BOB GARFIELD: A web of deception from a modern White House? It’s horrifying but sure isn’t new -- Lyndon Johnson and the Gulf of Tonkin, Nixon and Watergate, Clinton and “Monicagate.” Then there was the George W. Bush administration, when a tissue of lies about supposed “weapons of mass destruction” triggered the invasion of Iraq at a cost of roughly $1 trillion and many hundreds of thousands of human lives and ongoing deadly chaos in the region. The Rob Reiner film Shock and Awe revisits the run-up to the war with its trumped-up intelligence and a credulous mass media that mainly failed to challenge the Bush administration's motives, its competence and its phony evidence of an Iraqi threat.
MAN: Hussein is about revenge. He has anthrax. He loves biological weapons. He has terrorist training camps, including a 707 to practice on.
WILLIAM KRISTOL/FOX NEWS, 11/24/01: And one person close to the debate said to me this week that it's no longer a question of if, it's a question of how we go after Saddam Hussein.
DAN RATHER: George Bush is the president. He makes the decisions and, you know, it’s just one American, wherever he wants me to line up just tell me where.
BOB GARFIELD: The movie focuses on the reporting of Jonathan Landay and Warren Strobel, formerly of the Knight-Ridder News Service, who refused to defer to the government’s narrative and unraveled the fraud.
WOODY HARRELSON AS JONATHAN LANDAY: Tell your boss we’re gonna run it whether he comments or not. Actually, yes, it is a matter of life and death. We’re talking about going to war!
BOB GARFIELD: Think of All the President’s Men with the added element of the heroes working in an environment of colossal journalistic failure. Jonathan Landay is now a national security correspondent for Reuters and is played in the film by Woody Harrelson, Jonathan, welcome back to OTM.
JONATHAN LANDAY: Thank you for having me.
BOB GARFIELD: You and Strobel had asked the right questions. You’d put it all together, the fabricated intelligence, the leaks from Dick Cheney's office but you were voices in the wilderness. Why?
JONATHAN LANDAY: It's a good question and it’s one we get asked all the time. I think there are several reasons. We’re talking about a time immediately post 9/11. There was a propensity on the part of the public and the media to stand behind the president at a time of a national catastrophe.
PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: And the people who knocked these buildings down will hear all of us soon.
CROWD CHANTING: USA, USA, USA …
[CHEERS, APPLAUSE][END CLIP]
JONATHAN LANDAY: I think that was a problem. As part of that, there is a problem that still exists today that we refer to as access journalism and some reporters are loath or at least back then were loath to challenge the administration's line on Iraq and Saddam and collaboration between Saddam Hussein and Al Qaeda, Bin Laden, etc., at the risk of losing their sources. Perhaps sheer laziness on the part of many reporters back then, I think that was also a problem.
BOB GARFIELD: You were advantaged by working merely for the Knight-Ridder News Service.
ROB REINER AS JOHN WALCOTT: We’re not ABC, we’re not CBS, we’re not Fox, we’re not CNN. We’re not the New York Times. We’re not the Washington Post. If every other news organization wants to be stenographers for the Bush administration, let them.
BOB GARFIELD: You weren’t the New York Times and, as a consequence, you were forced to move down the food chain where you actually found information.
JONATHAN LANDAY: We had some fairly highly-placed sources but two of the other main characters in this movie, my boss John Walcott and my former colleague Joe Galloway who was a co-author of We Were Soldiers Once…and Young, and Joe had a rule, which is one that I followed too because I spent a lot of time as a war correspondent, and that is I want to talk to the sergeants, to the grunts to find out really what the impact of decisions made in Washington had on their lives, the wars that they were fighting. And so, yes, that was a key reason for our ability back then to get the story right.
BOB GARFIELD: We don't much see the villains, and I don’t mean Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz, Richard Perle but the mainstream press, chiefly the New York Times.
WOODY HARRELSON AS JONATHAN LANDAY: Uh, honey, I think someone is stealing our New York Times.
MILLA JOVOVICH AS VLATKA LANDAY: I canceled it.
LANDAY: Why would you do that?
VLATKA: It's propaganda.
LANDAY: I need that for my work.
VLATKA: It's packaging press releases from the White House,
the State Department and the Pentagon. Sorry, that's not a real
BOB GARFIELD: Chiefly Judith Miller at the New York Times who was suckered into not only passing along the administration's lies but being cited by the administration as supposed independent verification of its bogus WMD claims. Is that the true villain?
JONATHAN LANDAY: It wasn’t just the New York Times. It was major newspapers. It was the networks. They all basically acted as stenographers for the administration, never questioning the claim that Saddam Hussein had never gotten rid of his weapons of mass destruction programs and was in league with this extreme Islamist terrorist group based in Afghanistan.
