MEDIA LENS: Correcting for the distorted vision of the corporate media October 28, 2002



To read the 34 short pages (pp.20-54) at the heart of former chief UN arms inspector Scott Ritter's book, War On Iraq (Ritter and William Rivers Pitt, Profile Books, 2002), is to understand the utter fraudulence and staggering immorality of the proposed war on Iraq. In these pages, Ritter describes exactly how and why Iraq has been "fundamentally disarmed", with 90-95% of its weapons of mass destruction eliminated. Of nuclear weapons capability, for example, Ritter says:

"When I left Iraq in 1998... the infrastructure and facilities had been 100% eliminated. There's no doubt about that. All of their instruments and facilities had been destroyed. The weapons design facility had been destroyed. The production equipment had been hunted down and destroyed. And we had in place means to monitor - both from vehicles and from the air - the gamma rays that accompany attempts to enrich uranium or plutonium. We never found anything." (p.26)

Ritter explains how UN arms inspectors (Unscom) roamed the country monitoring Iraq's chemical, biological and nuclear facilities, installing sensitive sniffers and cameras and performing no-notice inspections:

"We blanketed Iraq - every research and development facility, every university, every school, every hospital, every beer factory..." (p.38)

Are we seriously to believe that a country that permitted such thorough, intrusive and effective inspections leading to 90-95% disarmament just four years ago, is suddenly hell-bent on secretly developing weapons of mass destruction now? How could this be when, as Ritter says, such efforts would be easily detectable by modern technology? Thus on the reconstruction of Iraq's chemical weapons capability, Ritter says:

"If no one were watching, Iraq could do this. But just as with the nuclear weapons programme, they'd have to start from scratch, having been deprived of all equipment, facilities and research. They'd have to procure the complicated tools and technology required through front companies. This would be detected. The manufacture of chemical weapons emits vented gases that would have been detected by now if they existed. We've been watching, via satellite and other means, and have seen none of this. If Iraq was producing weapons today, we'd have definitive proof, plain and simple." (p.32-3)

Relying on public ignorance of the true extent of Iraqi cooperation with arms inspectors, and the true extent to which inspectors were successful in disarming Iraq, warmongers argue that Iraq must have something to hide because it "kicked out" the inspectors in 1998 and has since refused to permit their return. This is a crucial lie, which, as we will see in the two-part Media Alert that follows, the media has played a central role in protecting.

Unscom arms inspectors were withdrawn in December 1998 at a sensitive time in US politics, as Bill Clinton faced impeachment over the Monica Lewinsky affair. Clinton launched a 4-day series of strikes, Operation Desert Fox, the day before his impeachment referendum was scheduled, and called them off two hours after the vote. Ritter notes that just prior to the strikes, "Inspectors were sent in to carry out sensitive inspections that had nothing to do with disarmament but had everything to do with provoking the Iraqis." (p.52)

In a report published on the second day of bombing, Ritter was quoted as saying:

"What [head of Unscom] Richard Butler did last week with the inspections was a set-up. This was designed to generate a conflict that would justify a bombing." Ritter said US government sources had told him three weeks earlier that "the two considerations on the horizon were Ramadan and impeachment". Ritter continued:

"If you dig around, you'll find out why Richard Butler yesterday ran to the phone four times. He was talking to his [US] National Security adviser. They were telling him to sharpen the language in his report to justify the bombing." (Quoted, New York Post, 17 December, 1998)

Arguing that Butler deliberately wrote a justification for war, a UN diplomat, described as "generally sympathetic to Washington", said:

"Based on the same facts he [Butler] could have said, There were something like 300 inspections [in recent weeks] and we encountered difficulties in five.'" (Washington Post, 17 December 1998)

Around this time it emerged that CIA spies operating with arms inspectors had used information gathered to target Iraq during Desert Fox. The role of the CIA in corrupting the arms inspection regime was one of the main reasons for Ritter's resignation in 1998.

