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A Tyranny of Misperceptions

April 20, 2005
By Gregory R. Pratt

The United States of America is ruled by a tyrannical force, and I do not mean the Republican Congress, the conservative Supreme Court, or even George W. Bush. At the end of the day, the men currently in power will eventually be booted out of office at the voting booth, be term limited, step down and retire, or they will die, as we all must. They do not hold true power in this country. There is a stronger force behind them - behind all of America - and it is the tyranny of misperceptions.

At its conception, this piece was to be a spirited defense of the Central Intelligence Agency's handling of Iraq intelligence, for they have been unfairly faulted by a press all-too-willing to gloss over significant facts and repeat partisan garbage rather than cover the news. This isn't to say that I won't be covering the CIA, as I will, but there are a few notes that must be touched upon before we get to this.

National polls, taken before the election, have shown that approximately forty-two percent of the American public believes that Saddam Hussein was directly tied to the September 11th terrorist strikes. As has been noted by several angry education activists over the years, the number one newspaper in this country is the National Enquirer. I remember Bill Maher ranting furiously on his show's season premier last year that convention viewership had fallen for the Democratic Convention as opposed to their 2000 ratings. The significance of this must be stressed: during a war, the American public doesn't care about its government or the election, certainly not enough to take it seriously.

The 2004 presidential election drew the largest voter turn-out since 1968, but it wasn't enough. During a war, the American public couldn't be asked to rise at the polls in unprecedented numbers. This is largely because of the press, I feel. Conservatives love to blame liberals for the media - biased reporters! - but the problem with the media comes with its insatiable need for money. Editors are no longer in the business for the reckless pursuit of truth, they are in it for the love of money.

This isn't entirely their fault. We've made it very difficult for a newspaper to succeed without money - to get big money they need big advertisers, and they can't get that without subscribers. Then success of the sensationalistic buzz created by tabloids has rubbed off on formerly serious news organziations over the last few years, and now, to succeed, these organizations must become beacons of filth. Hence the coverage of angry Swift Boat Veterans, Janet Jackson's breast and Laci Peterson over the last year.

I have read what I consider horror stories about newspaper editors spiking pieces for fear of a corporation pulling the plug on its promotions in that paper. When crunch time comes, a newspaper's job - a real newspaper - is to provide the news to the American public without fear of government intervention. Freedom of the press is one of the few things that has kept this country going for so long, but our media is currently being held hostage by big money and tabloid trash and they, in turn, are holding the gun of ignorance to the American public's temple.

Nowhere is this better illustrated than in the coverage given to the CIA about Iraqi WMD over the course of the last few years, and the crimes of misrepresentation and poor analysis that have come to be perpetrated against the public record in regard to the driving forces behind the invasion of Iraq.

Intelligence failures and Iraq have become synonymous, but how much of it was a failure on the behalf of George Tenet? I take the position that there wasn't much of a failure on his fault. Sure the CIA had no real assets in Iraq and thus it had to rely on outdated information, as well as on shifty characters whose background we didn't fully comprehend. For its inability to infiltrate the Saddam Hussein regime or his state, the CIA deserves a certain level of shame. But that, however, does not equate to botching the case for war.

In Bob Woodward's Plan of Attack, George W. Bush is seen calling the CIA for intelligence on Iraq, and becoming disappointed by the lack of truly frightening information that he had. Thus he requested more and more briefings, telling his briefers that the information must be scarier so as to be better presented to the American public. In Ron Suskind's The Price of Loyalty, the Cabinet is presented with map-sized spy photographs of alleged chemical weapons plants, prompting Paul O'Neill to dissent, telling the room that he's seen many plants which looked just like it all over the world, so what made this one a chemical weapons facility? Dissent is not particularly valued by this administration. You know what happened to Treasury Secretary O'Neill: he was fired.

