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From Freedom Watch to Petraeus, a Look at the Bush Administration’s Iraq War PR Campaign

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President Bush’s scheduled prime-time address tonight culminates a carefully orchestrated public relations campaign to win support for the continuation of the war in Iraq. The campaign began in August when a group called Freedom’s Watch headed by President Bush’s former spokesperson Ari Fleischer began airing pro-war television commercials. We speak with John Stauber of of the Center for Media & Democracy and PR Watch. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZALEZ: President Bush’s prime-time address before the nation tonight culminates a carefully orchestrated public relations campaign to win support for the continuation of the war in Iraq.

The campaign began in August, when a group called Freedom’s Watch, headed by President Bush’s former spokesperson Ari Fleischer, began airing pro-war television commercials. Then, President Bush flew to Iraq for an unannounced visit where he met with Iraqi leaders at a U.S. military base in Anbar province.

On the eve of September 11th, General David Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker testified before Congress. Then they appeared exclusively on Fox News in what the network dubbed as a “briefing for America.”

AMY GOODMAN: To talk more about the Bush administration’s public relations campaign, John Stauber joins us now in Madison, Wisconsin, founder of the Center for Media and Democracy and PR Watch. He’s author of several books, including The Best War Ever: Lies, Damned Lies and the Mess in Iraq.

Welcome to Democracy Now!, John. Talk about the president’s pro-war PR campaign.

JOHN STAUBER: Well, it was, of course, five years ago that President Bush launched his real pre-war, pro-war PR campaign on the anniversary of 9/11. And what we’ve seen over the last two months is another brilliant campaign using deception and nonexistent links between Iraq and 9/11, and now, something new, raising the specter of American defeat in Vietnam and the carnage that he says resulted from leaving Vietnam, to really hold his Republican supporters in the Congress behind his policy, a policy that’s been quite transparent from day one: The president intends to keep U.S. troops in Iraq for as long as he’s in office.

What we’ve seen over the last month is the emergence of a new White House front group called Freedom’s Watch, headed up, as you mentioned, by Ari Fleischer, the former White House PR flak, who was on duty in the White House in the selling of the war in 2002, 2003. He jumped ship when things were starting to go badly in June of '03, but he's back with a vengeance lending his name to this Freedom’s Watch. They’re sort of the latest of a number of Republican front groups, along with Vets for Freedom, Move America Forward. These are organizations that are holding pro-war rallies. They’re running TV advertisements. Freedom’s Watch alone is going to spend $10 million to $20 million over a month’s time running pro-war ads that use wounded Iraq veterans and equate winning the war in Iraq with the terror attacks of 9/11. And this is, in effect —

AMY GOODMAN: Let’s go to a clip. John, we’re going to go to a clip of one of those ads right now.

FREEDOM’S WATCH AD: Congress was right to vote to fight terrorism in Iraq and Afghanistan. I re-enlisted after 9/11, because I don’t want my sons to see what I saw. I want them to be free and safe. I know what I lost. I also know that if we pull out now, everything I’ve given in sacrifice will mean nothing. They attacked us, and they will again. They won’t stop in Iraq. We are winning on the ground and making real progress. It’s no time to quit. It’s no time for politics.

AMY GOODMAN: An excerpt of the ad that Ari Fleischer, the former Bush White House spokesperson, is working with. Juan?

JUAN GONZALEZ: John, this ad, once again, the repeated attempt to link the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon to Iraq, and this generic “they” attacked us; could you comment on that?

JOHN STAUBER: Well, Juan, of course, anyone who is watching the broadcast saw the video and saw the image of jets hitting the twin towers, but they also saw the speaker’s lack of lower legs. This is a severely wounded Iraq vet. And this ploy of linking Saddam Hussein and Iraq to 9/11 has worked as one of the three really big lies that originally sold this war. Of course, there is absolutely no truth to that and no truth to the other two big lies, that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction or that Saddam was in league with Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda.

