The Lies We Believed (And Still Believe) About Iraq

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President George W. Bush speaks to US troops, Nov. 27, 2003, in Baghdad, Iraq. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)
US President George W. Bush speaks to US troops at the Baghdad International Airport on Thursday, November 27, 2003, in Baghdad, Iraq. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

The following is an excerpt from Charles Lewis’s book, 935 Lies. Lewis joins Bill this week to talk about why facts, logic and reason are often missing in the rush to war.

At the end of 2004, a series of public opinion polls offered disturbing news. More than half of all Americans, we learned, believed that there had been weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) in Iraq — the principal raison d’être for George W. Bush’s war of choice there — despite the fact that numerous widely publicized bipartisan and international reports had definitively shown that no such weapons existed. This stubborn refusal to face the facts about Iraq continues today for millions of Americans. [1]

935 Lies book cover

Publisher: PublicAffairs Books, 392 pages

Facts are and must be the coin of the realm in a democracy, for government “of the people, by the people, and for the people,” in Abraham Lincoln’s words, requires an informed citizenry. [2] But in regard to the Iraq War, it seems, facts are now irrelevant or at least debatable, a mere matter of opinion, for a majority of Americans. And if facts no longer matter to millions of our fellow citizens, then what becomes of the traditional role of the journalist as the independent watchdog digging through obfuscation, secrecy and deception by the powerful in search of what Carl Bernstein once called “the best obtainable version of the truth”?

This is a question that touches me personally — not just as a concerned citizen, but as someone who has dedicated his life and work to the pursuit of truth. In more than three decades as an investigative reporter in Washington, DC, my approach toward those in power, regardless of party or ideology, has followed the principle “Watch what they do, not what they say.”

Politicians, captains of industry, and their zealous aides too often resemble circus barkers, shilling for attention and advantage, with little regard for accuracy or veracity, using the press and the news media not to enlighten but to bamboozle the public in pursuit of votes, profits and power. When necessary, they even employ the wiles of deception to conceal, disguise, or justify unseemly and sometimes outright criminal behavior. As George Orwell wrote, in words that still ring true more than half a century after they were written, “Political speech and writing are largely the defence [sic] of the indefensible . . . Political language . . . is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.”[3]

Precisely what had US government officials said to cause most Americans and their elected representatives to completely ignore facts, logic and reason in the rush to war? Exactly who was involved and to what extent?

So as a professional truth-seeker, I have always been skeptical of statements by those in power, preferring to ignore the official versions of events in my quest for the (sometimes ugly) underlying realities. That quest continues. But when I learned the extent to which the public had swallowed and accepted the official lies about WMDs in Iraq, I realized that I actually could no longer ignore what those in power had said. Their shameless manipulations and mis-representations, I now saw, were a crucial element in the tragedy of that dubious war of choice, and therefore deserving of investigation and analysis in their own right. Precisely what had US government officials said to cause most Americans and their elected representatives to completely ignore facts, logic, and reason in the rush to war? Exactly who was involved and to what extent?

I began systematically to investigate the answers to those and other related questions, enlisting the help of a team of reporters, researchers and other contributors that ultimately included 25 people. Nearly three years later, the Center for Public Integrity published Iraq: The War Card, a 380,000-word report with an online searchable database. [4] It was released on the eve of the five-year anniversary of the invasion of Iraq and was covered extensively by the national and international news media.

Our report found that in the two years after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, President George W. Bush and seven of his administration’s top officials made at least 935 false statements about the national security threat posed by Iraq. The carefully orchestrated campaign of untruths about Iraq’s alleged threat to US national security from its WMDs or links to al Qaeda (also specious) galvanized public opinion and led the nation to war under decidedly false pretenses. Perhaps most revealing: the number of false statements made by top Bush administration officials dramatically increased from August 2002 to the time of the critical October 2002 congressional approval of the war resolution and spiked even higher between January and March 2003, between Secretary of State Colin Powell’s address before the United Nations General Assembly and the fateful March 19, 2003, invasion. [5]

Within hours of the release of our report, White House press secretary Dana Perino responded with scorn: “I hardly think that the study is worth spending any time on. It is so flawed in terms of taking anything into context or including — they only looked at members of the administration rather than looking at members of Congress or people around the world. Because as you’ll remember, we were part of a broad coalition of countries that deposed a dictator based on a collective understanding of the intelligence.” [6] This sophistry was at least consistent with the administration’s track record of distorting reality. In fact, neither Congress nor America’s international allies was demanding an invasion of Iraq before the administration started beating the war drums.