The basic conclusions are clear: Iraq cooperated in the "fundamental disarmament" of 90-95% of its weapons of mass destruction. The United States nevertheless manufactured a conflict for cynical reasons in December 1998. Inspectors were then not kicked out, as claimed, but were withdrawn by Butler to protect them from bombing. The Iraqis subsequently refused to allow arms inspectors - accurately described by them as "spies" who had participated in the bombing of their country - to return.

Readers might like to compare the above account with the versions presented by the US/UK governments. George W. Bush said of Iraq in his State of the Union Address:

"This is a regime that agreed to international inspections - then kicked out the inspectors." (George W. Bush, State of the Union Address, January 29, 2002)

Tony Blair, naturally, has followed the Bush line:

"Before he [Saddam Hussein] kicked out the UN weapons inspectors three years ago, they had discovered and destroyed thousands of chemical and biological weapons.... As they got closer, they were told to get out of Iraq." (Blair, leader, 'The West's Tough Strategy On Iraq Is In Everyone's Interests,' The Express, March 6, 2002)

Note the deceptiveness of the phrase, "As they got closer". In fact inspectors were not getting uncomfortably close to hidden horrors, as Blair implies; they were 5% short of 100% disarmament. We spend our time well when we recall Ritter's version, and then reflect on the brazen mendacity of our 'elected' leaders.

The Media and The Strange Case of the Vanishing Spooks

Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR) recently produced a remarkable piece titled: 'What a difference 4 years makes: News coverage of why the inspectors left Iraq'. ( The piece consists of ten paired examples of mainstream media quotes from 1998 and 2002, covering the withdrawal of weapons inspectors from Iraq. Without fail, the quotes from 1998 report that inspectors were withdrawn, while the quotes from 2002 assert that they were "thrown out", or otherwise forcibly expelled. This pair of quotes was taken from the Washington Post:

"Butler ordered his inspectors to evacuate Baghdad, in anticipation of a military attack, on Tuesday night - at a time when most members of the Security Council had yet to receive his report." (Washington Post, 12/18/98)

"Since 1998, when U.N. inspectors were expelled, Iraq has almost certainly been working to build more chemical and biological weapons." (Washington Post editorial, 8/4/02)

We thought it would be interesting to conduct a similar investigation of the UK press. Consider the following quotes from The Guardian, all from last month:

"The inspectors left Baghdad in December 1998, amid Iraqi allegations that some inspectors were spying for the United States and countercharges that Iraq was not cooperating with the teams." (Mark Oliver, 'UN split over Iraqi arms offer', September 17, 2002)


"Unlike previous inspectors, who were seconded to the UN by governments, the Unmovic staff are employed directly by the UN - a move intended to address Iraqi complaints that the earlier inspections were used as a cover for spying." (Brian Whitaker and David Teather, 'Weapons checks face tough hurdles', The Guardian, September 18, 2002)

And again:

"For its part Iraq claimed Unscom was full of spies." (Simon Jeffery, 'What are weapons inspection teams?', The Guardian, September 18, 2002)

What is so remarkable about these references to "Iraqi allegations", "complaints" and "claims", is that they directly contradict The Guardian's own reporting of events just three years earlier. Consider this March 1999 report by Julian Borger:

"American espionage in Iraq, under cover of United Nations weapons inspections, went far beyond the search for banned arms and was carried out without the knowledge of the UN leadership, it was reported yesterday. An investigation by the Washington Post found that CIA engineers working as UN technicians installed antennae in equipment belonging to the UN Special Commission (Unscom) to eavesdrop on the Iraqi military." (Julian Borger, 'UN "kept in dark" about US spying in Iraq', The Guardian, March 3, 1999)

Note that this was not an "Iraqi allegation", it was an allegation made by a leading national US newspaper, the Washington Post. Earlier that year, The Guardian had reported another non-Iraqi source:

"United Nations arms inspectors in Iraq had secret intelligence-sharing deals not only with the United States but with four other countries, a former inspector said yesterday. Britain is likely to have been one of the four.

"Scott Ritter, a former American member of the Unscom weapons inspection team, said the UN body agreed to provide the five countries with information it collected in return for intelligence from their sources. His claims will fuel the controversy surrounding Unscom's activities, with US officials admitting it was infiltrated by American spies." (Richard Norton-Taylor, 'Arms inspectors "shared Iraq data with five states"', The Guardian, January 8, 1999)

Again, this was a US and UN claim backed up by US officials "admitting it [Unscom] was infiltrated by American spies."

