February 26, 2001

How they lie: journalism and the art of fiction

I have before written about the myth of the "Saddam Bomb" – the perfervid and recurring group fantasy that has the Iraqi ruler on the verge of developing an atomic bomb – but after playing that one over and over again since 1991, the War Party must has apparently decided that it's time to change their tune, or at least vary it a bit: so today [Sunday} the ever-obliging London Times has come up with a new version – according to a story by Gwynne Roberts, he already has the Bomb! I say "story," and not "news story," because Roberts' piece reads more like fiction of the made-for-TV variety, perhaps an old episode of "The Man from U.N.C.L.E," then anything journalists of the old school might recognize as news.


Right from the beginning, we know we're not reading any ordinary new story: "The mysterious visitor emerged from the shadows outside my hotel in Kurdish controlled northern Iraq, just as a crisis between Washington and Baghdad was reaching a climax in January 1998. His appearance set alarm bells ringing" – as indeed, it ought to in the reader. For what we are reading is not a news story at all, but a narrative that is based on the "revelations" of an anonymous source, whose mysterious appearance from the mists of Kurdistan right outside the author's hotel has all the hallmarks of a certain type of genre fiction, one that appeals to people with very long train commutes. These readers are necessarily undemanding: since all they want is to be somehow transported out of their dreary little lives, and would prefer to be anywhere but where they are, they are willing to suspend their disbelief to the extent that the locale is exotic and the plot-line relentless albeit mindless. Roberts has written the case of the Iraqi nuke scientist who came in from the cold: Roberts' cameraman, who is filming outside the hotel, is suddenly confronted with a mysterious stranger, who asks: "Are you a journalist?" A good question, the answer to which seems somewhat ambiguous by the time we get to the end of this tall tale.


The mysterious "Leone," a rather imaginative nickname for an Iraqi, is a nuclear scientist who once worked for Iraq's nuclear weapons project. Although frightened, and visibly shaking, "Leone" talked quite freely, apparently unafraid to openly approach a bunch of Western journalists – one of whom had already incurred the wrath of the regime by investigating allegations that Saddam had used poison gas on the Kurds. Once a member of the Iraqi Atomic Energy Commission, he drew detailed drawings of the Iraqi nuclear device – which, Leone claims, Iraq has already developed and tested:

"'This is Iraq's nuclear bomb,' he said, spreading diagrams on the bed. 'I saw it in the workshop in Tuwaitha many times. This is the first successful prototype. When they finished it in 1986, they took it to the president by car, but without uranium. All members of the delegation got cars as presents for their work. Between 1985 and 1989, I saw this device at least five times."


Naturally, there was a large drawing of the purported device illustrating the article, an ominous silo-shaped projectile, with the nuclear warhead at its tip printed a bright crimson, the color of fire and blood;

"'The test was carried out at 10.30 am on September 19, 1989, at an underground site 150km southwest of Baghdad,' he said. 'Saddam had threatened us with the death penalty if we told anybody about it. The location was a militarized zone on the far shore of Lake Rezzaza, which used to be a tourist area. There is a natural tunnel there which leads to a large cavern deep under the lake. Laborers worked on it for two years, strengthening the tunnel walls. There was a big Republican Guard camp nearby and dirt roads leading to the site. You could see the thick high-tension cables on the ground, which disappeared into a huge shaft entrance. I saw one which must have been 20km long. The command post for the test was in a castle in the desert not far away. We went to a lot of trouble to conceal the test from the outside world. The Russians supplied us with a table listing US satellite movements. They were always helping us. Every six hours, trucks near the test site changed their positions. They had carried out a lot of irrigation projects in the test area during the year before as a diversion. But these weren't agricultural workers. They were nuclear engineers. It was a nice cheat.'"


