How the war was spun
Just three months ago, at the time Sheldon Rampton and John Stauber finished writing "Weapons of Mass Deception", this would have sounded fringe flaky. Not now, though. The more you read of this detailed and comprehensively sourced book, the more compelling it gets. And the post-mortems being conducted in the US and Britain keep confirming more and more of their detail.
If you are looking for a comprehensive primer on the way the Iraq war was spun, this book is it.
How the war was spun
By Mike Seccombe
August 2 2003
War and the myths to justify it are two constants of history. Julius Caesar "spun" a slaughter in Gaul by calling it a pacification. The Crusades were sold to the fervent masses as being a battle of faith, but began as a trade dispute. When the truth is morally complicated - as it tends to be in international relations generally and war in particular - fiction is often easier to handle.
Governments lie because it puts them on the front foot, makes them appear to be in control of the agenda. Messy realities must be simplified and sanitised lest they undermine the objective. And it was ever thus.
Still, modern technology has revolutionised things: warfare itself, of course, but also the means of finding out what really goes on in war. Vietnam is generally considered a watershed: the first television war, which the US lost not so much militarily as in public relations terms.
By the time of the Gulf War in 1991, we had real-time combat footage and the beginnings of the global tool of instant reportage and analysis, the internet. We also had military/government PR terminology that imbued weapons with human characteristics - "smart" bombs, which allegedly were considerate of civilians. And we had military propaganda pictures of these brainy, discriminating munitions falling down chimneys and lighting up Baghdad like the Fourth of July.
But it was September 11, 2001, that, as George W. Bush might say, changed the world. The attacks on the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon precipitated the international war on terrorism, a war unlike any before it. It came with no defined territorial goals nor ultimate military objective. Nor, most importantly for those governments committed to it, much action for long periods. And that posed a major problem. How do you persuade an outraged public that the war is progressing when there are few signs of it?
The answer, in a word, is "spin". Not spin as people usually think of it, like a press release or advertisement hyping the virtues of some product or government initiative, but spin as it has grown up in America over the past couple of decades, where giant firms and government combine to mould reality. To cite just one pertinent example, the Iraqi National Congress, which was marketed as the alternative government to Saddam Hussein's, was substantially the creation of the Rendon group, a PR organisation connected to the CIA and contracted to the Pentagon.
Such spin drove the war in Iraq from the beginning. International spin, in three-part harmonies, with George Bush, Tony Blair and John Howard all singing from the same song sheet on the need to rid the world of the threat posed by Iraq's alleged weapons of mass destruction (WMDs).
Their problem is that after the war no such weapons were unearthed. And, suddenly, three governments have seen the political capital they accrued melting away as they pay, in varying measures, the wages of spin. Across three continents, the allegations are mounting: of supposedly impartial bureaucracies politicised, intelligence material massaged and falsified, intelligence agencies cowed and corrupted, media manipulated and lied to.
The questions about exactly what they did are still being explored, but the question of why they did it is easy. Nothing unites a public behind its government like a clearly perceived external threat. John Howard had proved how easily a perception of external threat could be manufactured, when he sooled the SAS onto boat people rescued by the Tampa, and triumphed in the subsequent "border security" election. Bush went from being a laughing-stock President to a hero over September 11 and the Afghanistan war. While Blair had not experienced the political dividend of war, he had seen Margaret Thatcher's apparently terminal government live again, on the basis of a war over the ownership of some tiny, God-forsaken islands in the South Atlantic.
At the inconclusive end of the war in Afghanistan, there was a hiatus. The terrorist threat was still there, but it was nebulous. It had to be furnished with a field of combat and a rationale. Iraq was the obvious choice for many reasons, among them a nasty government, oil, weak defences and no allies. But the one agreed on, for what the US Deputy Defence Secretary, Paul Wolfowitz, described as "bureaucratic convenience", was WMDs.
However, the really insidious weapons exposed by the Iraq war, say Sheldon Rampton and John Stauber in the title of their new book, are another kind of WMD: "Weapons of Mass Deception".
The book makes for a wild read. The authors are not Washington insiders but a couple of leftie activists with a sweeping conspiracy theory: that the Bush Administration harnessed public intelligence agencies, private "think tanks", White House staff, a huge PR machine, cynical media proprietors, opportunistic journalists and vast amounts of money to fabricate "evidence" supporting war on a country that might not even retain WMDs.
