by Jonathan Cook
February 28, 2011
Jonathan Cook is a writer and journalist
based in Nazareth, Israel.
latest books are “Israel and the Clash of Civilizations: Iraq, Iran and the
Plan to Remake the Middle East” and “Disappearing Palestine:
Israel's Experiments in Human Despair”.
His website is
This is the text of a talk entitled “Media as a Tool of Empire” delivered to Sabeel, the Ecumenical Liberation Theology Centre, at its eighth
international conference in Bethlehem on Friday February 25.
Last week the Guardian, Britain’s main liberal
ran an exclusive report on the belated confessions of an Iraqi
exile, Rafeed al-Janabi, codenamed “Curveball” by
Eight years ago, Janabi played a key behind-the-scenes role
- if an inadvertent one - in
making possible the US invasion of Iraq. His testimony bolstered claims by
the Bush administration that Iraq’s president,
Saddam Hussein, had developed
an advanced program producing weapons of mass destruction.
Curveball’s account included the details of mobile biological weapons trucks
presented by Colin Powell, the US Secretary of State, to the
in early 2003. Powell’s apparently compelling case on WMD was used to
justify the US attack on Iraq a few weeks later.
Eight years on, Curveball revealed to the Guardian that he had fabricated
the story of Saddam’s WMD back in 2000, shortly after his arrival in Germany
seeking asylum. He told the paper he had lied to German intelligence in the
hope his testimony might help topple Saddam, though it seems more likely he
simply wanted to ensure his asylum case was taken more seriously.
For the careful reader - and I stress the word careful - several
disturbing facts emerged from the report.
One was that the German authorities had quickly proven his account of Iraq’s
WMD to be false. Both German and British intelligence had travelled to Dubai
to meet Bassil Latif, his former boss at Iraq’s Military Industries
Commission. Dr Latif had proven that Curveball’s claims could not be true.
The German authorities quickly lost interest in Janabi and he was not
interviewed again until late 2002, when it became more pressing for the US
to make a convincing case for an attack on Iraq.
Another interesting disclosure was that, despite the vital need to get
straight all the facts about Curveball’s testimony - given the stakes
involved in launching a pre-emptive strike against another sovereign state - the Americans never bothered to interview Curveball themselves.
A third revelation was that the CIA’s head of operations in Europe, Tyler Drumheller, passed on warnings from German intelligence that they considered
Curveball’s testimony to be highly dubious.
The head of the CIA, George
Tenet, simply ignored the advice.
With Curveball’s admission in mind, as well as these other facts from the
story, we can draw some obvious conclusions - conclusions confirmed by
Lacking both grounds in international law and the backing of major allies,
the Bush administration desperately needed Janabi’s story about WMD, however
discredited it was, to justify its military plans for Iraq. The White House
did not interview Curveball because they knew his account of Saddam’s WMD
program was made up. His story would unravel under scrutiny; better to
leave Washington with the option of “plausible deniability”.
Nonetheless, Janabi’s falsified account was vitally useful: for much of the
American public, it added a veneer of credibility to the implausible case
that Saddam was a danger to the world; it helped fortify wavering allies
facing their own doubting publics; and it brought on board Colin Powell, a
former general seen as the main voice of reason in the administration.
In other words, Bush’s White House used Curveball to breathe life into its
mythological story about Saddam’s threat to world peace.
So how did the Guardian, a bastion of liberal journalism, present its
exclusive on the most controversial episode in recent American foreign
Here is its headline:
“How US was duped by Iraqi fantasist looking to topple
Did the headline-writer misunderstand the story as written by the paper’s
reporters? No, the headline neatly encapsulated its message.
In the text, we
are told Powell's presentation to the UN “revealed that the Bush
administration's hawkish decision-makers had swallowed” Curveball’s account.
At another point, we are told Janabi,
“pulled off one of the greatest
confidence tricks in the history of modern intelligence”.
critics - who are many and powerful - say the cost of his deception is too
difficult to estimate.”
In other words, the Guardian assumed, despite all the evidence uncovered in
its own research, that Curveball misled the Bush administration into making
a disastrous miscalculation.
