BOB GARFIELD: From WNYC in New York, this is NPR's On the Media. I'm Bob Garfield.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And I'm Brooke Gladstone. This week, the bi-partisan commission reviewing the attacks of 9/11 concluded its exhaustive investigations. Over the last few months, it has combed through thousands of documents and interviewed many civilians, military personnel, and administration officials. On Wednesday, it weighed in on one of the most hotly contested issues surrounding the war in Iraq, namely, the alleged relationship between Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden. This is what they said: [TAPE PLAYS]
MAN: Two senior Bin Laden associates have adamantly denied any ties existed between Al Qaeda and Iraq. So far we have no credible evidence that Iraq and Al Qaeda cooperated on attacks against the United States.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So that's it then. Finally, an end to months of dispute over this issue.
BOB GARFIELD: Well, not quite. The next day, in a press conference, the president gave this response when asked why he kept insisting there was a link between Iraq and Al Qaeda. [TAPE PLAYS]
PRESIDENT BUSH: The reason I keep insisting that there was a relationship between Iraq and Saddam and Al Qaeda, because there was a relationship between Iraq and Al Qaeda.
BOB GARFIELD: Apparently you can drive a stake into the heart of this story, but you just can't kill it. Again and again, the mis-perception that there were ties between Iraq and Al Qaeda has been struck down, and again and again, it keeps coming back. Standard journalistic practice dictates that when a statement comes from the administration, it will be in the lead of the story and at the top of every broadcast as this latest statement was, and with that a dead assertion is once again resurrected. Christy Harvey compiles the progress report for the Center for American Progress, a liberal Washington-based think tank. She's been following the course of this mis-perception. Christy, welcome to the show.
CHRISTY HARVEY: Hi. Thank you.
BOB GARFIELD: First of all, let's do - as your column was titled on Wednesday, An Anatomy of This Myth. Take us through some of the statements by people telling us over the last year or so that there was no tie between Al Qaeda and Iraq.
CHRISTY HARVEY: The administration's own weapons inspector, David Kay, said they'd been on the ground for months, and he said they simply did not find any real links at all. The CIA director, George Tenet, stated earlier this year in front of the Senate, that he did not suggest there was any operational direction or control by Iraq with Al Qaeda. The Carnegie Endowment for Peace said that there was no proof that there was any solid evidence. The UN group that was looking into it also came up blank. So over and over, all of these different intelligence groups have shot down the claim and said that there just is no proof. But the problem is: the perception gets into the public minds that it is true, and proof positive of this is a majority of Americans honestly believe that there is a link between Saddam and 9/11. Forty-five percent, in a poll that was taken last April thought that there was definitive proof -- thought that there was actually evidence that had been found. The study had been done by the Program on International Policy and Attitudes, and they said it was the most striking mis-perception that they had found about the war in Iraq.
BOB GARFIELD: What did you think on Thursday when the president seemed to be both acknowledging that there was no direct evidence and yet re-iterating that there was a connection?
CHRISTY HARVEY: Well, President Bush and the rest of the administration right now is trying to deflect attention away from the finding of the 9/11 Commission that there is no evidence of a connection by making this a battle of words. They have gone from saying that there was a relationship to saying that there was contact. Monday Vice President Cheney claimed that Hussein, quote, "had long-established ties with Al Qaeda." And President Bush backed him up the very next day. President Bush said, quote, "There is no question that Saddam and Al Qaeda had ties." Even said you can't distinguish between Al Qaeda and Saddam. But just because you say something over and over, it doesn't make it true.
BOB GARFIELD: Well, it's certainly true that the administration drum beat was present and that there wasn't a whole lot of public argument by the major media outlets. The fact is, the reporting was all there. I mean I certainly have been aware all this time that there was no connection. I never saw any evidence from the administration, and I, you know, it hasn't been hard for me to come up with a judgment entirely opposite that of the majority of the American people. Can the media be put to blame for a public that's just insufficiently curious or skeptical?
CHRISTY HARVEY: I really think they can be put to blame for that. There are so many mis-perceptions and things to follow with the war in Iraq. You've got the WMD claims. You've got the Al Qaeda connection claims. You've got the Iraqis' view of the American forces as liberators and will greet them with sweets and flowers claims. There's so much out there that there is a need for journalists to more aggressively follow up with the administration and hold the administration's feet to the fire when they are making these mis-statements. But in the 24 hour news cycle, there are so many places to get bits and pieces of news, and so often commentators have taken the place of hard news and objective journalism. You have Fox News and you have the talking head shows and, and those are all well and good, but you have to get your diet of hard news as well, and I think all too often people are looking to just back up what they already believe.
BOB GARFIELD: Let me invoke a quotation from Sir Walter Scott that we heard a lot around 35 years ago in the midst of Watergate. OH, WHAT A TANGLED WEB WE WEAVE, WHEN FIRST WE PRACTICE TO DECEIVE. Is it possible that the administration's strategy of constant repetition of unsupportable arguments will eventually come back to haunt them in the thick of this re-election campaign?
CHRISTY HARVEY: Absolutely. They have repeated these claims so often that they have to keep repeating them now, or else they'll be caught in lies or deception. And even if they're very careful with their language so they can come back and say well we said "contact." We didn't mean "connection." It's, it's going to come back and it's going to hurt them in the end. It's just a question of when.
BOB GARFIELD: All right, Christy. Well, thank you very much.
CHRISTY HARVEY: Okay. Thank you very much.
BOB GARFIELD: Christy Harvey is deputy director of strategic communications at the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank based in Washington, DC. [MUSIC]