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‘Fake news’ isn’t news or new: Remembering the 2003 US invasion of Iraq

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We are seeing signs of a world turned upside down in the era of the Trump Administration bent on creating its own brand of news and marketing it to the exclusion of anything that isn’t compatible with it. ‘Fake News’ isn’t news, and it isn’t new either. When considering this administration’s efforts at media manipulation it would be helpful to remember the path that led the United States to war in Iraq. The similarities are there and they help make sense of this latest chapter in shaping ‘alternative facts,’ but it is also important to recall the manipulation of public opinion by the mainstream media that was compliant with the deceptions of successive administrations in its coverage of U.S. policies in Latin America, South East Asia and the Middle East. Media coverage of the Israeli -Palestinian conflict with its repeated masking of the extent and consequences of U.S. support for Israel, is an example that has served to dehumanize Palestinians and propagate the myth of an embattled Israeli democracy. The ease with which the vilification of Muslims has been tolerated is inseparable from this dismal history, whose latest chapter includes the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003.

What can we conclude from this? Why the lies? Whose interest do they serve? In the case of U.S. policy in the Middle East, it seems clear that there are some things that government officials consider best left unsaid. Such omissions are neither accidental nor incidental.   To acknowledge the critical role of oil in U.S.  Middle East policy, for example, is a recognized risk that is capable of exposing the network of interests at stake in the making of policy.  As the former Federal Reserve Chair, Alan Greenspan, once lamented in commenting on the U.S. war in Iraq, it was “politically inconvenient to acknowledge.”   The inconvenience required little explanation.  Political insiders understood that official acknowledgment of the dominant role of oil in the making of U.S. policy could ignite public protest against policies allegedly pursued in the name of democracy.

The record of intentional deception with respect to U.S. Middle East policy, as the following indicates, is not new, nor is it peculiar to Middle East policy, where the triple politics of denial, deception and “engineering consent,” to use Edward Bernay’s formula, has been effective in assuring ignorance and with it, indifference, save among those who resist and demand to know and talk the truth.

In the winter of 1975 the possibility of using military force to “seize foreign oil fields,” was considered in the wake of the 1975 OPEC embargo.[1] Among the subjects examined by a Special Subcommittee of the Committee on International Relations, was public opinion. While first minimizing its global impact, the report produced by the committee conceded the importance of estimating the potential impact of foreign public opinion, it emphasized that “moods in America would be even more important. Perhaps the most pointed lesson U.S. leaders learned in Vietnam was that national decisions, however desirable they may otherwise seem, must be acceptable to the people.”

In the case of the possible seizure of Middle East oil fields, the report claimed that public support in the U.S. could be counted if vital interests were at stake. Otherwise, it remained for Congress to assess “the predominant viewpoint,” which was to be undertaken with the assistance of the Administration and the mass media, that “could take steps to sway public opinion one way or another if they believed it advisable, although success would not be assured.”

At a later stage, “the Office of General Counsel of the Department of Defense issued its ‘Assessment of International Legal Issues in Information Operations.'” [2] The references included the first Gulf War as a template in which journalists were forbidden access to the front lines. What the Defense Department did not report was the role of military censorship. As John Macarthur wrote in 1992, the “twelve hundred U.S. journalists covering the mostly American side in Saudi Arabia…simply weren’t permitted to file much that was worth either reading or watching.”[3] Macarthur also remarked that most of the correspondents covering the war “acceded passively to the Pentagon management program (some would argue they had no choice)….” To media critic Douglas Kellner, the Gulf War was an example of “one of the most successful public relations campaigns in the history of modern politics in its use of the media to mobilize support for the war.”[4]

Writing of the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq, Edward Said observed that, “high technology and clever public relations were used to make the war seem exciting, clean, and virtuous,” with the reminder that “Operation Desert Storm was also partly launched so as to lay the ghost of the ‘Vietnam syndrome’….” [5] Said’s description was inadvertently confirmed by government officials in their deliberations on “shutting down a civilian radio station for the sole purpose of undermining the morale of the civilian population….”[6] Journalists were to be embedded with the military to minimize their independent forays into Iraq and to promote their identification with the military.