On this view, the White House was the real
victim of Curveball’s lies, not the Iraqi people - more than a million of
whom are dead as a result of the invasion, according to the best available
figures, and four million of whom have been forced into exile.
There is nothing exceptional about this example. I chose it because it
relates to an event of continuing and momentous significance.
Unfortunately, there is something depressingly familiar about this kind of
reporting, even in the West’s main liberal publications. Contrary to its
avowed aim, mainstream journalism invariably diminishes the impact of new
events when they threaten powerful elites.
We will examine why in a minute. But first let us consider what, or who,
constitutes “empire” today? Certainly, in its most symbolic form, it can be
identified as the US government and its army, comprising the world’s sole
Traditionally, empires have been defined narrowly, in terms of a strong
nation-state that successfully expands its sphere of influence and power to
other territories. Empire’s aim is to make those territories dependent, and
then either exploit their resources in the case of poorly developed
countries, or, with more developed countries, turn them into new markets for
its surplus goods.
It is in this latter sense that the American empire has
often been able to claim that it is a force for global good, helping to
spread freedom and the benefits of consumer culture.
Empire achieves its aims in different ways: through force, such as conquest,
when dealing with populations resistant to the theft of their resources; and
more subtly through political and economic interference, persuasion and
mind-control when it wants to create new markets. However it works, the aim
is to create a sense in the dependent territories that their interests and
fates are bound to those of empire.
In our globalised world, the question of who is at the centre of empire is
much less clear than it once was.
The US government is today less the heart
of empire than its enabler. What were until recently the arms of empire,
especially the financial and military industries, have become a
transnational imperial elite whose interests are not bound by borders and
whose powers largely evade legislative and moral controls.
Israel’s leadership, we should note, as well its elite supporters around the
world - including the Zionist lobbies, the arms manufacturers and Western
militaries, and to a degree even the crumbling Arab tyrannies of the Middle
East - are an integral element in that transnational elite.
The imperial elites’ success depends to a large extent on a shared belief
among the western public both that “we” need them to secure our livelihoods
and security and that at the same time we are really their masters.
the necessary illusions perpetuated by
the transnational elites include:
That we elect governments whose job is
to restrain the corporations
That we, in particular, and the global
workforce in general are the chief beneficiaries of the
corporations’ wealth creation
That the corporations and the ideology
that underpins them, global capitalism, are the only hope for
That consumption is not only an
expression of our freedom but also a major source of our
That economic growth can be maintained
indefinitely and at no long-term cost to the health of the planet
And that there are groups, called terrorists, who want to destroy this
benevolent system of wealth creation and personal improvement
These assumptions, however fanciful they may appear when subjected to
scrutiny, are the ideological bedrock on which the narratives of our
societies in the West are constructed and from which ultimately our sense of
This ideological system appears to us - and I am using
“we” and “us” to refer to western publics only - to describe the natural
The job of sanctifying these assumptions - and ensuring they are not
scrutinized - falls to our
mainstream media. Western corporations own the
media, and their advertising makes the industry profitable.
In this sense,
the media cannot fulfill the function of watchdog of power, because in fact
it is power. It is the power of the globalised elite to control and limit
the ideological and imaginative horizons of the media’s readers and viewers.
It does so to ensure that imperial interests, which are synonymous with
those of the corporations, are not threatened.
The Curveball story neatly illustrates the media’s role.
His confession has come too late - eight years too late, to be precise - to have any impact on the events that matter. As happens so often with
important stories that challenge elite interests, the facts vitally needed
to allow western publics to reach informed conclusions were not available
when they were needed.
In this case, Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld are gone, as
are their neoconservative advisers. Curveball’s story is now chiefly of
interest to historians.
That last point is quite literally true. The Guardian’s revelations were of
almost no concern to the US media, the supposed watchdog at the heart of the
US empire. A search of the
Lexis Nexis media database shows that Curveball’s
admissions featured only in the New York Times, in a brief report on page 7,
as well as in a news round-up in the Washington Times. The dozens of other
major US newspapers, including the Washington Post, made no mention of it at
Instead, the main audience for the story outside the UK was the readers of
India’s Hindu newspaper and the Khaleej Times.
