Getting away with murder (literally): Presidential lying, journalistic malfeasance, and the manipulation of public opinion

By Robert Jensen

[This is an edited version of a talk given to “The Prospect of Presidential Rhetoric” conference, held in the George Bush Presidential Library Center at Texas A&M University, March 6, 2004]

The question posed in this essay is simple: When a nation engages in an illegal war and the news media are central to building support for that war, to what degree are journalists complicit in the crime?

In pursuing that question, I will stick to uncontroversial facts and relatively uncontroversial interpretations on which there is a broad consensus around the world. From those facts and interpretations, I will make two arguments, one about the Iraq War and another about journalists’ performance (focusing on the period before the war).

Argument #1: George W. Bush and other top U.S. leaders involved in planning and executing the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq are guilty of crimes against peace, and;

Argument #2: The mainstream commercial U.S. news media was professionally negligent and therefore complicit in those crimes. By abandoning their role as an independent, critical force, journalists helped shape U.S. public opinion in a way that allowed the Bush administration, with significant support among Democrats, to conduct the war without serious challenge domestically.


On March 20, 2003, the United States and Great Britain launched an invasion of Iraq using missiles, aircraft and ground troops.

At the time of the invasion, no U.N. Security Council resolution authorized the use of force by any member state against Iraq. UNSCR 1483, which lifted sanctions and effectively allowed the Untied States to spend the oil revenue — and which some interpret as a legalization of the U.S. occupation — was passed on May 22, 2003, well after the end of “major combat operations” on May 1, 2003.

At the time of the invasion, Iraq was not engaged in armed attack against the United States or Great Britain, nor was Iraq was planning such an attack.

The U.S./U.K. invasion resulted in the removal of the government headed by Saddam Hussein and the creation by the United States of a Coalition Provisional Authority to govern the country during formal U.S. occupation. Although that authority eventually gave way to the beginnings of an elected government, the United States plans to retain long-term military bases in Iraq after the formal occupation ends.

While there is no authoritative figure on the number of Iraqis, military or civilian, killed in the war, all estimates are in the thousands. Estimates of civilian deaths are in the 100,000 range.


From the uncontroversial facts, let’s move to the relatively uncontroversial interpretations on which there is broad consensus around the world.

The foundational document of international law is the charter of the United Nations, which is binding on all signatories, which include the United States. By virtue of Article VI of the U.S. Constitution, which makes all treaties part of the “supreme Law of the Land,” the U.N. Charter is part of U.S. law.

Chapter VII of the U.N. Charter makes it clear that any use of force in international relations must be authorized by the Security Council. The only exception to that principle is the right of self-defense, articulated in Article 51: “Nothing in the present Charter shall impair the inherent right of individual or collective self-defense if an armed attack occurs against a Member of the United Nations, until the Security Council has taken measures necessary to maintain international peace and security. Measures taken by Members in the exercise of this right of self-defense shall be immediately reported to the Security Council and shall not in any way affect the authority and responsibility of the Security Council under the present Charter to take at any time such action as it deems necessary in order to maintain or restore international peace and security.”

To date, no international legal authority has accepted the “Bush Doctrine” of so-called pre-emption outlined in the 2002 National Security Strategy document. I say “so-called,” because pre-emption implies a tangible threat, and if the Iraq War is an example of the Bush Doctrine, no tangible threat existed, and hence there was no pre-emption. Customary interpretations of self-defense continue to be in force, and whatever else one thinks about the Iraq War, it’s clear that the United States was not under armed attack in March 2003. Nor was there any reasonable way to argue that the United States faced the possibility of armed attack in a fashion that would preclude it from going to the Security Council for authorization to use force.

So, based on the uncontroversial facts and the application of international and U.S. law, we can conclude that the U.S. attack on Iraq was unlawful.

To be more specific: Using the terms from the constitution of the Nuremberg Tribunal, the Bush administration committed a “crime against peace,” defined as: “planning, preparation, initiation or waging of a war of aggression, or a war in violation of international treaties, agreements or assurances, or participation in a common plan or conspiracy for the accomplishment of any of the foregoing.”

