After years of changing rationales, justifications and reasons as to why the U.S. invaded Iraq, we seem to have reached a national consensus: We invaded Iraq because people told lies. More specifically, George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, Colin Powell, Condoleezza Rice, Donald Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz, Ari Fleischer and Scott McClellan lied to the American Congress, the American people and the world. These lies built public support for the war, muted opposition and created a rationale for elected officials such as Sen. Hillary Clinton to vote to allow the invasion even though they should have, and probably did, know better.
People lied. Hundreds of thousands died in a war that has bankrupted the U.S. both economically and morally. This is all old news now. And the war goes on.
The nonprofit, nonpartisan Center for Public Integrity (www.publicintegrity.org) recently compiled a searchable database of lies President Bush and his above-mentioned underlings told regarding Iraq over a two-year period starting on Sept. 11, 2001. There were 935 “false statements.” This includes 232 statements Bush himself made falsely claiming that Iraq definitively had weapons of mass destruction. In a similar vein, he made 28 allegations falsely asserting an alliance between Iraq’s government and its al-Qaida foe. All of these transgressions from the truth came after U.S. intelligence agencies provided the administration with classified information to the contrary.
Powell was a close second in the lie pageant, with 244 false statements about Iraq’s supposed weapons of mass destruction and 10 allegations linking Iraq with al-Qaida. Fleischer and Rumsfeld tied for third and fourth places, with Wolfowitz in fifth, Rice in sixth, Cheney in seventh and McClellan in last place with a paltry 14 lies overall.
The Center for Public Integrity study links lies with the facts that unmask them. For example, in July 2002 the CIA reported that they couldn’t find any evidence supporting a link between al-Qaida and Saddam Hussein’s government. This confirmed earlier reports by their cloak-and-dagger cousins in the Defense Intelligence Agency, which also failed to find any connection between these dastardly demons. These reports, incidentally, followed years of publicly available evidence documenting the animosity between the Wahhabi dominionist al-Qaida movement and the sectarian Western-style regime of Saddam Hussein.
None of these intelligence reports deterred Rumsfeld from alleging, later in July, that a “relationship” between al-Qaida and Saddam Hussein existed. Technically, I guess you can say animosity is a sort of relationship. And President Clinton didn’t have sex with his intern. The only difference between these two non-lies would be the severity of the consequences.
Then there were all the “big lies,” such as Bush’s definitive September 2002 statements about Iraq making and stockpiling horrific biological and chemical weapons that could be deployed within 45 minutes of Saddam Hussein’s command. During the same nationally broadcast speech, the president also claimed Iraq had an ongoing nuclear weapons program and was one year away from the big kapow. Both of these allegations flew in the face of publicly available reports from both United Nations weapons inspectors and U.S. intelligence officials. The list goes on and on. Count them – 935 such instances.
Here’s the problem. We didn’t just go to war because of lies. We live in a society where all discourse is crippled by a growing culture of lying. Despite the fact that it’s now common knowledge that top Bush administration officials lied us into a catastrophic war, they’ve faced no consequences. There’s not even any serious national discourse on impeachment, though lying to Congress –just once – is a crime. Then there are all the political campaigns where politicians compulsively lie. They never have to answer for their lies; they’re expected to lie. The only consequence is that most of us give up on voting since all we really accomplish by voting is to make fools of ourselves by voting for liars.
College freshmen today were 11 years old when the Bush team began to lie us into “endless” war. Like generations before them, they grew up celebrating holidays like Columbus Day and Thanksgiving, based on easily disprovable myths designed to sugarcoat genocide. Myths are lies. Docudramas present a revisionist history of the Reagan years, erasing all mention of Latin American bloodshed and the upward redistribution of income at home that resulted in a generation where “homelessness” and large college loans seem as natural as rainfall. The mean-hearted, babbling fool has been reborn post-mortem as a gentleman, as the “Great Communicator.”
Everyone alive today has always been lied to by a relentless stream of advertisements promising nirvana, but delivering only debt. College faculty members regularly pass students’ papers through anti-plagiarism databases, because having grown up in a culture where lying is as reflexive as breathing, why would students think twice about lying or cheating? Nobody else does.
Lying, in fact, is integral to many professions, not just politics. Think real estate, auto sales, mortgage brokers, detectives (especially the ones on TV), debt collectors, mechanics, contractors, lawyers, televangelists, waiters, college recruiters, cell phone dealers, drug dealers, CEOs, ad execs, public relations practitioners, presidents, senators, spies and contract killers. All professional liars.
The big problem is that when lies proliferate, words lose their meaning. “News” is just noise. The State of the Union address is more noise. Homeland Security alerts are just colors. Newspapers and magazines are just canvases for shapes and pictures.
Let’s go back to 2002, to the Bush administration’s pre-endless-war campaign of lies, to the lies that Hillary Clinton and her spineless Democratic cohorts claim misled them to vote to authorize war. Propaganda theorists point out that propaganda works best when the propagandist monopolizes all channels of communication, when there is no dissonant message to compete with or unmask the propagandist’s lies. This dearth of information is what Sen. Clinton and the other self-proclaimed dupes would like us to believe led them to acquiesce to the insanity and barbarity of war.
But this isn’t the case. They weren’t 11 years old when Bush plied the world with lies. Neither was I. I remember hearing former U.N. weapons inspector and U.S. Marines intelligence officer Scott Ritter speak at Syracuse University, pleading with his audience to do everything they could to prevent this war, because we were being lied to – there was no evidence that the alleged weapons or weapons programs existed. And Ritter wasn’t just speaking to small audiences on college campuses. National alternative media outlets such as Pacifica Radio and The Nation were reporting on what Ritter and a host of other whistleblowers were saying. These were all well-documented stories that, unlike the assertions of the Bush administration, were based on real evidence and on words that had real meaning and could withstand challenges.
Yes, the truth was out there, but our leaders instead chose to listen to and reverberate each other’s lies.
Then there’s the corporate media – The New York Times, The Washington Post, CNN, Fox News, the networks. These organizations ultimately served the Bush administration as dutiful megaphones amplifying their lies. American journalism – at least the corporate incarnation on which most of the nation relies – has failed us. It was the responsibility of journalists to fact-check the obvious, glaring lies of the Bush administration during the run-up to the war, but they didn’t. Instead they acted like stenographers taking dictation because the truth – the allegation that the government would lie us into a war – was too dangerous to tell. We went to war because telling the truth instead of lies would be too radical, and no one wants to be seen as a radical. In the end, as in so many times and places before, everyone went along with the big lie.
We need to stop tolerating lies and, as Al Franken puts it, the lying liars who tell them. Lies are corrosive to a democracy. Lies lead to wars. Lies lead to sickness. Lies poison our mental environment. Liars poison our physical environment.
Skepticism is the antidote to lies. Our media has an obligation to be skeptical, and we have to be skeptical of our media. Education and information equips us to see through lies. That’s why, throughout history, liars have always sought to keep us ignorant. It’s this ignorance and the ensuing acquiescence that allowed both Iraq wars to happen. And the Patriot Act. And the Military Commissions Act, indefinite detention and the “axis of evil.” And the FTAA, CAFTA, NAFTA and welfare reform. And the bombing of Belgrade and Libya and Panama and Nicaragua, the slaughter in Guatemala and El Salvador and Chile, and the Vietnam War, and the Cold War, and on and on back through history – all made possible by liars and their unchecked, unquestioned lies.
The original version of this story appeared in Artvoice.