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Michael Ratner: The NYT and other “liberal” commentators led the way in selling the WMD myth and justified the Iraq war; their mea culpas ring hollow

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PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay in Baltimore. And welcome to this week’s edition of The Ratner Report with Michael Ratner, who joins us now from New York City.

Michael’s president emeritus of the Center for Constitutional Rights in New York, chair of the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights in Berlin, and a board member of The Real News.

Thanks for joining us again, Michael.


So we’re coming up on the 10th anniversary of the Iraq War, March 20, 2003, when it began. In a few days it’ll be March 20, 2013. And I think it’s really important for everybody out there to know how many people we murdered in Iraq, how we got into that war, and who were some of the liberals, supposed liberals, who led us into that war, so that we don’t depend on–we don’t make that mistake again.

And, of course, people should know how many people were killed. Nobody knows the real figure. There’s numbers that go from 170,000 people killed, including combatants, maybe 120,000 civilians, up to 1 million. The Lancet reports 600,000 people killed with some kind of violence, whether that includes starvation or just plain old murders, but it’s a huge number.

And when you think about that number, you have to think: how did we get into this war, which I considered at the time an illegal and unnecessary war, in which I was not alone? It was the biggest demonstrations ever in the world against a war. In fact, they called the demonstration in Rome against the war in February 2003–it was 3 million people in Rome, 36 million people worldwide, hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions in the United States as well. And yet we went to war in the United States, or on behalf of the United States, despite this.

And, of course, many of us called it Bush’s war, but as I’ll explain, it’s not just Bush’s war. It was The New York Times’ war, it was Bill Keller’s war, Tom Friedman’s war, and a number of other people who I will mention.

The way they sold the war to the American people were two primary things. One was that Iraq was somehow developing weapons of mass destruction, of which they have literally no evidence, none at all. There were weapons inspectors who kept going there, came back with no evidence. The weapons inspectors group said there was no evidence of weapons of mass destruction. Yet they sold us to war based in part on weapons of mass destruction.

The other way–and it’s an important lesson going forward–they sold us the war: by claiming that there was a relationship between Saddam Hussein, who led Iraq at the time, and al-Qaeda. And of course al-Qaeda was on everyone’s minds, because this was just two years after 9/11. And how did they go about getting and achieving and establishing that relationship, which even Colin Powell spoke about when he spoke to the UN in a speech that convinced many people that we had to go to war with Iraq? They did it through torture.

And in particular there was a man named al-Libbi who was waterboarded. And when he was waterboarded, as he said later, I would have said anything to stop being waterboarded. And what he said and what actually Cheney, our vice president at the time, was looking for and why he was actually torturing people–or directing them to be tortured was because he wanted to prove a link between al-Qaeda and Iraq. And what al-Libbi said was that members of al-Qaeda were sent to Iraq for training in how to use weapons of mass destruction.

Of course, it was an utterly false story. It was actually a story, in some way, you could say was manufactured, because they tortured people to try and get that story. But it also shows you how bad torture is, in the sense that people will say anything to stop it. And whatever people say about the ticking time bomb scenario and torture and saving a life of someone’s here or there, in the end, this torture was a key element in proving something, allegedly proving something that led us into a war that killed well over, probably, a half a million people. So that’s one lesson you ought to take out of this, or we ought to all take, is torture is one of the worst things you can use for gaining actual intelligence.

A second thing which has always bothered me is the role of the so-called liberal media, whether that’s The New York Times, The New Yorker, New Republic, and the key people who ran all of that media. This is called the liberal media. You know, I don’t think, Paul, that there’s a war that The New York Times has not supported. But it was a particularly nasty piece of business on the Iraq War.

You had, first of all, Bill Keller–I’m not sure he was executive editor during the beginning, but right around that period the head of The Times, a major reporter, major person at The New York Times. He wrote earlier, after 9/11, a 8,000-word article in The New York Times Magazine about what the effect of one kiloton bomb would be if it went into Times Square, in other words, getting everybody totally fearful of what would happen if Iraq had a weapon of mass destruction. Then The Times published column after column by Judy Miller and others pushing the idea that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction, columns that The Times ultimately had to apologize for.

So we have Bill Keller, The New York Times; Tom Friedman, columnist for The New York Times; George Packer, New Yorker writer; Zakaria, Newsweek reporter; Jeffrey Goldberg, The Atlantic; Peter Beinart; Hitchens; Paul Berman; a whole host of what I would have to call almost neoliberal liberals going for this war, going for it either because they thought we were in a war of civilizations or because they accepted [incompr.] there were weapons of mass destruction, etc.

