Fake news is defined by the Oxford Dictionary as “False information that is broadcast or published as news for fraudulent or politically motivated purposes”.
The term “fake news” has become synonymous with the Trump Administration. The former President frequently deployed the phrase, accusing news publications of spreading misinformation about him. In fact, Trump used the term “fake news” over 2000 times in retaliation to journalists’ line of questioning or in response to unfavourable news pieces, despite spreading misinformation on his own platforms.
But whilst Trump may have popularised the term, he was not the first to weaponize it. During his presidency, George Bush used fake news to push political policies, including the invasion of Iraq in 2003. On reflection, the Bush administration was far more effective in their use of fake news to achieve their political goals.
This article will investigate the major pieces of misinformation used to mislead the public and justify the invasion of Iraq. Additionally, it is important to consider the media’s involvement in assisting Bush in his lies. Unlike Trump, who divided the media, Bush garnered almost unanimous support for the Iraq invasion. The media either failed to question Bush’s decisions or actively promoted misinformation, greatly influencing public opinion on Iraq and Saddam Hussein.
Weapons of mass destruction
Just as Trump popularised the term “Fake News”, Bush made “Weapons Of Mass Destruction” his own political catchphrase.
Weapons Of Mass Destruction, or WMD’s, are defined as a “nuclear, biological, or chemical weapon able to cause widespread devastation and loss of life”. From 1962 to 1991, Iraq actively built and deployed WMD’s, before destroying all chemical weapons and halting its biological and nuclear weapons programs as requested by the UN council.
President Bush accused Iraq of stockpiling weapons and continuing their nuclear program. These claims were not backed by any evidence or intelligence. In 2002, the UN conducted weapons inspections in Iraq, concluding that they found no evidence Iraq possessed nuclear weapons or had an active nuclear program.
This inspection did not satisfy the US and its allies. The Bush Administration agreed early on that WMD’s would be the main justification for the Iraq invasion and the inspections did not prove without a doubt that Hussein did not have or was not building WMD’s.
Despite this lack of physical evidence, on 19th March 2003 President Bush announced the beginning of Operation Iraqi Freedom, informing the public that the Iraq Regime threatened peace with weapons of mass murder.
Of course, the US and its allies never found WMD’s. Speaking before the World Affairs Council in 2006, Bush stated that he “fully understood that the intelligence was wrong, and [he was] just as disappointed as everybody else" when U.S. troops failed to find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. It could be argued that this statement was another example of misinformation, as Bush was informed by the UN and domestic intelligence agencies of Iraq’s lack of nuclear and biological weapons programs.
Hussein and Al-Qaeda
To the Bush administration, 9/11 presented an opportunity. Whilst WMD’s were the primary reason for the Iraq War, establishing a link between Saddam Hussein and those responsible for 9/11 was one of the first routes the Bush administration decided to pursue, knowing such a significant and emotional event would provide the public support they needed.
The issue the government faced was that early reports provided by the CIA and various US intelligence units reported the lack of relationship between the Hussein regime and Al-Qaeda. On September 21st, 2001, Bush received a Presidential daily brief stating that the US intelligence community had no evidence of Iraq’s involvement in the September 11th attacks, and there was scant evidence that Iraq had any collaborative ties with Al-Qaeda. The pre-war CIA report asserted that although there was evidence of contact between Iraq and Al-Qaeda going back a decade, there remained no credible information linking Baghdad to the September 11th attacks.
"there was scant evidence that Iraq had any collaborative ties with Al-Qaeda"
Therefore, the Bush Administration formed their own intelligence unit and re-examined evidence previously discounted by the CIA to support the Iraq invasion. They leaked questionable information to the press and the administration publicly spoke of unconfirmed Iraq-Al Qaeda relations from a decade earlier to support Saddam Hussein’s apparent involvement in 9/11.
Over a year after the invasion of Iraq, the 9/11 commission report confirmed that there was no evidence of links between Iraq and Al Qaeda, either leading up to the terror attacks or during the decade prior. In 2006, the Bush administration attempted to distance itself from their previous claims. Bush himself questioned whether he ever claimed Al-Qaeda and Iraq had a relationship.
The role of the media
The media plays an invaluable role in both the prevention and prevalence of fake news. Trump’s outlandish “alternative facts” were often reinforced by some media publications, such as Fox News. Alternatively, many publications fact-checked the President, ensuring the public were made aware of misinformation.
The Bush administration benefitted from a united media campaign. Regardless of their political loyalties, most publications aided Bush in his bid to invade Iraq. Journalist Gary Kamiya stated, “The period of time between 9/11 and the invasion of Iraq represents one of the greatest collapses in the history of the American media”.
"The period of time between 9/11 and the invasion of Iraq represents one of the greatest collapses in the history of the American media."
The lies of the Bush administration mostly went unchallenged and were sometimes actively promoted. Judith Miller, a reporter for The New York Times, consistently provided a platform for the administration’s misinformation despite the lack of a reliable source. In 2002, Miller and Michael R Gordon wrote a major story claiming Iraq had stepped up in its efforts to create a successful nuclear program. Despite the significance of the piece, neither reporter cited any reliable sources, instead confirming the information was provided by an anonymous US official.
The differences between Trump and Bush
Both Trump and Bush employed misinformation and fake news during their time as presidency, but in entirely different ways. Trump's use of “fake news” is far more blatant and immediately shocking. The former President made outlandish claims that were often believed only by a minority. His relationship with the press also differed, using alt-right media to reinforce his alternative facts. Trump made an enemy of the mainstream media, something Bush never did.
"George Bush was far more subtle and arguably more destructive in his use of fake news."
George Bush was far more subtle and arguably more destructive in his use of fake news. He relied on questionable or misinterpreted intelligence, and this intelligence was only available for the Bush administration to see. The public had no access to the information used to justify Bush’s foreign policy. The mystery of bureaucracy and the secretive nature of intelligence gathering were valid reasons for the public to remain uninformed. Because of this, America accepted the fake news provided by the Bush administration.
Additionally, Bush successfully recruited the mainstream media into his fake news campaign. With the support of established publications that included The New York Times and The Washington Post, the public had even less reason to doubt the legitimacy of the Iraq War. Trump’s claims could often be easily disproved (e.g. the claim his inauguration had the highest attendance ever), whereas Bush’s were far more difficult to challenge.
Despite their differences, both utilized fake news effectively. Bush successfully invaded Iraq and received little backlash both during and after his presidency. And although Trump was frequently ridiculed by politicians, the US public, and the international community, he still received over 70 million votes in the most recent election, making him the second most popular president in history.
Is fake news here to stay? Maybe. It is hard to imagine Biden adopting the same tactics as Trump, but Bush’s actions may have set a precedent for more politically minded presidents. That is not to say Trump’s style won’t be seen again. On the contrary, we are already seeing a rise in elected politicians moulded by Trump politics, like far-right conspiracy theorist Marjorie Taylor Greene. Fake news might be morally questionable, but it is effective. To some politicians, that is good enough.
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