Our report found that in the two years after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, President George W. Bush and seven of his administration’s top officials made at least 935 false statements about the national security threat posed by Iraq.

The so-called Coalition of the Willing was a face-saving artifice cobbled together after the UN Security Council failed to approve the US-instigated invasion, rendering it a violation of the UN Charter and thus “illegal.” Furthermore, “the intelligence” referred to by Perino proved to be anything but intelligent; indeed, it had been mostly manufactured by the administration in accordance with its political agenda. [7]

Three months after the Center for Public Integrity Iraq report, David Barstow of The New York Times reported more details about how the Iraq deception had been orchestrated. Barstow revealed that the Pentagon had quietly recruited and coached 75 retired military officers to be “independent” paid consultants and radio and television analysts whose true role was to make the case for war in Iraq. Many had significant, undisclosed financial ties to defense companies and were thus benefiting hugely from the very policies they were “analyzing.” [8]

Earlier, Barstow had reported (with colleague Robin Stein) that “at least 20 federal agencies, including the Defense Department and the Census Bureau, have made and distributed hundreds of television news segments between 2001 and 2005 . . . Many were subsequently broadcast on local stations across the country without any acknowledgement of the government’s role in their production.” David Walker, the then comptroller general of the Government Accountability Office, who happened to be a Republican, declared that such taxpayer-paid propaganda by the government is unethical and violates federal law. However, the Bush administration publicly disagreed, and Congress meekly declined to pursue the matter any further. [9]

The broadcast and cable news media, which had overwhelmingly failed to investigate or challenge the administration’s flawed case for war, shamelessly ignored Barstow’s revelations, neither reporting on their own dubious use of such compromised news sources nor apologizing to the public for the resulting gross misrepresentations of fact.

The full extent of deference to power and self-censorship by our obsequious major news media during the run-up to war is still not fully known; it will gradually seep out — or not — over the coming years.

And a month after the stunning Times stories, one of the White House officials who had actually made several false statements in the lead-up to the Iraq invasion, former press secretary Scott McClellan, wrote a “surprisingly scathing” memoir admitting that his own public comments at White House briefings about Iraq had been “badly misguided,” that President Bush had not been “open and forthright on Iraq,” and that instead he had relied on “propaganda.” [10]

There were a few honorable exceptions in Washington to the general failure of the news media to challenge the pro-war deceptions. They included the fine independent coverage by then Knight Ridder (now McClatchy) Washington bureau reporters Warren Strobel and Jonathan Landay; the prescient articles by Walter Pincus, buried in the back pages by his nervous Washington Post editors; and, in early 2004, the Abu Ghraib prison-abuse scandal stories by CBS News 60 Minutes II and Seymour Hersh in the New Yorker. Later, in 2005, beyond the Iraq deceptions, there were Dana Priest’s exposés in The Washington Post about the Central Intelligence Agency’s secret “black site” prisons and James Risen and Eric Lichtblau’s stories in The New York Times revealing how the Bush administration had quietly authorized the National Security Agency (NSA) to secretly eavesdrop on Americans and others inside the United States, without warrants usually required for domestic surveillance. [11]

