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Context of 'June 9, 2008: Senate Report Ignores White House Propaganda Group'

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White House chief of staff Andrew Card forms the White House Iraq Group, or WHIG, which aims to “educate the public” about the alleged threat from Iraq. WHIG is formed concurrently with the Office of Special Plans (see September 2002). A senior official involved with the group will later describe it as “an internal working group, like many formed for priority issues, to make sure each part of the White House was fulfilling its responsibilities.” [Washington Post, 8/10/2003] According to White House deputy press secretary Scott McClellan, the WHIG is “set up in the summer of 2002 to coordinate the marketing of the [Iraq] war,” and will continue “as a strategic communications group after the invasion had toppled Saddam [Hussein]‘s regime.” McClellan, who will become a full-fledged member of the WHIG after rising to the position of senior press secretary, will write: “Some critics have suggested that sinister plans were discussed at the WHIG meetings to deliberately mislead the public. Not so. There were plenty of discussions about how to set the agenda and influence the narrative, but there was no conspiracy to intentionally deceive. Instead, there were straightforward discussions of communications strategies and messaging grounded in the familiar tactics of the permanent campaign.” [McClellan, 2008, pp. 142] Author Craig Unger will sum up the WHIG’s purpose up more bluntly: “to sell the war.” Members of the group include White House political advisers Karl Rove, Karen Hughes, Mary Matalin, James R. Wilkinson, and Nicholas E. Calio, and policy advisers led by National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, her deputy Stephen Hadley, and Vice President Dick Cheney’s chief of staff, Lewis “Scooter” Libby. They meet weekly in the White House Situation Room. A “strategic communications” task force under the WHIG is charged with planning speeches and writing position papers. [Washington Post, 8/10/2003; Unger, 2007, pp. 241]
Marketing Fear, Idea of Invasion as Reasonable - After Labor Day 2002—and after suitable test marketing—the group launches a full-fledged media marketing campaign. The images and storyline are simple and visceral: imminent biological or chemical attack, threats of nuclear holocaust, Saddam Hussein as a psychopathic dictator who can only be stopped by American military force. A key element of the narrative is forged documents “proving” Iraq sought uranium from Niger (see Between Late 2000 and September 11, 2001, October 15, 2001, October 18, 2001, November 20, 2001, February 5, 2002, March 1, 2002, Late April or Early May 2002-June 2002, and Late June 2002). One of the main objectives is to swing the dialogue ever farther to the right, creating the assumption in the public mind that war with Iraq is a thoughtful, moderate, well-reasoned position, and delegitimizing any opposition. To that end, Cheney stakes out the “moderate” position, with statements like “many of us are convinced that Saddam will acquire nuclear weapons fairly soon” (see August 26, 2002), and neoconservatives such as Michael Ledeen pushing the extremes ever rightward with calls to invade not only Iraq, but Iran, Syria, and Saudi Arabia (see September 20, 2001, August 6, 2002, and September 4, 2002). The real push is delayed until the second week of September. As Card reminds the group, “From a marketing point of view, you don’t introduce new products in August” (see September 6, 2002). The first anniversary of the 9/11 attacks is a perfect opportunity to launch the new campaign (see September 8, 2002). [Unger, 2007, pp. 250-251] Wilkinson, the group’s communications director, is tasked with preparing one of the group’s first public releases, a white paper that will describe the “grave and gathering danger” of Iraq’s “reconstituted” nuclear weapons program. Wilkinson will claim that Iraq “sought uranium oxide, an essential ingredient in the enrichment process, from Africa.” [CounterPunch, 11/9/2005]
'Push[ing] the Envelope' - According to an intelligence source interviewed by the New York Daily News in October 2005, the group, on “a number of occasions,” will attempt “to push the envelope on things.… The [CIA] would say, ‘We just don’t have the intelligence to substantiate that.’” [New York Daily News, 10/19/2005] In 2003, three unnamed officials will tell a Washington Post reporter that the group “wanted gripping images and stories not available in the hedged and austere language of intelligence,” what author and reporter Charlie Savage will call “a stark display of the political benefits that come with the power to control information.” [Savage, 2007, pp. 357] In 2008, McClellan will write of “the heightened rhetoric on Iraq, including unequivocal statements that made things sound more certain than was known.” [McClellan, 2008, pp. 137]
Using Friendly Media Outlets - An important part of the WHIG strategy is to feed their messages to friendly journalists, such as New York Times reporter Judith Miller. James Bamford, in his book A Pretext for War, will write: “First OSP [Office of Special Plans] supplies false or exaggerated intelligence; then members of the WHIG leak it to friendly reporters, complete with prepackaged vivid imagery; finally, when the story breaks, senior officials point to it as proof and parrot the unnamed quotes they or their colleagues previously supplied.” [Bamford, 2004, pp. 325]