Several months prior to the U.S. invasion, the Defense Department encouraged the establishment of media outlets designed to shape the news coming out of Iraq, as in the creation of a “Rapid Reaction Media Team” recommended by the Defense Department in order to, portray a ‘new Iraq’ offering hope of a prosperous and democratic future, which would serve as a model for the Middle East. American, British, and Iraqi media experts would be hand-picked to provide ‘approved USG information’ for the Iraqi public, while an ensuing ‘strategic information campaign’ would be part of a ‘likely 1-2 years… transition’ to a representative government. A new weekly Iraqi newspaper would feature ‘Hollywood’ along with the news.[7]

In addition, there was the program, “Perception Management”, which according to Lt. Colonel Steven Collins, was designed “to influence the attitudes and reasoning of foreign audiences and especially those in Iraq in the run-up to, during, and after Operation Iraqi Freedom.” [8] “Perception Management “ referred to activities undertaken through “Public Diplomacy, Psychological Operations (PSYOPS), Public Information, Deception and Covert Action.” Collins regarded these as of long-term importance advantageous for NATO and its “perception-management capabilities.”

According to the Washington Post, the Defense Department was prepared to “pay private U.S. contractors in Iraq up to $300 million over the next three years to produce news stories, entertainment programs and public service advertisements for the Iraqi media in an effort to ‘engage and inspire’ the local population to support U.S. objectives and the Iraqi government.” [9]

The lucrative arrangements were predicated on the assumption that the Iraqi population was unaware of U.S. policies, prepared to be silenced, or open to being even in the face of prisoner abuse, such as occurred at Abu Ghraib in the fall of 2003. The atrocities committed by U.S. military police and intelligence were revealed to the US public in the Final Report of the Independent Panel that described the Detention Operations of the Defense Department, as “acts of brutality and purposeless sadism.” [10]

On the home front, opposition to the war and the demand to know the truth of its justification were evident in the streets and in Congress. On Mar. 17, 2003, Henry A Waxman, Ranking Minority Member of the House Committee on Government Reform, sent a letter to Pres. Bush asking for clarification of the claims, first made by Tony Blair in London, regarding the Iraqi President seeking uranium tubes from Africa in order to build nuclear weapons. Waxman had supported the war until he learned that U.S. intelligence suspected such claims as did the International Atomic Energy Agency’s director, Mohamed ElBaradei. But Waxman’s efforts to obtain clarification from the President failed to elicit more than an evasive response until mid-June, when the Administration claimed that the CIA had attempted to mislead the White House.[11]

White House claims were also challenged by the organization of Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity that, on May 1, 2003, submitted a memo to the President questioning the intelligence used to justify war, warning him that for the intelligence community “there is one unpardonable sin–cooking intelligence to the recipe of high policy. There is ample indication that this has been done with respect to Iraq.”[12]

Hans Blix, who was the director-general of the International Atomic Energy agency from 1981- 1997 and executive director of the UN Monitoring, Verifications, and Inspection Commission (UNMOVIC) between 2000 and 2003, confirmed the doubts expressed by the Veteran Intelligence Professionals, as did other officials assigned to convey reports of UN inspections carried out in Iraq through March 2003.[13] Their conclusions confirmed that no WMD had been found, which did not alter the indifference of the Bush Administration to UN findings, or its policies in Iraq. The same may be said with respect to coverage of U.S. policies in the New York Times, which also failed to report the findings of former UN inspector in Iraq, Scott Ritter, who concluded “that the Iraqis had already been disarmed of ‘up to 90-95 percent of their most deadly weapons, rendering Saddam fundamentally disarmed.’”[14]

In March 2004, the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Government Reform, issued a report by the Minority Staff Special Investigating Division, for Representative Henry A, Waxman. “Iraq on the Record” was subtitled, “The Bush Administration’s Public Statements on Iraq.”[15] Far more limited in scope than the Chilcot Inquiry of Tony Blair’s compromised policies, the report addressed the misleading statements made by key Administration officials on the nature of the threat allegedly posed by Iraq. It provided evidence that leading officials of the Bush Administration, in addition to the President, the Vice President, Richard Cheney, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, Secretary of State Colin Powell, and National Security Advisor, Condoleezza Rice, “made misleading statements about the threat posed by Iraq in 125 public appearances.”[16]

The discrepancy between the nature of U.S. policies in Iraq and the continuing efforts of the Pentagon to legitimize its deceptive tactics occurred against a background in which the Bush Administration’s policies in Iraq were being questioned in Congress and denounced not only in anti-war demonstrations but by former office holders who did not hesitate to expose deceit in the White House. On April 3, John Dean, who had been White House Counsel to Nixon and revealed his role in the Watergate hearings, declared that “the evidence is overwhelming that George W. Bush and Richard B. Cheney have engaged in deceit and deception over going to war in Iraq. That is an impeachable offense.” [17]

