16 Years Later, How the Press That Sold the Iraq War Got Away With It

In an excerpt from his new book Hate Inc., Matt Taibbi looks back at how the media built new lies to cover their early ones

Excerpted from Hate Inc., which can be found in serial form at Taibbi.substack.com.

Sixteen years ago this week, the United States invaded Iraq. We went in on an unconvincing excuse, articulated by George W. Bush in a speech days before invasion:

“Intelligence gathered by this and other governments leaves no doubt that the Iraq regime continues to possess and conceal some of the most lethal weapons ever devised. This regime has already used weapons of mass destruction against Iraq’s neighbors and against Iraq’s people.”

To the lie about the possession of WMDs, Bush added a few more: that Hussein “trained and harbored terrorists, including operatives of al-Qaeda.” Moreover, left unchecked, those Saddam-supplied terrorists could “kill hundreds of thousands of innocent people in our country.”

The disaster that followed cost over a hundred-thousand lives just in Iraq and drained north of $2 trillion from the budget. Once we were in and the “most lethal weapons ever devised” were not discovered, it quickly became obvious that large numbers of people at the highest levels of society had either lied, screwed up, or both.

The news media appropriately caught a huge chunk of the blame. But a public that had been fooled once was not prepared for the multiple rounds of post-invasion deceptions that followed, issued by many of the same pols and press actors. These were designed to rewrite history in real time, creating new legends that have now lasted 16 years.

These have allowed people like Bush spokesman Ari Fleischer — through whose mouth many of the chief lies of the era flowed — to come out this week and claim it was a “myth” that “Bush lied, people died.”

The myths had enormous utility to the working press, whose gargantuan errors have been re-cast as honest mistakes of judgment. A lot of the people who made those mistakes are still occupying prominent positions, their credibility undamaged thanks to a new legend best articulated by New Yorker editor David Remnick, who later scoffed, “Nobody got that story completely right.”

Nobody except the record number of people who marched against the war on February 15, 2003 — conservative estimates placed it between six and ten million worldwide (I marched in D.C.). Every one of those people was way ahead of Remnick.

None were marching because they disbelieved the WMD claims. Most marched because they saw the WMD issue as irrelevant at best, an insultingly thin excuse for a wrong war that had some other, darker, still-unreleased explanation.

In my forthcoming book Hate Inc. (which I’ve been publishing in serial form here), I’ve been looking at the major media deceptions of this century. WMD became the archetype of a modern propaganda campaign, a key component of which is the rewarding of the people who sell the lie.

This was accomplished after Iraq via a series of deceptions tweaked over and over, myths piled atop myths. In order, the biggest surviving Iraq lies:

Only a small portion of the industry screwed up.

In the popular imagination, the case for war was driven by a bunch of Republicans and one over-caffeinated New York Times reporter named Judith Miller. Even the attempts to make comprehensive lists of Iraq cheerleaders post-invasion inevitably focus on usual suspects like Fleischer, current Trump official John Bolton, neoconservatives like Max Boot, David Frum, and Bill Kristol, and winger goons like Sean Hannity, Rush Limbaugh and Ann Coulter. But we expect the worst from such people.

It’s been forgotten this was actually a business-wide consensus, which included the enthusiastic participation of a blue-state intelligentsia. The New Yorker of Remnick, who himself wrote a piece called “Making the Case,” was a source of many of the most ferocious pro-invasion pieces, including a pair written by current Atlantic editor Jeffrey Goldberg, one of a number of WMD hawks who failed up after the war case fell apart. Other prominent Democrat voices like Ezra Klein, Jonathan Chait, and even quasi-skeptic Nick Kristof (who denounced war critics for calling Bush a liar) were on board, as a Full Metal Jacket character put it, “for the big win.”

The Washington Post and New York Times were key editorial-page drivers of the conflict; MSNBC unhired Phil Donahue and Jesse Ventura over their war skepticism; CNN flooded the airwaves with generals and ex-Pentagon stoolies, and broadcast outlets ABC, CBS, NBC and PBS stacked the deck even worse: In a two-week period before the invasion, the networks had just one American guest out of 267 who questioned the war, according to Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting.