And yet, as recently as this Monday, the New York Times/CBS poll showed that one of three Americans believe today that Saddam was personally behind the 9/11 attacks; 27 percent of Democrats, 40 percent of Republicans believe Saddam did 9/11. And just over a year ago, a Harris survey showed that half of all Americans believe that the weapons of mass destruction were found in Iraq. Huge falsehoods. And yet, this is what Americans are believing. And this, I think, is really the card that the president and the pro-war lobby plays so well: We have to stay in Iraq because these are the guys who did 9/11.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And how is it possible, in your estimation, given the enormous amount of news media that exists in this country, that these myths continue to prevail in people’s minds, in so many people’s minds?

JOHN STAUBER: Well, we’ve got to blame the mainstream news media. Of course, at the Center for Media and Democracy and on your program and in your reporting, we knew before the March 20, 2003, attack on Iraq that there was no connection between Saddam and 9/11 or Saddam and al-Qaeda and almost certainly there were no weapons of mass destruction. And yet, this information was censored out of the mainstream media. The mainstream media really delivered the big lie by censoring out the opponents and critics of the war and repeating over and over these falsehoods.

And then what happened was this. Most Americans get most of their news from television. And in April of 2003 and early May of 2003, Americans literally saw the weapons of mass destruction being discovered, because these embedded reporters, whether we’re talking Judith Miller at The New York Times, other major print media, the three networks, PBS, all wanted to be the first to break the story that the troops they were with discovered the weapons of mass destruction. So, as we point out in The Best War Ever, Americans actually saw the weapons discovered. They read about the discovery of the weapons. Of course, every one of those stories was 100 percent wrong, but Americans were promised by the president, the vice president, that they were there, the media delivered them, and the media has never corrected or fixed this big lie that’s fixed in the minds of Americans.

AMY GOODMAN: John, can you talk about the Petraeus hearings?

JOHN STAUBER: The Petraeus hearings really are a dog and pony show. Unfortunately, it’s pretty easy to predict what’s going to happen. Not much has changed in Congress or in the White House. It’s really been a game of chicken, with the Democrats gambling that by lighting a fire under select Republicans they could break enough of them free that they would vote with Harry Reid and Pelosi on beginning some sort of withdrawal from Iraq. But that clearly hasn’t happened.

And General Petraeus has been the perfect person for the Bush administration, because that same New York Times/CBS survey showed that overwhelmingly six of 10 Americans look to Petraeus and other commanders to take charge of Iraq, and those are the people who they think are best equipped to end the war.

Now, who is General Petraeus? He’s an employee of the White House. The White House is really hiding behind not just Petraeus and the commanders, but these front groups they’ve created, like Vets for Freedom and like Freedom’s Watch, that push forth pro-war neoconservative Iraq vets.

AMY GOODMAN: As we talk about the Petraeus hearings, I wanted to clay a clip from Comedy Central’s Daily Show with Jon Stewart. Harper’s magazine’s Ken Silverstein credited Stewart with providing far away the best analysis of what Petraeus said.

JON STEWART: The general raises a key point. We keep hearing from President Bush how the surge is meeting its military objectives, but we need more time. Well, yesterday, the good general was whistling a different tune.

GEN. DAVID PETRAEUS: The military objectives of the surge are, in large measure, being met. It will take time.

JON STEWART: My god! The president’s been right the whole time! Even down to the details.

PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: U.S. Marines and special operation forces have been striking terrible blows against al-Qaeda.

GEN. DAVID PETRAEUS: Coalition and Iraqi forces have dealt significant blows to al-Qaeda.

PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: Anbar province was al-Qaeda’s base in Iraq and was written off by many as lost.

GEN. DAVID PETRAEUS: A year ago the province was assessed as lost.

PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: The consequences of withdrawal would be disastrous.

GEN. DAVID PETRAEUS: A premature drawdown of our forces would likely have devastating consequences.

JON STEWART: Wow! I bet they’re friends on MySpace.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s right. Jon Stewart, Daily Show. Petraeus, Bush, Petraeus, Bush. Last comment, John Stauber, even the language.

JOHN STAUBER: Yeah. I mean, this, again, is quite transparent, and the White House understands that by putting its message in the mouth of Petraeus, that’s going to best resonate with the American public. That’s its lobby campaign, and unfortunately it appears to be working within Congress.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, John Stauber, I want to thank you very much for being with us. John Stauber, who heads up and the Center for Media and Democracy.

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