November 03, 2005,
Everything you know about the war on terror is false? Well, not quite. But Rich Miniter has homed in on 22 myths, which comprises his new book, Disinformation : 22 Media Myths That Undermine the War on Terror. He recently talked about some of them with National Review Online editor Kathryn Lopez.
Kathryn Jean Lopez: Osama isn't on dialysis? How the heck would you know? Seen him lately? Care to draw a map to the cave?
Richard Miniter: I tracked down nearly everyone who met bin Laden in the past 20 years. Every one that I was able to speak to said that bin Laden has no kidney troubles. My investigation took me to Egypt, Sudan, and put me in touch with leading journalists and officials in Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, and Afghanistan.
In Khartoum, I interviewed a man who lived with bin Laden for six years in both Sudan and Afghanistan. He emphatically said bin Laden had no health problems of any kind. He thought the dialysis story was propaganda put out by the CIA to depress the spirits of Muslims.
Bin Laden's personal physician, Dr. Amer Aziz, was arrested in Pakistan on October 21, 2002, and interrogated extensively by Pakistani intelligence officials as well as by CIA and FBI officials. When he was released in November 2002, he wasn't shy about talking to reporters. The doctor said that he had given bin Laden a "complete physical." "His kidneys were fine. If you're on dialysis, you have a special look. I didn't see any of that . . . I did not see any evidence of kidney disease . . . I didn't see any evidence of dialysis. . . .When I see these reports I laugh. I did not see any evidence."
Indeed the first reporter to write that bin Laden was on dialysis was Pakistani journalist Hamid Mir, who said his sole source for that nugget was Pakistani intelligence. They provided him with no evidence. Even Mir seems to doubt the story now.
In chapter three of Disinformation, I give the surprising reason that Pakistan wanted to spread rumors about bin Laden's health in 1998.
Miniter: I guess '80s music has made a comeback, but memories of 1980s history are fading fast. Yes, the CIA funded Afghans fighting for their country against the Soviets, but virtually all of that CIA money went through the ISI, Pakistan's feared intelligence service. The money was earmarked for seven different factions of the resistance all of them Afghan. Meanwhile, the Saudis funded a separate and parallel program for Muslim radicals drawn from across the Muslim world. Bottom line: Bin Laden was funded by the Saudis, not by us. I interviewed all three of the CIA station chiefs responsible for managing the Afghan war. All denied that any CIA money went to any Arabs, let alone bin Laden. I also pored over every bin Laden interview conducted in any language from the 1980s to today. In every single instance bin Laden is asked about CIA money, he denies it.
Maybe bin Laden did not get the Talking Points Memo or the e-mail from the DailyKos crowd, and doesn't know he's bucking the antiwar party line.
Lopez: Everyone knows the Mossad had a hand in 9/11. And now you report that the first 9/11 hero was an Israeli?!
Miniter: Yes, Daniel Lewin died a hero. He actually slugged it out with Mohammed Atta and was dead before his plane hit the tower. It's an incredible story really. In a better world, Hollywood would be lionizing this guy. But he'll have to settle for a chapter in my book. He was a champion bodybuilder, an Israeli commando who went to MIT and invented software to improve the way the Internet works. Briefly he was a billionaire and I think, once you read his incredible story, you'll agree that he should live in our memory as a hero.
Lopez: Still, aren't you just a little bit paranoid to blame myths on anti-Semitism and anti-Americanism?
Miniter: C.S. Lewis once said that the greatest advantage that the devil has is the belief that he doesn't exist. We need to realize that anti-Semitism, which has been declining for decades on these shores, is making a comeback on campuses, websites, and even in Upper West Side dinner chatter. As these views become acceptable as they already have in Europe they threaten to divide America against itself. Much of the disinformation spread by Arab state-run media is basically an appeal to anti-Israeli and anti-American sentiment. We have to be honest about the threat we face. Or as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Peter Pace said the other day, in this war, ideas "are as important as bullets." That means we have to knock down even the nutty ideas of our enemies.
Lopez: Iraq isn't Vietnam? But 2,000 of our military men and women have died.
Miniter: There are so many differences between the Vietnam War and the Iraq war that I had to write a 10,000-word chapter just to present all of the evidence. Basically, Iraq is Vietnam in reverse. Vietnam began with a small but growing insurgency and ended with tanks and division-strength infantry assaults on our forces. In Iraq, we destroyed the tanks and vanquished the army in a few weeks. The insurgency in Iraq is estimated today at 20,000 men. In 1966, Viet Cong and North Vietnamese regulars had combined troop strength of 700,000. By 1973, they had 1 million men under arms. North Vietnam had two superpowers supplying cutting-edge weapons; the most the insurgents in Iraq can hope for is car-bomb expertise from Iran and Syria. Ho Chi Minh was a compelling leader whose propaganda promised a better life for peasants. Al-Zarqawi is a Jordanian street thug who gets no respect in Iraq and offers no vision of a better life. I could go on and on about all of the important differences. Once you read this chapter, you will be able to shoot down liberals at cocktail parties for the next 20 years.
As for the 2,000, why does the press treat brave men and women as mere statistics? Instead of merely telling us that they died, don't we owe it to these fallen soldiers to say how they died? Many of them died heroically, saving the lives of others.
Lopez: Speaking of deaths . . . we haven't killed 100,000 innocent Iraqis?
