The leading media outfits often proclaim their devotion to "investigative reporting," but the priorities of our journalistic sleuths can be hard to understand. Liberal or conservative, the mainstream media spoke as one in demanding every scrap of paper that might reveal an errant detail about the failed Whitewater land investment -- and they eventually got thousands of pages of documents around and about and tangential to that topic, which almost none of them ever bothered to read. (Too complicated, and too exculpatory.)
Now the U.N. Security Council is burying roughly 8,000 pages from the 12,000-page weapons declaration delivered by Baghdad last December -- and nobody in the major U.S. media seems to be trying to obtain those crucial papers or protesting the U.N. censorship. Who cares? This is about war -- and therefore not nearly as intriguing as land development in rural Arkansas. The missing pages reportedly are being withheld at the request of the Bush administration, but this is an issue on which adversaries and allies apparently agree. France, Germany, Russia, China and Britain all have no quarrel with keeping those pages secret.
Why? Evidently those documents name corporations and other entities from all those countries that supplied the Iraqi weapons industries, back when our politicians still considered Saddam Hussein preferable to the alternatives and cared little for the fate of the Kurds, the Shia and the tortured Iraqi people. (The National Security Archive has posted a series of important documents dating from 1980 to 1984 that show how the Reagan administration -- then staffed by the likes of Richard Perle and Donald Rumsfeld -- sought to downplay Iraq's use of chemical weapons.)
Both the Sunday Herald in Scotland and Die Tageszeitung in Germany have recently published extracts from the censored documents, naming prominent firms in their own countries and the United States as major suppliers of chemical, biological and nuclear equipment to the Iraqi regime. Among the firms named by the Sunday Herald is International Military Services, a commercial branch of the U.K. Ministry of Defense.
The role of Western governments and companies in arming Saddam is not exactly a secret, of course. Covert U.S. financial and military assistance to Iraq was the subject of one of the unfinished scandals of the first Bush administration -- named "Iraqgate" by William Safire, if I recall correctly. Only a few news organizations, notably the L.A. Times and the Financial Times, pursued that story aggressively, but it scared the Republicans badly. These days, they have little to fear from the docile press corps.
Meanwhile, as the nation considers war and its aftermath, perhaps we can look forward to learning exactly what is in those hidden U.N. documents when this President Bush fulfills his promise to prosecute Iraqi war crimes. Any accused Iraqi could mount a defense based in part on U.S. and U.K. complicity in Saddam's war machine. But then again, perhaps such cases will be handled by the president's military tribunals -- without defense attorneys or subpoenaed evidence -- to insure that none of those embarrassing facts need ever be brought to light.
[9:02 a.m. PST, Feb. 27, 2003]