Entity Tags: Stephen J. Hadley, Scott McClellan, Saddam Hussein, Nicholas E. Calio, White House Iraq Group, Lewis (“Scooter”) Libby, Condoleezza Rice, Mary Matalin, Andrew Card, Craig Unger, James Bamford, Charlie Savage, Karen Hughes, James R. Wilkinson, Karl C. Rove

Timeline Tags: Events Leading to Iraq Invasion, Domestic Propaganda, Niger Uranium and Plame Outing

At a meeting of the White House Iraq Group, speechwriter Michael Gerson suggests that Bush argue in his next speech that the US should not wait until there is conclusive evidence that Iraq has acquired a nuclear weapon because the first sign of a “smoking gun” may be a “mushroom cloud.” Gerson’s suggestion is met with enthusiastic approval. The soundbite is so well liked that the phrase is leaked to the New York Times before the speech, appearing in an article on September 8 (see September 8, 2002). [Isikoff and Corn, 2006, pp. 35] Gerson, a devout evangelical Christian, was trained by former Nixon aide Charles Colson, whom Colson’s former colleague John Dean describes as “Nixon’s hatchet man and political schemer.” [Dean, 2004, pp. 62]

Entity Tags: Michael Gerson, White House Iraq Group

Timeline Tags: Events Leading to Iraq Invasion, Domestic Propaganda

White House officials, in interviews with the New York Times, describe the administration’s strategy to convince the public, Congress, and US allies of the need to confront Iraq. They say the centerpiece of the strategy will be Bush’s September 11 speech at Ellis Island in New York Harbor, which they have been planning since at least June. (The speech will not actually make a case for confronting Iraq. Bush will first make his case to the nation in his October 7 speech (see February 20, 2001).) Explaining why the White House did not launch this effort in August when the administration’s plans came under intense criticism from a number of different quarters, White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card tells the New York Times, “From a marketing point of view, you don’t introduce new products in August.” Card is the founding member of the White House Iraq Group (see August 2002 and June 9, 2008), which was formed to “educate the public” on the alleged threat from Iraq. The officials also tell the Times that one of the administration’s goals is for Congress to pass a resolution approving the use of force in Iraq within the next four to five weeks. “In the end it will be difficult for someone to vote against it,” one administration official tells the Times. [New York Times, 9/7/2002] In 2007, author and reporter Charlie Savage will write: “The proposed hurry-up vote on the eve of the first election since 9/11 presented a win-win scenario for the White House: If Democrats voice caution or skepticism about the proposed war resolution (see October 11, 2002), then the GOP could portray them as weak on terrorism ahead of the election, and if Democrats supported the bill, then the Bush-Cheney administration would fortify its powers by eliminating even the suggestion that it might later need to ask for permission to launch any war against Iraq” (see August 2002). By mid-September, Republican Congressional candidates will make Iraq a central issue of their campaigns, proclaiming unwavering support for Bush and attacking their Democratic opponents. In New Mexico, Republican House candidate Mike Pence will say of his opponent, John Arthur Smith, who is still considering whether or not to support the invasion, “While Smith ‘reflects’ on the situation, the possibility of a mushroom cloud hovering over a US city (see September 4, 2002) remains.” In Minnesota, Republican Senate candidate Norm Coleman will attack Democratic incumbent Paul Wellstone for refusing to “stand with the president.” Similar tactics will be used in campaigns around the country. As a result, almost every Democrat facing re-election joins Republicans in supporting the war authorization. Savage will write, “Thus, even though the Founders wanted Congress to make the final decision about when the United States should go to war, lawmakers abdicated their responsibility and delegated their power to the president.” [USA Today, 10/13/2002; Savage, 2007, pp. 156-157]

Entity Tags: Norm Coleman, Mike Pence, Andrew Card, White House Iraq Group, Bush administration (43), John Arthur Smith, Charlie Savage, Paul Wellstone

