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Update: Iraq and Arms Inspectors - The Guardian Responds

Media Lens has recently published several Media Alerts focusing on US/UK media coverage of Iraq, arms inspectors and the looming war. A front-page article in yesterday's Guardian reported:

"The British government is preparing for war against Iraq on the growing assumption that Saddam Hussein will fail to disclose his full weapons armoury, or will quickly prove unwilling to cooperate with the stringent conditions of the new UN weapons inspection regime." (Patrick Wintour and Brian Whitaker, 'UK expects Iraq to fail arms tests,' the Guardian, November 11, 2002)

Alternatively it could be argued that the British government is preparing for war on the growing assumption that Iraq will be +made+ to fail to cooperate, no matter how hard it might try to succeed. The above assertion may well be just one more piece in the propaganda jigsaw intended to prepare the country for war.

We recently had this exchange of emails with Oliver Burkeman of the Guardian on these issues:

Dear Oliver Burkeman

In yesterday's Guardian [8.11.02], you wrote:

"There are many glamorous jobs in international diplomacy, but being a UN weapons inspector is not one of them. Those who took part last time remember a life of endless frustrations thrown up by their reluctant Iraqi hosts - the bugged hotels, the hostile minders, the suspicious traffic-jams en route to chemical facilities, the laboratory doors that could only be unlocked by officials who were, sadly, unavailable."

Do you agree that this is of secondary importance beside the fact that Iraq, after seven years of inspections, was 90-95% disarmed of weapons of mass destruction by December 1998? I wonder, have you +ever+ mentioned the extent to which Iraq was actually disarmed by UNSCOM? It is obviously crucial in determining whether war is justified now.

Sincerely

David Edwards
Co-Editor - Media Lens - 9.11.02

Dear David Edwards,

Thanks for your email.

I think you'd have an arguable point if I'd been writing, as you suggest, about whether war in Iraq is justified or not -- whether Saddam Hussein poses a grave threat or not.

But I was writing about whether Hans Blix is or is not likely to be able practically to achieve the task demanded of him. The answer to that is clearly going to be hugely important in the coming months, not least to those who do seek to justify a war.

In the specific context of my article, whether there actually is anything there was not the central point. The point was whether Blix will be able credibly to establish whether there is anything there.

Also, we have indeed given space to the Scott Ritter perspective on Iraqi disarmament, most obviously here: http://www.guardian.co.uk/g2/story/0,3604,794759,00.html

All the best,

Oliver Burkeman - 9.11.02

We note that Burkeman failed to answer whether he had ever mentioned the success of arms inspectors from 1991-98. In fact in the 43 articles written or co-authored by him on Iraq this year, we found a single mention of "claims" of earlier success:

"Mr Ritter claims that [sic] of Iraq's weapons of mass destruction were destroyed by the time the inspectors left and the country was unlikely to have developed new ones without detection." (Ewen MacAskill and Oliver Burkeman, 'Document leaves way clear for war,' The Guardian, November 7, 2002)

Amazingly, in a year of crisis and looming war precisely revolving around the issue of inspectors and peaceful/violent disarmament, this is Burkeman's sole reference to the fact that inspectors have previously delivered 90-95% disarmament. Recall that the Guardian is considered to be the UK's +most+ open and honest newspaper.

Dear Oliver Burkeman

Many thanks for the prompt response. As you say, you were "writing about whether Hans Blix is or is not likely to be able practically to achieve the task demanded of him". But how can the fact that 90-95% disarmament was achieved by Blix's predecessors by December 1998, not be worth mentioning (alongside the earlier difficulties) in evaluating Blix's chances of success now? If it is relevant to mention earlier difficulties and failures, why is it not relevant to mention earlier successes? The point, surely, is that mentioning the earlier problems in isolation has the effect of justifying US/UK government actions now (something had to be done), whereas mentioning the tremendous earlier successes calls those actions into serious question.

