Interview with John R. MacArthur, Publisher Harper's Magazine


June 29th, 2004
Transcription by Augustino Patti

ECHO CHAMBER PROJECT: Why don't you go ahead and introduce yourself, and what you do here at Harper's.
JOHN R. MACARTHUR: I'm John R. MacArthur -- or I go by Rick -- and I'm publisher of Harper's Magazine.

ECHO CHAMBER PROJECT: And, what is Harper's Magazine? How would you describe it?
MACARTHUR: Well, it's an independent literary and political --
ECHO CHAMBER PROJECT: Oh, I'm sorry. I'm going to be editing out my questions, so --
MACARTHUR: Harper's Magazine is an independent, monthly literary magazine that does politics. More politics lately than usual because of the Bush administration. And it's the oldest monthly in America. It's founded in 1850, and is a virtual encyclopedia of American culture, if you go back to 1850. And it's thriving under the current administration.

ECHO CHAMBER PROJECT: Can you describe your characterization and evaluation of how the mainstream news media performed in general leading up to the war in Iraq?
MACARTHUR: Oh well, the mainstream media sold out the country. It went along for the ride with the Bush propaganda campaign. It's probably the worst collaboration I've seen between the mainstream media and political power -- or the current regime -- or the incumbent president since John F. Kennedy, and the early stages of Vietnam. And even then, there was more critical reporting once we were into Vietnam. There wasn't much criticism of the premise. And certainly no one tried to stop the sending of military advisors. But in terms of swallowing, regurgitating, amplifying the Bush administration propaganda, the big media -- the mainstream media were at their worst in a long time.

ECHO CHAMBER PROJECT: And, specifically, can you talk to the role that the New York Times played?
MACARTHUR: Well, the New York Times -- The New York Times led the charge in -- or led the disinformation campaign in terms of what Saddam Hussein actually possessed, in terms of weapons. People have forgotten already that the term "Weapons of Mass Destruction" -- which is a non -- it means nothing. It's one of those meaningless phrases that turns into media-speak -- was a deliberate attempt to obscure -- or conflate, rather, the different kinds of weapons that we were talking about. And the main threat that the Bush administration propagandists were selling to get the Congress to vote for war authorization, was an atomic bomb threat, a nuclear weapons threat. And the Times contributed mightily to that -- to the belief, the popular belief, that Saddam was on the verge of getting nuclear weapons. Most importantly, with their stories early on about the aluminum tubes -- or the attempted purchase of aluminum tubes by the Iraqis. Aluminum tubes were intended for conventional rockets, as it turned out, but the Times made it sound like they were going straight into a sophisticated bomb-making -- A-bomb-making process. And that, you know, if you waited too long too look for proof, for corroboration, then the smoking gun that you're looking for could turn into a mushroom cloud. And so they went way over the line into promoting the scare stories. And they legitimized the scare stories. The media still follows the New York Times pretty slavishly -- not so much any more, I hope -- but back in September / October 2002, their contribution to the war fever was immeasurable.

ECHO CHAMBER PROJECT: Can you talk a little bit about Judith Miller inserting some commentary into some of her pieces?
MACARTHUR: Judith Miller and Michael Gordon wrote the first big story on September 8th about the aluminum tubes. And they clearly placed the confrontation, the blame for the confrontation -- the coming confrontation between the United States and Iraq, on Saddam Hussein. That his -- I can't quote it exactly -- but in effect, his 'mad pursuit of atomic weaponry' had pushed the confrontation to the point where America was considering invading and disarming him. Actually, Saddam Hussein was pretty much flat on his back, in terms of his potential for doing harm to anybody outside of Iraq. He was still able to hurt people inside Iraq, but in terms of aggressive, offensive potential, it was nil. And -- As it turns out, even the more plausible accusation, that he was hiding chemical weapons, left over from the Iran-Iraq War, turned out to be phony, turned out to be false. And he didn't have anything. And his army had already proven itself to be quite incompetent in the first Gulf War, easily knocked out of Kuwait in a matter, of what? three days. I mean, after bombing for six weeks. And so -- Where was the threat? It was in the minds of the reporters, editors of the New York Times, the Washington Post. PBS also, the Frontline program, did some bad reporting on this. Partly informed by Ahmad Chalabi, partly informed by Dick Cheney and Paul Wolfowitz, and Douglas Feith, who works for Wolfowitz and Rumsfeld. And these stories were inflated into the kind of propaganda that propagandists -- professional propagandists can only dream of. It scared the hell out of everybody. And when Congress voted on October 10th and 11th -- I call it 10-11 to distinguish it from 9-11 -- they were voting on a fraudulent -- on fraudulent information. They were voting for war authorization based on information that had been fraudulently promoted. There just wasn't any basis of evidence. We knew that Saddam had the intention of building nuclear weapons at one point before the Gulf War. But the U.N. weapons inspectors, also Scott Ritter, David Albright, the ones who were quoted -- and there were others who would have said the same thing not for attribution -- felt that they had eliminated any atomic bomb-making potential when they pulled out in December '98. But what they said fell on deaf ears.

ECHO CHAMBER PROJECT: What do you attribute these failures or -- eliminating these skeptical voices? Why did that happen?
MACARTHUR: Well, Judith Miller was an activist journalist, in the sense of wanting to overthrow Saddam Hussein. She's had a bee in her bonnet about Saddam for a long time. She wrote a very, I don't know, questionable book that made it on the bestseller list around the time of the first Gulf War. And -- She was obsessed with Saddam and with overthrowing him. The question is, "Why did the Times institutionally back her?" One theory is that Howell Raines, the then-editor, was trying to compensate for what he thought was an overly-liberal image. He wanted to prove that he could collaborate with the Bush administration, and that he could play it straight with them -- although they went way over the line and promoted the Bush administration line -- story on Iraq. Maybe that the publisher -- Because I still believe that freedom of the press is guaranteed only to those who own one, as A.J. Liebling said. And maybe Pinch Sulzberger -- or Arthur Sulzberger -- was pro-war, and encouraged it. He knows Judith Miller, he knows her personally. Maybe he was giving her backing. Maybe she was getting special favors and dispensations from him. We don't know. But institutionally, the Times got behind the Bush propaganda effort and amplified it. A lot of other people went along for the ride, but in terms of actively advancing the story, the Times was the worst. And I'm talking about -- which is not to say the right wing press wasn't also trumpeting this, but nobody takes the New York Post seriously. The New York Post did less to drive us into war. Fox News did less to drive us into war than the New York Times.

ECHO CHAMBER PROJECT: Okay. What type of stories did Harper's Magazine do during this build-up that were outside of what wasn't being covered by, say, the New York Times?
MACARTHUR: Harper's Magazine was doing anti-invasion commentary. We were making the intellectual argument against invading Iraq. Number one, it's bad for the United States constitutionally to invade other countries. Because we're at least, by nature, constitutionalists, not imperialists. We know from our history that unscrupulous presidents, like Woodrow Wilson, have used foreign adventures to foment repression or to implement repression at home. The Espionage Act of 1917, the Palmer Raids of 1919, are all legitimized or justified by World War I. And the crackdown on civil liberties here was already under way when Bush started talking about invading Iraq. And we were afraid that he was going to use it as a pretext for even greater repression. We also didn't buy the WMD argument, because we tended to be more sympathetic to Scott Ritter's point of view. But, really, the main work that was done on what was actually in -- what Saddam actually had, what we knew he had, what we suspected -- was administration propaganda, I did on my own. I did it in my newspaper column for the Providence Journal, on TV, on the Phil Donahue Show, and later on 60 Minutes. When 60 Minutes finally caught up with the story. They did a very good segment with me in December , which was the first time that a serious critic of the aluminum tubes story came to the forefront, David Albright. Later on I wrote more pieces, I was on more TV shows. But the crucial time to be heard was between Labor Day and October 11th, not in November, December, January, February. Because once the Congress had voted the authorization, you couldn't get the horse back in the barn. It was too late. Bush was going to do what he was going to do regardless of what the U.N. said -- regardless of what anybody said. Although, the Times and other newspapers continued to promote the phony weapons stories. Although, they were very clever. They changed -- Once the atomic bomb threat receded, and people realized that the aluminum tubes story really didn't have as much substance as they previously thought, they started referring to weapons of mass destruction in general, which conflated chemical, biological and atomic weapons -- which is already a distortion of the reality. Obviously, an atomic bomb can do a lot more damage than even a massive chemical attack or a biological attack. It depends on which way the wind is blowing. An atomic bomb is almost certain to kill a hundred thousand people, depending on where you drop it -- or tens of thousands. And it has a different, more visceral power to frighten people. So they conflated the whole thing. And people, when they heard "Weapons of Mass Destruction," "WMD," a lot of them thought that we were still -- that the Bush administration was still talking about a nuclear weapons threat. Anyway. I did a lot on my own as a journalist, because I've had experience writing about propaganda. But most of this I did on TV, on radio, because we had to move fast. And Harper's as a monthly couldn't keep up with the breaking news.

ECHO CHAMBER PROJECT: So you would definitely describe the build-up as a propaganda -- a public relations campaign by the Bush administration?
MACARTHUR: Yes. The whole thing. I mean, Bush and Blair start their propaganda campaign at Camp David -- officially, they sort of roll it out on September 7th, when they come out and say, "There's a new report from the International Atomic Energy Agency that shows that Saddam is six months away from building a nuclear weapon." Blair says it. Then Bush seconds it. Nobody asks them for any more specifics about it, and Bush simply declares, "I don't know what more evidence we need!" And the vast majority of the American press corps agreed. We didn't need any more evidence. Now, it turned out that there was no new report from the IAEA. All you had to do was call Vienna and ask him, and they would tell you there was no such report. And there had never been any report. They had certainly reported on Saddam's former nuclear weapons program. But there'd never been any report from the IAEA stating a time frame for developing a nuclear weapon. It just never happened. And the irony of it all is that the only really decent story I found on the nonexistence of the IAEA report, which should have been front-page news all over the country, was in the Washington Times -- a pro-war, pro-Bush, right-wing newspaper. They buried their story, but at least it came out before the Congress voted. It was on page 17, but it was the best, most thorough story I've seen.

ECHO CHAMBER PROJECT: Can you describe the industry of public relations and the impact that it's had on our discourse on our democracy and government officials?
MACARTHUR: Well, public relations has been around forever. It just gets more sophisticated all the time. The Spanish-American War, World War I were heavily influenced by unscrupulous public relations. The demonization of the enemy is a special part of selling a war. It's the Second Front that I talk about in my book, the propaganda front. So you can't say it's new. But I guess it's gotten more ingenious and more sophisticated. Although the methods are still the same. They're crude. They take brazen self-confidence. It takes a lot of brazenness for Bush and Blair to come out publicly and state the existence of a non-existent report. Because, in the back of their minds, they're thinking "What if somebody calls us on this?" But they're betting that nobody will, and they were right. The analog in the first Gulf War is the baby incubator atrocity, which never happened, where Iraqi troops were accused of pulling babies from incubators in Kuwait City hospitals. They never did it. It never happened. But because Saddam Hussein -- propaganda works most effectively when there is some truth to the characterization of your enemy. There's no question Saddam Hussein had a lot of people killed -- a lot political opponents, and was a very, very brutal guy. But there's a difference between killing off your political opponents -- with the support and sanction of the United States, which Saddam Hussein had for many years -- and Hitler. Or Biblical images of Romans killing babies, for example. These are more powerful, visceral images and ideas, that hit you harder than "Oh, this is our run-of-the-mill dictator -- or American client -- who kills Kurds, gasses Kurds, kills off his opponents, tortures his opponents." I mean, it's going on all over the world every day, and we tolerate it and all sorts of countries -- China, Myanmar, you name it. We have friendly relations with almost every country that you can think of that practices torture -- Saudi Arabia, you know, they're our good friends. They behead people in Saudi Arabia, they don't just execute them. They cut people's hands off. I mean, this is something that we don't criticize in the United States. Or at least, the United States government doesn't criticize.

ECHO CHAMBER PROJECT: Can you talk about some of the red flags that came up, that the bulk of the mass media just wasn't on the radar screen?
MACARTHUR: Well, the reddest flag was the phony IAEA report. And the second-reddest flag was the aluminum tubes story. First of all, why does the attempted purchase of aluminum -- where does the attempted purchase of aluminum tubes, even if you assume the worst about the tubes themselves, how does it amount to an actual nuclear weapons-building program that's far along, given what we know from the U.N. weapons inspectors? Why weren't they putting the old UNSCOM weapons inspectors on TV, or interviewing them in September and October? Scott Ritter was out there, but he was quickly marginalized as a crank, and an anti-war fanatic. But there were others who would have been happy to talk. These are quiet scientists and scientific types -- like David Kelly in Great Britain, who killed himself. You have to draw these people out. But that takes work. David Albright -- these are people you have to go find. I mean, they're find-able, but you have to do a little work. And reporters had no interest in doing it. They were happy to be -- and their bosses were happy to follow the party line. "Saddam's about to get an A-bomb, and he might throw it at us."

ECHO CHAMBER PROJECT: And did you watch much of the network ABC, CBS or NBC coverage? And what is your characterization of what you saw?
MACARTHUR: Well, the major networks were just as bad as the Times. The only exception, as I said, was 60 Minutes on CBS. They did a very good story in December. French television, which I also worked with, did an even better story, almost the same day as 60 Minutes. But no one here saw it. And Phil Donahue had me on on September 12th, and I basically said everything I'm saying now on September 12th, 2002. I said the Bushes are making this up as they go along. Americans already think that Saddam has a nuclear weapon. Sixty-five per cent of Americans in one poll said that they believed Saddam actually had nuclear weapons. And at that point not even Bush was saying that. But Donahue's show was canceled about three months later. Didn't get very good ratings. So -- And I have to say, Frontline on PBS was also culpable. They were also advancing the Chalabi line on Saddam's weapons capability. Look -- All you have to know is that Chalabi is a con man. He's a guy who was in trouble with the law for embezzlement. He's an émigré telling émigré stories. If you know a little bit of history, you know that émigré groups throughout history have told tall tales to get back into power. They'll say anything to get themselves back into their country. And for someone like Wolfowitz or Feif or -- I think Wolfowitz and Feif are the -- Feith, Douglas Feith, excuse me, are the principal culprits -- ideologues, who were determined to find a justification for what they've already decided they want to do, Chalabi's perfect. Because he tells them everything they want to hear. Judith Miller wants Chalabi -- she's already decided Saddam should be overthrown. She's convinced her bosses to some extent at the Times. So she's delighted to recycle Chalabi's stories, or Cheney's, or Wolfowitz's stories, because it justifies her reporting.

ECHO CHAMBER PROJECT: On issue of international law, did you follow the debate of whether or not the United States said, "We don't need a second Resolution" and virtually all of our allies and everyone else in the world was saying we did. And then there was a switch, after [January] 31st, all of a sudden Bush changed his mind. But from the press standpoint, there's no explanation as to why. Were you looking at the need for the second Resolution? Was this war even legal? And if both the Democrats and the Republicans don't care about international law, there doesn't seem to be a debate.
MACARTHUR: Well, I think the war was clearly illegal under international law. It also probably was unconstitutional, because we didn't have a formal declaration of war. And the war authorization was passed on the assumption that the United States would go to the U.N. and get formal approval. Now nobody sued -- No congressman has sued the President or challenged this in court. But you could make the argument that it was also unconstitutional. It was definitely illegal under international law, because Iraq didn't attack us. There's no self-defense justification for invading Iraq. And there was a willful misinterpretation of the second Resolution issue in the American press. If you watch Charlie Rose on PBS, for example, he seemed absolutely incapable of explaining the French position, or the German position. He would put Washington Post and New York Times people on. He'd put on Jim Hoagland from the Washington Post, or Patrick Tyler from the New York Times, and they would all sit around expressing incredulity about the French position, without ever explaining what it was. Saying, "Can't they understand that Saddam is a threat to humanity and to the civilized world? Can't they understand that?" And no one would ever say, "Well, the French are interested in seeing international law respected or observed. And they say, 'The United States needs a second Resolution to justify the invasion.'" You couldn't -- Or "This is the French position." They wouldn't put those people on.

ECHO CHAMBER PROJECT: So there was -- you know, I've talked to journalism professors at NYU and Editor & Publisher, and it's not even on their radar screen, international law, they say it doesn't matter.
MACARTHUR: Well, Americans for the most part don't care about foreigners, and they certainly don't care much about international law. Although when it suits us, we pay very close attention to international law when it suits our self-interests. But in this case, international law was the obstacle. It's been explained to me by a French diplomat that they went through the motions of trying to get U.N. sanction for the invasion because Tony Blair asked Bush to do it -- knowing that if they couldn't get it, Bush was going to invade anyway. And that's the most cynical sort of politics you can imagine. Blair, it makes you -- In some ways, it makes Blair even worse than Bush. Because he knows it's a fraud. He knows that the whole thing is a -- it's a charade, from the beginning -- that the whole process of trying to get the U.N. to go along is a charade. Because nobody -- If we could get it, fine. If we couldn't get it, we were going to invade anyway.