Timeline Tags: Events Leading to Iraq Invasion, Domestic Propaganda

Judith Miller.Judith Miller. [Source: Washington Post]Judith Miller and Michael Gordon of the New York Times report in a front page story that Iraq is trying to obtain materials to build a nuclear weapon. Citing unnamed senior administration officials, they break the story of the aluminum tubes that were confiscated in Jordan in July 2001 (see July 2001) and write that both “American intelligence experts” and top officials believe the tubes were meant to be used as centrifuge rotors in a nuclear enrichment program. “In the last 14 months, Iraq has sought to buy thousands of specially designed aluminum tubes, which American officials believe were intended as components of centrifuges to enrich uranium,” reports the newspaper. “The diameter, thickness and other technical specifications of the aluminum tubes had persuaded American intelligence experts that they were meant for Iraq’s nuclear program….” Officials cited in the article warn that the US must not wait for more evidence before taking action to disarm Iraq because the first sign of a “smoking gun” may be a mushroom cloud. [New York Times, 9/8/2002] (The “smoking gun/mushroom cloud” analogy was conceived by presidential speech writer Michael Gerson a few days earlier; see September 4, 2002 for details.) What Gordon and Miller’s sources did not tell them, and what they neglected to find out on their own, was that the country’s top nuclear experts do not believe the tubes are suitable for rotors (see, e.g., July 2001-March 2003, August 17, 2001, and Late 2001). For example, Houston G. Wood III, a retired Oak Ridge physicist, filed a report with the US government more than a year before (see August 17, 2001) concluding that the tubes were not meant for centrifuges. When he reads the New York Times story, he is shocked. In an interview with the Australian Broadcasting Corporation more than a year later, he will recount his initial reaction: “My first thought was, ‘This must be some new tubes,’ you know. And then… and then when I realized that these were the tubes that I had been looking at a year before, I was just… I was… I was just shocked. I couldn’t believe that, you know, here we were, saying that these tubes were, you know, the same tubes that I’d come to the conclusion a year before were not valid for centrifuges, and here they’re saying they are. So, er… that was a real surprise.” [Australian Broadcasting Corporation, 10/27/2003] In subsequent stories about the tubes, the Times will note that there is a debate, however these reports will appear in the back pages of the newspaper (see, e.g., September 13, 2002). [New York Times, 5/26/2004]

Entity Tags: Michael Gordon, Judith Miller, Houston G. Wood III

Timeline Tags: Events Leading to Iraq Invasion

The Senate Intelligence Committee releases its long-awaited “Phase II” report on the Bush administration’s use of intelligence in convincing the country that it was necessary to invade Iraq. According to the report, none of the claims made by the administration—particularly that Iraq had WMD and that its government had working ties with Islamist terror organizations such as al-Qaeda—were based in any intelligence reporting. The committee released “Phase I” of its report in July 2004, covering the quality of intelligence used in making the case for war; the second phase was promised “soon afterwards” by the then-Republican leadership of the committee, but nothing was done until after Democrats took over the committee in November 2006. The report is the product of what the Associated Press calls “nasty partisan fight[ing]” among Republicans and Democrats, and largely fails to reveal much information that has not earlier been reported elsewhere. [Associated Press, 6/5/2008] The report is bipartisan in that two Republican committee members, Olympia Snowe (R-ME) and Chuck Hagel (R-NE), joined the committee’s Democrats to sign the report. [Hill, 6/5/2008]
False Linkages between Iraq, Al-Qaeda - Time magazine notes that the report “doesn’t break any new ground,” but tries “to make the case that President Bush and his advisers deliberately disregarded conflicting intel and misled Americans on the severity of the Iraqi threat.” Committee chairman John D. Rockefeller (D-WV) says: “It is my belief that the Bush administration was fixated on Iraq, and used the 9/11 attacks by al-Qaeda as justification for overthrowing Saddam Hussein. To accomplish this, top administration officials made repeated statements that falsely linked Iraq and al-Qaeda as a single threat.” [Time, 6/6/2008]
Examination of Five Speeches - The report looks at the statements of current and former Bush administration officials such as President Bush, Vice President Cheney, Secretary of State Colin Powell, and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, between October 2002 and the actual invasion of Iraq in March 2003 (see January 23, 2008), largely focusing on five speeches:
bullet Cheney’s speech to the Veterans of Foreign Wars National Convention (see August 26, 2002);
bullet Bush’s statement to the UN General Assembly (see September 12, 2002);
bullet Bush’s speech in Cincinnati (see October 7, 2002);
bullet Bush’s State of the Union speech (see 9:01 pm January 28, 2003);
bullet and Powell’s presentation to the United Nations Security Council (see February 5, 2003).
The report contrasts these speeches and statements to intelligence reports that have since then been released. The report only assesses the veracity of public comments made by Bush officials, and does not delve into any possible behind-the-scenes machinations by those officials or their surrogates. Some of the report’s conclusions:
bullet “Statements which indicated that [Saddam] Hussein was prepared to give WMDs to terrorists were inconsistent with existing intelligence at the time, as were statements that suggested a partnership between the two.”
bullet “Claims that airstrikes on their own would not be sufficient to destroy purported chemical and biological weapons in Iraq were unsubstantiated.”
bullet “Most statements that supported the theory that Hussein had access to or the capacity to build chemical, biological, or even nuclear weapons did not take into account the disagreements between intelligence agencies as to the credibility of the WMD allegations.”
'Statements beyond What the Intelligence Supported' - Rockefeller says the administration concealed information that contradicted their arguments that an invasion was necessary. “We might have avoided this catastrophe,” he says. The report finds that while many of the administration’s claims were supported by at least some intelligence findings, the administration routinely refused to mention dissents or uncertainties expressed by intelligence analysts about the information being presented. The committee’s five Republicans assail the report as little more than election-year partisanship, and accuse Democrats of using the report to cover for their own members, including Rockefeller and Carl Levin (D-MI), who supported the administration’s push for war at the time. [Senate Intelligence Committee, 6/5/2008 pdf file; Associated Press, 6/5/2008; Time, 6/6/2008] Rockefeller answers the Republican charges by saying, “[T]here is a fundamental difference between relying on incorrect intelligence and deliberately painting a picture to the American people that you know is not fully accurate.” Committee member Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) writes in a note attached to the report: “Even though the intelligence before the war supported inaccurate statements, this administration distorted the intelligence in order to build its case to go to war. The executive branch released only those findings that supported the argument, did not relay uncertainties, and at times made statements beyond what the intelligence supported.” [Huffington Post, 6/5/2008]

