'The Goebbels of Saddam's regime'
Eager journalists will no doubt be manning the hotel roofs of Baghdad should another war break out. Let's hope that the "war of words and images" remains a verbal one.
It all started with the baby-milk plant story. Up to then, the Bush administration had been enthusiastically supportive of CNN's coverage of the 1991 bombing of Baghdad. Our live reports from the ninth floor of the al-Rashid Hotel suggested that the numerous cruise missiles and bombs daily hammering the Iraqi capital were finding their designated targets, namely command and control centers, military barracks and Saddam Hussein's palaces and bunkers. Our reports seemed to confirm Pentagon assessments that civilian casualties were nil.
But on Day 4, bombs rained down on an industrial plant on the outskirts of Baghdad, and the honeymoon was over. I was driven to the location by my Iraqi "minder" along with a WTN film crew. We pulled off the highway past a large, faded poster of Saddam Hussein comforting a distressed child. The entrance bore a crudely lettered sign reading "baby milk plant" in English and Arabic. The structure was barely recognizable as a building. The sheet aluminum walls and roof had been ripped off and scattered in the yard. The steel roof girders were twisted and blackened. The machinery underneath was a tangled molten pile. The plant had been empty of workers at the time.
Iraqi officials said the factory produced 20 tons of milk powder per day for the children of the capital. They showed us plastic spoon-making machines with their output scattered. I was walking up to my ankles in white powder. Documents lying around described the product as a mixture of malt, sugar extract and milk. I picked up an armful of intact packets to distribute to kids back at our hotel. It looked like an innocent production plant to me.
That night I reported to CNN on my satellite phone what the Iraqis told me: that the plant was the only source of infant formula in Baghdad and was not a legitimate target. And I went to bed. When I awakened in the morning, I tuned in to BBC radio, and discovered that I had reported one of the most controversial stories of my career. White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater called me a liar. President George Bush himself had watched the report, Fitzwater declared, "and was not pleased." The installation was not producing milk powder, as the Iraqis claimed, but was "a production facility for biological weapons," said Fitzwater. And as for CNN reporter Peter Arnett, he was "a conduit for Iraqi disinformation."
So began a war of words. The baby-milk plant was just the first of an avalanche of images from inside Iraq that seemed to give the lie to the Pentagon's repeated boasts that its new generation of weaponry was mistake-proof. Day 8, three houses and their inhabitants were destroyed in Baghdad. Day 9, several city blocks were bombed in a town north of Baghdad, with many dozens dead. Day 10, more bombings of homes in Najaf. CNN was bearing the brunt of official wrath because it was regularly scooping the competition and attracting large audiences with its coverage.
Coalition military commander General Norman Schwarzkopf solved his moral dilemma by turning off CNN in his command bunker. The Bush administration, well aware that America's viewers were fixated on the war coverage, orchestrated an elaborate campaign of character assassination. I was denounced on the floor of Congress. Representative Laurence Coughlin of Pennslyvania said: "Arnett is the Joseph Goebbels of Saddam Hussein's Hitler-like regime." The CNN president received a letter from 34 congressmen who charged that my coverage "gives a demented dictator a propaganda mouthpiece to over 100 nations." Conservative members of the British Parliament compared me to turncoats of the Second World War. And there was much more.
My critics' rationale was that my observations were either direct lies or, if they were backed up by video, then the incidents themselves had been fabricated by Iraqi intelligence. The suggestion was that Saddam Hussein would raze his own cities for propaganda pictures. Maybe some people might even believe that, if it was repeated enough; and certainly in these first weeks of the war, the Bush administration was escaping serious criticism. But then came February 13, and the blame game was over.
At 4:50 that morning, an American jet dropped two precision-guided missiles on a civilian air-raid shelter in the Amariya district of Baghdad. Women, children and old men were packed inside; nearly 400 died. Reporters descended and within hours the most gruesome pictures of the war shocked viewers around the world. The Pentagon tried to argue that the shelter was a legitimate target because it sprouted radio antennae and could have had a military use. Few were buying that. The Russian foreign minister who visited a few days later told me President Mikhail Gorbachev had sent him to Baghdad "because such carnage has to end."
The debate over the Amariya bombing shifted attention from my credibility to the Pentagon's. The pictures had been so shocking that people did begin to question policy. Few argued that the consequences of a bombing raid that killed so many civilians should be ignored, particularly in a high-tech war where such mistakes were not meant to happen. Long after the war, I learned that policy had indeed been changed by the shelter carnage, and that so-called "military-civilian targets" were struck off the bombing lists, at least for what remained of the Gulf war.
The Pentagon fortunately resisted a more direct way of controlling the media in Baghdad by not bombing the al-Rashid Hotel or the Information Ministry. General Colin Powell, then joint chiefs-of-staff chairman, waxed indignant at the time at the very thought of such actions. But since then, the tolerance of unpleasant war images seems to be taxing the patience of American policymakers. The Clinton administration approved the bombing of the television center in Belgrade during the Kosovo war just hours after several Western TV reporters had completed their evening newscasts. The Kabul bureau of the controversial al-Jazeera, the "Arab CNN," was blown apart during the assault on Kabul in 2001.
Eager journalists will no doubt again be manning the hotel roofs of Baghdad should another war break out. Let's hope that the "war of words and images" remains a verbal one.