WMDs: Widespread Media Deception and the 2003 invasion of Iraq


Air strikes on Iraq!’ Does this remind you of anything? The 1990 Gulf War? Or, maybe the 2003 invasion? Either-or, we’re here again.  Less than three years after the last convoy of British and American troops left Iraq following the humiliating 2003 invasion, the United States and its allies are beginning another intervention in Iraq – this time to combat the growing threat of the Islamic State (or IS, or ISIS, or ISIL, or whatever they liked to be called).

We are not going to get into the justifications for the use of our military power to intervene again, nor are we looking to explore the absolute ridiculous nature of using our military power to intervene once again. Instead, we are going to take it back to pre-2003 and look at how we walked into a conflict, which in some quarters is to blame for the despair and destruction being played out over our television screens today. Many analysts and commentators have criticised the American and British governments for their use of propaganda on television news in the build-up and during the 2003-2011 Iraq war, with few disagreeing that both administrations used propaganda to justify their war efforts. This article will examine to what extent such methods were used, and why they were used.

It is thought by many that the uncensored coverage of the Vietnam War changed the entire mind-set of the American and British governments, which steered both administrations to rethink their ideas of information control and dominance, both on a national and an international scale.  The Vietnam War was the first conflict to receive sustained TV news coverage and its impact on later wars has been decisive.  The uncensored coverage of the Vietnam War was widely blamed by the US military and government for their defeat, which created the notion of a war screened uncensored on television could not be won[1]. With the coffins of dead American soldiers draped in the stars and the stripes being continuously televised, and a lack of transparency appearing between the government’s official line and what was being reported on the news, a downturn in support for the war effort was created, which gave the US no choice but to withdraw.

The defeat in Vietnam had implications on how the military engaged with the media and placed considerable emphasis on controlling the information that reached the American public. However, these implications weren’t just felt on US soil. In 1982, British officials were adamant that the same mistakes wouldn’t happen when they entered the Falklands war, and thus provided a model for any democratic government wishing to conduct a propaganda war in the television age. Only 29 journalists and crew were permitted to accompany the Task Force.   All were British, and were there only to cheer-lead and whip up support for the war. The tactic used to keep the press on side was to ‘embed’ the journalists, therefore creating a bond with the military, as the two shared the confined sea-borne quarters. The journalists were dependent on military personnel for the information in their reports, and their findings could only be sent back via military channels. Military officials were prepared to sit on stories they found displeasing, which in turn led to bad news becoming old news, and then no news at all. Britain had discovered a successful model of information control in the television age with their embedded programme, and it was later used and built upon by the US in conflicts in Panama, Granada, and the 1990 Gulf War.

Long before the 2003 Iraq invasion, leading neoconservatives in the Bush administration set out a plan for American dominance in the Gulf region in their dossier ‘Project for the New American Century’. Their vision was to use overwhelming military force in the region, “maintaining global US pre-eminence … and shaping the international security order in line with American principles and interests[2]. To achieve this, they outlined it was necessary to have “some catastrophic event – like a new Pearl Harbor”[2]. This event occurred on September 11th 2001. It was clear from the outset that the neoconservatives would use this opportunity to launch a propaganda campaign to win support for a war with Iraq. Soon after the 9/11 attacks, American propaganda began against Saddam Hussein, with the assertion being that he was a terrorist and had colluded with al-Qaeda. The Bush administration repeated the idea that Saddam had links to al-Qaeda and 9/11 so often that it was becoming accepted as the truth.  Polls taken at the end of 2002 and early 2003 showed the misapprehension surrounding the issue, with almost half of all Americans believing there was a connection between Iraq and 9/11, and many believed that several of the hijackers were Iraqi, though none were[2].

However, with the lack of concrete evidence connecting Iraq with 9/11, American and British governments turned their attention to WMDs (weapons of mass destruction). The built up fear was that Saddam could provide WMDs to terrorists, and hence threaten Western Security. The two governments pushed this new theory through the media, with little resistance. The mainstream media failed to question the WMD story sufficiently, and when they eventually did, it was buried deep inside a report[2]. Some US media outlets would even take a hostile tone towards those who disagreed with the US position on WMDs[2]. With the WMD story firmly in place, British and American troops entered Iraq, and it was time to deploy more propaganda tactics, using everything they had learnt from the past.

The devised plan was to again embed the journalists with the troops, and just like in the Falklands, the journalists and troops bonded inside their shared compound. The journalists were handed a fifty page document which outlined what they could and could not report, while they also signed and agreed that their reports would “follow the direction and orders of the government[3]. The rules were upheld in order to protect the secrecy of military operations and not to endanger the soldiers they had identified with. The embedded journalist were rewarded with the closest access to fighting since the Vietnam War, but the access was on military terms and could be rescinded if it didn’t meet the military’s interests. The access given to the embedded journalists gave television audiences the feel that they were right in the centre of the conflict, when in fact they were given a very one-sided version of events; an Anglo-American one.

This was evident in a report undertaken by Douglas Kellner[4], where he provides a critique of US broadcasting networks’ construction of the war. He points to evidence which shows that embedded news journalists were ‘largely propagandist who often outdid the Pentagon and the Bush administration in spinning the message of the moment’. Kellner explains that ‘since every posting and broadcast was censored by the U.S military, it was the independent, “unilateral” journalist who provided the most accurate account of the horrors of the war’. Professor Justin Lewis and Dr Rod Brookes explored the British media’s role in a report from 2004[5]. Lewis and Brookes examined 1,534 news reports between 20th March to 11th April 2003 on BBC News, ITV News, Channel 4 News and Sky News. They show that 86% of the reports suggested Iraq harboured WMDs, and only 14 per cent raised doubts about their existence. The researched also showed that the ‘Iraqi people were roughly twice as likely to be portrayed as pro-invasion than anti-invasion’.  Lewis and Brookes concluded that ‘despite the long history of military propaganda, broadcasters often got the story wrong because they placed too much faith in military sources.’

It is apparent that propaganda was used during the Iraq War, and that through trial and error the UK and US governments developed a successful method of information control, with many of their tactics still being used today. Now as we enter another conflict in the Middle East, I hope we can learn from blindly believing what we hear on mainstream media as the gospel, and question the motives and methods behind each story. Question everything, even this.

Image taken from http://northtexasdrifter.blogspot.de/2013/09/baa-ha-ha.html

[1]    Carruthers, S (2011). The Media at War. 2nd ed. UK: Palgrave MacMillan. p96-142

[2]    Kumar, D (2009). Media, War, and Propaganda: strategies of information management during the 2003 Iraq War. In: Duffy, B & Turow, J Key Readings in Media Today. New York: Routledge. p441-461

[3]    Miller, D (2004). Information Dominance: The Philosophy of Total Propaganda Control? In: Kamalipour, Y & Snow, N War, Media, and Propaganda. USA: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers. p7-16

[4]  Kellner, D (2004). Spectacles and Media Propaganda in the War on Iraq: A Critique of U.S. Broadcasting Networks. In: Kamalipour, Y & Snow, N War, Media, and Propaganda. USA: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers. p69-78

[5]    Casper, M & Child, J (2009).  Embedded Reporters and audience response: parasocial interaction and     perceived realism in embedded reporting from the Iraq war on television news. In: Haridakis, P , Hugenberg, B & Wearden, S War and the Media: Essays on News Reporting, Propaganda and Popular Culture.  McFarland. p205-219