Buying the War: How Big Media Failed Us
But in the context of the overall performance of the media, these valiant efforts to get beyond the official version to uncover the truth about our involvement in Iraq were too little, too late. The full extent of deference to power and self-censorship by our obsequious major news media during the run-up to war is still not fully known; it will gradually seep out — or not — over the coming years. Some major news organizations later grudgingly acknowledged that their coverage was insufficiently critical of government pronouncements. But that did nothing to ameliorate the tragic consequences of an unnecessary war, including a financial toll of more than $2 trillion, a sum that is likely to increase substantially with benefits to war veterans over time and other expenses, as well as — far more important — the deaths of thousands upon thousands of soldiers and innocent civilians, including women and children. [12]

Could the Iraq War have been prevented if the public had been better informed before the invasion about the specious official statements, faulty logic, and breathtaking manipulations of public opinion and governmental decision-making processes? I believe the answer to that grim question is very possibly yes, and it will haunt me and others in my profession for years to come. [13]

Congressional oversight focused almost entirely on the quality of the US government’s pre-war intelligence — not the veracity of the highest-ranking US officials’ public statements or the objectivity and logic of their decision making in instigating the war.

Did President Bush and other officials from his administration lie about Iraq intentionally and deliberately? It’s hard to tell without unfettered access to the principals and their internal communications. Certainly, we should never underestimate the human capacity for self-delusion — too often, we find it easy to believe what we want to believe. But the fact is that they have avoided the glare of formal scrutiny about their personal responsibility for the litany of repeated, false statements in the run-up to war. Under the Republicans in 2005 and 2006, and the Democrats in 2007 and 2008, there was no congressional investigation into this specific question. Congressional oversight focused almost entirely on the quality of the US government’s pre-war intelligence — not the veracity of the highest-ranking US officials’ public statements or the objectivity and logic of their decision making in instigating the war. Nor in 2009 did the new Democratic president Barack Obama, his administration, or the Democratic Congress evince any interest in investigating this politically sensitive subject. There may be no more telling example of what has happened to congressional oversight in Washington in recent decades.

Investigating this tale of dishonesty by those in power and acquiescence on the part of those charged with reporting the truth has been a disheartening experience for me. Even more sobering, however, is the fact that the Iraq War deception, with its 935 public, shameless lies, is simply the latest and most egregious story of truth betrayed that I’ve witnessed or reported on over the past five decades. My career in journalism has coincided with a tragic period in American history — one in which falsehood has increasingly come to dominate our public discourse, and in which the bedrock values of honesty, transparency, accountability and integrity we once took for granted have been steadily eroded.

Excerpted from 935 Lies by Charles Lewis. Copyright © 2014 by Charles Lewis. Excerpted by permission of PublicAffairs, an imprint of the Perseus Books Group. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

Charles Lewis founded the Center for Public Integrity in 1989 and served as its executive director until January 2005. Previously, he worked as an investigative reporter for ABC News and as a producer of the CBS News program 60 Minutes. He has written for The New York Times, The Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, Christian Science Monitor, Columbia Journalism Review, The Nation and many other publications.

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  • Anonymous

    0 comments? This cartel of death has caused our country more problems than we may never get out of. We are universally hated and we can throw that at the feet of the Bushes. And a very compliant Congress.

  • Anonymous

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    new red GMC Canyon just by some parttime working online with a laptop. visit
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  • JonThomas

    On one level, people know they were lied to… but on another, they don’t want to face the implications of what that means.

  • Deborah Smith Author

    I agree. Because it means our government is corrupt at the highest levels and our major media is a propaganda machine owned by political cronies, so where do we go from there? The solutions could tear this country apart.

  • Anonymous

    It both annoys and saddens me to think that both the Obama Administration and the Congress have made the decision that Americans cannot withstand the objective inquiry into this issue. That they conclude it is is better to let the transgressions die quietly rather than officially examine and learn from them. Bad people did bad things. It used to be we were a nation that would not tolerate that. It makes us seem unworthy of the democracy the Founding Fathers gave us.

  • woodguy11

    that my dear is exactly what this country needs. The cronyism has gone too far and these war criminals need to be tried .I’m tired of taking it in the ass from the government .It is time we the people take some action .instead we sit back and wait and hope this will go away. This will never be fixed from the inside.We need to take our government back from all the corruption

  • John Hanna

    The Press themselves are the biggest, deliberate purveyors of the lies…puts the public at a disadvantage.