I will not take up the question of whether during the course of that crime against peace the Bush administration also engaged in war crimes or crimes against humanity, the two other categories from Nuremberg. I think the routine use of weapons such as cluster bombs — which are inherently indiscriminate and therefore violate the Geneva Conventions’ prohibition against the use of “means of combat the effects of which cannot be limited as required by this Protocol; and consequently, in each such case, are of a nature to strike military objectives and civilians or civilian objects without distinction” — constitutes a war crime, for example.

But because my focus here is on the pre-war period and the role of journalists, I will not argue those points. Instead, I will simply observe (1) that the war lacked legal authorization and was therefore unlawful and (2) that however far down the chain of command one might want to go if one was considering prosecution,
President Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, then-Secretary of State Colin Powell, and then-National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice are indisputably at a level of power and decision-making that they are culpable for that crime against peace if, again, we are to use the Nuremberg standard: “Leaders, organizers, instigators and accomplices participating in the formulation or execution of a common plan or conspiracy to commit any of the foregoing crimes are responsible for all acts performed by any persons in execution of such plan.”

[A footnote: It’s important to note that these conclusions are not unique to the current adminstration. For example, George H.W. Bush was without question guilty of both crimes against peace (for the unlawful invasion of Panama in 1989) and war crimes (for the deliberate destruction of civilian infrastructure and the murder of retreating troops in the 1991 Gulf War). And, in the spirit of bipartisanship, Bill Clinton was also without question guilty of similar violations of international law for his 1999 war in Yugoslavia, and his lower-level bombings of Iraq, Afghanistan, and the Sudan. Some also would argue that Bush I, Clinton, and Bush II were all guilty of crimes against humanity for their insistence that the harsh economic embargo on Iraq during the period between the 1991 and 2003 wars remain, even though by conservative estimates hundreds of thousands of Iraqi civilians died as a result.]

It is possible that Bush administration officials could offer a defense of their actions that would challenge this interpretation of international and domestic law. I have yet to hear any attempt to make such a case in public, unless one considers platitudes — such as “America will never seek a permission slip to defend the security of our country” — to be a substantive argument. Few around the world find such assertions persuasive.

In the United States, these simple conclusions about international law are almost never discussed in mainstream circles and would be considered either crazy or irrelevant by much of the public. However, as I have suggested, this analysis is relatively uncontroversial around the world. What could explain the difference? One possible explanation is that all those people around the world lack some intellectual or moral abilities that render them unable to makes rational evaluations of such issues. Perhaps a more fruitful inquiry would be to consider differences in exposure to facts, analysis, and opinion, along with the ideological climate in which such information is consumed. Such an inquiry leads to journalism and mass media.


That George Bush and other members of his administration made statements in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq that were factually inaccurate is well established. Whether or not they knowingly lied is still a matter of dispute in some circles (though none that I travel in). At the moment, the Bush administration is doing its best to convince Americans that whatever pre-war statements made that were false were the result of the so-called “intelligence failures.”

My assessment is that the various distorted, exaggerated, and outright false claims about Iraq’s chemical, biological, and nuclear programs, and about its alleged ties to terrorist networks, were not the product of intelligence failures but of a quite successful political campaign to create a climate of fear to build public support for a war that was being prosecuted for other reasons (to extend and deepen U.S. control over the strategically crucial oil and oil profits of the region). But, again, to stick to what is uncontroversial and to keep the focus on the news media, we need not speculate about the motivations of Bush administration officials. To examine whether journalists fulfilled their role, we need not come to any judgment about whether those officials lied intentionally or were merely gullible, incompetent, and/or clueless when they made false statements.

Let me start by outlining clear criteria on which we can evaluate the performance of journalists, which is another way of asking, “what are journalists for?” in a modern democratic state. I would suggest it is, again, uncontroversial to assert that if citizens in a democracy are to be able to participate meaningfully in the political process, they need from journalists: (1) an independent source of factual information; (2) the historical, political, and social context in which to make sense of those facts; and (3) exposure to the widest range of opinion available in the society.