At the end of May 2004, Roger Morris, former senior staff of the NSC under Johnson and Nixon who had resigned over the invasion of Cambodia, pleaded with members of the foreign service to resign in protest against the corruption of “a cabal of political appointees and ideological zealots,” and a Pentagon that succeeded in ignoring “any opposition in the State Department or the CIA, rushing us to unilateral aggressive war in Iraq and chaotic, fateful occupations in both Iraq and Afghanistan.” [18]

Several months later, on December 13, 2004, the New York Times disclosed Pentagon plans for the use of deception in a front page article, “Pentagon Weighs Use of Deception in a Broad Arena.”[19] Its opening indicated that the Pentagon was divided on the question of “how far it can and should go in managing or manipulating information to influence opinion abroad….” Competition appeared to be intense between “the military’s psychological operations, information operations and public affairs programs.”

According to Brig. Gen. Mark Kimmit, senior spokesman for the U.S. military in Iraq in command when counterinsurgency operations were in order, “’tactical and operational deception are proper and legal on the battlefield.” But the existence of “a worldwide media environment” altered the situation. Under the circumstances Kimmit asked, “how do you prevent that deception from spilling out from the battlefield and inadvertently deceiving the American people?”

How inadvertent was it? The Brigadier General understood that “a worldwide media environment” meant that forbidden news had become accessible, rendering deception that much more difficult.

The view from the Pentagon was summed up in the opening page of Parameters, US Army War College Quarterly that appeared in the spring of 2005: “The media, in the modern era, are indisputably, an instrument of war.”[20] As author Kenneth Payne, at the time a BBC news producer with a specialty in issues of defense, security and intelligence, explained in the same article, “winning modern wars is as much dependent on carrying domestic and international public opinion as it is on defeating the enemy on the battlefield.”  Managing public opinion was designed to avoid accounts, such as that by Lieutenant General William Wallace, according to which “the enemy being fought was ‘different from the one we war-gamed against.’”

How different? “War-gamed”? The language raised questions; the questions raised the risks of dissent.

For some former Iraqi veterans, including those who were witness to the use of agent orange in places such as Fallujah, silence was not an option. [21] For an increasingly vocal public protesting the US war and exposing the ‘fake news’ and ‘alternative facts’ on which it rested, had become imperative.

The lesson has not been lost on those who confront the politics of official deception in US foreign as well as domestic policy. But the long-term toll of such misrepresentation that has been amplified by a compromised media and social media, remains to be examined. The problem of ‘fake news’ and ‘alternative facts’ is not new. Its uncharacteristic nakedness renders it shocking, promoting the view that yet another level of the transgression of acceptable codes of communication has been breached. The results are rude, their exponents crude, but in retrospect, this is familiar terrain.


[1] Oil Fields As Military Objectives, A Feasibility Study, Prepared for the Special Subcommittee on Investigations of the Committee on International Relations by the Congressional Research Service, Library of Congress, U.S. Government Printing Office, 1975. X1.

[2] Cited in Irene Gendzier, “Weapons of Mass Deception and What We Don’t Know About U.S. Policy in the Middle East,” Transnational Law and Contemporary Problems, 21, 1, spring 2012, 54.

[3] John R. Macarthur, Second Front, Censorship and Propaganda in the Gulf War, University of California Press, Berkeley 1992, 146.

[4] Douglas Kellner, Media Culture, Cultural studies, identity and politics between the modern and the postmodern. Routledge, London and New York, 2001, 198.

[5] Edward W. Said, Culture and Imperialism, Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 1993, 131.

[6] Cited in Gendzier, “Weapons of Mass Deception,” 54.

[7] May 8, 2007, Iraq: The Media War Plan, National Security Archive.

[8] Lieutenant Colonel Steven Collins, “Mind Games,” cited in Crimes of War: Iraq, edited by Richard Falk, Irene Gendzier, and Robert Jay Lifton, Nation Books, 2006, 246.

[9] Oct.3, 2008, Karen De Young and Walter Pincus, “U.S. to Fund Pro-American Publicity in Iraqi Media,” the Washington Post.

[10] The Abu Ghraib Investigations, The Official Reports of the Independent Panel an Pentagon on the Shocking Prisoner Abuse in Iraq, ed. by Steven Strasser, Public Affairs, New York 2004, 1.

[11] For a more detailed review of the CIA’s position, see the June 12, 2003 statement of Rep. Henry A. Waxman, Ranking Minority Member, House Committee on Government Reform, Congress of the United States, House of Representatives.

