Matthew Rothschild, editor of The Progressive magazine, once said that when it comes to foreign affairs, the media behaves as if the White House is their assignment editor. They look where they’re told to look, and carefully avoid looking anywhere else. Sad to say, nothing’s changed, or is ever likely to.
Rothschild could have added that it’s not the White House per se that’s the assignment editor. It’s any high government department: the State Department, the Pentagon, and these days, an extension of the US government, 10 Downing Street. So it is that when British Prime Minister Tony Blair claimed he had overwhelming evidence linking Osama bin Laden to the September 11th attacks, the media declared, almost en masse, that the evidence was indeed “damning” and “overwhelming.”
The problem is, Blair’s — and everybody else’s — evidence is anything but overwhelming and damning. More like non-existent. And you don’t have to read through Blair’s 70-point brief to figure that out. Just listen to what government officials are saying.
Lord Robertson, NATO supremo, made the extraordinary declaration that NATO didn’t need evidence because bin Laden’s guilt was obvious. Canada’s Prime Minster Jean Chretien, working on auto-pilot, echoed Robertson’s reasoning, asserting that Canada didn’t need evidence either (which is just as well, since Washington isn’t offering any.) Tony Blair, after announcing he had seen the evidence of bin Laden’s culpability, was forced a few days later to admit the evidence wouldn’t stand up in a court of law. Pakistan’s General Pervez Musharraf uttered some specious mumbo-jumbo about evidence failing to stand up to legal scrutiny being immaterial. “Who needs evidence?” they all brazenly ask.
A reasonable person does. So too does the Taliban.
After initially offering to arrest bin Laden if Washington could adduce evidence of his culpability, the Taliban sweetened the offer. Deputy prime minister Haji Abdul told the White House on October 14th that bin Laden would be turned over to a third country, if Washington called off its attack and presented its evidence. President George W. Bush replied with the bold bluster of someone who has no evidence at all, but has the world’s — indeed history’s — largest killing machine: “There’s no need to discuss innocence or guilt. We know he’s guilty. Turn him over.”
It should have become clear to the media by now, but hasn’t, that an illegal war is being waged that has already led to the deaths of innocent civilians, and is threatening to lead to the deaths through starvation of countless more as food relief networks are disrupted. And for what reason? To punish the Taliban for not surrendering a suspect Washington has no evidence was behind the September 11th attacks. At least that’s the official reason. Installing a puppet government, that will create a more stable and secure climate in which to build Unocal’s long sought after pipeline from the Caspian basin to the Pakistani port city of Karachi through Afghanistan presents itself as a more likely possibility, but the assignment editor hasn’t directed the media’s attention in that direction. And won’t be.
With all this certitude about bin Laden’s culpability, it’s curious to discover that when it comes to the question of whether bin Laden is behind the recent cases of anthrax infection, government officials are urging caution in declaring bin Laden responsible. Both Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson, and Attorney General John Ashcroft, have said there is no evidence linking bin Laden or his associates to the anthrax cases.
And indeed, there isn’t. But there’s no evidence either that bin Laden is behind the September 11th attacks. Still, that hasn’t stopped Washington, its allies, and the media, from declaring he is. So why is Washington so concerned about the media not coming to the equally hasty conclusion that bin Laden’s behind the anthrax cases?
Maybe because now that the reputations of the Taliban and bin Laden as menacing hobgoblins have been cemented, it’s time to pull another favorite hobgoblin out the closet — Iraq.
A London Observer report says that, “US intelligence believes Iraq has the technology and supplies of anthrax suitable for terrorist use. ‘They aren’t making this stuff in caves in Afghanistan,’ the CIA source said. ‘This is prima facie evidence of the involvement of a state intelligence agency. Maybe Iran has the capability. But it doesn’t look likely politically. That leaves Iraq.'”
Rule out bin Laden. Rule in Iraq. That’s helpful if you’re planning to expand the war to other states, as US Ambassador to the UN, John Negroponte, told the Security Council Washington was leaving the door open to. There’s already a casus belli — a cause for war — for the attack on Afghanistan: take out the Taliban, because it’s harboring bin Laden. But there needs to be a casus belli against Iraq. Washington doesn’t go to war, unless it can offer a story. And anthrax seems to fit the bill.
But, as Washington’s reasons for war usually do, this developing casus belli has a few problems.
First, the argument of US intelligence sources that the anthrax cases have Iraq’s signature all over them is thin — just as thin as Tony Blair’s “evidence” linking bin Laden’s network to the attacks on New York and Washington. Both reduce to: they could do it, therefore, they did do it — an obvious leap of logic. That’s like saying, “US intelligence sources could have planted anthrax spores, knowing the media could be led to the conclusion that Iraq was to blame. This would provide a pretext for a massive attack on Iraq. Washington has the resources, capability and motivation to carry out this operation; therefore it did.” This argument would be dismissed in most quarters by hoots of derision, its weaknesses obvious. But how is it any weaker than the argument that Iraq is behind the anthrax cases? Or that Al-Qaeda is behind the September 11th attacks, for that matter?
Second, notice how bin Laden’s organization, only a few weeks ago, was portrayed as sophisticated and cunning enough to orchestrate a superbly co-ordinated and devastating attack whose planning eluded detection by the world’s most formidable intelligence apparatus, but is now reduced to a ragtag band of terrorists who live in caves. So, we’re presented with two mutually exclusive propositions. Al-Qaeda has the resources to plan and execute a highly sophisticated terrorist attack. Al-Qaeda is just a bunch of religious fanatics who live in caves in Afghanistan and don’t have the resources to carry out a sophisticated terrorist attack.
And as terrorist attacks go, this one is surely peculiar. Presumably a terrorist cares so little about innocent lives, that he or she is willing to take out countless numbers, the more, the better. Wouldn’t you expect an anthrax attack to be carried out against large numbers of people, not one here, and another there?
And curiously, though Washington stresses there’s no evidence to link the anthrax cases to bin Laden, there’s no caution about declaring the cases instances of terrorism. If anything, US Vice-President Dick Cheney and Tommy Thompson, are bending over backwards to encourage the media to arrive at that conclusion.
So, as ever, a compliant press looks where it’s told to look, arrives at conclusions it’s told to arrive at, and censors itself when it’s told to censor itself. White House spokesman Ari Fleischer, displeased with Bill Maher’s pointing out that lobbing cruise missiles at weak countries from hundreds of miles away is cowardly, warned that people should be careful about what they say.
He didn’t have to warn the media.
Mr. Steve Gowans is a writer and political activist who lives in Ottawa, Canada.