On points (2) and (3) the news media consistently fails, and failed particularly profoundly in the run-up to the Iraq invasion. News media typically provided little or no context; even the most basic contemporary historical context of how the nation-states of the Middle East came to be and why their current rulers rule, which is crucial to understanding the war, was largely absent. The range of opinion on television news talk shows and newspaper opinion pages was extremely narrow, running the gamut — as the old joke goes — from A to B. A study by Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting noted that 76 percent of the guests on network talk shows in late January and early February 2003 were current or former officials, and that anti-war sources accounted for less than 1 percent.

How narrow that range was, and how little of that context was relevant to journalists, can be seen in the comment of Fred Hiatt, editor of the Washington Post’s editorial page: “Through much of the fall [of 2002], the debate wasn’t really ‘antiwar’ versus ‘pro-war,’ as the lopsided congressional vote back then suggests; it was what is the right way to approach this problem. I think we offered as wide a range of opinion on that question as any newspaper.”

So, if one accepted the terms of the debate — which put off the table the analyses most crucial to understanding the war — then one could potentially be part of the debate in mainstream media. If one accepted the assumptions and frameworks of the elite, one would be deemed serious enough to be heard. In other words, journalists in a nominally free press had become so subordinated to power that they not only had trouble imagining that any relevant analysis existed outside of elite opinion, but were confused about why they didn’t know it when such critiques became too obvious to ignore. Consider the experience of Lance Bennett, a political scientist at the University of Washington who studies politics and media, who was asked by a Newsweek reporter in January 2003: “We in the press have become aware of a substantial antiwar movement. Why do you think we are not reporting it?”

But let me return to criteria #1, the need for an independent source of factual information. Whatever the failures of analysis and diversity of opinion, what of the news media’s performance on questions of fact? The key term in that criteria is “independent.” The two dominant centers of political power in the United States — the state and the corporation — routinely churn out a large volume of information. Some of that information is factually accurate; some isn’t. Almost all of it is framed to maximize the benefit to the individual or agency on whose behalf the information is being circulated. That mix is what we commonly call propaganda, and our society is awash in it. Citizens need journalists to do more than function as a conduit for propaganda.

Since the claim that Iraq’s alleged unconventional weapons posed a threat to the United States was the linchpin of the Bush administration’s argument for war, I will focus on that issue. The U.S. government put out a considerable amount of information about Iraq’s alleged WMD. No doubt some of it was true. Much of it was not. Did journalists do their job in trying to tell the difference? Much of the reporting on the WMD issue was simple regurgitation of information from government spokespersons, official or leaked. Of course there were some good stories published in the mainstream commercial news media in the run-up to the war, but those few stories only help make the general failure clearer.

For example, on March 16, 2003, Chicago Tribune reporter Sam Roe’s story detailed just how crude were the forged documents that had been used to push the claim that Iraq had sought to buy uranium in Niger. Yet no major news outlet picked up on, or advanced, the story. Because the Tribune is a regional paper, the journalistic community could conveniently ignore the important story.

This claim about African uranium, which Bush had used in his January 28, 2003, State of the Union address, had been central to hyping the nuclear threat. A previous assertion of “evidence” of that threat — the claim that Iraq was trying to obtain high-strength aluminum tubes for centrifuges to enrich uranium for nuclear weapons — had started to fall apart even before Bush cited it in an October 7, 2002, speech in Cincinnati.

There was some reporting on that subject, such as a September 19, 2002, Washington Post story about independent experts’ challenge to the claim — a story that also pointed out that the Institute for Science and International Security report contended that the Bush administration was trying to suppress dissent among its own analysts over how to interpret the evidence. But, again, the exception proves the rule; such reports never got a fraction of the coverage of the Bush administration’s claims, and even the papers that ran such stories steadfastly refused to take seriously the implications of their reporting.