[12] May 1, 2003, Intelligence Officers Challenge Bush, Truthout special.

[13]   Iraq: Four Questions, Four Answers by Hans von Sponeck, UN Humanitarian Coordinator for Iraq (1998-2000) at the European Colloquium, Brussels, 25. 2002.

See also, Hans Blix, Disarming Iraq, Pantheon Books, New York, 2004.

[14] Howard Friel and Richard Falk , The Record of the Paper, How the New York Times Misrepresents US Foreign Policy, extensive discussion of UN inspections and the view of U.S. officials, 102.

[15] Iraq On The Record, The Bush Administration’s Public Statements on Iraq, United State House of Representatives, Committee on Government Reform-Minority Staff Special Investigations Division, March 16, 2004. WWW.Reform.House.Gov/Min

[16] “Iraq On the Record,” The Bush Administration’s Public Statements on Iraq, United States House of Representatives.

[17] April 3, 2004, “Cover-Up? Impeachment?” Mid-East Realities, Washington. http://www.MiddleEast.Org

[18] May 20, 2004, Roger Morris, A Call to Conscience.

[19] December 13, 2004, Thom Shanker and Eric Schmitt, “Pentagon Weighs Use of Deception in a Broad Arena,” the New York Times, 1, 12.

[20] Kenneth Payne, “The Media as an Instrument of War,” Parameters, U.S. Army War College Quarterly, Spring 2005, 81.

[21] April 19, 2004, Truthout Report, Dahr Jamail, “International Lawyers Seek Justice for Iraqis. ”

Among U.S. veterans of Iraq who testified at The Iraq Commission in Brussels held on April 16-17, 2004, was Ross Caputi, a former Marine who participated in the 2nd siege of Fallujah and who subsequently created the Islah Reparations Project.

About Irene Gendzier

Irene Gendzier is author of forthcoming book, Dying to Forget: Oil, Power and Palestine: the foundations of United States foreign policy in the Middle East, Columbia University Press.

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11 Responses

  1. AddictionMyth
    March 8, 2017, 10:56 am

    “Terrorism” is fake news – the CIA incites it in the middle east and the FBI lures vulnerable kids into it on the home front. Meanwhile TrumPutin tried to exploit it as a pretext to nuke them and ‘take their oil’ or at least disrupt supplies long enough to boost Tillerson’s interests in the US and Russia and they all make a killing.

    Why do we all want to believe in religiously-inspired terrorism despite all sense and reason? LOL.

  2. Citizen
    March 9, 2017, 9:58 am

    Frank Luntz is a key cog in producing fake news via manipulation of selected representative poll casts; he is expert in coded language, geared to dog whistling in his orchestrated fake light, coach to Netanyahu and GOP PSYOPS on US public

    • Kay24
      March 13, 2017, 2:09 am

      We have got to wonder how Luntz sleeps at night. Apparently it was his advice that because the occupier was looking bad because of the illegal settlements, that the occupiers change their tactics. He suggested that instead of dealing with it like a conflict about lands and territorial dispute, they change it to look like the poor victim Israel is battling terrorism. It was then that despicable Benyamin and his band of bandits, refer to it as a terrorist problem, and the US media ran with it. I wonder if Luntz has any conscience, or whether he will say and do anything for money, even watch civilians being killed.

  3. echinococcus
    March 9, 2017, 12:52 pm

    Frank Lutz would be perfect as the example case for the next Nuremberg court.

  4. RoHa
    March 12, 2017, 11:30 pm

    “the Trump Administration bent on creating its own brand of news and marketing it to the exclusion of anything that isn’t compatible with it. ”

    It seems to me that the Trump Administration is calling out the main purveyors of fake news, and demanding that the MSM stop creating and marketing their own fake news to the exclusion of anything that isn’t compatible with it.

  5. Maghlawatan
    March 13, 2017, 12:17 am

    Fake news has been a part of US foreign and war policy for years but foreigners live far away and most Americans have no way of knowing what is really going on. Occasionally they join the dots. This keeps Zionists awake at night.

    Steve Bannon is lying to Americans about stuff they know from their own lives. There is a huge difference. The Trump project is about pauperising blue collar Americans and making them happy about it.

    • RoHa
      March 13, 2017, 7:28 pm

      You think there has never been any domestic fake news in the USA?

      I’m sure this Bannon person is lying. He’s in politics. It’s the normal thing.

      And I thought that blue collar workers voted for Trump because they were already being impoverished and hoped he would bring a few jobs back to the US.

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