By the way, I didn't suggest that your article was about whether war against Iraq is justified. I asked if you had ever mentioned the previous success of arms inspectors, noting that this is vital for understanding if war is justified now. I'm aware of the Ritter/Pitt exchange in the Guardian - last time we checked, Ritter had been mentioned 43 times in over 2,300 articles mentioning Iraq this year in the Guardian/Observer.

Thanks for your time.

Best wishes

David Edwards - 9.11.02

David,

Again I take your points, but again I think they weren't the focus of my article and not necessarily even the most important thing at this current stage of the crisis.

In the resolution passed at the UN yesterday, everything hinges on whether Saddam co-operates. Theoretically, he could have no WMD at all, but if he chose to behave obstructively, he'd be in material breach and subject to "serious consequences". (And vice versa: if Iraq has massive nuclear arsenals but is up-front about it, then, taking the resolution at face value, it would avoid being in further material breach.)

That's what the next stage of this hangs on now. How far the inspectors were able to overcome the obstructions and disarm Iraq last time around is obviously hugely important -- especially if the US were to abandon the UN route and attack using a self-defence justification -- but the ultimatum issued yesterday is about co-operation.

If disarmament was indeed almost completely successful last time, as Scott Ritter says, the evidence would appear to suggest that it was in spite of Iraqi non-co-operation, not thanks to Iraqi co-operation.

Separately and secondarily, I'm not sure Ritter's figures should be taken as undisputed fact. It's precisely the obstructions encountered last time round that would lead many Unscom inspectors, I think, to argue that it was impossible to know what the 100% was from which Ritter derives his 90-95% figure.

And I think I'd be more in sympathy with your argument if my article on this aspect of inspections were the only article in the Guardian on any aspect of inspections. That's far from the truth, as you acknowledge -- although I fear we'll have to agree to disagree as to whether the overall picture presented in the paper as a whole has been fair.

Best wishes

Oliver - 9.11.02

Dear Oliver

Many thanks for your prompt response. I've responded to your points below:

OB: "Again I take your points, but again I think they weren't the focus of my article and not necessarily even the most important thing at this current stage of the crisis."

The focus of your article was, as you wrote, "whether Hans Blix is or is not likely to be able practically to achieve the task demanded of him". In considering his prospects you rightly mentioned the considerable earlier problems that faced UNSCOM inspectors. If this is rational, then it must also be rational to consider the enormous earlier +successes+ achieved by inspectors, as a matter of common sense. To fail to do this guarantees failure in achieving your own stated aim in writing the article. It also means the piece promotes the idea that current US/UK government initiatives are required and reasonable.

OB: "In the resolution passed at the UN yesterday, everything hinges on whether Saddam co-operates. Theoretically, he could have no WMD at all, but if he chose to behave obstructively, he'd be in material breach and subject to 'serious consequences'. (And vice versa: if Iraq has massive nuclear arsenals but is up-front about it, then, taking the resolution at face value, it would avoid being in further material breach.)"

But this is only one interpretation of events. If it is true that Iraq did cooperate in the dismantling of 90-95% of its WMD programmes, then, as has been argued, it may well be that US/UK governments were not then, and are not now, seeking a peaceful resolution to a crisis essentially concocted by them. As the US writer Sean Gonsalves wrote recently, "the United States didn't want the inspections to end. They wanted 'containment'. As long as the inspections were unfinished, the United States could keep Iraq under its control with 'Saddam in his box'." (Gonsalves, 'Looking For The Devil', ZNet Commentary, November 5, 2002)

If this is true then the issue of whether Saddam chooses to cooperate may be entirely academic. Scott Ritter and others have claimed that the US government deliberately manufactured a confrontation ahead of Operation Desert Fox in 1998, +despite+ extensive Iraqi cooperation -machinations that could easily be repeated now. The extent of the earlier cooperation, that you failed to mention, suggests that there is indeed an agenda other than disarmament driving policy, as senior US officials have themselves admitted ("regime change").

