On the rare occasion when a mainstream news program interviews a forthright critic of U.S. policy, the interviewer often seems less like a journalist and more like a government spokesperson. That's what happened when CNN's Wolf Blitzer (11/7/02) interviewed Dr. Helen Caldicott, a nuclear critic (and a member of FAIR's advisory board), about the connection between the U.S.'s use of so-called depleted uranium in anti-tank shells during the 1991 Gulf War, and the dramatic rise in birth defects in southern Iraq.
Blitzer at first challenged her facts, appropriately enough:
Dr. Caldicott, let me interrupt and point out what the Pentagon has said repeatedly over these years. That in all of their testing of these depleted uranium shells, they found no scientific evidence whatsoever that any rates of cancer, any kinds of cancer are higher when subjected to these areas as any other areas.
Caldicott responded by pointing to evidence in her recent book, The New Nuclear Danger, that the Pentagon was well aware of the dangers of depleted uranium:
You'll find in the chapter on Iraq, Pentagon documents that were written before they went into Iraq, warning that none of the troops should be exposed to radiation from these depleted uranium shells. They had to wear total body suits, respirators--the whole thing. They shouldn't go near it, because it's carcinogenic, can cause cancer of the bladder, the lung, the kidney, and the like.
The CNN anchor then moved the topic to the question of sanctions, which Caldicott had mentioned as making it more difficult to treat birth defects. Blitzer again presented the official line:
The Pentagon also points out, the Bush administration also points out very, very strongly that the Iraqi regime itself is to blame for all of these problems. If they simply complied with U.N. Security Council resolutions and disarm, there would be no sanctions, there would be no problem getting medical supplies, doctor, pediatricians, to all parts of Iraq.
When Caldicott tried to tell Blitzer that the main issue with birth defects was not the sanctions but the fact that the U.S. left radioactive uranium 238 all over Iraqi battlefields, he cut her off and pointed out that the Iraqi government has used torture. "Do you feel comfortable, in effect, going out there and defending the Iraqi regime?," he asked--a line similar to CNN colleague Connie Chung's suggestion (10/7/02) that a congressmember who questioned George W. Bush was telling people to "believe Saddam Hussein" (Extra! Update, 12/02).
After Caldicott's last answer, Blitzer made an unusual closing rebuttal to her interview. After ending the interview-- "we have to unfortunately, Dr. Caldicott, leave it right there, because we are all out of time"--he returned to the assertion he had made earlier about sanctions:
Let me just repeat what the U.S. government has said on many occasions. If the Iraqi regime were to comply with U.N. resolutions, none of these problems would exist. If the Iraqi government would not have invaded Kuwait in 1990, none of these problems would have existed. We have to leave it right there, Dr. Helen Caldicott.
Wrong on the facts
While it's odd enough for a TV host to insist on making a government denial the final word in an interview, it's particularly disturbing that the assertion Blitzer used twice to dismiss what his guest was saying was simply inaccurate. It's not true that sanctions would automatically be lifted if Iraq disarmed; shortly after the sanctions were imposed, President George Bush the first declared, "My view is we don't want to lift these sanctions as long as Saddam Hussein is in power" (Washington Post, 5/21/91). And his secretary of state James Baker concurred: "We are not interested in seeing a relaxation of sanctions as long as Saddam Hussein is in power" (St. Louis Post-Dispatch, 5/21/91).
President-elect Bill Clinton made a point of saying that his policy toward Iraq was exactly the same as his predecessor's (New York Times, 1/15/93). His secretary of state Madeleine Albright stated in her first major foreign policy address in 1997 (Federal News Service, 3/26/97):
We do not agree with the nations who argue that if Iraq complies with its obligations concerning weapons of mass destruction, sanctions should be lifted. Our view, which is unshakable, is that Iraq must prove its peaceful intentions.... And the evidence is overwhelming that Saddam Hussein's intentions will never be peaceful.
(See Institute for Public Accuracy, 11/13/98.)
It's rarely pretty when an interviewer insists on getting the last word. When that last word is a distortion of facts in defense of the official line, it's downright ugly.