Even more disturbing is the performance of individual reporters. In January 1999, The Guardian's Ian Black co-authored a piece, stating:

"International disarray over Iraq deepened last night after United States officials acknowledged that American spies participated in the work of United Nations weapons inspectors tracking down Baghdad's weapons of mass destruction... [T]he admission that US intelligence agencies provided information and technology to the UN Special Commission, Unscom, confirmed long-standing suspicions in Baghdad and appeared to knock another nail into Unscom's coffin." (Mark Tran and Ian Black, 'UN spies scandal grows, American officials admit Iraqi data aided air strikes', The Guardian, January 8, 1999)

Five months later, Black reported merely that Unscom had been "discredited by allegations of US spying." (Black, The Guardian, June 17, 1999) In fact, of course, Unscom had been discredited by +admissions+ of US spying. Acknowledgement and admission had already become allegation. Three years later they have become "Iraqi allegations".

Three years after their January 1999 piece, Black's co-author, Mark Tran, also made reference to the spying issue:

"Iraq itself has stoked war fever. By rejecting a return of UN weapons inspectors to Iraq and calling them "western spies" for extra measure, Baghdad seems to be almost daring Mr Bush to attack." (Tran, 'Greasing the wheels of warfare', The Guardian, March 12, 2002)

Tran appears to suggest that there was something provocative about Iraq describing UN weapons inspectors as "spies", +despite+ having himself described them as "spies" in 1999. Again there is no acknowledgment of UN/US admissions of spying.

Julian Borger was lead author of an article in March 2002 that reported Iraqi claims of spying:

"Iraq's vice-president, Taha Yassin Ramadan, last night said his country would not allow UN weapons inspectors to return.

"'Iraq's rejection of the teams of spies to return back to Iraq is firm and won't change,' Mr Ramadan was quoted as saying by the official Iraqi News Agency INA. 'Iraq is fully convinced that there is no need for them to return. They had carried out vicious spying activities in Iraq for more than eight years.'" (Julian Borger and Richard Norton-Taylor, 'Bush in new warning to Iraq,' The Guardian, March 11, 2002)

Given Borger's own report on the Washington Post's revelations three years earlier, his and Norton-Taylor's response to these allegations is truly remarkable:

"UN weapons inspectors withdrew at the end of 1998 after confrontations with the Iraqi regime over access to Saddam Hussein's palaces and other restricted sites." (Ibid)

Not a word about the fact that "American espionage in Iraq, under cover of United Nations weapons inspections, went far beyond the search for banned arms", as Borger had himself reported in 1999. The silence in response to the Iraqi vice-president's fierce and repeated allegations reads as a contemptuous dismissal of claims deemed unworthy of comment.

In similar vein, an Observer overview of Western relations with Iraq since 1920, submits this entry for 1998:

"Iraq ends all co-operation with the UN Special Commission to Oversee the Destruction of Iraq's Weapons of Mass Destruction (Unscom). US and Britain launch Desert Fox, a bombing campaign designed to destroy Iraq's nuclear, chemical and biological weapons programmes." ('From friend to foe', The Observer, March 17, 2002)

There is no mention of claims of deliberate US provocation, of a conflict manufactured for domestic political reasons. Again, the infiltration of inspectors by CIA spies has been airbrushed from history. There is no mention of the fact that the information gained by the spies was then used to blitz Iraq. US military analyst William Arkin suggests that the primary goal of Operation Desert Fox was to target Saddam Hussein's internal security apparatus using information gathered specifically through Unscom. (see Milan Rai, War Plan Iraq, Verso, 2002) One might think that this would be significant in an honest appraisal of why Iraq is reluctant to readmit inspectors on the basis of "unfettered access - any time, any place, anywhere", as the US/UK have been demanding. But for our utterly compromised 'free press', truth of this kind is deemed mere pro-Iraqi propaganda, best quietly omitted.

