Wright from Washington City
June 11, 2003


Weapons of mass distraction


It's interesting how far common sense can take you in assessing an issue — and fascinating how rare its use is in today's public debates. The hideous threat of Saddam's Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) is a good example.

In December 1998 the United State conducted a bombing campaign against Iraq because, insisted the spokesmen of the regime, Saddam was developing the terrifying WMD. The trouble was, a working knowledge of the issue led one to a different conclusion:

1. During Gulf War I, airplanes and cruise missiles of the United State and its allies bombed everything in sight that was identified as possibly having anything to do with WMD.

2. After Gulf War I, inspection teams and spy satellites combed the country looking for WMD and facilities that could produce or store WMD, with the grudging cooperation, more or less, of the Iraqi regime. Some were found, and they were destroyed, again with the cooperation of the Iraqi regime.

3. Also after Gulf War I, a massive, crippling — and, under the Geneva Conventions, illegal — blockade was set up that strangled trade between Iraq and the outside world. Its avowed purpose was to prevent anything that might strengthen Saddam's military from entering the country. That included not only arms such as airplanes, guns, hand grenades, tanks, and so forth, but anything that might be used to produce WMD, as well as anything that might be used by the military in a supporting role.
   The blockade, dignified with the less-inflammatory label "sanctions," also cut off shipments of food, medicines, equipment for rebuilding water and sewage systems destroyed during Gulf War I by bombing (also illegal under the Geneva Conventions), medical equipment, and just about anything else that makes civilized life possible. According to the United Nations, hundreds of thousands of Iraqi children died from the resulting malnutrition and disease, caused by bad sanitation and lack of proper medical supplies. The administrators of the blockade were scrupulous about preventing or delaying such dangerous things as dentist's chairs, X-ray machines, and penicillin from being allowed in because they might have "dual use" — that is, they might be used for military purposes. Of course, when you think about it, just about anything could be used for a military purpose if one put one's mind to it.
   The blockade utterly ruined what had been the Arab world's most prosperous and economically advanced society, with by far the largest and best developed middle class, and reduced the Iraqi people to a state of penury. [1] It also accomplished its avowed purpose, leaving Saddam's military machine a pale shadow of its former self, and cutting off access to sources of materials and parts for nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons programs.

4. The above-mentioned inspection teams said publicly at the time that there was no evidence that Saddam had WMD or that he was capable of making any, much less deploying them.

Armed with the above information, it was possible for a person of average intelligence to apply a little common sense and come up with a working hypothesis: there were no Weapons of Mass Destruction. It was even possible to reach that conclusion five years ago, before the blockade had fully wrought its wreckage. I wrote the following short article for The Last Ditch in April 1998:

Weapons? What weapons?

All the scares, threats, and other recent nonsense are designed to smooth the way for an attack on Iraq center on the demonic Saddam's Weapons of Mass Destruction. But what are they, anyway?

Well, according to the UN agreement that established the "inspection teams" now nosing around Iraq, "weapons of mass destruction" mean, basically, nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles.

By now, we're pretty sure that there are no nuclear weapons. As for the ballistic missiles, most if not all have been destroyed. If any are left, it's doubtful that they are in a deployable condition.

Thus, it has been necessary to find a pretext to keep the spy teams in business. The result? Chemical and biological weapons are elevated to the status of nuclear bombs and missiles, and some State Department functionary goes on TV with a 5-pound bag of sugar to illustrate what quantity of anthrax spores could wipe out a city. Of course, he neglects to mention that this would be under ideal conditions with an adequate delivery system, which Saddam almost certainly does not have.

It's another example of Virtual News. The bag of sugar is not a weapon. It is a bag of sugar. And it symbolizes not what Saddam has, but what he might have. The horrific murder of thousands of innocents has not happened, and the U.S. Foreign Ministry is not saying it will happen, or even that it can happen. It's what might happen — if Saddam is making anthrax, of which we have no evidence. And if he has a delivery system, ditto. And if he wants to commit suicide in a spectacular way, which our rulers seem to be doing everything they can to promote.

I wonder whether the sales of 5-pound bags of sugar dropped off after that news conference. Do you think sugar producers might have a case? [Issue number 20, April 13, 1998, p. 12]

Note how the Regime's accusations developed and transmogrified between that time and now. Then, the theme was the possibility that Saddam might develop anthrax. This year, before the United State invaded Iraq, we were told that he not only had developed anthrax but also possessed tons of the stuff, along with nerve gas of different varieties and a functioning nuclear (or as W. puts it, "nucular") weapons program that could produce bombs within a year. Minister of Justifying Aggression Colin Powell said Saddam could produce enough anthrax, in no time flat, to "kill thousands upon thousands of people." What a clever and resourceful little dictator Saddam was! As my 1998 article notes, five years ago the threat of Iraqi nuclear weapons was pretty much a dead issue: thus the need to stir up a fuss about chemical and biological weapons. And so they, too, became WMD.