Just three months ago, at the time the authors finished writing, this would have sounded fringe flaky. Not now, though. The more you read of this detailed and comprehensively sourced book, the more compelling it gets. And the post-mortems being conducted in the US and Britain keep confirming more and more of their detail.
Adding an interesting aspect is the fact the pair make most of their living exposing the excesses of the PR industry in America. Thus their detail of the role of private PR firms is fascinating and sometimes quirky. Did you know that just three days after the twin towers fell, the PR giant Burson-Marsteller signed up to provide "issues counselling and crisis management" for the government of Saudi Arabia? Or that Osama bin Laden's wealthy family first tried to hire a PR consultant named Steven Goldstein (he knocked them back because he thought they were trading on his Jewishness) before settling on another firm to rehabilitate the image of the rest of the (rebadged) Binladin family? At times the book reads like Bill Bryson Does Advertising.
If you are looking for a comprehensive primer on the way the Iraq war was spun, this book is it. The trouble is, it ends at the American declaration of victory, before the congressional and parliamentary inquiries began turning up even more dirt. Thus there is no mention, to cite just one example, of the Office of Special Projects, set up by the Defence Secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, to second-guess the CIA.
Now it emerges that the Bush Administration gave the office access to CIA and other intelligence material, even though its staff were not intelligence officers. Instead, most were heavily ideological "consultants" - lawyers, congressional staff, members of right-wing think tanks - employed off-budget and therefore beyond the scrutiny of Congress. The office turned the relationship between "intelligence" agencies and government on its head. Traditionally, agencies give advice on the basis of the best possible intelligence, in order that governments can make informed decisions. In the case of the Office of Special Projects, the task was to find intelligence, whatever its source or quality, to fit a predetermined course of action: war. Then the office's job was to publicise it.
In reality, there was precious little new intelligence, as even Rumsfeld was forced to admit a couple of weeks back, when he told Congress: "The coalition did not act in Iraq because we had discovered dramatic new evidence of Iraq's pursuit of weapons of mass murder. We acted because [after September 11] we saw the existing evidence in a new light ..."
You have to admire Rumsfeld's form. Even when he sounds like he's confessing, he's still spinning. The fact is the Bush foreign policy hawks had not seen anything in a "new light". They had wanted to make war on Iraq for more than a decade before the World Trade Centre attack. September 11 provided the pretext, and the post-Afghanistan hiatus added PR urgency.
Across the Atlantic, only three months before September 11, a government that lived in a perpetual state of PR urgency - Blair's - had just been re-elected. And there a second new book, The Wages of Spin, by Sir Bernard Ingham, serves as another tool for understanding how the Iraq issue spun out of control between the US and Britain and then around the world.
Ingham was no mean spin doctor himself, as Margaret Thatcher's combative mouthpiece, and his overbearing behaviour resulted in descriptions such as "a malevolent guerilla" (by a former Thatcher cabinet minister) and "a mound of poisoned suet" (by a writer in the Independent newspaper). But even given the number of pots calling kettles black in his attacks on the Blair spin machine, his book does a good job of tracing the way Britain was infected by a similar type of spin to that long practised in the US.
The American system of governance is both pervasively politicised - Ingham notes that every time a new president comes in, it results in the turnover of 7000 to 8000 posts - and highly transparent, compared with Britain's. Those twin features mean there has always been a lot of spin in the American system, but ultimately it usually gets exposed, or at least counterspun.
The British way of government, however, has always relied on a supposedly apolitical, if opaque, civil service giving unspun advice to government and staying out of partisan politics. (Australia had a similar system, until governments began politicising it, starting with Gough Whitlam in 1972 and culminating in John Howard's purge of the public service in 1996.)
But that changed in 1997, with the arrival of Blair and his chief spin doctor, Alistair Campbell. Suddenly everything was spun. Even the Queen's speech at the opening of Parliament, says Ingham, quoting the Guardian, "wasn't really a royal speech at all, but a party political broadcast". His book is replete with examples of the Blair/Campbell spin machine at work. For instance, within an hour of the first jet hitting the twin towers, an email had gone out: "It's now a very good day to get out anything we want to bury."
Ingham's bete noir is Campbell, and the author must be kicking himself for not holding off publication a few months, now "Cynical Ali" is really in the gun for allegedly having "sexed up" British intelligence and contributed to the death of the British biological warfare expert David Kelly, whose suicide note to The New York Times cited "many dark actors playing games".
