A Tragic Lesson in U.S. Gulf War Propaganda


Last week, a once-notorious Iraqi site made news again. Seeking evidence of biological weapons production, United Nations arms inspectors swooped into the closed industrial facility at Abu Ghreib, outside Baghdad — the same plant that U.S. forces bombed on Jan. 23, 1991.

The Iraqis claimed in ’91 that the site was a baby milk factory and nothing more, a charge reported by Peter Arnett on CNN and then denied by the U.S. government. “Numerous sources have indicated that [the factory] is associated with biological warfare production,” an Air Force spokesman said at the time, a few hours after the bombing. “It was a biological weapons facility, of that we are sure,” repeated Colin Powell later that same day.

“That factory is, in fact, a production facility for biological weapons,” repeated White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater. “The Iraqis have hidden this facility behind a façade of baby-milk production as a form of disinformation.”

Baby Milk or Lethal Virus?

The U.S. claim seemed credible, especially because of the crude way in which Iraq had made its case. Arnett’s report included shots of a tall red-lettered sign, “Baby Milk Plant,” in Arabic and English, posted at the ruined factory’s entrance. That makeshift piece of work was not convincing. CNN’s coverage also included shots of an Iraqi technician in the factory, dressed in a lab coat with the legend, “BABY MILK PLANT IRAQ,” stitched in English on the back.

Despite such comic hints of fraudulence and denials issued by Washington, Arnett stood firm. He had toured the factory in August (for a story on Iraq’s response to the international sanctions), and again just after it was bombed. “Whatever else it did, it did produce infant formula,” Arnett said at the time.

Although the Pentagon had cast the factory as a veritable fortress, with “military guards around it, [a] barbed wire fence, a military garrison outside,” Arnett saw only one guard at the gate and a lot of powdered baby milk. “That’s as much as I could tell you about it,” he added carefully. “It looked innocent enough from what we could see.”

For his account, the journalist was accused of treason by the White House.

“Everything that Peter Arnett reports is approved by, censored by and reviewed — on the spot — by the Iraqi government,” Fitzwater exploded the next day. “This is not a case of taking on the media. It’s a case of correcting a public disclosure that is erroneous, that is false, that hurts our government, and that plays into the hands of Saddam Hussein.”

Such repudiation from on high — and those shots of the suspicious sign and lab coat — appeared to settle the matter. The major media outlets unanimously jeered what Newsweek called Iraq’s “ham-handed attempt to depict a bombed-out biological-weapons plant near Baghdad as a baby-formula factory.” So pervasive was the merriment at the Iraqis’ “little sham of baby milk” (as Time put it) that the phrase “baby milk factory” at once became expressive of the enemy’s complete dishonesty.

The theme of Iraqi falseness quickly reemerged after the U.N. team revisited the site last week. “They are engaging in disinformation, propaganda,” said one commentator on the Fox News Channel. “If you remember during the Gulf War, the Iraqis put out the sign that said ‘Baby Milk Factory,’ when we — the United States, the Pentagon — said, ‘No, it was a military installation.'”

Disinformation Trumps Facts

Although it sounded credible enough in 1991, the U.S. claim was weak — although you wouldn’t know it from the TV coverage. After the bombing, Michel Wery, the plant’s contractor, told the French daily Liberation that the factory was making baby milk when it first started up in 1979, and that its equipment was not built to breed or package viruses. In early February, he reconfirmed his story for the Washington Post, which also quoted two dairy technicians from New Zealand, Malcolm Seamark and Kevin Lowe, who had been inside the plant at least four times, to help another French crew make repairs. Both men corroborated Arnett’s story.

“It was all typical dairy plant equipment,” Seamark noted, and the two confirmed that the plant was “actually canning milk powder” during their last visit in May of 1990.

In response, three unnamed US government sources reconfirmed the

U.S. line — albeit incoherently, as their stories disagreed. A White House official claimed that the plant had been converted in the fall of 1990. A second source held that the site was built for bio-weapons from the start — but only as a “back-up” facility, which was inoperative when it was bombed. The third source said that it was not a bio-weapons factory per se, but made items crucial to such work.