I asked myself at the time, how can these people believe this stuff? Any rational person can see that this is a BS story. This is a Bush war. This is a war in which they want to slap around a country that they can easily topple. This is about continuing U.S. hegemony in the Middle East, continuing our hegemony over oil, etc., making sure China and Russia are out there, whatever reasons. But how did these guys buy it?

You know, I came–it’s not that they just made a mistake. What I really have come to is that they are part and parcel of a belief in who this country–they really believe that this country is exceptional, it has to rule the world, and they buy into that fact. And therefore they’re willing to really suspend their judgment and their reason and go for a war that was just completely fictitious.

Now, I should say, when I have talked to some of these people about it, they say, well, we’ve done our mea culpas. We agree we were wrong about this war. This was a huge mistake. It’s one of the worst wars we could have ever gone into. But when you read their explanations for it, their mea culpas, it’s not that they thought the war itself was bad–or most of them didn’t think the war itself was bad or that it was a bad idea; they thought it was executed badly, that we went into Iraq expecting or overestimating that the people would welcome us when they didn’t, we botched up the post-war, we made lots of mistakes, we allowed the counterinsurgency to move forward, etc., etc. So they don’t actually get at what I’m saying, which is they actually believed in this war. And I find mea culpas just completely insufficient, because at the core what these people did was believe in an American aggressive, illegal foreign policy that wound up killing half a million people. And in my view, there’s no apologies for that.

The best writer on this, and wrote an incredibly good article, was an intellectual who died, a writer, Professor Tony Judt. He died within the last couple of years. He wrote an article, and what he said in that about all of these so-called liberals who supported the war, what he said was today America’s liberal armchair warriors are the, quote, “useful idiots,” end quote, of the war on terror. And what he titled his article was “Bush’s Useful Idiots”.

Now, I wish I could say that things have gotten better among this crowd–maybe a few of them a little better. You know. But a lot of them are still very, very aggressive about supporting the so-called war on terror, what was Bush’s policy. Their mea culpas are just not very good.

Bill Keller I want to single out because he still has these incredibly bloated, you know, superficial columns in The New York Times. And they had one recently that was related to my clients, particularly WikiLeaks’ Julian Assange, and it was in the context of talking about Bradley Manning. And again he shows his stripes as completely biased and irrelevant.

What he says is–first of all, he says that, well, had Bradley Manning given the documents directly to The New York Times, there probably wouldn’t have been as much anger at either Bradley Manning or Julian Assange and WikiLeaks. And I must say that’s the one thing he got right in the article, because Bill Keller is right, because Bill Keller, like he did in the case of the warrantless wiretap story, he ran to the White House and said, should I expose the warrantless wiretapping story, and they said, no, hold it up, don’t do it, and he only did it when James Risen was going to go forward with it in a book. So Bill Keller, this man who brought us into the war in many ways, at least paved the way, is still writing the kind of bunk he was writing in 2001, ’02, and ’03.

I mean, he did the same thing with Bradley Manning’s motives. He said about Bradley Manning’s motives, well, I don’t think they were necessarily that political; his talk that he gave pleading guilty, which said they were all political, seems to be made up after the fact. And in fact that’s not true. In fact, if you go to the early Bradley Manning statements that he made way before he was actually indicted, you would find that he was making political reasons.

So this same core of so-called liberals is still out there. They’re still controlling–I mean, another one is David Remnick at The New Yorker. He supported the war. So they just go on and on.

And the question is, for all of us–I mean, just in some way it’s an advertisement for you, Paul. But, you know, how do we get an accurate picture out there and how do we get journalists out there who are not just going to lead us into the next war? One of the stories I think you plan on doing is the Pentagon links to the Iraq torture centers. That’s, of course, another story about the Iraq War and a story in 2004 and 2005 in which the U.S. sent two people there, a guy named Steele and Kaufmann, to essentially oversee what were set up as many, many detention and torture centers, in which literally tens of thousands of people were tortured.

As a close to that, ’cause I know you’re going to cover the story, I just want to point out that it again brings out the importance of WikiLeaks documents. When I talk to the people who did that story, what they did was they combed through the Iraq War Logs, which were revealed by Bradley Manning to WikiLeaks. Those war logs had reports in it of soldiers from the U.S., their daily logs, telling about that they had perceived or seen that there was torture going on at these torture centers, or illegal activity, etc. And those are in the War Logs. And as a result of that, this important story, Guardian-BBC story, came out about the U.S. link to these detention and torture centers, and the link ultimately up the chain of command to Petraeus, and even to Rumsfeld. So, again, it’s again about Iraq, it’s about WikiLeaks, and it’s about really great reporting.