FOX NEWS ANCHOR, 8/1/02: A former top Iraqi nuclear scientist tells Congress Iraq could build three nuclear bombs by 2005.
RICHARD PERLE/ABC THIS WEEK, 11/18/01: Weapons of mass destruction in the hands of Saddam Hussein, plus his known contact with terrorists, including Al Qaeda terrorists, is simply a threat too large to continue to tolerate.
JONATHAN LANDAY: And that, I believe, was the reason why public support for the invasion rose to the level that it did. And throughout the film and, and, in particular, there’s one scene where one of my stories, which I wrote three days before a consequential Judith Miller story on the so-called “aluminum tubes,” that begins a series of comparisons between what we were writing and what was appearing in the mainstream press. I had written a story about how senior US diplomatic military and intelligence officials had seen no appreciable increase in the threat presented by Saddam Hussein to US national security in the region. Three days later, you had the “aluminum tubes” story appear. It was a Sunday in the New York Times. The United States had intercepted some of these aluminum tubes that were bound for Iraq that the administration, through the New York Times, said were going to be used for devices known as centrifuges, which are used to enrich uranium to the point where it can be used as nuclear weapons fuel.
BOB GARFIELD: And then that very Sunday, Vice President Dick Cheney went on the morning shows citing the New York Times story, which his people had leaked, as supposedly independent verification of Saddam's WMDs.
VICE PRESIDENT DICK CHENEY: There is a story in the New York Times this morning. This is -- and I want to attribute it to the Times. I don’t want to talk about, obviously, specific intelligence sources, but it’s now public that, in fact, he has been seeking to acquire and we have been able to intercept and prevent him from acquiring through this particular channel the kinds of tubes that are necessary to build a centrifuge.
JONATHAN LANDAY: Those two stories were diametrically opposed. And there’s a scene in the movie where I say -- Woody Harrelson, acting as me, says, we both can’t be right.
WOODY HARRELSON AS JONATHAN LANDAY: Over the past 14 months Iraq has tried to buy thousands of specially-designed aluminum tubes, which American officials believe were intended as components of centrifuges to enrich uranium. Well, one thing’s for sure.
JAMES MARSDEN AS WARREN STROBEL: What’s that?
LANDAY: We can’t both be right.
JONATHAN LANDAY: And that sets off some scenes where reporting by the mainstream media is set off against some of the stuff that we were doing, which was diametrically opposed. [LAUGHS]
BOB GARFIELD: There was one moment that certainly resonated with me. It’s a scene with you and your then-wife who was from the former Yugoslavia.
VLATKA: They’re really pushing this nationalism thing at school.
LANDRY: Well, what do you expect? Of course, there’s going to be patriotism now.
VLATKA: Oh, you want to call it patriotism? Fine. It smells a lot like nationalism to me. That’s how it started in Yugoslavia before the war. It tore my country apart.
BOB GARFIELD: You know, [LAUGHS] I heard exactly the same sentiment at exactly the same time from my Serbian wife who warned me about Milošević-type nationalism and all that comes with it. And, lo and behold!
JONATHAN LANDAY: My ex-wife was my translator in former Yugoslavia. I covered all of the wars there. She also worked for Human Rights Watch as their person on the ground, risking her life, and was just absolutely astounded at the way that the history and ethnic tensions were manipulated. not just by Mr. Milošević but by the late Franjo Tuđman who was the president of Croatia and other leading nationalists on all sides, to the point where, you know, when she saw all the flags going up she put a UN flag on the front of our house.
BOB GARFIELD: I want to finish up by going back to the movies. I talked about All the President’s Men, Woodward and Bernstein. You know, I think Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman changed the lives of two reporters who so significantly had an impact on history. But theirs was a story about journalistic triumph and your story, as dramatized in Shock and Awe, is mainly about failure, not yours but journalism's writ large. When you were approached by Rob Reiner and you talked about turning this experience into a movie, did anyone mention that as a, as storytelling goes it's just a total bummer?
JONATHAN LANDAY: No, I don't think so. What I think this movie does is celebrate investigative journalism and shows the American public how we do our job, how we set about holding government accountable and reporting the truth. Let's not forget that, in the end, even though there was an invasion, our stories turned out to be accurate.
One of the most interesting things is that our reporting was never questioned from Washington, DC. No one ever, from the Bush administration, denounced what we were doing as inaccurate because that would have been the best advertising we could have asked for, for our work. We are still seeing the consequences of paying the price for that decision, but I hope that people will see the movie as a celebration of responsible investigative journalism.
[MUSIC UP & UNDER]
BOB GARFIELD: Well, Jonathan, congratulations and thanks very much.
JONATHAN LANDAY: And thank you.
BOB GARFIELD: Jonathan Landay is a national security correspondent for Reuters. The film Shock and Awe is out in theaters this month.
Coming up, standing up to an authoritarian demagogue, and losing. This is On the Media.