Entity Tags: Chuck Hagel, John D. Rockefeller, Colin Powell, Dianne Feinstein, Donald Rumsfeld, Bush administration (43), Carl Levin, Olympia Snowe, Al-Qaeda, Richard (“Dick”) Cheney, George W. Bush, Senate Intelligence Committee, Saddam Hussein

Timeline Tags: Events Leading to Iraq Invasion

The recently released Senate Intelligence Committee report on misleading, exaggerated, and inaccurate presentations of the prewar Iraqi threat by the Bush administration (see June 5, 2008) leaves out some significant material. The report says that the panel did not review “less formal communications between intelligence agencies and other parts of the executive branch.” The committee made no attempt to obtain White House records or interview administration officials because, the report says, such steps were considered beyond the scope of the report. Washington Post reporter Walter Pincus notes that “[o]ne obvious target for such an expanded inquiry would have been the records of the White House Iraq Group (WHIG), a group set up in August 2002 by then-White House Chief of Staff Andrew H. Card Jr.” WHIG (see August 2002) was composed of, among other senior White House officials, senior political adviser Karl Rove; the vice president’s chief of staff, Lewis “Scooter” Libby; communications strategists Karen Hughes, Mary Matalin, and James Wilkinson; legislative liaison Nicholas Calio; and a number of policy aides led by National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice and her deputy, Stephen Hadley.
WHIG Led Marketing of War - Scott McClellan, the former White House press secretary, recently wrote in his book What Happened that WHIG “had been set up in the summer of 2002 to coordinate the marketing of the war to the public.… The script had been finalized with great care over the summer [for a] “campaign to convince Americans that war with Iraq was inevitable and necessary.” On September 6, 2002, Card hinted as much to reporters when he said, “From a marketing point of view, you don’t introduce new products in August” (see September 6, 2002). Two days later, the group scored its first hit with a front-page New York Times story about Iraq’s secret purchase of aluminum tubes that, the story said, could be used to produce nuclear weapons (see September 8, 2002). The information for that story came from “senior administration officials” now known to be members of WHIG. The story was the first to make the statement that “the first sign of a ‘smoking gun’ [proving the existence of an Iraqi nuclear weapons program] may be a mushroom cloud” (see September 4, 2002); that same morning, the same message was repeated three times by various senior administration officials on the Sunday talk shows (see September 8, 2002, September 8, 2002, and September 8, 2002). WHIG did not “deliberately mislead the public,” McClellan claimed in his book, but wrote that the “more fundamental problem was the way [Bush’s] advisers decided to pursue a political propaganda campaign to sell the war to the American people.… As the campaign accelerated,” caveats and qualifications were downplayed or dropped altogether. Contradictory intelligence was largely ignored or simply disregarded.”
Records Perusal Would 'Shed Light' - If indeed the White House “repeatedly presented intelligence as fact when it was unsubstantiated, contradicted, or even nonexistent,” as committee chairman John D. Rockefeller (D-WV) has said, then an examination of WHIG’s records would, Pincus writes, “shed much light” on the question. [Washington Post, 6/9/2008]

Entity Tags: New York Times, Karen Hughes, John D. Rockefeller, James R. Wilkinson, Condoleezza Rice, Bush administration (43), Andrew Card, Karl C. Rove, Mary Matalin, Senate Intelligence Committee, Stephen J. Hadley, Walter Pincus, White House Iraq Group, Nicholas E. Calio, Scott McClellan, Lewis (“Scooter”) Libby

Timeline Tags: Domestic Propaganda

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