This year (as of October 24) the words 'Iraq and inspectors' have been mentioned in 497 Guardian/Observer articles. We managed to find some half a dozen articles confirming that arms inspectors had been infiltrated by CIA spies in 1998. These generally make brief mention of the presence of spies, or report that spies merely "passed on secrets" to the US and Israel, omitting to mention that the information was used to launch a major military strike against Iraq.

This, to be sure, is only one example of how the US/UK media act as a filtering system for power, ensuring that the public is presented with the right facts and the right ideas at the right time.

In Part Two, 'What a Difference 3 Years Makes: UK News Coverage of Why the Inspectors Left Iraq', we will show how reporting throughout the UK media has closely mirrored the deceptive performance of the US media, as reported by FAIR.


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 Guardian editor, Alan Rusbridger. We suggest a letter along these lines:

Dear Mr Rusbridger

Please could you explain why your team of journalists has consistently airbrushed the 1998 CIA infiltration of Unscom weapons inspectors from history? Despite themselves confirming UN/US admissions of the presence of spies in 1999, your reporters have often either ignored these admissions altogether, or described them merely as "Iraqi allegations". Despite some 497 articles mentioning Iraq and arms inspectors this year, there appears to have been only a handful of articles in the Guardian/Observer paper confirming the presence of spies in Unscom. The fact that US spies used information gained to target Iraq during Operation Desert Fox is surely vital in understanding why Iraq is resisting the return of arms inspectors able to go "any time, any place, anywhere", as the US/UK are demanding. 

Write to Julian Borger: 

Write to Brian Whitaker: 

Write to Ian Black: 

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MEDIA LENS: Correcting for the distorted vision of the corporate media

October 29, 2002


What A Difference 3 Years Makes: UK News Coverage of Why the Inspectors Left Iraq

In 1998 and 1999 it was difficult for the media to avoid some of the more obvious facts about the withdrawal of arms inspectors from Iraq in December 1998. NBC Today accurately reported at the time:

"The Iraq story boiled over last night when the chief UN weapons inspector, Richard Butler, said that Iraq had not fully cooperated with inspectors and - as they had promised to do. As a result, the UN ordered its inspectors to leave Iraq this morning." (Katie Couric, NBC's Today, December 16, 1998. Quoted, 'What a difference 4 years makes: News coverage of why the inspectors left Iraq',

The UK media reported the same version of events:

"A few hours before the attack began, 125 UN personnel were hurriedly evacuated from Baghdad to Bahrain, including inspectors from the UN Special Commission on Iraq and the International Atomic Energy Agency." (Julian Borger and Ewen MacAskill, 'Missile blitz on Iraq', December 17, 1998)

A year later, this version of events was still commonly reported by the UK media:

"The UN special commission charged with overseeing the destruction of Iraq's weapons of mass destruction pulled out of Iraq in mid-December, just before the US and Britain launched a series of air strikes." (David Hirst, 'Iraq turns down "evil" UN plan to ease sanctions,' The Guardian, December 20, 1999)


"The last inspectors were withdrawn to allow the four-day concentrated bombing campaign of last December." ('Russia calls urgent Iraq meeting,' Guardian staff and agencies June 2, 1999)

As discussed in Part 1, this version of events is not at all popular with the US/UK governments. Since the election of George W. Bush and the terrorist attacks of September 11, Bush and Blair have appeared increasingly determined to launch a further assault against Iraq in pursuit of "regime change". If military force is to be justified, Iraq has to be portrayed as a country that cannot be relied upon to cooperate peacefully with arms inspectors. This is no simple task - Iraqi lying and cat and mouse games aside, by 1998 Unscom arms inspectors +had+ delivered 90-95% disarmament after seven years of intrusive inspections.