One exception to this was Washington Post reporter Dana Milbank’s October 22, 2002, story on Bush’s habit of, well, bending the truth in public. Although Milbank used cautious language in the story — in a 1,600-word story, Milbank didn’t once use the terms “lie,” “lying,” or “liar,” though that is the behavior he described — the point comes through. The result? Other journalists reported that Bush administration officials attacked Milbank’s reporting and complained to his editors. The lesson to other reporters is clear: Take on the administration and you can expect sources to dry up and your professional life to become unpleasant. That control strategy has been effective, in large part because journalists have internalized the idea that news is made by officials, and therefore access to officials is crucial to covering the news. It is as if journalists built a cage, stepped into it, locked the door, and handed the keys to elites.

On virtually every claim that the Bush administration made about WMD and ties between Iraq and Al Qaeda, an evaluation of the performance of journalists would be similar. What little independent, skeptical, aggressive reporting there was typically downplayed, while at the same time stories that took Bush claims at face value, without skepticism, flowed freely. I’ve concentrated here on daily newspapers; on television news, both broadcast and cable, the performance was even worse. While it is easy to demonize FOX News for its cheerleading for the war, the substantive performance of CNN was barely better.

If, for the sake of discussion, one accepts this assessment, one additional point needs consideration. Even if the news media failed, does that make a difference? In other words, did the failure of journalism have a significant effect on public opinion and truly help build support for the war?

Polling data suggests that the combination of government propaganda and the news media’s uncritical transmission of it had pronounced effects on public opinion. A Knight Ridder/Princeton Research poll conducted January 3-6, 2003, showed that 44 percent of the respondents thought that “most” or “some” of the 9/11 hijackers were Iraqis; only 17 percent knew the correct answer, “none.” Also in that poll, 65 percent said they thought Iraq and Al Qaeda were allies, and 91 percent believed that Hussein was concealing nuclear, chemical or biological weapons. 41 percent said Iraq already had nuclear weapons, a claim that not even Bush officials made.

A Pew Research Center/Council on Foreign Relations survey conducted on February 12-13, 2003, found that 57 percent of Americans believed that weapons inspectors had proof that Iraq is trying to hide weapons of mass destruction (which inspectors never said) and that 57 percent also believe Saddam Hussein had a direct role in helping the 9/11 hijackers.

One of the most thorough efforts, conducted by the Program on International Policy at the University of Maryland and based on polls conducted from June through September 2003, found that 48 percent of the public believed that evidence of links between Iraq and Al Qaeda had been found; 22 percent believed that WMD had been found; and 25 percent believed that world public opinion had favored a U.S. war with Iraq. Overall, 60 percent had at least one of those misperceptions, which were highly correlated with support for war. Of people who held none of those beliefs, only 23 percent supported war. With each misperception, support for the war increased:
–1 misperception: 53 percent support for war.
–2 misperceptions: 78 percent support for war.
–3 misperceptions: 86 percent support for war.

Such polling data do not conclusively prove that news media are primarily responsible for creating in the public these kinds of misperceptions or beliefs contrary to fact. I am not arguing that journalists are the only force that can counter the propaganda efforts of other institutions. But it is part of the professional ethic of journalism to do that; two of the four primary ethical guidelines of the Society of Professional Journalists, for example, are “seek the truth and report it” and “act independently.” Under the latter, the command is: “Be vigilant and courageous about holding those with power accountable.”

Journalists pledge to the public that they will provide that independent information necessary for citizenship. By their own standards, journalists failed. As is too often the case — especially in times national crisis and war — U.S. journalists served a propaganda function for the state. When elite opinion lined up behind a policy, most U.S. journalists looked for their place in the queue.

To summarize: I want to make it clear that I am putting forward an extremely conservative argument: Even if Bush administration officials did not knowingly lie when it put forward false claims about Iraqi weapons, it was still the duty of journalists — under their own widely accepted professional code — to subject those claims to rigorous scrutiny. They did not routinely do so. This failure created a pattern of reporting that a reasonable person could interpret to mean that Iraq posed an imminent threat to the safety of Americans. That sense of fear helped create support for the U.S. invasion of Iraq, allowing the Bush administration to pursue an unlawful war. By allowing themselves to become conduits for false information — whether out of negligence or complicity journalists — therefore share in responsibility, not in legal but in moral terms, for those crimes against peace.

