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Finding the Whole Truth

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Sometimes, what you don't say is the most important part. Take Tony Snow's remarks to Carl Levin this week on Fox News Sunday: "You mentioned the link with al Qaeda. Of course that was Ansar al-Islam which did have a base in northern Iraq." As Senator Levin went on to point out, however, the portion of northern Iraq where Ansar had its base was in the Kurdish region outside the control of Saddam Hussein, thus making its existence perfectly irrelevant to the case for war.

Oftentimes, however, the news-watching public doesn't have a Democratic Senator on hand to keep them straight in the face of conservative lies and they have to rely on the press to keep them informed. Just the previous Sunday, after all, Don Rumsfeld brought up Ansar's prewar activities in Iraq on not one, not two, but three different Sunday shows without even a whiff of contradiction or clarification passing through the lips of Snow, George Will, George Stephanopoulos, or Tim Russert.

This particular bit of dishonesty began its life in the more sophisticated hands of Colin Powell, where it was more a piece of misdirection than outright deception. In his well-received presentation to the U.N. Security Council laying out the case for war, Powell noted the existence of Ansar al-Islam and did state that it operated "in northern Kurdish areas outside Saddam Hussein controlled Iraq," but alleged that its head, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi had once received medical treatment in Baghdad. Based on this slender thread of a link, Powell dedicated about 1,000 words to detailing the threat posed by Zarqawi and his group.

Early in the war, U.S. forces targeted the group's camps with widely-reported strikes, coverage of which did not take the time to note that joint action with Kurdish forces against these terrorists could have been undertaken without launching a broader attack on the Hussein regime, which had been prohibited from launching military operations in the area for several years thanks to the vigilance of U.S. and British air power. Indeed, the fact that America had been conducting military strikes within the Iraqi no-fly zone where Ansar operated for several years, and had committed itself to fighting a war on al Qaeda over a year before the launch of Operation Iraqi Freedom should have given some pause to those relaying tales of the group's threatening nature. If Ansar's activities really did pose a significant threat to the United States, then we should have attacked them at the earliest possible opportunity, but it seems that the administration found them to be more useful alive, as a bogus argument in favor of war, than dead.

Having served its polemical purpose, the group largely disappeared from the administration's discourse, until a late-March raid on an Ansar camp produced a flurry of media coverage highlighting the group's work on chemical weapons and its ties to al Qaeda while downplaying its utter lack of connection to the Hussein regime and, therefore, the war in Iraq.

At this point, Ansar al-Islam members appear to have fled across the border to Iran (which, as The New Republic pointed out in June, was always a more plausible candidate for the role of sate sponsor anyway). Since that time, fighters are said to have snuck back across the border to attack U.S. forces, providing renewed excuses for the administration to imply that the group constituted an important link between Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden.

Mention of Ansar al-Islam's prewar existence in Iraq without the qualification that it operated outside of Saddam's control surfaced on Fox News Sunday from the mouth of Paul Bremer on August 24 and October 26 and from Condoleezza Rice on September 7. August 24 also saw Bremer shopping the non-existent link on This Week with George Stephanopoulos and making an ambiguous reference to "refiltration" on Late Edition with Wolf Blitzer. That same day on Meet the Press, General Richard Myers remarked that "there was this group of Ansar al-Islam up in northeast Iraq that was working on poisons that had actually, in fact, infiltrated into Europe and some of those plots thwarted by the British and the French and others." In none of these instances did the interviewer see fit to note the fact that the group was operating outside the control of the Hussein regime or to question the administration's motives for presenting the facts in such an incomplete or misleading manner.

On CBS, where administration officials never seem to have told the lie, network correspondents still joined their brethren at other media outlets in doing the White House's dirty work for it, with reports both before and after the period of "major combat operations" noting without qualification that Ansar had a base "in Iraq" or was linked by Powell to the Iraqi government.

Even higher up the administration food chain, Dick Cheney told Tim Russert on September 14 that "we also knew al Qaeda was there, and Ansar al-Islam, up in northeastern Iraq" in the course of the same interview where he made the infamous claim that "we don't know" whether or not Iraq was involved in 9/11. Russert couldn't be bothered to follow up on either point.

The president, famously, disavowed those remarks, but in the course of disavowing them yet again implied the existence of a significant Iraq-al Qaeda link, saying of Zarqawi "he's a man who is still running loose, involved with the poisons network, involved with Ansar al-Islam. There's no question that Saddam Hussein had al Qaeda ties."

To be clear, this is not a piece of semantic quibbling. The U.S. suffered a catastrophic attack on Sept. 11, 2001, and the American people justifiably gave overwhelming support to the idea that the country ought to respond militarily against the perpetrators. If Saddam Hussein really were, like the Taliban, sheltering an al Qaeda group, that would have constituted a perfectly good reason for invading his country.

But he wasn't. Nevertheless, over a period of months, the Bush administration has engaged in a sustained effort to convince the American people that he was.

Every single one of the foreign policy "principals" – including the president and vice president – and every major television news outlet in the country has been complicit in this campaign of deception. The fact that the deception has been carried out largely by making statements that are true, though incomplete, in no way mitigates the responsibility of the perpetrators or their enablers. A deception artfully done is a deception nonetheless. That a person now becomes worse rather than better informed about the crucial issues of the day by watching the nation's leading public affairs programming is truly a sad state of affairs.

Admittedly, amidst the flurry of lies coming out of the present White House it's a little hard to keep track of what's going on at any given point, but the relationship of the war in Iraq to the battle against terrorism is probably the central question surrounding the wisdom of the administration's policies. The press corps that doesn't seem to have time to bring any scrutiny to bear on the Ansar al-Islam issue is, after all, the same one that's dedicated a week's worth of commentary to parsing the ins and outs of Howard Dean's position on the Confederate flag. Democrats seeking to inquire into the administration's misuse of prewar intelligence stand accused of illegitimately "politicizing" the Senate, while top administration officials can go on television and misrepresent the facts without challenge.

Matthew Yglesias is a writing fellow at The American Prospect.

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