When contemplating war, beware of babies in incubators

By , csmonitor.com

More than 10 years later, I can still recall my brother Sean's face. It was bright red. Furious. Not one given to fits of temper, Sean was in an uproar. He was a father, and he had just heard that Iraqi soldiers had taken scores of babies out of incubators in Kuwait City and left them to die. The Iraqis had shipped the incubators back to Baghdad. A pacifist by nature, my brother was not in a peaceful mood that day. "We've got to go and get Saddam Hussein. Now," he said passionately.

I completely understood his feelings. Although I had no family of my own then, who could countenance such brutality? The news of the slaughter had come at a key moment in the deliberations about whether the US would invade Iraq. Those who watched the non-stop debates on TV saw that many of those who had previously wavered on the issue had been turned into warriors by this shocking incident.

Too bad it never happened. The babies in the incubator story is a classic example of how easy it is for the public and legislators to be mislead during moments of high tension. It's also a vivid example of how the media can be manipulated if we do not keep our guards up.

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The invented story eventually broke apart and was exposed. (I first saw it reported in December of 1992 on CBC-TV's Fifth Estate – Canada's "60 Minutes" – in a program called "Selling the War." The show later won an international Emmy.) But it's been 10 years since it happened, and we again find ourselves facing dramatic decisions about war. It is instructive to look back at what happened, in order that we do not find ourselves deceived again, by either side in the issue.

Iraq invaded Kuwait in August of 1990. As the BBC reported: "The country's ruler, Sheik Jaber al-Ahmed al-Sabah, fled into exile in his armour plated Mercedes, across the desert to neighbouring Saudi Arabia."

The Kuwait government had to find a way to "sell the war" to the American public, who were interested, but not deeply involved. So under the auspices of a group called Citizen for a Free Kuwait, which was really the Kuwait government in exile (the group received almost $12 million from the Kuwaiti government, and only $17,000 from others, according to author John R. MacArthur) the American PR firm Hill & Knowlton was hired for $10.7 million to devise a campaign to win American support for the war. Craig Fuller, the firm's president and COO, had been then-President George Bush's chief of staff when the senior Bush has served as vice president under Ronald Reagan. The move made a lot of sense – after all, access to power is everything in Washington and the Hill & Knowlton people had lots of that.

It's wasn't an easy sell. After all, Kuwait was hardly a "freedom-loving land." Only a few weeks before the invasion, Amnesty International accused the Kuwaiti government of jailing dozens of dissidents and torturing them without trial. In an effort to spruce up the Kuwait image, the company organized Kuwait Information Day on 20 college campuses, a national day of prayer for Kuwait, distributed thousands of "Free Kuwait" bumper stickers, and other similar traditional PR ventures. But none of it was working very well. American public support remained lukewarm the first two months.

According to MacArthur's book "Second Front," the first mention of babies being removed from incubators appeared in the Sept. 5 edition of the London Daily Telegraph. The paper ran a claim by the exiled Kuwait housing minister that, "babies in the premature unit of one of the hospitals had been removed from their incubators, so that these, too, could be carried off." Two days later, the LA Times carried a Reuter's story that quoted an American (first name only) who said, among other things, that babies were being taken from incubators, although she herself had not seen it happen.

From there it began to pick up steam, as one media unit after another started repeating the story without checking it. Sensing an opening, the Hill & Knowlton people jumped on the story.

The key moment occurred on October 10, when a young woman named Nayirah appeared in front of a congressional committee. She told the committee, "I saw the Iraqi soldiers come into the hospital with guns, and go into the room where 15 babies were in incubators. They took the babies out of the incubators, took the incubators and left the babies on the cold floor to die."

Hill & Knowlton immediately faxed details of her speech to newsrooms across the country, according to CBC's Fifth Estate's documentary. The effect was electric. The babies in incubator stories became a lead item in newspapers, and on radio and TV all over the US.

It is interesting that no one – not the congressmen in the hearing, or any journalist present – bothered to find out the identity of the young woman. She was the daughter of Kuwait's ambassador to the United States, and actually hadn't seen the "atrocities" she described take place. (When later confronted with the lack of evidence for her claims, the young woman said that she hadn't been in the hospital herself, but that a friend who had been there had told her about it. )

Similar unsubstantiated stories appeared at the UN a few weeks later, where a team of "witnesses," coached by Hill & Knowlton, gave "testimony" (although no oath was ever taken) about atrocities in Iraq. It was later learned that the seven witnesses used false names and even identities in one case. In an unprecedented move, the US was allowed to present a video created by Hill & Knowlton to the entire security council.

But no journalist bothered to look into these witnesses' claims. As Susan B. Trento wrote in her book, "The Power House," an in-depth look at Hill & Knowlton, "The diplomats, the congressmen, and the senators wanted something to support their positions. The media wanted visual, interesting stories."

On November 29, 1990, the UN authorized use of "all means necessary" to eject Iraq from Kuwait. On January 12, 1991, Congress authorized the use of force.

The story was later discredited by organizations like Middle East Watch, Amnesty International, and various other groups and media organizations

As Trento comments in her book, whether or not Hill & Knowlton's efforts were effective, or even needed, is open to debate. The US government had already launched a huge campaign to convince the American people to support war against Iraq. But the PR campaign definitely made an impact.

It's a different media world today than the one of 1992. Back then, CNN and the regular broadcast channels, as well as newspapers, were reporting the news. Today, there are many more TV and cable news channels, as well as the Internet, all demanding to be fed 24x7. It would be, in fact, much easier for someone to get a fabricated story circulated even faster. And it would be just as easy for the Iraqis to do it in the Arab world, as it would be for those that oppose them to do it in the West.

In his excellent book on war reporting "The First Casualty (of War is the Truth)," British journalist Phillip Knightly shows how important it is for the media to remain vigilant. While war with Iraq may truly be inevitable, it serves us all well if we make sure the reasons we go are legitimate ones, and not ones cooked up by richly funded public relation firms.

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