Oh those nasty Russians! Wouldn't you just know it? But as usual in pulp fiction of this kind, there are several gaping holes in the story big enough to drive a fleet of trucks through – with room left over for a couple of tank divisions. To begin with, if such a facility had been set up it would have been impossible to keep hidden from satellite reconnaissance. Not only a system of roads, but a large and reliable power source and a series of telltale excavations and construction projects would have been required to pull such a feat off, and the project have been detected by Western intelligence agencies long before it reached fruition. I especially like how we're supposed to believe they evaded detection: "The Russians," we are told, "supplied us with a table listing US satellite movements." Oh really? But how would that prevent such ostentatious facilities from sticking out like a sore thumb – unless the Iraqis somehow managed to dismantle and reassemble them with superhuman swiftness? In addition, tensions with Saddam were already rising, and the US and its allies would have been all the more watchful, on the alert for a development just such as this. Remember, too, that at the first hint Saddam might be building a nuclear reactor developing weapons-grade uranium, Israel bombed the Osiraq reactor in June 1981. How did they miss this one?


There is, of course, another huge discrepancy in the story of "Leone," and that is the political context in which it is supposed to have occurred. Remember that the Berlin Wall fell in November of 1989, a few months before this alleged Soviet-Iraqi joint project is supposed to have come to fruition, and Gorbachev had been frantically pulling away from Russia's previous international commitments: From Afghanistan to Cuba the troops and the technicians were coming home, Gorby was in the process of dismantling the Soviet military. In that year the Soviets reached a comprehensive agreement on the reduction of nuclear arms with the US, and the old Warsaw Pact broke up: the Soviet Empire was going down, fast – and this is when Gorbachev decided to nuclearize Saddam's forces? It just doesn't make any sense, either technically or politically – but, then, fiction is judged far differently than a news story, and that is the implied standard by which the author of this story expects to be judged. One telltale mark of this genre – which we might call "journalistic fiction," or fictive journalism – is that, as the story progresses, the plot becomes more improbable, but the reader – in search of a cheap thrill – is willing to go along, provided the denouement is sufficiently frightening. The idea is to keep shocking the reader until, in the end, he or she – knocked senseless – is ready to accept anything. Certainly it comes as a bit of a shock that, according to "Leone," it was the French and the Brazilians who provided the Iraqis with highly enriched uranium:

"We had a purchasing department whose job was to buy highly enriched uranium. Brazil purchased highly enriched uranium from South Africa and then delivered it to Iraq. I am not talking about tons. It was between 20 and 50 kilograms. France also supplied us secretly with highly enriched uranium after the Israelis bombed the Osiraq reactor in 1981."


The conspiracy expands exponentially, as the plot unfolds, reaching from Moscow to Paris to Rio – as in retail, so in the art of writing a certain kind of fiction, the rule is "location, location, location." This is a tale of treachery, greed, and international intrigue, of Iraqi mad scientists and heroic defectors, an ominous parable permeated by a sense of urgency and impending disaster: It is, in short, war propaganda: its aim is to induce in the reader a sense of anxiety, even panic. For if the French and even the Brazilians are in on the plot, who knows but that Mexico or even Canada might be next: a vantage point from which Saddam may have a shot at hitting the editorial offices of the Weekly Standard, or even The New Republic – and, as I said, these page-turning plots, however improbable, get more exciting by the minute.


Of course, a story like this depends on the sort of reader who is not only willing to overlook a few major lapses in logic, but is also prepared to forget what he has read, so as to be able to appreciate successive Saddam Bomb stories as they are churned out. The London Times, a major publisher in this genre, headlined a [November 28, 1990] story "Iraq may have a nuclear capacity in two months." Three weeks later a front page story trumpeted the "news" that "Iraq is Two Years away from [a] Nuclear Bomb"! But they appear to have solved the problem of what to do about the singular lack of any evidence that Iraq has either the capacity or the plan to construct nuclear weapons sometime in the future by simply asserting that the plot is a fait accompli – and that Saddam is merely holding his radioactive revenge in reserve, waiting for the opportune moment.


But it would be hard to imagine what that moment might be, unless it passed a decade ago, when the US unleashed a firestorm over Iraqi cities, decimated its army, and could well have gone all the way to Baghdad instead of stopping at the brink of that abyss. If Saddam had the bomb in 1989, then why didn't he use it during the Gulf War, when his back was to the wall? But what's another major inconsistency in a story made up almost entirely of half-truths and lies? After all, the reader is not meant to be informed by such a piece, but merely inflamed with the certainty that whatever we do to Iraq is justified no matter how many thousands (of Iraqis) have to die.