The Wages of Spin is not a book about the war, but it does a good job of showing why Blair's too-smart-by-half spinners supported war. Policy was never their strong point, marketing was. Having dispensed with "dogma, political principles and the baggage of belief", all Labour had to offer was pragmatism - which Ingham derides as "Clintonesque government by focus group" - and the appearance of purposeful activity.
In its first three years, the Blair Government set 8636 new "goals" in media releases. But pragmatism does not excite the electorate, no matter how much you spin it. At the 2001 election, about 40 per cent of potential voters didn't bother.
Opinion polls already showed the majority of people thought Blair relied too much on spin, but in response his team simply cast about for a new product to sell. One thing you can say for war is that it engages the populace, so Blair's people went for it. And, before you knew it, Campbell, nominally a press secretary, had supplanted the chairman of the British Joint Intelligence Committee during the final stages of compiling that dodgy dossier on Iraq's WMD.
Of the three governments involved, the British one has come out of this in the worst shape for several reasons. First, it was a Labour government, which meant its political opponents in the push to war were not on the other side, but within its own ranks. Second, the worst example of spin from the war - the claim based on forged documentation that Iraq had sought to buy African uranium for a nuclear weapons program - originated there and the fingerprints of the Prime Minister's office were all over it.
Third, in spite of Blair's efforts, the British civil service culture of impartiality and discretion lives, even if it took David Kelly's death to prove it. Fourth, and this is important, Britain enjoys a degree of media diversity lacking in the US and Australia.
Recent polls suggest about two-thirds of Britons think they were misled, and they resent it. Blair may never recover. In America, close to 40 per cent of people also think they were deliberately misled, but they appear not to resent it as much, so far at least. Maybe Americans have become used to similar deceptions, which are relatively common in the US. Or maybe they have greater faith, based on past experience of the much stronger checks and balances in the US system, that the inquiry process will get to the bottom of it. Public anger is possibly mitigated, too, by the fact that, so far, the President himself has not been directly implicated in making up lies, only in parroting them.
The risk for Bush is not so much the way he spun the war but the way he spun the peace that was to follow: the Iraqis would welcome their liberators and a new democracy would quickly become a beacon to the whole Middle East. But peace has been as elusive as the WMDs. Meanwhile, Americans keep dying in Iraq.
And the government that has emerged in the best shape? The Howard Government. According to a poll taken from July 18 to 20, 67 per cent of Australians think they were misled, and more than half of those think they were deliberately misled. Yet that belief has made no difference to the popularity of Howard and his Government. Are we so conditioned to deceit, after the children overboard affair?
Maybe that's part of it, but more likely it's down to the fact Howard was more cunning than his fellow leaders. As soon as the war was over, our modest troop commitment was out of there, without a single casualty. And, while Howard ran hard on the same "garbage grade" (to quote the former intelligence officer Andrew Wilkie) information about the uranium purchase, his excuse is that he was just reading the script handed to him by our allies. And, as with the children overboard affair, the Prime Minister is able to shelter behind his firewall of politicised bureaucrats and staff. No fewer than three agencies have admitted they knew of concerns about the accuracy of the information the Prime Minister used. Yet none of those doubts, according to the Government, was passed up the chain to Howard. He was the leader of the coalition of the willing to believe anything.
The suspicion is that the Prime Minister is being disingenuous. But it is far harder to prove improper intent through an act of omission than through an act of commission. Given the much weaker system of accountability in this country, the chances are we will never get to the bottom of it, or, if we do, it will be because of information turned up overseas, more likely in the US. But don't count on it.
The circumstances of this case are perhaps less important, though, in the scheme of things, than taking steps to stop the proliferation of weapons of mass deception. The fact people such as Rampton and Stauber, well out there on the left of politics, and Ingham, from way out on the right, are saying similar things, is significant, too. This is not a matter of ideology, but of ethics. The systemic corruption resulting from the new spin is just as serious in Britain or Australia as in the US. The tools of manipulation are as available to the Labor Government of NSW as to the Liberal Federal Government.
In this country, that means taking steps to reinforce the notion that governments and ministers are accountable for what is done in their name. And that means breaking down the firewall of political advisers whose most important job these days seems to be not telling politicians things it would be inconvenient for them to know.
Weapons of Mass Deception, by Sheldon Rampton and John Stauber, is published by Hodder & Stoughton.
The Wages of Spin, by Sir Bernard Ingham, is published by John Murray.
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