But even as they contradicted one another, all three claimed the benefit of inside information. “There is no question in our mind that we were going after a military target,” said one. “I can’t say why. We have a lot of intelligence. We had people [in Baghdad] until January of 1991.”

Whatever those officials knew, the fact is that the US also had “people in Baghdad” after that January — and one of them, months later, provided information that corroborated the accounts of Arnett, Wery, Lowe and Seamark.

In a confidential memo drafted in December 1992 (and released later under the Freedom of Information Act), a State Department employee in Amman reported the debriefing of an Arab businessman, who had much to say about Iraq’s food imports and currency supply.

He also offered testimony on the subject of the factory, which he knew inside out. “Though showing no sympathy for the Baghdad regime, he confirmed that the Abu Ghreib ‘baby milk factory’ bombed by the Allies during Desert Storm had been a genuine factory for producing powdered milk, and not a military plant.” He had found no hidden chambers there, no inappropriate machinery.

So, was Iraq “engaging in disinformation, propaganda,” when it accused the U.S. of bombing a baby milk factory? What about the sign and lab coat? According to the two New Zealanders, those embroidered coats had been provided by the French concern that built the factory. Moreover, the footage showing the uniforms had actually been shot by Arnett’s crew when they visited the site in August 1990, five months before the war.

On the other hand, that sudden large sign was certainly a piece of propaganda. But the purpose of such stagecraft was to advertise the fact of baby-milk production, not feign it.

Iraq, in trying to publicize the targeting of its civilian infrastructure, had engaged in clumsy propaganda (which backfired in the West), while the US counter-propaganda was apparently disinformation (which succeeded).

Propaganda War Part II

As we sit and wait for another war against Iraq, we should remember this triumphant bit of spin — and all the other winning lies of Operation Desert Storm. The Gulf War was itself a propaganda masterpiece, which wowed the TV audience far more than it threatened the grotesque regime in Baghdad. And because the propaganda always blocked our view of things, it left us with important questions that remain unanswered to this day:

* How exactly — and for how long — did the Reagan and the Bush administrations fund and arm Saddam? (The president obscures that cozy prior relationship, by harping on Hussein’s “unrelenting hostility to the United States.”)

* Why did April Glaspie, our ambassador in Baghdad, tell Hussein, one week before he grabbed Kuwait, that the U.S. had “no opinion” on “your border disagreement”? (Bush II obscures the episode by charging, often, that Hussein has “struck other nations without warning.”)

* Where is the evidence that Iraq threatened Saudi Arabia? In the summer of 1990, that claim was crucial to the drive for war. We heard that some 200,000 Ba’athist troops were massed along the southern border of Kuwait, prepared to snatch the Saudi oil fields. To get the Saudis on our side, Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney flew to Riyadh with a sheaf of satellite photos that allegedly exposed the danger. Just then a Russian firm released another set of photos showing no troops on the border. The US photos are still classified. Why?

* Why, since Desert Storm, have more than 160,000 of its US veterans been provided medical or disability benefits — over twice the rate of other wars? What were they exposed to on the battlefield?

* And how many Iraqi soldiers and civilians died? (Like the Pentagon, Saddam Hussein prefers to keep the matter closed.) Was the bombing of civilian infrastructure a deliberate strategy to foment revolution? If so, it was a violation of the Geneva Conventions. Were outright war crimes committed by our side, as journalist Seymour Hersh reported in April 2000?

As with the purpose of the factory at Abu Ghreib, such questions do have answers, and those answers might be found — and our democracy would be the stronger for it. Far from coming up with any truths, however, President Bush, in his campaign to re-invade, has only offered us new fabrications. There is no evidence that Saddam Hussein works with al Qaeda, or that his weapons are — like North Korea’s — a clear and present danger, or that the president himself does not plan to attack in any case.

As we approach the anniversary of the start of Desert Storm, we should be ready for another war, and less inclined than ever to believe in it.

Mark Crispin Miller is a professor of media studies at New York University and the author of “The Bush Dyslexicon: Observations on a National Disorder” (Norton).

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