Anyone who believes that Osama bin Laden is on dialysis, that 100,000 Iraqis have been killed in the recent war, or that Halliburton has reaped huge profits from the Iraq conflict would do well to consult Richard Miniter’s recent book, Disinformation: 22 Media Myths That Undermine the War on Terror. Instead of reporting from within the media echo chamber, Miniter (also author of Losing bin Laden and Shadow War) goes directly to the most relevant sources to debunk more than a score of falsehoods about bin Laden, 9/11, and the War on Terrorism.
The most significant myth challenged by this seasoned investigative journalist is the popular idea that there were no meaningful connections between Iraq and al Qaeda prior to the 2003 war. Indeed, Miniter devotes four chapters to the meetings, money, training, and personnel that linked Saddam’s regime to bin Laden’s terrorist organization. Miniter notes, for example, that one of the participants in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, al Qaeda’s Abdul Rahman Yasin, not only fled to Iraq after the bombing but also was given a house and a monthly salary there. Equally impressive is the author’s description of a full-sized Boeing 707 that sat in an area southeast of Baghdad and served as a training site for hijackers — among whom were followers of Osama bin Laden. By the time his four-part analysis is finished, Minister has provided readers with a host of substantive contacts between Iraq and al Qaeda.
In another chapter Miniter challenges the popular myth that no evidence points to Iraq’s pre-war possession of WMD. The author observes that American forces seized no less than 1.77 metric tons of enriched uranium in June of 2004, that large supplies of radioactive powder (suitable for a dirty bomb) were uncovered, and that 1,500 gallons of chemical agents were found in a Mosul warehouse. Elsewhere, Miniter offers evidence that cyclosarin, sarin, and mustard gas were part of Saddam’s arsenal at the time of the American-led invasion. Finally, Miniter cites authorities on both sides of the Iraq War debate to show that even opponents of the war accepted intelligence estimates about Saddam’s WMD’s programs in March of 2003.
The nightmare scenario of suitcase nukes is a further myth that Miniter attempts to deflate. Relying on statements from experts, Miniter concludes that hair-raising tales about misplaced nukes — stories spread by Russian General Alexander Lebed and Soviet Colonel Stanislav Lunev — are unfounded. Over against the shifting tales of Lebed and Lunev, these experts insist that miniaturized weapons are much larger than advertised, that the weapons were dismantled pursuant to U.S.-Soviet arms treaties, and that complicating factors (including the deterioration rate of uranium) make them almost impossible for terrorists to acquire, transport, and detonate.
In addition to the critical issues mentioned above, Miniter deals with several topics that are akin to urban legends. These mini-myths include the widespread belief that bin Laden requires dialysis treatment and the claim that Oliver North warned Americans about the danger of Osama bin Laden during his 1987 Congressional testimony. (North’s statement, in fact, concerned Abu Nidal.) Another bit of disinformation, common in the Middle East, is the claim that no Jews showed up for work at the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001.
To give his work non-partisan appeal, Miniter concludes his list of 22 with two liberal and two conservative myths. The former chapters knock down the much-heralded charges that President Bush called Iraq an “imminent threat” prior to the war and that Halliburton raked in huge profits from its work in the region. The latter chapters take on conservative analysts for ideas that aren’t as easily refuted — certainly not by reviewing Presidential speeches and corporate financial sheets. These “myths” concern the beliefs that racial profiling is an effective anti-terrorism tool and the belief that our border with Mexico poses a significant terror threat. Ironically, the argument Miniter employs to shoot down the profiling myth — the likelihood that terrorists will change their tactics — is ignored when he turns his attention to the border issue. What Miniter’s analysis in this final chapter does clearly illustrate is the lax attitude toward terrorists that has often characterized America’s neighbor to the North.
In a brief epilogue Miniter offers a few suggestions that address the media’s penchant for reporting and recycling disinformation. These suggestions, however, only concern journalistic access to certain government transcripts and ignore issues like ideological conformity, pack journalism, and the profound pressure to present news within a dramatic framework.
Overall, Miniter’s work provides solid information about a number of terror-related issues. Despite the fact that Miniter’s material comes from generally available sources, only a sliver of that data has been broadly disseminated by mainstream journalists. This state of affairs makes Miniter’s myth-busting book extremely valuable. It also suggests the need for a more comprehensive analysis of media failings than Miniter himself provides.
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