It's one illustration of how the use of euphemisms serves ruling-class propaganda. First, euphemisms are malleable — their meaning can change before your eyes, and so can the emotions associated with them. Also, they're handy for divorcing an act from its consequences. If you use the term "killing innocent civilians," it has a certain emotional content. That content is different from that of its synonym "collateral damage," which is a kind of anti-buzzword, drained of the emotions called up by the actual horror it stands for.

War and social issues are especially conducive to the use of euphemism: the phrase "weapons of mass destruction" even has a kind of New Age slippery feel about it, like "caregiver," "physically challenged," "abortion provider," "differently abled," "people of color," and so on.

One can use euphemism not only to drain a concept of emotion but also to do the opposite, applying the emotions stimulated by the mention of one object or concept to something else, producing a powerful buzzword — a word or phrase whose function is to produce an unreasoning emotional response. Nuclear bombs are scary and horrifying. But if you want to invade Iraq and you say, We must destroy the evil Saddam's nuclear bombs and missiles, you're all dressed up with nowhere to go when it becomes clear that he has no nuclear bombs and missiles. On the other hand, if you use the evocative term Weapons of Mass Destruction, you have a lot more freedom. No nuclear weapons? Well then, poof! Chemical and biological weapons become WMD, and you're back in business. David Copperfield or Blackstone the Magician couldn't do a better job of redirecting the audience's attention.

The process is helped immeasurably by Minitrue's childish propensity to glom on to a newly minted buzzword en masse, the way teenagers adopt the latest clothing fad, or Party officials in Mao's China embraced the latest slogan. The most recent such example seems to be George W. Bush's Road Map to Peace in the Middle East. Within days, perhaps hours, of the term's first appearance, newsreaders and correspondents stopped calling it a "so-called" Road Map, and began using the term straight, as if it actually meant something, as in: What do these latest developments mean for the Road Map, John? The fact that the "Road Map" is not a map to anything — indeed is not even a plan in any real sense — is completely unimportant to them, and thus obscured from the view of their audience.

Unfortunately for the warmongers, however, conflating chemical and biological weapons with nuclear weapons turned out to be only a stopgap. For, as I pointed out five years ago, there was and is no evidence of Weapons of Mass Destruction in Iraq, nuclear, biological, or chemical. And now that the evil Saddam is overthrown and Iraq subdued (more or less) under the Imperial jackboot, the World Emperor is being pressured to display the WMD to a breathless world. Euphemisms aren't enough anymore, so the Palace and its running dogs have resorted to a smoke screen of lies, half-truths, diversionary accusations ("anti-Semite!" "unpatriotic!"), red herrings, straw men, outraged bluster, mealy-mouthed obfuscation — in other words, Clintonism.

First we were treated to urbane assurances by Minister of Attacking Poor, Helpless Countries Donald Rumsfeld that it was only a matter of time before the WMD showed up. We even know where they are, he said. Then, when they didn't show up, we began to hear speculation that they had been hidden, transported out of the country, or destroyed immediately before the invasion. As Henry Gallagher Fields points out, that is a compelling argument to be sure. After all, the first thing any rational person would do when being attacked is GET RID OF HIS MOST TERRIFYING WEAPONS. Seriously, as a ploy it has the advantage of being a replay of the explanation the war party gave for the inability of search parties to find any evidence of the alleged massacres of thousands of Albanians — the massacres that justified the Empire's bombing of Belgrade. Hey, it worked once, why not again?

Except it hasn't worked. People have persisted in asking questions, especially, at first, overseas, and most especially in Britain, where poor Tony Blair is suffering the consequences of whoring for Bush in the face of overwhelming skepticism on the part of the British public, who even at this late date are still equipped with something resembling a free mass-market press.

So, proceed to Plan C: we have found the Weapons of Mass Destruction! Or rather, actually, er ... Trailers of Mass Destruction (TMD). We've found trailers, said Bush, and we will find more. They are trailers obviously designed to make anthrax and other horrible uglies. After all, what else could they be used for? So there!

Only ... well, where are the temperature-controlled vats to incubate the nasty stuff? And where is the specialized equipment to dry it and "weaponize" it? In fact, George W., why wasn't a trace of anthrax, or any other bio or chemo weapon, found in the TMD — or anywhere else? Besides, you said Saddam had all that stuff ready to go, that there was "no doubt that the Iraqi regime continues to possess and conceal some of the most lethal weapons ever devised." So, where are they?

Iraqi officials say that the TMD were built to produce hydrogen gas for artillery observation balloons, which is such a weird explanation that it might actually be true. [2] I guess you could come up with some way of spinning hydrogen production in a sinister light: Imagine the terror of scores of tiny little Hindenburgs bursting into flame and descending on our helpless cities. Oh, the humanity!

