In the late summer of 2002, as the Bush administration continued to peddle plausible reasons for the war it had already decided to launch against Iraq, administration spokespersons placed heavy emphasis on the threat posed by Saddam’s alleged nuclear-weapons program. The government’s efforts received a big boost on Sunday, September 8, when The New York Times published a story by Judith Miller and Michael Gordon that quoted administration sources to the effect that “Iraq has stepped up its quest for nuclear weapons and has embarked on a worldwide hunt for materials to make an atomic bomb.” The proof consisted of Iraq’s attempted purchase of “specially designed aluminum tubes, which American officials believe were intended as components of centrifuges to enrich uranium.”
Naturally the imagery of a mushroom cloud found a place in the article. Americans all understand and many react viscerally to the image of a mushroom cloud. Hardly anything serves more effectively to marshal public fear and thus to cause people to clamor for the protection their government purports to provide.
The rest of the story is described as follows in James Bamford’s excellent book A Pretext for War: 9/11, Iraq, and the Abuse of America’s Intelligence Agencies (New York: Doubleday, 2004), pp. 324—25.
As if the entire event had been scripted, administration officials had all agreed days earlier to appear on the Sunday talk shows that same morning. Once the cameras clicked on, they made generous use of the allegations contained in the article, now free from worries about releasing classified information. It was a perfect scheme — leak the secrets the night before so you can talk about them the next morning.
In separate appearances on Meet the Press, CNN’s Late Edition, Fox News, and CBS’s Face the Nation, Dick Cheney, Condoleezza Rice, Colin Powell, and Donald Rumsfeld each played essentially the same role in this made-for-TV farce.
The series of events produced exactly the sort of propaganda coup that the White House Iraq Group [WHIG] had been set up to stage-manage. First OSP [the Pentagon's Office of Special Plans] supplies false or exaggerated intelligence; then members of the WHIG leak it to friendly reporters, complete with prepackaged vivid imagery; finally, when the story breaks, senior officials point to it as proof and parrot the unnamed quotes they or their colleagues previously supplied.
It now seems clear that the administration’s allegations of Iraq’s growing nuclear threat helped substantially in bringing many in Congress and among the general public to support the “preventive” U.S. attack on Iraq.
As I read Bamford’s account of these events, I could not help recalling Karl Kraus’s immortal quip: “How is the world ruled and led to war? Diplomats lie to journalists and believe those lies when they see them in print.”