about Iraq before the war, not about the Department of Justice, or Guantanamo, or Iraq after the invasion, or eavesdropping, or about environmental regulation, or so many other things. Their utter contempt for concepts like ‘truth’, and their indifference to the ghastly consequences of their words makes for something categorically different.

That is why we need reports like this one to document the atrocities. I can hope that it will be the first of many.

By the way, speaking of the horric mess their lies got us into, there’s news about how things are going Over There.

The passage of a new ‘de-Baathification’ law has been pointed to as an important milestone. Not so much:

But now, under new legislation promoted as way to return former Baathists to public life, the 56-year-old and thousands like him could be forced out of jobs they have been allowed to hold, according to Iraqi lawmakers and the government agency that oversees ex-Baathists.

“This new law is very confusing,” Awadi said. “I don’t really know what it means for me.”

He is not alone. More than a dozen Iraqi lawmakers, U.S. officials and former Baathists here and in exile expressed concern in interviews that the law could set off a new purge of ex-Baathists, the opposite of U.S. hopes for the legislation.

Approved by parliament this month under pressure from U.S. officials, the law was heralded by President Bush and Iraqi leaders as a way to soothe the deep anger of many ex-Baathists — primarily Sunnis but also many Shiites such as Awadi — toward the Shiite-led government.

Yet U.S. officials and even legislators who voted for the measure, which still requires approval by Iraq’s presidency council, acknowledge that its impact is hard to assess from its text and will depend on how it is implemented. Some say the law’s primary aim is not to return ex-Baathists to work, but to recognize and compensate those harmed by the party. Of the law’s eight stated justifications, none mentions reinstating ex-Baathists to their jobs.

“The law is about as clear as mud,” said one U.S. senior diplomat.

The confusion has been compounded because the information on former party members comes from the de-Baathification commission headed by Ahmed Chalabi, the former deputy prime minister who as an Iraqi exile sought to convince U.S. officials that Hussein’s government had weapons of mass destruction. In light of the absence of such weapons, many Iraqi and U.S. officials are suspicious of his commission’s statistics.

In an interview at his lavish home in the Mansour district, Chalabi said the new legislation would drive out some of the former Baathists his commission had allowed to return to government. The new measure, he said, is much harsher than the existing policy and a draft of the law that the United States had encouraged parliament to pass.

(Yeah, it does still blow my mind that Ahmed Chalabi is in a mansion, while we still have American soldiers dying every day.)

Meanwhile, one of the things that’s eased the violence concurrent with the surge has been the cease-fire unilaterally declared by the Sadr militia. About that:

NAJAf, Iraq: Radical Shiite leader Muqtada al-Sadr put the United States and the Iraqi government on notice Friday that he may not extend a six-month cease-fire by his militia.

The cease-fire by the Mahdi Army militia, due to expire next month, has been cited by U.S. commanders in Iraq as a major contributor to the nationwide reduction of violence over the past six months. U.S. and Iraqi forces, however, have stepped up their hunt for the militiamen in recent months, arguing they were members of rogue cells closely linked to Iran.

“The rationale for the decision to extend the freeze of the Mahdi Army is beginning to wear thin,” Salah al-Obeidi, al al-Sadr spokesman, said in a statement issued in the holy city of Najaf south of Baghdad.

Uh-oh.

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