From what I have gathered through books such as Suskind's and Woodward's, the Bush administration (starting with the President) demanded the best (read: scariest) intelligence on Iraq, and ignored Tenet's frustration (displayed in several accounts of his time at the CIA) over the Agency's lack of in-Iraq sources. The Central Intelligence Agency, like the rest of the world, believed that Hussein was armed with Weapons of Mass Destruction because, as the Duelfer Report concludes, Saddam Hussein gambled on the idea that the western world would buy an elaborate charade of his - that he was still in the possession of WMD - and be deterred from ever deposing him.

This does not equate to a CIA intelligence failure, and it doesn't lead to "George Tenet, by presenting Americans with faulty intelligence, led us into war." From what I've read, the President asked Director Tenet for information and Tenet gave him what the agency suspected, always expressing his anger at our lack of concrete information on Iraq.

There is one incident that must be addressed in this defense of the CIA, for it has been used to depict Tenet as either a liar or a buffoon, depending on who you speak with. When asked how solid the intelligence was by Bush, Tenet told him that it was "a slam dunk" case against Iraq. If any CIA Director had taken his information, contrasted it against the world's, and found that all these international spy agencies as well as the United Nations believed in the existence of Hussein's programs, then said, "Well, it might not be right, Mr. President," or "We're swimming against the tide of conventional wisdom here," then he wouldn't be fit to hold the office of CIA Director.

It is also possible that Tenet was telling the President that, as a matter of international law and as a reason for war with Iraq, the WMD case was dead-on because of Saddam's past programs, as well as his previous forced ejection of weapons inspectors. It is a very real possibility that Tenet was saying, "Hey, does this information warrant war, under our laws and the world's? You bet." But, even in the unlikely event that Tenet was exclusively discussing whether or not Iraq had WMD, then George Tenet made a human mistake that the rest of the world made. That doesn't equate to botching the intelligence, or misinterpreting it. CIA analysts made it clear to Bush that these reports were not concrete.

George W. Bush cherry-picked his information and then, when it turned out to be "all wrong," the White House, the Congress, and the American public all blamed the CIA. What does the press do? Go along with it, writing scathing piece after scathing piece about Tenet's incompetence, or about how badly the CIA botched the case for war, or about how the CIA could be so incredibly wrong. Not in too many pieces - and in none that I could find - did I read spirited defenses of Tenet, or the CIA. Aside, that is, from brief mentions by Republicans who were pointing out that John Kerry and the UN believed what Bush did, so take that liberals who believe Iraq was the wrong country!

It was a man named George who botched the case for war, but it wasn't George Tenet who was often unequivocal about the lack of backbone to the skeleton of the intelligence. It was George Bush who botched it by choosing what would best scare a nation and presenting it as nothing-less-than-fact. And, on a semi-side note, I blame the Pentagon's intelligence agencies - unfairly influenced by Doug Feith, Paul Wolfowitz and Donald Rumsfeld - as well as the Vice President's office for the flawed interpretations of the intelligence. But I blame Karl Rove, Andrew Card and the President for the misleading presentations of it.

It is clear, to me, from affairs such as this whole sordid one, that a media which must find a way to make money before it delivers truth, a press which is concerned over financial retribution rather than the content of its pieces (or which places a greater emphasis on the former), will be the death of this country. Somehow, whether it be through federal matching fees, or however it may come, the press needs to become fully independent, not just of the Government (looking at Rupert Murdoch) but of the financial interests that are more than capable of destroying a newspaper. This tyrannical force has driven out good men like George Tenet for things they weren't responsible for. It nearly drove out great men like President Clinton from trivial reasons.

This tyrannical force must be stopped, for this nation will not fully rise until it has a press that can and will take the truth, take the nation's best interests, into the greatest amount of consideration before running a story. This country will suffer the humiliation of misinformed masses for decades and maybe centuries if we do not rid it of the tyrannical prejudice toward cash and sensation in our present press. The media has become corrupted with cash and hushed by economic terrorists who will cripple a news enterprise for the wrong stories. Until we have solved the problems in our media and created true independence for it, we will continue to live under a tyranny of misperceptions perpetrated upon us by an ill-intentioned media.

That's the worst tyranny of all.

Gregory R. Pratt is a fifteen-year-old high school student living in Chicago. You can find his blog right here.

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