Meanwhile, a British reporter followed a team of WMD-hunters as they used explosives to break into a huge cache of ... vacuum cleaners. Old-movie buffs may enjoy recalling that, in "Our Man in Havana," the mythical WMD sketched by the Alec Guinness character for the edification of his credulous spy chiefs was a magnified version of the product he sold: a vacuum cleaner.

In any event, as the embarrassing snipe hunts continued, things started to get even more interesting. In an interview published May 28, Rumsfeld's neo-Trot grand vizier, Paul Wolfowitz, carelessly told Vanity Fair about the decision to justify war against Iraq by claiming Saddam had WMD: "For bureaucratic reasons, we settled on one issue, weapons of mass destruction, because it was the one reason everyone could agree upon." That sentence at a stroke reveals the cynicism and grandiosity of the war-party leaders. It's an outright admission that the Bush regime decided to go to war FOR OTHER, UNREVEALED REASONS, and that WMD were merely the excuse.

That Wolfowitz would admit as much in public is shocking evidence that he believed his cohorts and he could literally get away with murder, while boasting about it. The resulting five-minute fuss led him to resort to standard politician weasel words: the remark had been "taken out of context." Of course it's hard to imagine a context that would make it look noncriminal.

Other things were also happening, showing that, while Bush has had the established media eating out of his hand since 9/11, their loyalty may not be dependable in all circumstances. First, commentators began commentating (sorry) on the curious lack of success in finding WMD. Then, on June 2, the three major glossy "news" magazines, Newsweek, U.S. News, and Time — all of which resemble more and more the Nazi wartime propaganda rag Signal — came out with stories on the subject.

Of the three, Time's is the most hard-hitting, quoting an anonymous Army intelligence officer saying that "Rumsfeld was deeply, almost pathologically distorting the intelligence." Its story also quotes a "former U.S. official" about Wolfowitz's sinister-named "Office of Special Plans," saying it was set up to get "the intelligence [Wolfowitz] wanted." [3] The Time article goes on to say that three factors were responsible for bad intelligence on WMD being used in justifying war: "treating the worst-case scenario as fact," "glossing over ambiguities," and "fudging mistakes." However, that's as close as any of the articles come to suggesting that the Emperor and his minions deliberately prevaricated so as to have their war. And the Time piece ends by justifying the war, in the good old ex-post-facto style, in light of the mass graves found in Iraq.

Newsweek, however, did publish — on its Web page only — a short interview with former British Foreign Secretary Robin Cook, who resigned from Blair's government in protest of the invasion. Cook, with the dry wit that is a staple of British politics but sadly lacking in our own, rips the Rumsfeld pro-WMD arguments to shreds, but he also stops short of accusing either the British or the U.S. regime of deliberately lying. To his credit, however, the Newsweek reporter does ask the question outright. Newsweek also mentions, in its main print article, Wolfowitz's remark to Vanity Fair.

The Sunday before the articles came out, I was listening to the National Bolshevik Radio show "Talk of the Nation," which provided a glimpse of how the issue will play out. [4] The moderator was Neil Conan, who as a news correspondent was taken prisoner by the Iraqis during Gulf War I. His guests included an NPR Pentagon correspondent; Senator Kit Bond (R-Mo.); Congressperson Jane Harman (D-Calif.); Marvin Ott, a professor at the National War College; and Amy Smithson, senior associate with the Henry L. Stimson Center, a conventionally liberal foreign-policy think tank.

Conan laid out the problem — no WMD — and asked some hard questions. What he got was the following.

Ott, the War College prof, didn't actually prevaricate, only doing his best to muddy the waters. Intelligence information is always "problematic," he said. It's fragmentary, circumstantial, and "degraded." He grudgingly admitted that the intelligence types were under heavy pressure from administration bigwigs looking for justification. But, he said, the analysts probably didn't distort or "trim" the information — it's just that the information wasn't very good to start with. When pressed, he granted that if the question is, were the "flat statements wrong, that probably will apply," a statement reminiscent of Nixon's so-eloquent Watergate press shill, Ron Ziegler.

Kit Bond, as befits a senator, came off much smoother and had his line down pat. We've now found the mobile weapons labs, he said, proving that Saddam had the means to make WMD. Anyway, the material itself can be hidden, and we knew Saddam was trying to hide something. Bond pointed to an alleged radio recording of Iraqi officers talking about how to hide something (it's not clear what). Alas, it's a recording discredited by Arabic-speakers, who say the voices do not speak in Iraqi accents; but no matter.