But even the Guardian, often regarded as fearless in taking on powerful
interests, packaged its report in such a way as to deprive Curveball’s
confession of its true value. The facts were bled of their real
The presentation ensured that only the most aware readers
would have understood that the US had not been duped by Curveball, but
rather that the White House had exploited a “fantasist” - or desperate
exile from a brutal regime, depending on how one looks at it - for its own
illegal and immoral ends.
Why did the Guardian miss the main point in its own exclusive?
The reason is
that all our mainstream media, however liberal, take as their starting point
the idea both that the West’s political culture is inherently benevolent and
that it is morally superior to all existing, or conceivable, alternative
In reporting and commentary, this is demonstrated most clearly in the idea
that “our” leaders always act in good faith, whereas “their” leaders - those opposed to empire or its interests
- are driven by base or evil
It is in this way that official enemies, such as Saddam Hussein or Slobodan
Milosevic, can be singled out as personifying the crazed or evil dictator - while other equally rogue regimes such as Saudi Arabia’s are described as
“moderate” - opening the way for their countries to become targets of our
own imperial strategies.
States selected for the “embrace” of empire are left with a stark choice:
accept our terms of surrender and become an ally; or defy empire and face
When the corporate elites trample on other peoples and states to advance
their own selfish interests, such as in the invasion of Iraq to control its
resources, our dominant media cannot allow its reporting to frame the events
The continuing assumption in liberal commentary about the US
attack on Iraq, for example, is that, once no WMD were found, the Bush
administration remained to pursue a misguided effort to root out the
terrorists, restore law and order, and spread democracy.
For the western media, our leaders make mistakes, they are naïve or even
stupid, but they are never bad or evil. Our media do not call for Bush or
Blair to be tried at the Hague as war criminals.
This, of course, does not mean that the western media is Pravda, the
propaganda mouthpiece of the old Soviet empire. There are differences.
Dissent is possible, though it must remain within the relatively narrow
confines of “reasonable” debate, a spectrum of possible thought that accepts
unreservedly the presumption that we are better, more moral, than them.
Similarly, journalists are rarely told - at least, not directly - what to
The media have developed careful selection processes and hierarchies
among their editorial staff - termed “filters” by media critics Ed Herman
Noam Chomsky - to ensure that dissenting or truly independent
journalists do not reach positions of real influence.
There is, in other words, no simple party line.
There are competing elites
and corporations, and their voices are reflected in the narrow range of what
we term commentary and opinion. Rather than being dictated to by party
officials, as happened under the Soviet system, our journalists scramble for
access, to be admitted into the ante-chambers of power. These privileges
make careers but they come at a huge cost to the reporters’ independence.
Nonetheless, the range of what is permissible is slowly expanding - over
the opposition of the elites and our mainstream TV and press. The reason is
to be found in the new media, which is gradually eroding the monopoly long
enjoyed by the corporate media to control the spread of information and
Wikileaks is so far the most obvious, and impressive, outcome
of that trend.
The consequences are already tangible across
the Middle East, which has
suffered disproportionately under the oppressive rule of empire. The
upheavals as Arab publics struggle to shake off their tyrants are also
stripping bare some of the illusions the western media have peddled to us.
Empire, we have been told, wants democracy and freedom around the globe.
yet it is caught mute and impassive as the henchmen of empire unleash
US-made weapons against their peoples who are demanding western-style
An important question is: how will
our media respond to this exposure, not
just of our politicians’ hypocrisy but also of their own?
They are already
trying to co-opt the new media, including Wikileaks, but without real
success. They are also starting to allow a wider range of debate, though
still heavily constrained, than had been possible before.
The West’s version of glasnost is particularly obvious in the coverage of
the problem closest to our hearts here in Palestine. What Israel terms a
delegitimization campaign is really the opening up - slightly - of the
media landscape, to allow a little light where until recently darkness
This is an opportunity and one that we must nurture.
we must demand of the
corporate media more honesty
we must shame them by being better-informed
than the hacks who recycle official press releases and clamor for access
we must desert them, as is already
happening, for better sources of information
We have a window.
And we must force it open before the elites of empire try
to slam it shut.