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20 years on, remembering the mess of misinformation that propelled the Iraq War

PIEN HUANG, HOST:

It's also been almost 20 years since then-President George W. Bush addressed Americans as the nation veered towards war.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

GEORGE W BUSH: On my orders, coalition forces have begun striking selected targets of military importance to undermine Saddam Hussein's ability to wage war. These are opening stages of what will be a broad and concerted campaign.

HUANG: The U.S. invaded Iraq on the shoddy pretext that the nation was preparing weapons of mass destruction. It marked the start of a seven-year conflict that destabilized the Middle East and undermine the credibility of U.S. officials at home. To mark the anniversary of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, we've invited Noreen Malone. Back in 2021, she hosted Season 5 of Slate's "Slow Burn" podcast. The podcast covered the various bad actors, from shoddy sources to politicians to the media, that led the U.S. to war. Noreen Malone, welcome to the program.

NOREEN MALONE: Thank you for having me.

HUANG: So you start the series with a look at a man named Ahmed Chalabi. He's an Iraqi politician who gave the U.S. bad information that propped up the case for war. Tell us about Chalabi and why the U.S. government kept going back to him.

MALONE: Chalabi was this really charming man who was telling people a story that was compelling, which was this story of a country that had once been great, that had been ruined by Saddam Hussein, the brutal dictator who was then in charge of the country. And the U.S. kept going back to him because he had information for them. He was in touch with a number of Iraqi exiles. He was in touch with defectors. So in the 1990s, the CIA had discredited him. But in the late '90s, early 2000s, a group of people called the neocons had become very interested in what Chalabi wanted to happen. They shared goals with Chalabi. The intelligence community that had sort of discredited him was not exactly talking to the community of intellectuals and government officials who were championing him.

HUANG: Take us back a little bit more to that time and what those shared goals were. I mean, why were there so many politicians at the time, starting from the top, with President George W. Bush and Dick Cheney? Why were they so eager to sort of take Chalabi at his word? And why were they so eager to invade Iraq?

MALONE: On a basic level, many of these people had been involved in the administration of George H.W. Bush. Obviously, during his administration, the first Gulf War had happened, and many of those people saw it as unfinished business. The Americans had not actually gone to Baghdad. They had not taken out Saddam Hussein during 1991. And now they had another chance to do what they saw as rescuing the Iraqi people, as bringing democracy to the region. And I should say that it wasn't just people on the right who supported this. There were a lot of people who were liberal humanitarian interventionists, people at places like The New Republic or Slate, which is where, you know, we put together this podcast. At that time, a lot of people at those magazines, at those publications also supported the Iraq war because they saw the potential for a humanitarian disaster.

HUANG: Journalists played a huge role in the spread of misinformation that led to the invasion of Iraq. And you focused on Judith Miller, a New York Times reporter who served a jail sentence rather than give up sources that gave her bad information. So I'm wondering from your perspective, as someone who's looked into this, how do journalists from some of the nation's top institutions get it so wrong?

MALONE: Yeah. Judith Miller has really become the poster girl for journalistic malpractice during the lead up to the Iraq War. But she certainly wasn't alone, and she wasn't the only person who was printing some of these kinds of stories. I should just say at the outset that there were people who got it right. There were people who questioned the narrative that there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.

But the people who did get it wrong, I think it's an interesting lesson for journalists. Those were people who had really high-up sources, right? They had people at the very top of the administration telling them things. And as a journalist, when you hear from those people, you think, that's a great source. I got a couple of people from the administration. I can trust that. But one lesson that I think we all have learned from that is that you have to really examine the motivations of those people and that the people at the top of an organization don't always actually have the best information.

HUANG: In the podcast, you talk about how the government was feeding misinformation to the media and then turning that around and using it as proof for their own agenda. So do you think that the media today is less gullible than it was then? Like, what have you seen as changes in the media that might safeguard against this kind of thing in the future?

MALONE: You're sort of referring to the snake-eating-its-own-tail phenomenon, where there would be a leak to, let's say, a reporter at a big newspaper, and then an administration official would cite that reporter, who was citing administration sources. It was really quite a thing. I think there are competing forces happening there. One, the media is not, in many ways, in as strong of a situation financially as it was 20 years ago. There are fewer places with the kind of resources to do investigative reporting and international, on-the-ground combat coverage. So that might be a problem.

On the other hand, I do think one of the legacies of the Trump years, and, to a certain extent, the Bush years, is that the media is less trusting of the people in power in our government and a little bit more oppositional. Again, the atmosphere after 9/11 can't be discounted. People who might have previously been much more combative were reeling from what had happened, and there was a sense that it was somehow unpatriotic to be too aggressive in reporting. I don't think any reporters would exactly say that. But that really, if you look at what happened - the shadow of 9/11 was cast over that. So I do think one of the legacies of the Trump years is that the media is more oppositional to people in power.

HUANG: Yeah, so the shadow of 9/11 was really instrumental to the run up to the Iraq war. And I wonder - I want to ask you about the shadow that you think the Iraq War has cast. It's going to be 20 years on Monday since the U.S. invaded Iraq. And what do you see as the legacy of the war, both for the people in the region and for, you know, Americans and the veterans that fought in it?

MALONE: Well, I'll start with the people in the region. They saw it as a blight on their country, that things had really been even worse than they were under Saddam, which is pretty bad. After George W. Bush declared mission accomplished in May 2003, there was an insurgency that led to a civil war. The Iraqi government continues to be plagued by corruption. In the power vacuum that the civil war left, ISIS stepped into the region. The country is still grappling with that.

And then, you know, in America, too, the veterans who served in Iraq, the U.S. government has estimated more than 3.5 million of them were exposed to toxic smoke from pits in Iraq and Afghanistan. Studies show that as many as a third of service members who served after 9/11 have been diagnosed with mental illness. And in fact, PTSD is more common among Iraq War veterans. So there's a real toll for people who served.

HUANG: Noreen Malone is currently an enterprise editor at The New York Times Style Desk. Previously, she hosted Season 5 of Slate's "Slow Burn" podcast, titled "The Road To The Iraq War." Noreen Malone, thank you so much for joining us.

MALONE: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.