The growing tendency of so much of the "news" – especially international reporting – to be pure fiction designed to arouse emotions rather than impart information, is a development that may not be recent, but certainly it has gotten more brazen. I don't know whether that represents a growing carelessness on the part of the War Party, or else an assumption that their readers have been so dumbed down that it hardly matters. I am struck, however, by the apparent belief by many journalists that they can get away with it. People just aren't that stupid – are they? At any rate, I'll leave such metaphysical concerns to my readers, and pursue my own interest in this theme: for I have a lot of stories like this, exemplifying the growing role of outright fabrication in the manufacture of what today passes for news. Alas, I have run out of room, but look in this space for future installments of "How They Lie" – the serial without end.

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"Behind the Headlines" appears Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, with special editions as events warrant.


Past Columns

Saddam Meets the Man From U.N.C.L.E.

The Sailors Who Fell From Grace With the Sea

Is It Something In the Water?

Bombs Over Baghdad: The Blair Factor

Prelude to War

Marc Rich: Treason is the Reason

It's the Empire, Stupid


Globalizing "Star Wars"

What's Up With the Saudis?

Who is Ariel Sharon?

The Myth of the Saddam Bomb

Are We to Be Spared Nothing?
Mad Bombers of Belgrade Blame Their Victims

Lying About Kosovo

Globalism on the Right

Cold War Follies: There's No Business Like Show Business

An Inaugural Party

Inaugural Fireworks Over Iraq?

Ashcroft Versus the Smear Machine

The Gulf War In Retrospect: the "Isolationists" Were Right

Our War Criminals, and Theirs

The American Dracula

NATO's Poisoned Arrow

The New Bolivar: Hugo Chavez and the Rise of Pan-American Nationalism

No to the International Kangaroo Court

Know Thy Enemy

The Canonization of Colin Powell

Big Government Invades the Internet

The New Cold War: Who's Afraid of Vladimir Putin?

The Case for Pessimism

The Gore Coup: No Justice, No Peace – No Exit

Bush or Gore: Pick Your War

Gore, Bush, and the Imperial Style

Neo-Nazis and Neocons: An Unholy Alliance

Al Gore – The O.J. Simpson of American Politics

Coup d'Etat 2000 and the Madness of Al Gore

Slobo and Gore: Peas in a Pod

Gore Coup Radicalizes Republicans

The Dimple That Shook the World

Listen Soldier, You Can Stop the Gore Coup

Two Ways to Steal an Election

In Occupied America: Rage Against "The Regime"

Al Gore's Beer Hall Putsch

A Message to My Readers

The Real Victors: Nader & Buchanan

Buchanan's "Hail Mary" Pass May Work

Doubletalkin' Dubya: Bush Backtracks on Kosovo

The Nader Moment

The Smearing of Ralph Nader

Nader Sells Out

America's Fifth Column

Bush, the Balkans, and the Bipartisan "Division of Labor"

Hilary, the War Goddess

Vidal's Valediction: The Golden Age

Norman's Narcissim: Podhoretz in Love

The Middle East: War Without End

Classic Raimondo: Isolationism for Beginners

Notes on the Serbian Revolution and Other Matters

Revolt of the Little Guys

The Clinton-
Gore-Milosevic Connection

Szamuely's Folly: Sympathy for the Devil

Slobo's Gambit: Will It Work?

Adventures in Cyber-Politics, Revisited

Curtains for Milosevic

Dubya's Kosovo Deception

The Return of Pat Buchanan


The Vindication of Wen Ho Lee

Against the EU: Danes Resist Assimilation

UN Millennium Summit: Globalist Dream is Your Worst Nightmare

Iraq and the US – Our Fantasy Island Foreign Policy

Classic Raimondo: Allied Vultures Pick at Iraq's Bones

Colombia – The Deja Vu War

Passage to Cartagena: An Inauspicious Visit

Invasion of the Party-Snatchers

Blowback: Read This Book!

Bush on Kosovo – Turning on a Dime

The Kosovo Fraud: Will They Ever Admit It?

The Outing of Ralph Nader, and Other Atrocities

Why Kosovo? Follow the Money!

Additional Justin Raimondo Archives


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