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The Imaginary Expulsions

Journalists rewrite history of Iraqi weapons inspections

By Hussein Ibish, Extra! 03/2000

Time heals wounds, and can blur inconvenient facts. A plethora of anniversary reports in the U.S. media "reminded" the public that it had been one year since Iraqi President Saddam Hussein expelled U.N. weapons inspectors, leading to the December 1998 "Desert Fox" bombing campaign against Iraq.

But Saddam Hussein's oft-invoked expulsion of the arms inspectors never took place. It was Richard Butler, head of the U.N. weapons inspection program known as UNSCOM, who voluntarily withdrew the inspectors from Iraq, giving President Bill Clinton a rationale for launching military strikes on Iraq.

Butler claimed in a report to the U.N. on December 15 that obstruction from the Iraqi regime had made it impossible for his inspectors to effectively carry out their work. But as Barton Gellmann of the Washington Post (12/16/98) reported, "Clinton administration officials played a direct role in shaping Butler's text secure facilities in the U.S. mission to the United Nations."

In fact, Butler's report admitted that "the majority of the inspections of facilities and sites under the continuing monitoring system were carried out with Iraq's cooperation," but still concluded that the "commission is not able to conduct the substantive disarmament work mandated to it." With this confused explanation, Butler ordered all his weapons inspectors out of Iraq on December 15, and the next day the United States began airstrikes. The bombing ended on December 19, the day the House voted to impeach the president.

But a year later this history seems to have disappeared down a memory hole.

The Washington Post has misreported these facts--claiming that Iraq expelled the inspectors--at least four times in 1999, twice in major news stories (8/30/99, 11/16/99) and twice in opinion pieces by Fred Hiatt (1/10/99, 7/25/99), who's now the Post's editorial page editor. In spite of the Post having to print three letters during the year correcting the record (1/16/99, 9/16/99, 11/25/99), it continues to make the same mistake.

The New York Times has also repeatedly reported that "Baghdad expelled the inspectors." (1/8/99; see also 4/16/99, 8/20/99, 10/28/99, 11/18/99, 12/17/99, 2/1/00). The latest time the paper made the error, on February 1, it ran a correction the next day, but none of the other instances have been corrected. Numerous U.S. papers have made the same error, including USA Today (12/9/99), the Chicago Tribune (12/18/99), Boston Globe (10/21/99), Washington Times (11/5/99) and Buffalo News (12/4/99).

Television has hardly performed better: When Tim Russert, host of NBC's Meet the Press (12/19/99) interviewed Democratic rivals Al Gore and Bill Bradley on foreign policy, he began with this claim: "One year ago Saddam Hussein threw out all the inspectors who could find his chemical or nuclear capability--one year." CNN (12/2/99) quoted Butler as describing how his team had been "thrown out" of Iraq.

Magazines ranging from the scholarly Foreign Affairs (11-12/99) to Newsweek (8/30/99) made the same erroneous claim. Newsweek added the wrinkle that "last year ... Moscow, Paris and Beijing virtually allied with Saddam Hussein to cast U.N. weapons inspectors out of Iraq." (In fact, all three had denounced Butler's decision to withdraw the inspectors--Agence France Presse, 12/16/98.)

Perhaps more than any other source, AP spread the charge that Iraq expelled the inspectors to news organizations and the public far and wide. AP reported that "nearly a year [has passed] after President Saddam Hussein ordered an end to the program," (11/16/99) and referred to "Saddam Hussein's expulsion of U.N. weapons inspectors." (12/2/99)

This fit of misreportage results from the fact that the actual course of events does not fit the moral economy of the standard U.S. media worldview. Saddam Hussein and Iraqis are presumed to be wholly at fault for tensions with the West; therefore if weapons inspectors left Iraq, they must have been expelled by Saddam. Facts that do not conform to these deeply held beliefs simply fade away for many American journalists and editors.

And, of course, anniversary reports in major American media rarely if ever recalled the revelations that the U.S. had been using UNSCOM as a cover for hostile espionage operations aimed at overthrowing the Iraqi government (New Yorker, 4/5/99)--even though the subsequent history of UNSCOM's collapse is unintelligible without this crucial fact.

To be sure, many reports have gotten the basic facts right. AP itself reported that "the year-long crisis with Iraq began when U.N. weapons inspectors departed a day before U.S. and British warplanes launched airstrikes to punish Baghdad for its failure to cooperate fully with their inspections." (AP Worldstream, 12/18/99) The New York Times has played it safe by saying that Iraq "thwarted" rather than expelled UNSCOM (8/15/99). The Minneapolis Star Tribune (11/28/99) correctly reported that "last December, chief U.N. weapons inspector Richard Butler withdrew his team on grounds that lack of Iraqi cooperation made it impossible for UNSCOM to complete its work. The United States and Britain followed up with a brief bombing campaign."

But with so many different reporters and news outlets getting the facts completely wrong, independently of one another and in the same fashion, it is hard to deny that history has to a disturbing extent been rewritten.

Hussein Ibish is the national communications director for the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee.

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