  • Jean Sutherland

    If the administration did do this you would then see a trial at the Hague and criminal convictions for war crimes. It’s because of this I believe the truth is being withheld. Maybe Americans could withstand the truth, but the world, represented by the Hague would not let it pass.

  • Veteran

    A large portion of people refuse to admt they were wrong, were duped, and fools. The power of the ego is utilized by these liars. THEY know that people will continue to save face, at their own expence and that of their own country. Human nature exploited .

  • JonThomas

    Hang in there.

  • John Hanna

    Of course, they want sleeping dogs to lie. Whether neo-lib or neo-con, foreign policy in the US is bi-partisan. It has always been this way and there are no innocents. Everyone has the same skeletons in the closet and want them to remain there. Never, ever expect truth. US politics is an entertainment show to give some hope that someone will or can do something sometime. It is not going to happen.

  • sparkeyjames

    Author must have been hidden under a rock for some time. This sort of crap has been going on in American politics since the mid 1800′s. Only now it has reached a fevered pace. Smears, lies and propaganda it’s how the right and to some extent the left present their policies and beliefs to the rest of us.

  • Anonymous

    I agree with not beating oneself up too much- but it’s wonderful for many Americans to finally be acknowledging of such matters. It’s important we be brutally honest with ourselves.

  • Anonymous

    Pay ‘Woody’ no mind. There are plenty of solutions which avoid a 2nd US Civil War- and anyone cheering for our country to be ‘torn apart’- claiming THAT is what we need- is only doing so because their ideology requires a 2nd US Civil War to ‘hide behind’.

    Only one faction of America has been lobbying to ‘slice the metaphorical baby in half with Solomon’s sword’ since the Iraq War was undertaken- and that is the conservative republicans.

    If we give President Obama both the House of Reps and the Senate- a more cooperative Congress will work to strengthen the recovery and right wrongs. conservative republicans would rather burn the country down as opposed to let that happen. Stop listening to conservative republican lies- Vote True Blue in 2014 and the future for our children will be in much better shape.

  • Anonymous

    We can still do something about Iraq. We can’t do jack about the Berlin Wall. Casting the Geneva Conventions aside and implementing torture was brand new under the Bush/Cheney regime. Let’s Hope it’s time for them to pay the piper. Getting started is the hardest part.

  • wjkolar

    Lets start then with the present
    United States Drone Strikes Defy International Law, Un Charter, Geneva Conventions,_un_charter,_geneva_conventions

  • Sheri Drips

    I think the world itself was also in a state of shock as the world’s banks were crumbling. It was the perfect time and place to bring forth this lie.

  • Sheri Drips

    I believe that. I’m all for that. But Obama had the House and the Senate. How did we lose it?

  • Andrew Kac

    Vote true Blue? We did and they let us down. Look at Syria, Ukraine and again Iraq, ‘true blue’ are looking for another war.

  • Anonymous

    We know they did it. We know why they did it from what they did. The rich became fabulously rich. Costs went up and the middle class became mired in a debt they never created. Inflation doubled and was played up as your house worth doubling, when nothing happened but that your taxes went up while the rich paid ever less and less.

    What we don’t know is why they were never tried for the obvious infractions of the laws, both in our country and the world. Torture, invasion of a non-threatening country. Mass murder of people that never attacked us. Why are Bush and Cheney, Rumsfeld, Rove and Rice not serving multiple life sentences. They are directly responsible for the deaths of almost a million people. If you kill two you get the death penalty. Why isn’t every state in the Union not arresting them for getting their citizens killed!

  • Anonymous

    Screw off. You don’t apologize because you didn’t get enough people to grow a backbone! We already have laws to stop this kind of abuse. No one used them because the rich and the powerful told us not to.

  • Anonymous

    The papers used to be paid for by subscribers. Their sales depended on their honesty and integrity. Now they are paid for by advertisers. Their new dependence is on selling what a corporation( and the rich that own them) is telling them to sell. The news is now for sale. It’s going to take a little while to understand that we can no longer trust the news outlets.