Exactly one major news organization refused to pick up pom-poms, the Knight-Ridder newspaper chain. All the other major outlets, whether they ostensibly catered to Republican or Democratic audiences, sold the war lie. The bipartisan nature of the deception has been obscured in history by a second legend:

The war was about WMDs.

We now know, from leaks like Britain’s Downing Street memos and the U.K.’s later Chilcot report, that the WMD issue was a concoction, designed for the narrow purpose of giving Tony Blair political cover to support Bush’s real reason for war, “regime change.”

Few in the media noticed at the time that key neoconservatives close to the Bush administration like Kristol and Robert Kagan (who are still more than welcome on cable today), had been articulating a goofball global domination plan called “benevolent hegemony” in public dating back to the mid- and late-1990s.

The idea was, now that the Soviets were gone, the U.S. should be more aggressive, not less. We should bail on the “peace dividend” Bill Clinton touted in the early nineties. We should also, neoconservatives said, resist the nationalist version of the “peace dividend,” the urge to concentrate “energies at home” in policies like Pat Buchanan’s “America First” plan.

Instead, we should secure a “preponderance of influence” over all countries, having a plan for “change of regime” for any country not under our control, from Cuba to Iran to China.

How to justify this dressed-up version of “pre-emptive war”? We know from Bush speechwriter David Frum’s bootlicking account of having served that administration, The Right Man, that the “Axis of Evil” concept was something Frum found flipping through history books about World War II.

There, he came up with the idea that America’s enemies were so crazy with hatred for us, they couldn’t be trusted to behave rationally even if threatened with annihilation. “If deterrence worked,” he noted, “there would never be a Pearl Harbor.”

Tony Blair was fine with regime change, but felt he couldn’t sell the concept politically. In 2009 he admitted this and said he’d have “deployed” different arguments without WMD if he had it to do over. From the Chilcot inquiry we know his foreign policy advisor David Manning had dinner with Condoleezza Rice in March of 2002, and afterward wrote a damning memo to Blair.

“I said that you would not budge in your support for regime change,” he wrote. “But you had to manage a press, a Parliament and a public opinion that was very different.”

So they cooked up the idea of invading Iraq as a response to longstanding violations of a UN inspections regime, a reason that they hoped would provide Blair with the fig leaf of UN Security Council approval.

Later, British intelligence officials like Sir John Scarlett worried the public would not buy a case for war against Iraq because Iraq wasn’t “exceptional” even compared to other states like Libya, Iran, and North Korea.

This means all the marchers were right to ask all those obvious questions about the war from the start.

Why were we invading a country with no connection to 9/11? If this had something to do with supporting terrorists, why were we invading a state ruled by a secular Baathist dictator, a type hated by religious extremists like bin Laden almost as much as the United States is hated? If rogue states with weapons were the problem, why Iraq and not Iran, Libya, or especially North Korea? If WMD were the issue, why not wait until inspections were finished?

Millions of ordinary people, without intelligence sources or experiences traveling in the Middle East or access to satellite photos, identified the key questions long before we went to war. One of the most damning revelations of the Chilcot report is that British officials were extremely worried the case was so thin, journalists would see right through it.

An assistant to Blair spokesman Alistair Campbell named Phillip Bassett wrote on September 11, 2002: “Think we’re in trouble with this.” Foreign Office communications chief John Williams suggested he and his colleagues target “people, as opposed to journalists,” because the latter would surely see “There is no ‘killer fact… that proves Saddam must be taken on now.”

They had it backwards. Large portions of the public were skeptical from the start.

Only reporters were dumb enough, or dishonest enough, to eat the bait about WMDs. Moreover, American reporters on their own volition rallied to the idea that Saddam was a Hitler-Satan whose “exceptional” evil needed immediate extinguishing.

Goldberg: “Saddam Hussein is a figure of singular repugnance, and singular danger… No one else comes close… to matching his extraordinary and variegated record of malevolence…” Chait: “He’s in league with a Stalin in terms of internal repression.” Remnick said he was a “modern Nebuchadnezzar II” who’d vowed to “vanquish the United States, and rule over a united Arab world.”

But even that wasn’t the worst issue:

The deception wasn’t about WMDs or Iraq at all, but about domestic attitudes.