JAY: There’s one other thing, I think, one other piece to this, because not all the liberals were in favor of this war–and by liberals, using your terminology, I’m talking about Democrats–and some Republicans, if you want–who believe in projecting American power but thought the Iraq War was stupid and opposed it on that basis ’cause it actually wasn’t useful for projecting American power. And one of those people was Barack Obama, who came out against the war not ’cause he’s against projecting American power any–this is back pre-Iraq War, and clearly we can see as president he’s very gung-ho about projecting American power. But he and a lot of other foreign policy professionals thought this was just a completely dumb move in Iraq. And The New York Times should have known that. You’d think The New York Times would have reflected that.

So there’s something–I think there’s something else going on other than being useful idiots, which is also the case. There’s something about the money that gets made in the lead-up to war. The newspapers it sells, the fervor, the bloodlust, the chauvinism that this section of this kind of supposed liberals, they get excited by all this. And then there was also direct, nefarious connections between Judith Miller and the Bush White House. But The New York Times in theory is at odds with that White House, one would think, politically. There’s some interest here.

RATNER: You’re making a very interesting point. You know, I talked to some people who were at the Barack Obama speech that he gave against the war–quote, against the war–in Chicago at the time. And what they said was he was careful, as you’re sort of implying. What he said is he was against this particular thing, this war, but in fact he wasn’t, like, just an antiwar person in general, that there were certain times that you would need to do war, I think. And that’s what you’re saying, that he’d still believe in the projection of American force.

JAY: Yeah, I watched that very carefully, that speech, and he says, I’m not a pacifist; I’m against this war. But he did a followup interview, more in-depth–I can’t remember if it was with 60 Minutes or somewhere else–not too long after that interview. Maybe it was six months or a year. And he was very explicit. He said, I thought this would actually weaken our ability to project power around the world. He said, I’m for projecting American power, I believe in it.

RATNER: I think that’s a good point, and I think he certainly illustrated that from the surge, both in Iraq and in Afghanistan and all the wars we’re now carrying out in Somalia and Yemen.

One important person I left out of this–and I’d be interested in how you see how she fit in here–is Hillary Clinton. I mean, it’s hard to forgive Hillary Clinton for her vote, really hard, because let’s assume she’s, like, a projection person like you’re saying Obama was, a projection of American force. What it seems to is she clearly could never have believed that this war was necessary. You had to be, as Tony Judt said, a useful idiot to believe that this war was actually a weapons of mass destruction war or an al-Qaeda, you know, BS war. You had to be a dummy.

So the only thing I can think about Hillary is that she made a wrong judgment. Barack Obama must have felt this was going to help him be president. Hillary made a judgment that said, I need to vote for the war so I can be president. If I vote against the war, I won’t be president. And it’s actually what ultimately was her Achilles’ heel. So I think she was an opportunist, which is to me almost the worst thing you could be is to actually kill people in the name of opportunism.

JAY: Yeah. I think actually this goes–what you’re saying goes to the core of it, because for The New York Times–remember the days. This is post 9/11. This is when there’s all this tremendous buildup that we have to defend America and you’re a traitor if you even critique the White House. And the way the media succumbed to that, they were–you know, both from the point of view of being worried about being labeled traitors, and even from a straight–and maybe more from a straight business interest, you know, you’d lose some of your market share if you’re seen as soft on this stuff.

RATNER: No, I think that’s right. I agree. I mean, as I said, when I opened, I think I said, I don’t think there’s any war The New York Times has ever opposed. You know, I haven’t looked back in history before probably the Second World War, but I think it’s been right up there with the best of them.

JAY: Alright. Thanks very much, Michael.

RATNER: Thanks for having me, Paul, and I really appreciate what was a very useful discussion, particularly in the end.

JAY: Thank you.

And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.


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Michael Ratner is President Emeritus of the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) in New York and Chair of the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights in Berlin. He is currently a legal adviser to Wikileaks and Julian Assange. He and CCR brought the first case challenging the Guantanamo detentions and continue in their efforts to close Guantanamo. He taught at Yale Law School, and Columbia Law School, and was President of the National Lawyers Guild. His current books include Hell No: Your Right to Dissent in the Twenty-First Century America, and Who Killed Che? How the CIA Got Away With Murder.

NOTE: Mr. Ratner speaks on his own behalf and not for any organization with which he is affiliated.