  • Anonymous

    I’m not sure, but the way you wrote that almost makes me think nothing wrong happened because the World Court didn’t do their job. Is that what you meant? Because i believe if this had been done to Israel, Bush and Cheney would be dead today. Rice would be underground and running. Rove would have been tried in Israel and publicly executed. And I wouldn’t have faulted them for it!

  • Anonymous

    Maybe it’s time to tear it apart. try democracy or Socialism this time. Democracy is what we thought we had. Capitalism is what we got. capitalism only works when you marry it to something like Christian morality or a Protestant work ethic. They have robots. They don’t need your work ethic anymore. They need your money. But soon enough there will be enough robots and compute and data that we won’t need money. They will have to have something else to measure their worth and their power. They need bodies. Not brains. Just willing working buying bodies. And they are lining up for that game right now. i think that’s what the wars were partially for. To learn how to control us. They did a really good job.

  • Anonymous

    Republicans spent a great deal of time and money to make sure they could. Fox News is a 247 fear hate propaganda machine. gerrymandering and pouring millions into changing the laws to allow them to weaken minority and union voting. They are trying to become what we fought to get out from under 200 years ago, and doing a damn fine job of it. truth and an understanding of truth can wipe all those gains they made, useless in one year. Simply continue to expose them. Destroy the trust all that fear gave them.

  • Guest

    Soldiers were sent to die in vain. That is very clear now. It was corporate welfare to big business AND a re-election campaign. We should all hold them accountable now. Most importantly, never let the USA be deceived by any administration into sending young people off to die.

  • Anonymous

    The above article is too long. Say it simply, say it plainly.

  • JonThomas

    While it is indeed good practice to be concise, keep in mind that this is an except from an entire book on the subject. :-)

  • Jean Sutherland

    I was referring to the Obama administration not bringing it to the court. We all know the Bush/Cheney administration DID wrong.

  • Jerry Squarey

    Because they made huge profits for themselves and their cronies so it just silently faded away.There were/are many Congressional members from many states that also profited.
    Big money has a way of sanitizing things.
    In true war monger fashion, Dick “The Snake” Cheny has been spouting off on national television how he would increase the military budget, send thousands of troops back to Iraq, and start it all over again. Must be dementia kicking in.

  • Cynthia Davis

    If the American Public knew even 5 percent of the deliberate deception and crimes there could be wholesale chaos.
    Given the rate of disappointment, media play to make such things appear “normal” and the dumbing down of the great majority below a top privileged few; it appears the smoke, mirrors and diversions have worked and are still working exceptionally well.
    Even knowing that there were war crimes committed – the perpetrators are securely ensconced and “safe” from justice.
    I’m exhausted from pointing out the obvious.
    Knowing truth and skepticism is dead all I can do is wonder how people responsible for the deaths of millions of innocents can be idolized and parading peacocks with NO SHAME at all.
    Then I remember it’s the triumph of psychopaths over all that is good and I mourn the loss of our race and humanity to such foolishness.
    We could have been a great interstellar species – instead we are headed for extinction.

  • Anonymous

    Butler turned P.Bush in for his treason,congress covered it up.

  • Jeffrey Smith

    could someone tell me where Clinton’s Iraq Liberation Act of 1998 is on the list of 935 lies, is it in first place where it should be?

  • Anonymous

    They only got away with 900+ lies because the press refused to call them out on it and the public allowed it to become one more partisan spitball fight, too many people refused to consider any fact that contradicted what they wanted to believe and the press was more than willing to discredit anyone who challenged power. A near black out of war protests that took place across the nation. Bill Moyers was one of the only sources for the truth during that dark time, thank you Bill. We’re a very sad country.

  • Samuel E. Warren Jr.

    “Nine Hundred Thirty Five Lies” by the Baby Bush Administration. Darn. I bet they were shooting for an even 1,000. Why are the reasons for ‘The Iraq War’ such a surprise ? Baby Bush stated in an interview on the subject of Saddam Hussein, “. . .he tried to kill my daddy.”

    Americans are wrapped around the axle about ‘The IRS Scandal’, “Mismanagement Of The VA”, and the reports of illegal aliens coming over the border, but the Abu Ghraib prison-abuse scandal stories seldom got a yawn back in the Baby Bush days.

    It is sad that Americans were lied to by the so-called chief executive.

    Someone get busy and call the Kennedy Center — time to figure out a way to give Baby Bush a prestigious award.

    What is unforgivable is, so many Americans died to support the Lies of the Liars.

  • Anonymous

    As noted in the article, truth is essential to democracy. My undergraduate degree was in journalism, and though I was never a practicing journalist, I am appalled at the non-truths, half-truths and missing truths that our leaders foist upon us. During the Bush administration, and particularly during the war, everywhere I went a TV set was tuned to Fox News. Was Fox a part of the plan? I personally believe that it was… The shrill sensationalism that it reported as a “balanced” approach nauseated me.
    As for all the government-assisted production of news clips, and how they came to be broadcast — radio and television stations are licensed by the FCC. It would not have taken much for someone like Dick Cheney to threaten problems for the broadcasters if they didn’t toe a line. Of course, the broadcasters did as they were told.
    Great article!

  • Samuel E. Warren Jr.

    Fox News did seem to be another name for “Baby Bush Broadcasting”, during that goosestep regime. The Media overall is a group that never seems to win. Back in the “Tricky Dick” days before Watergate when The Media was questioning the official line coming out of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue people would whine, “that the White House is getting beat up on.” Nixon put Spiro T. Agnew out front and The Media seemed to like and trust him. Then, the IRS showed up and Agnew went away. Nixon still couldn’t get a headline. Dr. Henry Kissinger, certainly was no Bob Hope or Jack Benny, but, The Media respected him and his efforts at shuttle diplomacy. Of course, once Dr. Kissinger’s religious faith became known as Jewish, he really became the certain of attention. Thanks to Watergate, Tricky Dick finally got his headlines. Then, people either gave The Media credit for exposing the cover-up or blamed them for taking so long. People always want to shift the “Blame” from themselves. The idea of Democracy relies on an “Informed Citizenry”, not on blame for The Media or the sheepish willingness to go along with egghead press releases. First time I saw Dick Cheney on television, I knew I would not buy a used car from him — and I sure as heck didn’t vote for him. I grew up in ‘The Ozarks’ and in those days people knew not only you, but generations of your family. If your mom or dad had a less than sterling reputation and you wanted to go into politics, then, you moved to another state. I was not impressed with Vice President Bush as a Vice President. And, when his son announced he was running I knew America had already been “Bushwacked” before the GOP campaign even got up and running. And, I sure as heck didn’t vote for Baby Bush — I remembered his daddy. Then, I remembered the old Ozarks’ cliche about “The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.” The newspapers, magazines and TV — The Media — only confirmed what I ‘Feared’ another suit with no idea what it meant to be a “Leader”, much less, “The Leader Of The Free World.” But, the responsibility for the type of government we get rest with us — the individual voter — not with The Media and not with Official Press Releases.

  • Anonymous

    Deflection gets you nowhere.

  • Papa John

    bush lies allmost as much as sarah pailin is stoopid and fox news is suck.

  • Anonymous

    It should be mentioned that Fox News played a big role in the US public’s beliefs re. WMDs. In the months following the invasion, on several occasions I recollect hearing Fox ‘journalists’ proclaiming that government officials in Baghdad had announced the discovery of Saddam’s WMDs, and full details would be forthcoming in a couple of days. No other news outlets were mentioning such stories – and needless to say, there were never any follow-up stories.
    As we all know, Fox has a large audience, and their credulousness and ignorance is legendary.

  • Adolf Hochhaltinger

    The question: Why did the Lord Almighty hide the world’s greatest amount of American oil just under Iraq’s sand?