NEW YORK, Dec 12, 2002 -- When the story broke, there was the gasp of "Gotcha!" in the world's news rooms. Finally, after all these weeks of those faceless inspectors racing around the boonies of Iraq to visit sites they've seen before, we have a dramatic seizure on the high seas.
Suddenly, and, for a quick moment, the heroic Spanish Navy appeared to have accomplished what the United Nations (and the United States) could not-- catch "them" in the act.
What an exciting moment, complete with photos of the hold of a "mystery ship" sailing from the heart of the Axis of Evil in North Korea revealing scud missiles hidden behind a pile of concrete. The networks went into overdrive with American television going live to a press conference in Spain-probably a first.
But then, step-by-step, the hot air seeped out of this news balloon when it emerged that the Scuds had in fact been ordered and paid for by Yemen, an American ally. So today we have a front-page picture of Spanish marines, weapons in hand, roping their way onto the unmarked vessel's deck over a story reporting that President Bush "reluctantly" ordered the Navy to release the ship.
Why the reluctance? It appears that such seizures are themselves of questionable legality under international law, and that Yemen had a right to buy the weapons. Vice President Cheney had tried to brow beat his Yemeni counterpart, as the country's President was indignant -- insisting his country wanted delivery of what it had paid for. The New York Times calls the incident "embarrassing."
Others in the Arab world are piqued about another recent U.S. seizure - intercepting Iraq's weapons declaration and unilaterally determining which members of the Security Council, which collectively ordered it in the first place, could see it.
Arab News was outraged: "The way in which the U.S. took charge of the 12,000 pages of documents that Iraq had sent to the United Nations is breathtaking in its sheer arrogance."
Why did they do it, the author asks, speculating: "Two answers suggest themselves. The first is that the documents represent a large part of the truth behind Iraq's drive to acquire weapons of mass destruction. That truth would include the details of firms in Europe and the United States who supplied equipment and technology essential to the production of nuclear bombs and chemical warfare. That truth could also focus on the extent to which U.S. weapons expertise was given to Iraq during its long war with Iran.
"The second answer is hardly less sinister. The Bush administration wanted to be sure that the files will reveal the smoking gun that they insist is there. If the evidence is lacking, they will need to be able to point to cunning omissions and sleight of hand by the Iraqis. So supposing the evidence simply does not stack up the way the White House wants? Could the editing job done by U.S. experts have included the insertion of details, as well as the removal of allegedly sensitive information?
If this were the case, did even the other four permanent members of the Security Council receive exactly the same files that left Baghdad this week? The interception and doctoring of documents meant for the United Nations would, in U.S. domestic law, be a serious crime. But this is foreign, not domestic, policy."
As for who may be guilty of supplying Iraq, Boston University Middle East scholar Irene Genzier dredges up an article from the New York Times this August, which seems to have been buried in the current debate: "According to Patrick E Tyler's Aug. 18, 2002, New York Times story, 'Officers Say U.S. Aided Iraq in War Despite Use of Gas,'
under the Reagan administration, the U.S. 'provided Iraq with critical battle planning assistance at a time when American intelligence agencies knew that Iraqi commanders would employ chemical weapons in waging the decisive battles of the Iran-Iraq war, according to senior military officers with direct knowledge of the program.'
"According to Tyler's sources, Washington's public condemnation of Iraq's use of chemical weapons did not lead the then U.S. President, Vice President and their national security officials to cease supporting 'the highly classified program in which more than 60 officers of the Defense Intelligence Agency were secretly providing detailed information on Iranian deployments, tactical planning for battles, plans for air strikes and bomb-damage assessments for Iraq.'"
So, as seems clear from reaction to these three timely stories, misinformation in the media continues to shape and distort our impressions of what is, and is not, going on as the clouds of war continue their drift from West to East.
-- Danny Schechter, editor of Mediachannel.org, has written Media Wars: News at a Time of Terror (Innovatio), a report on news coverage since 9/11
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