OB: "That's what the next stage of this hangs on now. How far the inspectors were able to overcome the obstructions and disarm Iraq last time around is obviously hugely important -- especially if the US were to abandon the UN route and attack using a self-defence justification -- but the ultimatum issued yesterday is about co-operation. If disarmament was indeed almost completely successful last time, as Scott Ritter says, the evidence would appear to suggest that it was in spite of Iraqi non-co-operation, not thanks to Iraqi co-operation."

Where is your evidence for this view? The fact is that Iraq, according to inspectors, +did+ ultimately deliver near-total disarmament. This has been carefully documented. According to Ritter it simply is not true that Iraq failed to cooperate. He writes:

"If this were argued in a court of law, the weight of evidence would go the other way. Iraq has in fact demonstrated over and over a willingness to cooperate with weapons inspectors." (Ritter and William Rivers Pitt, War On Iraq, Profile Books, 2002, p.25)

OB: "Separately and secondarily, I'm not sure Ritter's figures should be taken as undisputed fact. It's precisely the obstructions encountered last time round that would lead many Unscom inspectors, I think, to argue that it was impossible to know what the 100% was from which Ritter derives his 90-95% figure."

I agree, nothing should be taken as undisputed fact. But it is entirely uncontroversial, for example, that Iraq was 100% disarmed of nuclear capability by 1998 - all the relevant programmes, facilities and equipment had been tracked down and destroyed. Inspectors were equipped with highly sensitive detection and surveillance technology for locating nuclear, chemical and biological materials. This technology would also have detected any subsequent attempts to reconstitute WMD programmes.

OB: "And I think I'd be more in sympathy with your argument if my article on this aspect of inspections were the only article in the Guardian on any aspect of inspections. That's far from the truth, as you acknowledge -- although I fear we'll have to agree to disagree as to whether the overall picture presented in the paper as a whole has been fair."

Yes, we will have to disagree on that. We have reported how the Guardian/Observer described in 1998 and 1999 that inspectors were "withdrawn" from Iraq by Richard Butler ahead of bombing as the scandal of CIA infiltration of UNSCOM came to light. The Guardian/Observer reported at the time that US and UN officials "admitted" that spies had used information gained to target Iraq in Desert Fox. This year, by contrast, the Guardian/Observer have consistently reported that inspectors were "thrown out" of Iraq amid "Iraqi claims" and "allegations" of spying. Interestingly the same distortions have been found by Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting right across the US media. The Guardian/Observer have made occasional mention of the views of Ritter and others, but you have essentially followed the US/UK government line that Iraq did not cooperate from 1991-1998, that inspectors achieved very little, that Iraq may now possess WMD capability, and that it may therefore be a serious threat. There has also been precious little mention of the vested interests driving US policy. A World Policy Institute (WPI) review of major Bush appointees published in May found that 32 major policy makers had significant financial ties to the arms industry prior to joining the administration, as compared with 21 appointees with ties to the energy industry. In April 2001, Julian Borger of the Guardian reported:

"In the Bush administration, business is the only voice... This is as close as it is possible to get in a democracy to a government of business, by business and for business." (Borger, 'All the president's businessmen', The Guardian, April 27, 2001)

There should have been far more emphasis of these key facts, in my view. It is appalling to think that literally thousands of innocents may be made to suffer agonising death and mutilation as a result of policies which may be rooted in cynical motivations. As journalists and human beings, I'm sure you will agree that we should expose cynicism wherever it exists and do everything we can to protect human life.

Many thanks again for taking the trouble to respond.

Best wishes

David - 10.11.02

SUGGESTED ACTION

The goal of Media Lens is to promote rationality, compassion and respect for others. In writing letters to journalists, we strongly urge readers to maintain a polite, non-aggressive and non-abusive tone.

Write to Oliver Burkeman expressing your views on his performance in the Guardian and in his exchange with Media Lens:

oliver.burkeman@guardian.co.uk

Copy your letters to Guardian Editor, Alan Rusbridger:

alan.rusbridger@guardian.co.uk

And the Guardian Reader's Editor, Ian Mayes:

ian.mayes@guardian.co.uk

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