I also would like to make one thing clear: To come to these conclusions is not easy for me. I spent a good chunk of my adult life as a journalist in mainstream newsrooms. I love the craft of journalism. I like most journalists I meet. I take no glee in pointing out this failure. My critique comes out of that affection for the craft and the people who practice it. But I also am angry at an industry that has betrayed the trust I once put in it. I want to honor both the affection and the anger by being honest, even though it is literally painful for me.

So, in that spirit, I want to conclude by describing what perhaps may be the most pathetic moment in the history of U.S. journalism, during the president’s March 6, 2003, news conference. On the eve of a controversial war for which the United States had no legal sanction, and which had sparked a worldwide protest the month before that brought at least 10 million people into the streets, journalists finally had a crack at the president. Instead of challenging him, they mostly capitulated to a sanitized, scripted performance. The low point came when one reporter asked:

“Mr. President, as the nation is at odds over war, with many organizations like the Congressional Black Caucus pushing for continued diplomacy through the U.N., how is your faith guiding you? And what should you tell America — well, what should America do, collectively, as you instructed before 9/11? Should it be pray? Because you’re saying, let’s continue the war on terror.”

Bush began his answer by saying, “I appreciate that question a lot.” Of course he appreciated a softball question like that. If I were a president about to engage in a crime against peace in defiance of world opinion, I would appreciate a question that allowed me to respond with platitudes.

“My faith sustains me because I pray daily. I pray for guidance and wisdom and strength,” Bush said.

Whatever one’s belief about the efficacy of prayer, it should not be controversial that on the eve of war, the inability of journalists to critique the factual claims and arguments offered to support a war — no matter what one’s position on the justification for, or nobility of, the war — is a serious professional failing. It also is clear that such a failing affects not just the profession but the political process. And since the enormous power of the United States and its military can be projected anywhere in the world, it is not hyperbolic to say that the failures of journalism are part of a “threat matrix” that has the rest of the world justifiably worried about where next the benevolent giant will train its guns.

Rob Stein, “100,000 Civilian Deaths Estimated in Iraq,” Washington Post, October 29, 2004, p. A-16. See also Iraq Body Count.
Charter of the United Nations.
National Security Strategy of the United States of America, September 2002.
Nuremberg Trial Proceedings Vol. 1, Constitution of the International Military Tribunal, Article 6, August 1945.
Protocol 1, Additional to the Geneva Conventions, 1977.
George W. Bush, State of the Union address, January 20, 2004.
There are countless articles detailing these inaccurate statements. For one example, see Christopher Scheer, “Ten Appalling Lies We Were Told About Iraq,” Alternet, June 27, 2003.
Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, “In Iraq Crisis, Networks Are Megaphones for Official Views,” March 18, 2003.
quoted in Michael Getler, “Is Op-Ed ‘Op’ Enough?” Washington Post, April 6, 2003.
Lance Bennett, “The perfect storm? The American media and Iraq,” openDemocracy, August 28, 2003.
Sam Roe, “Fake document tied to Niger Embassy,” Chicago Tribune, March 16, 2003, p. 14.
George W. Bush, State of the Union address, January 28, 2003.
George W. Bush, Remarks at Cincinnati Museum Center, October 7, 2003.
Joby Warrick, “Evidence on Iraq Challenged,” Washington Post, September 19, 2002, page A-18.
Nicholas Confessore, “Beat the Press: Does the White House have a blacklist?” The American Prospect, March 11, 2002.
Martin Merzer, “Poll: Majority of Americans oppose unilateral action against Iraq,” Knight-Ridder Newspapers, January 12, 2003.
Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, “U.S. Needs More International Backing,” February 20, 2003.
The PIPA/Knowledge Networks Poll, October 2, 2003.
Society of Professional Journalists, Code of Ethics,
George W. Bush, news conference, March 6, 2003.