ECHO CHAMBER PROJECT: Can you give a summary of why international law matters from the perspective of other countries wanting, you know, How does it protect them? And how does it effect their view of the United States?
MACARTHUR: Well, for a country like France, or Germany, international law and the U.N. matters because it's the counter-weight to American power. They want -- There's no more balance of power between the Soviet Union and the United States. The United States is the completely dominant superpower. So for smaller countries that still want to participate in the world debate, international law, they hope will provide a check on American policies or aggression. Some people -- and it's not just about politics -- some people think international law should be the future of the world. And that we should have some kind of world federalism. And world -- that's the premise of the United Nations and the United Nations Charter, is to have universal rights for all peoples. Now, we know that there's no such thing -- that Universal rights are simply, at this point, still a nice-sounding slogan. And the U.N. Charter is a nice-sounding document. And that most countries -- or that many countries don't respect the universal rights laid down by the U.N. Nevertheless, for those of us who hope that someday the world will be governed by more civilized laws, and that humans will be entitled to basic rights, we look to international law to promote that. Here in this country, which is the most chauvinistic and nationalistic country in the world, I think, international law is for foreigners. Until it helps us, as in the World Trade Organization. We like the World Trade Organization and international trade law, when it favors the United States.

ECHO CHAMBER PROJECT: The last question I have here has to do with the sanctions, and I know that Harper's has done some reporting on the sanctions. So talk about how a lot of people on the Right will say, "It's Saddam's fault!" And other people on the Left may say, "It's all of America's fault!" you know, with the sanctions. What is your sense of the sanctions policy?
MACARTHUR: Well, Harper's did -- We published a very good piece that I'm proud of by an academic in Connecticut about the U.N. sanctions against Iraq. Because we were starving that country. We weren't starving the elite. Saddam was living high on the hog, and so were all of his friends and party apparatchiks. But we were starving that country -- of medicine, of food, of clean water, through the U.N. sanctions program -- and it was cruel. It was really cruel. And through this Resolution 660, I think it's called, we found pretext for keeping all sorts of essential medical supplies, and things from going into Iraq through the U.N. -- with the sanction of the U.N. on the grounds that if we let these things in the country, it would somehow help re-arm Iraq. And this was all preposterous. It was really just a cruel -- It amounted to really inhumane treatment of poor and defenseless Iraqis. It didn't hurt Saddam much, because he could get what he wanted on the black market and through his secret channels with other cooperative countries. So the sanctions program was, in and of itself, a kind of a charade. It was initially aimed at starving Saddam into submission or into resignation. It didn't work, and it ended up starving and killing a lot of innocent Iraqis. We don't know how many thousands of people died. I'm convinced though, that the sanctions also did have an effect on the Iraqi military. You cannot pretend that the Iraqi military or the Iraqi weapons capability was anywhere near what it was when Saddam invaded Kuwait. And even then, as I say, it was exaggerated. It was quite exaggerated. You see that we mopped up Saddam's supposedly fearsome army in a matter of two months. And the ground war lasted three days. So try to imagine Saddam's army after eight years of sanctions -- with not much food, not much money, not much hard currency coming in. It's crazy. The whole thing was crazy.

ECHO CHAMBER PROJECT: It's a cakewalk, yet he's the biggest threat in the world.
MACARTHUR: Yeah. Right. It's a cakewalk, but he's the most dangerous man in the world. And still, to this day, they're justifying the invading Iraq because we've eliminated the menace of Saddam Hussein. From a purely military point of view, and I guess strategic point of view, I would argue that the Iraqi insurgency is a greater threat to the stability of the Middle East now than Saddam Hussein ever was. It's out of control now. I think we've probably already surpassed the number of corpses in this past year than Saddam caused in a good year or in a bad year. We're catching up with Saddam's record. And it's a lot of people being killed in the crossfire, but it's also a lot of people being killed deliberately -- to terrorize them.

ECHO CHAMBER PROJECT: We're about out of time. Let's just sit for about ten seconds of room air here.
MACARTHUR: I mean, do you understand that the U.N. was being manipulated by the United States in this sanctions program? Are you going to get into that? Do you want the article? We'll make sure we give you the article, if you want to write it into the script. But the United States -- everyone says the U.N. stood up to the United States. The U.N. didn't stand up to the United States in its application of Resolution 660, I think it was called that, or in its application of the sanctions on Iraq. They let the United States manipulate the program to the detriment of ordinary Iraqis. It didn't do much to hurt Saddam.

ECHO CHAMBER PROJECT: Okay. Yeah, I think that's all we need on that for now.

very informative article as

very informative article as to the names and actions of individuals that surely if there is justice they should pay for thier crimes against human kind. What was not said is that the united states is a land and people to be feared for thier insatiable appetite for killing.