The Fox of war

The Bush administration's case for invading Iraq may have been riddled with unreliable claims, but that didn't stop White House-friendly Fox News from pumping it into America's living rooms.

By David J. Sirota
Published March 31, 2004 2:27AM (EST)

Before the Iraq invasion, the Bush administration made many declarations to build its case for war: There was "no doubt," as the president said, Iraq had weapons of mass destruction, including nuclear weapons, making it an imminent threat to America; Saddam Hussein was working closely with Osama bin Laden and al-Qaida; and the invasion would minimize civilian casualties.

While many intelligence and military experts knew how hollow these claims were, there was one place where the Bush administration was given an open microphone: Fox News. By the time U.S. soldiers were headed across the desert to Baghdad, the "fair and balanced" network, owned by media mogul Rupert Murdoch, looked like a caricature of state-run television, parroting the White House's daily talking points, no matter how unsubstantiated.

Of course, Fox and the White House had forged their nexus well before Iraq. Immediately after 9/11, for instance, Fox chief Roger Ailes (a former Republican Party media consultant) wrote a confidential memo to President Bush saying that America wanted him to "use the harshest measures possible" in the war on terrorism. On the eve of the Iraq invasion, the Washington Post reported that neoconservative Fox contributors, such as Murdoch-owned Weekly Standard editor William Kristol, were "well wired" into the White House, meeting periodically with top administration national security officials and "huddling privately" every three months with Karl Rove, who was urging Republicans to seek maximum political advantage from a war in Iraq. Fox News became the White House's most reliable amplifier -- claims went from the podium, into the news scripts, and out to the American public as fact.

Fox News began by broadcasting the Bush administration's line that there was "no doubt" Iraq had WMD, despite repeated warnings by the intelligence community that the WMD case for war was weak and dubious. As early as August 2002, Fox News contributor Fred Barnes said, "We know beyond a shadow of a doubt that [Saddam Hussein] has been pursuing aggressively weapons of mass destruction, including nuclear weapons." He was refuted a month later by UPI, which reported that "a growing number of experts say that the administration has not presented convincing evidence" that Iraq was pursuing WMD or nuclear weapons. (UPI is owned by the Rev. Sun Myung Moon, who also publishes the conservative Washington Times.)

But that did not stop the drumbeat. By spring, Fox was rolling full steam ahead. On March 23, 2003, Fox headline banners blared "Huge Chemical Weapons Factory Found in Southern Iraq" -- a claim that never panned out. On April 11, a Fox News report announced: "Weapons-Grade Plutonium Possibly Found at Iraqi Nuke Complex." Sourced to an embedded reporter from the right-wing Richard Mellon Scaife-owned Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, the story was soon debunked by U.S. officials.

Bill O'Reilly, host of the most popular Fox News show, "The O'Reilly Factor," took to the airwaves on March 4, 2003, to ramp up the claim that not only did Iraq have WMD, but nuclear weapons. He stated definitively that "a load of weapons-grade plutonium has disappeared from Nigeria" and that the theft "should send a signal to all Americans that a nuclear device could be planted here." When he was challenged on his assertion, he insisted, "You cannot refute, and neither can anyone else, that we have plutonium missing in Nigeria, we have two rogue governments, North Korea and Iraq, who are certainly capable of aiding and abetting people who will plant an atomic device, a nuclear device in a city in this country."

O'Reilly was referring to a story that week about radioactive material missing in Nigeria. But it was not plutonium, as he claimed, or anything nearly as lethal as plutonium. It was a compound called Americium 241, wholly unsuitable for the creation of the imaginary "atomic device" O'Reilly referred to. The compound is commonly used for industrial purposes, as opposed to plutonium, which is used primarily for weapons and nuclear reactors. The compound, in fact, was misplaced by Vice President Cheney's old oil firm, Halliburton. (The Nigerian operation under Cheney has sparked an international bribery investigation by the Justice Department.)

On the Saddam-al-Qaida connection, Fox never considered that the connection was nonexistent. Barnes declared on Oct. 9, 2002, that "the CIA now believes there's a real connection between Saddam Hussein and al Qaeda, the terrorist group that attacked the United States." He provided no evidence. For years, in fact, the CIA was reporting the opposite.

Sean Hannity, host of the Fox talk show "Hannity and Colmes," claimed with no proof on Dec. 9, 2002, that al-Qaida "obviously has the support of Saddam." He specifically ignored a Los Angeles Times report of a month earlier that found "U.S. allies have found no links between Iraq and al Qaeda." Hannity later announced on April 30, 2003, that he possessed documents proving a "direct link between Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda network" and the Iraqi regime, and disparaged critics of the war, saying, "If you listen to the people on the left, they're not fazed by this evidence." They may not have been fazed because earlier that month the Miami Herald reported that senior U.S. officials confirmed they had found "no provable connection between Saddam and al Qaeda."

In June, the chairman of the U.N.'s terrorist monitoring group reiterated that there was "no evidence linking al Qaeda to Saddam Hussein." A month later the L.A. Times reported that declassified documents from the 9/11 commission had "undercut Bush administration claims before the war that Hussein had links to al Qaeda." That was of no concern to Fox News contributor Ann Coulter, who went on the air in September to proclaim: "Saddam Hussein has harbored, promoted, helped, sheltered al Qaeda members. We know that."

Before the war began, Fox tried to minimize the inevitable human cost. Hannity echoed the administration line, claiming in January of 2003 that "Iraqis are not going to be bombed by the United States. The United States will use pinpoint accuracy, like we always do." Within the first few days of the invasion, the New York Times noted that aid groups estimated "thousands of civilian casualties, many more than in the recent conflict in Afghanistan or the Persian Gulf War of 1991."

Before the war, OReilly issued a promise. "If the Americans go in and overthrow Saddam Hussein and it's clean, he has nothing, I will apologize to the nation, and I will not trust the Bush Administration again, all right?" This February, on ABC's Good Morning America, he offered an apology. "My analysis was wrong and I'm sorry. What do you want me to do? Go over and kiss the camera?" But he explained that his lack of skepticism wasn't his fault. "All Americans should be concerned about this, for their families and themselves, that our intelligence isn't as good as it should be." The next day, back on Fox, O'Reilly claimed the controversy over his apology was a plot by the "left wing press" who "used my words to hammer the President." Then he introduced his next guest on what he called "the no spin zone."

But Fox didn't reflect when the network's talking heads were proved wrong. Instead the talkers blamed others. Hannity said on Aug. 20, 2003, that "all the predictions of liberals and Democrats in this country were wrong about thousands of people [being] dead, innocent civilians murdered, and we'd anger the Arab world." Yet, the U.S. military reports that it "has received more than 15,000 claims" for compensation for noncombatant Iraqi deaths, with Amnesty International reporting at least 10,000 civilian Iraqi casualties. Meanwhile, the latest Pew Poll shows burgeoning anti-Americanism, not only throughout the Arab world, but worldwide after the Iraq war.

The Fox-Bush alliance was summed up, apparently without irony, by Bill O'Reilly himself. In his column this week, O'Reilly observed, "There is nothing wrong with news organizations endorsing a candidate or a columnist writing about his or her political preferences. But actively participating in political campaigns ... is absolutely against every journalistic standard, and it is happening -- usually under the radar."

After a review of the record, however, it is clear that Fox was an enthusiastic participant in the White House's campaign of disinformation leading the country into war. And it was not under the radar -- it happened in our living rooms every night.

David J. Sirota

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2004 Elections Bill O'reilly Fox News Iraq Middle East