The U.S. media has recently been filled with retrospectives on the 20th anniversary of the beginning of the Iraq War. Most of these outlets eagerly helped the George W. Bush administration sell the war, publishing lavish falsehoods about how Iraq posed a terrible danger to the U.S. (It did not.)
So you might hope that in the past two decades, the same publications have learned the most basic facts about Iraq — and would steer clear of publishing obvious and stupendous errors yet again. You would hope in vain.
One incredible example appeared in a March 13 article in The Atlantic by David Frum, who is best known for serving as a speechwriter for President Bush and coming up with the phrase “axis of evil” in the 2002 State of the Union address. Frum is now a staff writer at The Atlantic, which is probably the most prestigious magazine in America behind the New Yorker. The Atlantic is forthrightly endorsing Frum’s fabrication and will not respond to basic questions about it.
As you may have heard, Bush’s case for war was that Iraq had programs to produce “weapons of mass destruction” — that is, biological, chemical, and nuclear weapons. In his article, “The Iraq War Reconsidered,” Frum tells us in the first paragraph that Iraq was found to possess “an arsenal of chemical-warfare shells and warheads.”
This is false. You don’t even need to know the details to understand why.
Bush and his vice president, Dick Cheney, never said a word about this arsenal of chemical weapons that Frum says were discovered by the U.S. This means there are two possibilities:
- Iraq did have an arsenal of chemical weapons, thus totally vindicating Bush and Cheney and proving that they were right about the most famous political issue on Earth. However, they never mentioned this because they’re super-modest.
- Iraq did not have an arsenal of chemical weapons.
If you’d like to understand this subject in detail, you can read this long explanation I wrote a few years ago. But the basic story is this:
Iraq deployed a huge quantity of chemical weapons during its war with Iran in the 1980s. In the 1990s, Iraq turned over almost all its chemical munitions to United Nations inspectors, and they were destroyed.
However, Iraq lost track of some of those weapons. It was not intentionally hiding them before the U.S. invasion on March 20, 2003; just the opposite. As we now know from the CIA’s $1 billion investigation of the weapons of mass destruction issue, in December 2002, Saddam Hussein’s regime ordered Iraq’s military to “cooperate completely” with the renewed U.N. inspections. Commanders established committees “to ensure their units retained no evidence of old WMD.”
Nonetheless, while occupying Iraq, the U.S. stumbled upon about 5,000 old shells from the 1980s. According to Charles Duelfer, who headed the CIA inquiry, “Keeping in mind that they used 101,000 munitions in the Iran-Iraq War … it’s not really surprising that they have imperfect accounting. I bet the U.S. couldn’t keep track of many of its weapons produced and used during a war.”
CIA Special Advisor for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, Charles Duelfer, center, speaks to reporters during a press conference after testifying on WMD in Iraq at a closed meeting on Capitol Hill on March 30, 2004 in Washington D.C.
Photo: Mark Wilson/Getty Images
Indeed, this is true: The U.S. military lost $1.2 billion of material during just the first year of the Iraq War. It’s also true about chemical weapons specifically. In 1993, a significant quantity of chemical munitions from World War I were discovered in what’s now one of the toniest neighborhoods in Washington, D.C. Brett Kavanaugh, the Supreme Court justice, grew up just a few blocks from the site. In other words, even the most dangerous weapons can be lost in the most unlikely places. The cleanup was still going on decades later, at a cost of more than $250 million.
In fact, lost chemical weapons from World War I continue to be located across the world. During the same period the U.S. was finding 5,000 Iraqi chemical munitions, about the same number were discovered in Europe, mostly in Belgium and France.
Duelfer, asked for his perspective on The Atlantic’s claim, responded via email: “I disagree with [Frum’s] characterization of residual CW stuff as ‘an arsenal.’ What was found were militarily useless remains left over from production during the Iran-Iraq war. Saddam did not know it was around.”
You’d think, well, case closed. All that’s necessary is to notify The Atlantic of its mistake, and they’ll correct it. Obviously they believe in adhering to the most basic standards of honesty.
Nope. In response to questions, Anna Bross, The Atlantic’s senior vice president for communications, emailed, “What is being described in our article matches the definition of ‘arsenal.’ I’m not seeing the point of objection, and certainly not any need for a correction.” (Notably, the current editor of The Atlantic is Jeffrey Goldberg, one of the most prominent journalistic supporters of the Iraq War, and last night The Atlantic won a General Excellence award from the American Society of Magazine Editors.)
I sent Bross some obvious follow-up questions. Is The Atlantic saying that Charles Duelfer — again, the head of the Bush administration’s investigation of this — is wrong, and they’re right? Would they publish something saying the U.S. and France both recently possessed an arsenal of chemical weapons? Does The Atlantic think Bush and Cheney just forgot to ever mention this arsenal?
Bross did not write back. I guess that’s for the best because I was planning to move on to ask her about several other astonishing mistakes in Frum’s article.
I’ve followed this issue closely for over 25 years. By the time of the U.S. invasion, I was so sure Iraq had no banned weapons that I bet someone $1,000 about it (quite a lot of money to me).
I was barely a professional writer then. I didn’t even have a blog. So when I saw the media’s blatant, grievous errors in the run-up to war, all I could do was send lots of emails to the fancy publications that were getting it so wrong. They didn’t care, and hundreds of thousands of people died.
They still don’t care. They will continue deceiving their readers about Iraq. There must be something we can do about this, but so far, I haven’t figured out what it is.
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