The media's role in the Iraq 'road to war' was to be relentlessly critical of weapons' inspectors, particularly whenever they came up with the 'wrong' findings as far as the pro-war-Iraq-has-WMD- lobby were concerned. Weapons' inspectors are back in the headlines, following allegations of use of chemical agents in Syria - are they going to get caught in the cross-fire again?
For weapons' inspectors to do their jobs properly, or have their findings dispassionately reported, the sheer scale of what went so awry in the reporting of the Iraq weapons' inspections, needs to be recalled.
Dr Ingrid Lehmann, who teaches in the Department of Communication Science of the University of Salzburg, Austria, formerly director in the United Nations Department of Public Information from 1991 to 2003, has stepped into remedy current collective journalistic amnesia.
Her study entitled Exploring the Transatlantic Media Divide over Iraq - How and Why U.S. and German Media Differed in Reporting on UN Weapons Inspections in Iraq, 2002-2003, and published in The Harvard International Journal of Press/Politics, focuses on media coverage of United Nations weapons' inspections.
According to Dr Lehmann's analysis, there was a systematic US media attempt to rubbish any weapons inspectors' findings that went against the Bush administration contention, that Iraq not only possessed weapons of mass destruction, but also posed an imminent threat.
For example, Dr Ingrid Lehmann reports that on 16 September, 2002 Iraq's foreign minister announced, in a letter to Kofi Annan, that Iraq would accept the return of the inspectors without conditions.
Dr Lehmann points out that on the NBC TV evening news that day, only US officials and former American weapons inspectors were interviewed. One of Hans Blix's predecessors, Richard Butler, was interviewed on NBC TV on 17 September, asserting Iraqi claims of having no WMD were "not true" and wondering whether they would be able to conceal them, even from weapons inspectors.
On 9 January 2003 Hans Blix and Mohamed El Baradei briefed the Security Council that following extensive and intensive inspections of Iraq, no "smoking gun" had been found.
Colin Powell's speech to the Security Council meeting in early February 2003 rebutted Blix and ElBaradei, entitled "Iraq: Failing to Disarm". "Clearly, Saddam Hussein and his regime will stop at nothing until something stops him," Colin Powell declared. In the U.S. press, the speech was largely reported as presenting "irrefutable" evidence.
Michael Gordon, in a front-page news analysis of The New York Times of 6 February, wrote, 'Critics may try to challenge the strength of the administration's case and they will no doubt argue that inspectors be given more time. But it will be difficult for the sceptics to argue that Washington's case against Iraq is based on groundless suspicions and not intelligence information.'
NBC TV Nightly News on 5 February titled its broadcast Text, Lies and Videotape--Secretary of State Powell Tells the UN Saddam Hides Weapons, Deceives Inspectors and Supports Terrorists. Its main interview with Richard Butler emphasized that Powell's emphasis was "devastating" and took for granted that Iraq was "continuing to make new weapons of mass destruction."
The New York Times on 15 February called the inspectors' reports "controversial," followed by a rhetorical question by Patrick Tyler: "So, after another month of inspections, will the 15 Council members know whether they are likely to ever answer the questions: Where is the anthrax? Where are the VX nerve agents? Where are the Scuds?" Blix and ElBaradei were ridiculed as "mild-mannered civil servants" who "cannot be left to play games of hide-and-seek."
According to Dr Lehmann's analysis, during these last pre-war days, personal attacks against the UN inspectors in the media became more frequent, an experience that Hans Blix, reports in his book 'Disarming Iraq'.
Is it possible that Blix's shabby treatment at the hands of the media and the authorities is influencing the report from the current head inspector in Syria - Angela Kane? Did Hans Blix speak out recently about how the US cannot be the world police, in an attempt to clear the decks for her to report fearlessly?
In the run up to the Iraq War, journalists appeared to be suffering from the same delusional thinking as the intelligence community, who merely explained away inconvenient data. Professor Mark Phythian from the University of Leicester in his analysis entitled 'The Perfect Intelligence Failure? U.S. Pre-War Intelligence on Iraqi Weapons of Mass Destruction' reports on how a CIA memorandum on the pre-war unsuccessful search for Biological Weapons in Iraq reported, '... We have raised our collection posture in a bid to locate these production units, but years of fruitless searches by UNSCOM (United Nations Special Commission weapons inspectors) indicate they are well hidden'.
This kind of delusional thinking is impossible to refute.
Phythian's study published in the academic journal Politics and Policy, also points out that sources who challenged the existence or continuation of WMD programs and stocks were lying, regime collaborators or not conversant with Iraq's program, as far as the US intelligence community were concerned. Meanwhile those sources who reported (falsely or mistakenly) ongoing WMD activities, were seen as valuable.
Mark Pythian describes the intelligence community's handling of information on Iraq as worthy of a "black comedy", including their shocking over-reliance on a key Iraqi source, codename "Curve Ball", who later turned out to be a "fabricator".
Pythian reports the deputy chief of the CIA's Iraqi Task Force's cynicism and resignation in his comment: "Let's keep in mind the fact that this war's going to happen regardless of what Curve Ball said or didn't say, and that the powers that be probably aren't terribly interested in whether Curve Ball knows what he's talking about."
Ingrid Lehmann concludes from her investigation that press coverage of weapons inspectors during the build up to the Iraq war reveals journalists abrogated their critical function in a democratic society.
Are all the key actors in the tragic black comedy that was Iraq, about to repeat the same episode, this time set in Syria, all over again?
The same hymn sheets are being passed around.
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