After we invaded, and the WMD hunt turned out to be a crock, nearly all of our professional chin-scratchers found ways to address their errors. Most followed a script: I was young (Ezra Klein literally said, “I was young”), I believed the intel, and on the narrow point of WMDs being in Iraq, I screwed up.

None walked back the rest of the propaganda, which is why even as the case for invading Iraq fell apart, our presence in the Mideast expanded. While Judith Miller became a national punchline, the “continuing exertion of American influence” became conventional wisdom.

Defense budgets exploded. NATO expanded. The concept of a “peace dividend” faded to the point where few remember it ever existed. We now maintain a vast global archipelago of secret prisons, routinely cross borders in violation of international law using drones, and today have military bases in 80 countries, to support active combat operations in at least seven nations (most Americans don’t even know which ones).

The WMD episode is remembered as a grotesque journalistic failure, one that led to disastrous war that spawned ISIS. But none of the press actors who sold the invasion seem sorry about the revolutionary new policies that error willed into being. They are specifically not regretful about helping create a continually-expanding Fortress America with bases everywhere that topples regimes left and right, with or without congressional or UN approval.

They’re sorry about Iraq, maybe, but as Chait later said, “Libya was not Iraq.” This he said to “liberal anti-interventionists,” in explaining why “I have not embraced their worldview.”

We had successfully “contained” the much more powerful Soviet Union for ages, to say nothing of smaller, weaker countries subject to flyover regimes like Iraq. To start the war, Americans had to be talked out of the idea that these policies were still viable.

To this end, people like Remnick told us “a return to a hollow pursuit of containment will be the most dangerous option of all.” Fred Hiatt’s Washington Post editorial page warned “not poking the hornet’s nest” was a “strategy of accommodation, half-measures and wishful thinking.”

Today we mostly laugh about serial word-strangler columnist Thomas Friedman of the Times, but he was a key voice. His infamous “Chicken a l’Iraq” editorial insisted America couldn’t risk containment and had to be willing to be as unpredictable as rogue enemies – that in a game of realpolitik chicken, we had to throw out our steering wheel and be “ready to invade Iraq tomorrow, alone.”

The first rule of modern commercial media is you’re allowed to screw up, in concert. There’s no risk in being wrong within a prevailing narrative. That’s why the chief offenders kept perches or failed up. The job isn’t about getting facts right, it’s about getting narratives right, and being willing to eat errors discovered in service of pushing the right subtext.

Failure to self-audit after Iraq led the media business to mangle of a series of subsequent stories. From the still-misreported financial crisis of 2008 to the failure to take the rise of Donald Trump as an electoral phenomenon seriously to the increasingly sloppy coverage of our hyper-aggressive foreign policies, we’ve gotten very loose with facts and data, knowing there’s no downside to certain kinds of misses.

A British non-profit called Reprieve years ago even discovered journalists were routinely repeating government assertions that certain terror suspects had been killed in drone strikes, failing to notice the same suspects had been reported killed years before or in different countries, sometimes not even twice but three or four times.

We’re particularly bad when it comes to regime-change stories, and have seen this just recently.

Multiple news organizations, including the New York Times, reported forces loyal to Venezuela’s Maduro (our latest regime change target) burned food aid sent by Western humanitarian convoys. It turned out the opposition burned the cargo. A CNN reporter said it was a “classic case of how misinformation spreads… from an unconfirmed rumor… to the mass media,” failing to realize the screwup started when a CNN crew claimed they saw the burning episode.

This slapstick idiocy was like something out of Evelyn Waugh. It was so bad the Onion ran a story called, “New York Times Corrects Story By Admitting They Burned Venezuelan Aid Convoy.”

The press in the wake of the WMD affair assumed the safety-in-numbers instincts of herd animals: like wildebeest, the instant 51% of the pack decides to run in a direction, they all run that way, even if it means bounding off a factual cliff. That the landscape is currently split into two different sets of wildebeest is not much of a comfort. Reporting these days is more a matter of manufactured, behind-the-scenes consensus building than an individuated process of following facts wherever they lead, no matter how inconvenient.

The damage this story did to our collective reputations is still poorly understood in the business. In fact, “Why do they hate us?” stories are one of an increasing number of feature ideas we routinely botch. We’ll never get rid of the scarlet letter from those years until we face how bad it was, and it was so much worse than we’re admitting, even now.