To his credit, the moderator persisted in pointing out that the inspectors "haven't found a single shell" of chemical or biological weapons. Bond adroitly sidestepped that inconvenient fact and broached a new line — that the WMD facilities were "embedded" (that word, again) in "dual use" factories. The Iraqis used "just-in-time" production techniques, he said, making nasty chemicals for a while and then quickly converting back to making fertilizers or pesticides. Nobody here but us chickens! The crafty devils ...

Besides, the senator assured us, there will be investigations in the Senate Intelligence committee. They'll dig out the truth, for sure!

Smithson, the liberal think-tank lady, was no more help than the War College gnome, offering up an interesting twist on the hidden WMD line. The problem, she said, was that the United State didn't get enough inspectors into Iraq fast enough, and they were "spread very thin." That makes sense: the Iraqis had the moxie to hide all those terrible weapons that they hadn't used ... after they got the snot knocked out of them.

Smithson didn't stop there, but intrepidly bored in on the truth. Sure, she speculated, the WMD intelligence could have been "hyped." Whether it had been or not, however, would be "hard to pinpoint." But never mind. According to her, Iraq's "intellectual capacity" to make WMD would be reason enough to go to war.

Think about that for a second. Evidence? We don't need no steenking evidence. If they merely know how to make the stuff, Geronimo! Think of the possibilities this opens up for stomping on poverty-stricken Third World countries! And how long have we got before "intellectual capacity" becomes a reason to start locking people up here at home? (Traditional American anti-intellectualism could really go to town with this one.)

Congressperson Harman was a real piece of work, initially adopting a pose of reasonable skepticism, like Smithson, with her own brand of mealy-mouthing but later dropping any pretense to evenhandedness. The trailers are definitely laboratories, she said, but they're not adequate by themselves to prove the WMD allegations. Certainly the evidence so far is meager, she allowed. But fear not, we're going to investigate "in detail" whether dissenting analytic points of view were considered. She didn't mention investigating whether the invasion was justified in the first place.

In fact, this congressperson and member of the so-very-loyal opposition had no qualms about the invasion, because of Saddam's willingness to use WMD against his own people (which, er, well, the United State supported at the time it was actually happening, 'way back in the 1980s); because of his willingness to use them on the United State (for which she offered no proof); and because of his aggressive nuclear weapons program (of which not a trace of evidence has been revealed, not even a trailer). We know that there are WMD, she said. That's because after Gulf War I, Saddam couldn't account for all the chemical weapons the United State insisted he had, on the basis of ... oops, intelligence estimates. There's solid evidence for you.

Harman gave up nothing to the Republicans in belligerence, leaving the door open to further Middle East adventures. WMD are either buried deep underground — in some kind of super-secret Bat Cave, apparently — where not a whiff of them can be detected, or they've been moved to Iran or Syria. So they're still a threat, you see, and their use could be "catastrophic." Ah, Iran or Syria. We get it.

Neither the guests nor the moderator addressed the issue of the Office of Special Plans, which was set up expressly to do an end run around the CIA and produce evidence supporting the war — even though Conan seemed genuinely interested in exploring the nonexistent-WMD issue. Part of the problem was that he was too polite to try to corner anybody: if you're too aggressive, you can soon find yourself without any prestigious guests to attract listeners, and Senator Blunderbuss may call up your CEO and give him a royal chewing-out.

So, here's what we'll get. The radio charlatans such as Limbaugh and the gratingly obnoxious Sean Hannity will continue to raucously accuse skeptics of being unpatriotic and anti-Semitic — using the same ad hominem tactics they attack Jesse Jackson for using. The Bush regime spokesmen and their allies — which include many of the left-lib Democrats — will continue to inflate the importance of every can of rat poison and Miracle-Gro they can turn up in Iraq. In a tactic perfected by the Clintonites, the justifications for invasion will continue to morph into new forms daily — Wolfowitz stuck his foot in it again a week after his first boo-boo when he said we had to invade because Iraq is "swimming in a sea of oil." Public figures will point out contradictions and various other types of nonsense, but almost nobody will take the final step and accuse the regime of bad faith. It will all be submerged in a comforting, confusing, narcotic fog of blather pumped out by earnest experts.

And for those who still have nagging doubts, not to worry! We're gonna hold congressional investigations that avoid the real issue but give the impression that something is being done to get to the bottom of things.

Ironically, the very fact that everyone is talking about an issue at the same time helps make it a non-issue: every expert has a slightly different twist or angle, every statement by officials is a new and different lie. The non sequiturs and red herrings pile up so fast that everything becomes too complicated and confusing for the average TV news watcher, who simply stops paying attention after a while.

Thus can a terrible fact stand out in the open for all to see — they said we had to invade because of Weapons of Mass Destruction; there are no Weapons of Mass Destruction; there was obviously no credible evidence of Weapons of Mass Destruction — and the public never faces up to the obvious conclusion:

They lied to us. They scammed us. They played us for fools.

It's the American way.

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