Miniter: When I investigated the 100,000 dead-civilians claim, I was surprised at how quickly it fell apart. The 100,000 figure is based on a single study in a British medical journal published just days before the 2004 elections. The authors were open about their anti-Bush bias. They got the 100,000 by knocking on doors in 33 neighborhoods across Iraq. They simply asked Iraqis how many civilian deaths they knew about. They did not take any steps to avoid double counting. They didn't demand any proof, such as a funeral notice or a newspaper clipping. Instead they decided to just trust Iraqis to give them straight dope. So if you interview Baghdad Bob you know what kind of answers you're going to get. In that chapter, I also uncovered four other major technical flaws with that study. The 100,000 dead civilians claim is provably false.
Miniter: I don't think it hurts morale, but I wish I had a dollar for every time a soldier asked me why the media never reports on the Iraq they see everyday: a booming economy, skyscrapers going up, free elections, a free press, and an increasingly effective new Iraqi army. When I saw General Barbeio in Tikrit, I noticed that all the television sets were tuned to Fox News. One officer told me that the soldiers couldn't stomach CNN. I'm sure that there is no Army policy on what channel the soldiers can watch; but the men have clearly voted with their remotes.
Lopez: How much information is the fault of foreign sources with agendas? And lazy American journalists picking them up?
Miniter: Quite a bit. The myth that bin Laden is on dialysis came from Pakistan's intelligence service via its newspapers. Pakistan also gave us the myth that Mossad warned the Jews to stay home on 9/11. That is classic disinformation. The media generates a lot of these myths by giving credence to ideologically motivated critics and they have grown too lazy to check. A lot of what we think about as liberal bias is really just poor editing. Editors don't push reporters to present evidence or to evaluate what anonymous sources are telling them. A simple question from a single editor could have saved Newsweek a lot of embarrassment: Can a U.S.-issued Koran actually fit down the bowl of an Army toilet? And 60 Minutes could have saved itself some grief by asking just how credible the claims of General Lebed that Russian suitcase-sized nuclear devices had gone missing. Lebed was known for his wild stories, and U.S. officials had monitored the destruction of such portable nukes years before the story broke.
Lopez: Speaking of foreign entryways, why do you pile on Canada?
Miniter: Because the Canadian border is the real threat, at least from al-Qaeda terrorists. No al-Qaeda operatives have been captured along the southern border, but a number have slipped in from Canada, including Ahmed Ressam, who planned to blow up Los Angles International Airport in 1999. When you read all the evidence, you will know why the FBI worries more about the threat from the north . . .
Lopez: Why do you sell your soul to Halliburton?
Miniter: And all I got was this lousy t-shirt.
Actually, it is a great story with many important details that have been ignored by the mainstream media. Halliburton's profit margin in Iraq last year was 2.4 percent. Even municipal bonds are better investments than that. That's one reason that Halliburton wants to sell the division with the Iraq contracts. Oh, and did you know that Halliburton got the big contract before Bush and Cheney were elected?
Lopez: Which myth most surprised you?
Miniter: Several ones really surprised me. The notion that terrorism is caused by poverty especially. It turns out that the average al-Qaeda member is from an intact family, has at least a college degree, is more likely to be married than not, and was not particularly religious until he joined a terror cell. A former CIA officer who is now a forensic psychiatrist lays out fascinating information about what really causes terrorism in chapter 16 and describes the techniques used to keep these otherwise promising people on the path to murder. That was an eye-opener to me, and I have been interviewing intelligence officers for years.
Another surprise was that we did find some WMDs in Iraq. Okay, no stockpiles, but artillery shells loaded with sarin gas as well as other chemical weapons. The antiwar crowd always says "no evidence" nada, zip, zero and they are provably wrong.
Lopez: You should get these myths on postcards. Have them at the door at the bar down the block. Think of the impact on public opinion!
Miniter: Getting the myth onto a postcard is easy. Getting all of the evidence against it on a postcard would require really small font. We'd have to give all patrons little magnifying glasses.
Lopez: If people don't have the time for all 22 myths, what would you like them to grab from your book? What's most important?
Miniter: That's like asking which one of your children is your favorite. Even if there is an honest answer, it is tactless to give it.
On the other hand, most people tend to think that the chapters on WMDs found in Iraq, the voluminous connections between Iraq and al Qaeda and the Halliburton are important. I particularly like the chapters on suitcase nukes, that Iraq is not another Vietnam, and the one about terrorism not causing poverty partly because they take the reader into new and unexpected directions.
Lopez: Is this war the Iraq part in particular salvageable? Katie Couric makes me feel like it's not.
Miniter: Yeah, she's my favorite military expert too. I have been to Iraq and I think that we are winning. The press simply doesn't play up allied victories; they save that precious air time for the next car bomb. Consider the recent campaign in a place called Tall Afar, near the Syrian border. An Iraqi-American force (with more Iraqis than Americans) took on dug insurgents in A series of battles in September 2005. The enemy was quickly beaten and more than 100 terrorists were taken prisoner. Tall Afar was important because it cut a key enemy supply route from Syria to Baghdad and drove the enemy out of its desert strongholds. Or consider that the al-Zarqawi master bomb-maker was recently captured in Northern Iraq, as well as a bomb factory. And so on. Nor has it escaped the notice of Iraqis that most of the victims of the insurgency are civilians and most of suicide bombers are foreigners, some 60 percent hail from Saudi Arabia according to the death notices posted on jihadist websites. The war reporting from Iraq is shockingly one-sided, partly because some of the fixers and translators employed by some Western journalists once worked from Saddam's regime.