Iraqgate — Once Bush's Ghost, Now the Media's

January 01, 1996  ·  Michael Fumento  ·  Media

Remember Iraqgate?

A lot of folks would rather you didn’t, which is why you should.

The charge, as laid out by a grave Ted Koppel on ABC News Nightline, was that "It is becoming increasingly clear that George Bush, operating largely behind the scenes throughout the 1980s, initiated and supported much of the financing, intelligence, and military help that built Saddam’s Iraq into the aggressive power that the United States ultimately had to destroy."

George Bush

For a bit more detail, here’s U.S. News & World Report, from a piece that ran just days before the 1992 presidential election: "After a well-reasoned policy of quietly assisting Iraq during its eight-year war with Iran, George Bush continued to provide billions of dollars in loans to Saddam Hussein after the war with Iran ended in 1988. Despite evidence that Iraqi agents were stealing some of the American loan money and using it to buy and build biological, chemical, and nuclear weapons, the Bush administration increased the amount of the loans."

This article was a complement to their earlier cover piece, "Iraqgate: How the Bush Administration Helped Finance Saddam Hussein’s War Machine with American Tax Dollars." In all the magazine ran seven articles with the word "Iraqgate" in the title.

The problem with all this exciting intrigue is it never happened. Repeated investigations have failed to turn up any Bush Administration wrongdoing. In a January 23 report, the Clinton Administration Justice Department found, to quote the New York Times, "no evidence to support allegations that aides to President George Bush had secretly armed Iraq and covered up their activities after Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait in August 1990."

Iraqgate was a big fat nothing, something readers of two brilliant exposes in The American Lawyer (Nov. 1994, by Stuart Taylor) and Foreign Policy (Spring 1994, by Kenneth Juster) already knew. But oh, what a nothing! It essentially began with a three-part series in the Los Angeles Times, headlining "Secret Effort by Bush Helped Hussein Build Military Might." One of the co-writers of the series, Murray Waas, also had a cover story in the Village Voice called "Gulfgate: How the U.S. Secretly Armed Iraq."

From there it quickly spread like a flesh-eating bacteria into newspapers, newsmagazines, and television news throughout the country. When the reporters held back, the editorial pages did not. Thus, while reportorial coverage at the New York Times was circumspect, the editorial page declared, "Crimes also were committed as the United States favored Iraq with loan guarantees to pay for food," adding, "The money was diverted to military purposes and government records were doctored to disguise the transactions."

The frenzy was such that the Columbia Journalism Review even ran a cover story blasting the media for not giving enough coverage to the subject. "Just about every reporter following the story thinks [the] so-called Iraqgate scandal is far more significant than either Watergate or Iran-contra, both in its scope and its consequences," declared the writer. He later praised reporters at the Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal, the latter of which he said got in late but headed the pack when they did.

How did the media get so misled? It helps to know that much of the documentation came from then-chairman of the House Banking, Finance, and Urban Affairs Committee, Henry Gonzales. He would later go on to greater fame for stonewalling the Whitewater investigation.

Two days before the presidential election, CBS’s 60 Minutes began its program with Mike Wallace saying, "What I hear you saying, Mr. Chairman, is that Dick Thornburg, when he was attorney general, and William Barr, now that he is attorney general, have been involved in obstruction of justice." His guest, Gonzales, had merely to reply, "Yes, sir." Thereupon Wallace could continue, "Obstruction of justice? What was the White House trying to hide?"

Is the word "misled" appropriate? Mr. Gonzales was merely demonstrating his twisted sense of loyalty to the Democratic Party. But to whom does the media owe its loyalty? Nonetheless, in a media known for a liberal bias, no one had greater impact than conservative New York Times columnist William Safire. In a series of about 20 columns, Safire repeatedly attacked "the Bush administration’s fraudulent use of public funds, its sustained deception of Congress, and its obstruction of justice." Safire’s gullibility in snapping up Gonzales’s fake paper trail is proof that lack of liberal bias does not equal non-bias or accurate reporting.

How important the Iraq scandal was in Bush’s narrow election loss is hard to say. Certainly the Clinton ticket considered it valuable. "George Bush wants the American people to see him as the hero who put out a raging fire," said Al Gore in a late September 1992 speech. "But new evidence now shows that he is the one who set the fire." On October 25 he asserted, "this is a bigger cover- up than Watergate ever was," in "hiding the decision by George Bush to arm Saddam Hussein."

Now the election is long since passed and America is enjoying the fruits of the Clinton-Gore administration, so there’s no harm in the media saying "We blew it we’re going to set this right." Right? Wrong.

Repeatedly front page news as a scandal, as a non-scandal Iraqgate is fit only for sweeping under the rug. The Los Angeles Times gave it but 606 words on page A12. USA Today put it on A4 — then buried it in a series of short items. Still, nobody indexed on the Nexis computer database gave it closer to front-page coverage than that. The Wall Street Journal at least put the article on the back of the first section, but the Washington Post tucked it into A12.

And what of U.S. News & World Report? No, not a word about the Justice Department ruling.

The media don’t apologize for whopping mistakes and falsehoods, just little errors like misspelling names. When they tamper with presidential elections and people’s reputations, it’s "Gosh, I think my mother’s calling! Gotta go!"