The change in US/UK government goals has been accompanied by a change in the US/UK media version of what happened in December 1998. Thus, four years after the comment quoted above, NBC Today reports:

"As Washington debates when and how to attack Iraq, a surprise offer from Baghdad. It is ready to talk about re-admitting UN weapons inspectors after kicking them out four years ago." (Maurice DuBois, NBC's Saturday Today, August 3, 2002)

The same transformation is found in the UK media. Brian Whitaker of The Guardian wrote in February of this year:

"[Saddam] could still save his skin by allowing the weapons inspectors - who were thrown out of Iraq in 1998 - to return." (Whitaker, 'Life after Saddam: the winners and losers,' The Guardian, February 25, 2002)

The Observer noted last month that, "the Iraqi dictator is more dangerous than he was in 1998, when the last UN inspectors were forced to leave Iraq." (Peter Beaumont and Kamal Ahmed, 'Dossier to show Iraqi nuclear arms race,' The Observer, September 22, 2002)

The Independent reports:

"Bill Clinton ... ordered Operation Desert Fox, the last big air offensive against Iraq, after the eviction of UN weapons inspectors in December 1998." (Rupert Cornwell, 'United States - President calls for support inside and outside America,' The Independent, September 5, 2002)

The Daily Telegraph is of course on-side:

"Saddam... refused UN weapons-inspectors access to sites such as his presidential palaces - then expelled them from Iraq." (Editorial, 'Convince us, Mr Blair,' Daily Telegraph, March 31, 2002)

The BBC's Jane Corbin stated on Panorama that "the inspectors were thrown out... and a divided UN Security Council let Saddam get away with it." (Panorama, The Case Against Saddam, BBC1, September 23, 2002)

On the BBC's Lunchtime News, James Robbins reported that inspectors were "asked to leave" after relations with Iraq broke down. (BBC1, September 17, 2002)

On BBC Radio 4, foreign secretary Jack Straw was allowed to promote the deception (and he surely knows the truth) unchallenged by interviewer John Humphrys:

"The inspectors were able to get in and to do their work until the international community's resolve, I'm afraid, fractured rather, and Saddam Hussein was able to exploit that and expel the inspectors." (Jack Straw, Today, BBC Radio 4, October 12, 2002)

When Humphrys was challenged by Media Lens reader Darren Smith, Humphrys replied tersely:

"What you fail to appreciate is that Today interviewers don't have enough time to challenge every assertion made in every interview." (Email to Darren Smith, October 16, 2002)

In fact time pressures are such that the BBC, like the rest of the media, is unable to challenge any assertions in any interviews where the 'ejection' of arms inspectors is concerned. Time is always available for politicians to endlessly repeat their deceptive claims, however.

Around the country the deception is repeated again and again - here is only one more example, from The Scotsman:

"The dream result, Mr Blair is understood to believe, is for the UN to set a deadline for Saddam to re-admit the expelled weapons inspectors." ('Blair stands tough and readies for war,' The Scotsman, September 4, 2002. Darren Smith to Media Lens, September 4, 2002)

There are barely detectable exceptions but the overwhelming trend, as in the US, has been to move from an understanding that inspectors were withdrawn in 1998, to the claim, in 2002, that they were expelled.

The fact that inspectors had been fundamentally successful in disarming Iraq, and were withdrawn after the spying scandal erupted, and after deliberate attempts to provoke the Iraqis, adds unwanted colour to the black and white picture of events that the US/UK governments are seeking to impose on the public. Only a stark 'good versus evil' clash has the power to generate the required public support for military action - nuance is a liability.

It goes without saying that the medium for communicating this lethally distorted picture of the world is the corporate mass media - without them, it simply could not be done. This is the awesome extent of their responsibility for mass violence leading to mass death.


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 Guardian editor, Alan Rusbridger:

Ask him why Guardian journalists consistently report that arms inspectors were ejected from Iraq, despite the Guardian's earlier reports describing how inspectors were withdrawn.


Write to Observer editor, Roger Alton:

Ask him why Observer journalists consistently report that arms inspectors were ejected from Iraq, despite the Observer's earlier reports describing how inspectors were withdrawn.


Write to Simon Kelner, editor of The Independent:

Ask him why Independent journalists consistently report that arms inspectors were ejected from Iraq, despite the Independent's earlier reports describing how inspectors were withdrawn.


Write to Richard Sambrook, director of BBC news:

Ask him why BBC journalists consistently report that arms inspectors were ejected from Iraq.


Copy all your letters to 

Feel free to respond to Media Lens alerts (

Visit the Media Lens website: