Tuesday, September 18, 2007

The art of "expedient exaggeration"

This post is an expanded version of my latest print column. It all started when I saw a TV commercial that made my jaw drop...

The resilient myth that Saddam Hussein plotted 9/11 is proof that Mark Twain was right when he said, "A lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes."

Even today, long after this 9/11 myth has been officially and repeatedly discredited, roughly 40 percent of Americans still insist that Hussein conspired with al-Qaeda to bring down the Twin Towers. And it's a fair bet that this myth will remain in mass circulation as long as proponents of the Iraq war persist in believing that it is savvy politics to prey on people's ignorance.

Consider, for instance, the current TV ads - sponsored by a White House front group known as Freedom's Watch - that seek to shore up waning support for the Iraq war by perpetuating the canard that 9/11 was a Hussein production. In their quest to stoke emotions in defiance of fact, the ad-makers aren't exactly subtle. First, some military vets are shown making the case for staying in Iraq. Then, in the key image, we're back on 9/11. The north tower is burning, the second tower is seconds away from igniting, and these words flash on the screen: They Attacked Us.

The ad doesn't state that "they" refers to the Iraqis, but clever advertising is all about connecting the dots. Denizens of the reality-based community - including many in Philadelphia, who have probably seen this ad aired locally - are likely shaking their heads at this effrontery. Wasn't this myth put to rest years ago? Let us count the ways:

1. As early as June 2003, one month after the U.S. invasion of Iraq, a monitoring group appointed by the U.N. Security Council announced that it had found no evidence linking Hussein to al-Qaeda.

2. In 2004, the bipartisan 9/11 Commission concluded: "We have no credible evidence that Iraq and al-Qaeda cooperated on attacks against the United States."

3. In 2005, a newly declassified Defense Intelligence Agency document concluded that a key terrorist informant had been "intentionally misleading" his American debriefers when he claimed that Hussein had been in cahoots with al-Qaeda. The document, written 13 months before the U.S. invasion, also stated that "Saddam's regime is intensely secular and is wary of Islamic revolutionary movements."

4. In 2006, the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence - which, at the time, was still run by the Republicans - concluded in a report: "Postwar information supports prewar intelligence-community assessments that there was no credible information that Iraq was complicit in, or had foreknowledge of, the Sept. 11 attacks or any other al-Qaeda strike."

5. In February of this year, the Pentagon's acting inspector general concluded in a report that President Bush's neoconservative war planners utilized "both reliable and unreliable" information to fashion a Hussein/al-Qaeda link "that was much stronger than that assessed by the [intelligence community], and more in accord with the policy views of senior officials in the administration."

6. In April of this year, At the Center of the Storm, a memoir by ex-CIA director George Tenet, was published, in which we read that "there was never any real serious evidence that Saddam Hussein was an ally of al-Qaeda."

7. Last, even some notable Bush administration officials have debunked the myth. Donald Rumsfeld did it in 2004: Referring to Hussein and al-Qaeda, he told the Council on Foreign Relations, "I have not seen any strong, hard evidence that links the two." And the other debunker, way back on Sept. 17, 2003, was George W. Bush. In a news conference that day, the president said: "We've had no evidence that Saddam Hussein was involved with the Sept. 11."

Yet despite all the empirical evidence, a pro-Bush group - financed primarily by some rich Republican donors, and some ex-Bush ambassadors - has nonetheless paid out $15 million to air ads that meet the dictionary definition of propaganda. The ads are airing in 60 districts where Republican congressmen are wavering in their support for the war; Pennsylvania, home to seven targeted GOP House members, is on the front lines of this PR war. (Indeed, one key Freedom's Watch supporter is a prominent Philadelphian: Edward Snider, chairman of Comcast Spectacor.)

Clearly, Freedom’s Watch and its ad makers are not shamed by the prospects of perpetuating a myth. Nor, apparently, do they see a downside in hiring, as their spokesman, the former Bush press secretary Ari Fleischer, whose track record of prognostications is far from stellar. This is the same guy who insisted, on the first day of the war, that “people will rejoice” in Iraq when the Americans take over, and “there is no question that…Iraq has weapons of mass destruction.” Two months later, he opined: “I don’t think there’s any chance of losing the peace.”

When Fleischer popped up recently on MSNBC to defend the ads, guest Hardball host Mike Barnacle asked him how many of the 9/11 terrorists were Iraqis. (Correct answer: Zero.) Fleischer replied: "Mike, you're stuck in the 2001-2002 timetable and debate. (The situation today) is so far beyond that debate."

Translation: We should simply ignore the historical record.

But these strategists at Freedom's Watch are politically smart. They know, at this point, that it's virtually impossible to buck up the war supporters by talking about the tensions among Sunnis and Shiites and Kurds; many Americans, who are not particularly wise in the ways of the world beyond their borders, can't distinguish one group from another. Hence, the strategists' need for an emotional short-cut: Tie Hussein to al-Qaeda, the amorphous enemy that everybody knows.

The administration has long been performing this sleight of hand. In a letter to Congress on the day after he launched the invasion of Iraq, Bush said it was important "to take the necessary actions against international terrorists and terrorist organizations, including those nations, organizations, or persons who planned, authorized, committed or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on Sept. 11, 2001." He did not directly state that Hussein plotted 9/11, but the implication was clear. He repeated that formula for years thereafter.

Even after the evidence mounted that Saddam had not plotted, Bush kept the inference alive, by shifting his terms and claiming that Saddam and al Qaeda had enjoyed a “relationship.” (June 17, 2004: “The reason I keep insisting that there was a relationship between Iraq and Saddam and al Qaeda – because there was a relationship between Iraq and al Qaeda.”) Today, the ’08 Republican presidential candidates blur the lines further by routinely linking the Iraq war to the broader war on terror.

The myth about a Hussein-9/11 link persists not just because politicians and spin artists keep repeating it, in order to stoke emotions for the war, but also because many people are hard-wired to believe it. Psychologists have determined in recent studies that false information, once lodged in the brain, often tends to remain embedded, to the point where it becomes impervious to empirical reality. This helps to explain why, in a CBS/New York Times poll taken Sept. 4-8, 33 percent of all Americans - including 27 percent of Democrats - still tied Hussein to 9/11. Some 2007 polls have even pegged the share of credulous Americans to be as high as 41 percent.

Hence, the Twain adage about the traveling lie and the sluggishness of truth. But perhaps Freedom's Watch, in its defense, would prefer to quote another sage commentator, the erudite Cary Grant. While playing a Madison Avenue executive in North by Northwest, Cary purred to his secretary, "Ah, Maggie, in the world of advertising, there is no such thing as a lie, there is only expedient exaggeration."


Dante Zappala, the brother of slain Pennsyvania National Guardsman Sherwood Baker (KIA in Iraq, 4/26/04), emailed today to express his exasperation about the Freedom's Watch ad campaign: "As someone who lost his brother in Iraq, while he was looking for WMD, no less, it's all very disheartening. This is not the civil democracy my brother believed in." And his mother recently delivered a video response, here.


In current political news, it is with great sadness that I note the return, to the GOP presidential arena, of Alan Keyes. The black conservative and master of the diatribe - who ran as a fringe candidate in 1996 and 2000, and who got waxed by Barack Obama in the 2004 Illinois Senate race, and whose prospects of winning even three percent in any Republican primary are roughly analagous to Britney Spears' odds of dancing on Broadway - filed his candidate papers last Friday. Then he showed up last night at a conservative "values" debate. Maybe he figures that he can be the GOP's Mike Gravel.

My fondest memory of Keyes dates back to the winter of 2000, in New Hampshire. After a Republican debate, he stormed into the press room, where I and my colleagues were attempting the usual miracle, trying to write 1000 words of clean copy on a 45-minute deadline. For 15 of those minutes, Keyes proceeded to inform everyone, at the top of his impressive decibel scale, that the press was against him...because he was black. Then he stormed out. We all made deadline.