Anonymous Sources: The Media Campaign Against France

Justin Vaïsse
Justin Vaïsse Former Brookings Expert, Director, Policy Planning Staff - French Ministry of Europe and Foreign Affairs

July 1, 2003

On May 15, 2003, the French ambassador to the United States took the unusual step of writing a public letter to administration officials and members of Congress denouncing the spread of false information about France. An article published in The Washington Post that same day about the letter made it clear that he was complaining not only about the fertile imagination of some media outlets, but about an “organized campaign of disinformation” from within the Bush administration—especially from hard-line civilians within and close to the Pentagon.

Administration officials of course denied such charges, deriding it as “utter nonsense.”

Who’s telling the truth? The disinformation campaign about France has certainly been part of the wave of France-bashing, or “francophobia,” that spread in the United States as a result of France’s spearheading of the opposition, especially at the United Nations, to an invasion of Iraq during the winter and spring of 2003. French products were boycotted, French fries were renamed “Freedom fries” in the cafeteria of the House of Representatives, and nasty stereotyping was used against “cheese-eating surrender monkeys”—to a point rarely reached for any other nationality in recent years. But to what extent did the press allegations actually originate from within the Bush administration?

Let us review the evidence. The ambassador’s letter points to eight allegations, between September of 2002 and May 2003, all of which were followed by denials and by detailed rebuttals by the press office of the Embassy. In September 2002, The New York Times alleged that France and Germany had supplied Iraq with high-precision switches used for nuclear weapons.

The following month, The Washington Post claimed that France, along with Russia, Iraq and North Korea, possessed human smallpox strains, contrary to WHO provisions.

Then the rhythm accelerated: in March, Bill Gertz of The Washington Times, a conservative newspaper, alleged that two French companies had sold Iraq spare parts for airplanes and helicopters.

Later that month the conservative columnist William Safire linked France to a complex scheme whereby a French intermediary was said to have facilitated Iraq’s acquisition, via Syria, of chemical components for missiles.

In early April, once the war had started, Representative Joe Scarborough (famous for sponsoring a bill to withdraw the US from the United Nations in the 1990’s) accused France on MSNBC of selling Iraq “planes, missiles, armored vehicles, radar equipment, and spare parts for Iraqi fighter planes.” On April 21, Newsweek reported the “possible” discovery of Roland 2 French missiles, manufactured in 2002, in Iraq (even though the Roland 2 production ended in 1993).

Finally, during the month of May, Bill Gertz made new allegations about France in The Washington Times. A banner headline splayed across the front page of the May 6 edition of the paper declared that “France gave passports to help Iraqis escape.” The article accused the French government of having facilitated the escape of senior Iraqi officials by providing them with French passports.

After the French embassy in Washington denied the story, and even after U.S. government officials confirmed, belatedly, that they had no evidence to confirm it, Bill Gertz continued to refer to this supposed “scandal” in the following days, especially after chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, James Sensenbrenner, asked for an investigation and said that France should be excluded from the U.S. visa waiver program that allows tourists from wealthy countries, including France, to visit the United States without a visa. On May 24, another front-page headline indicated that a US intelligence team had found French passports in Iraq.

Many of these allegations, as the letter by the French ambassador, Jean-David Lévitte, points out, rely on information provided by “anonymous administration officials,” an unnamed “defense official” or an “American intelligence source.” This is certainly common in Washington, but it is also well known that these leaks, rarely invented by the reporter, exist to serve the leaker’s interest—either the interest of the administration itself when it wishes to release information unofficially or the interest of some part of the government, in which case such serves as weapons in internal bureaucratic battles, for example between the State Department and the Pentagon.

In spite of this similarity, it is not difficult to make distinction between these allegations, by a basic external analysis. They fall into three categories.

The allegations of Bill Gertz in The Washington Times, for example, were never reprinted in more prestigious and more relatively scrupulous newspapers such as The New York Times, The Washington Post or The Financial Times—for the probable reason that basic journalistic checking demonstrated that the charges had little substance. Bill Gertz, reputedly well connected with intelligence circles, has a pattern of publishing sensational leaks, some of which turn out to be true, many others of which, to put it delicately, do not. Another sign of lack of credibility can be found in the logical weakness of the articles in question.

For example, his piece of May 24 begins by alleging that the famous French passports mentioned in the May 6 piece had been found; then it mentions the denial by the French embassy; then it talks about Powell’s travel to Paris, which bears no relationship with the specific story; then it mentions the results of the investigation by the Department of Homeland Security, which concludes that the story is false, and that the passports do not exist; then it offers hypothesis as to why passports have been found (they may have been looted or forged); and it ends by summarizing all the allegations of cooperation of the French with Saddam, including the ones made earlier by William Safire, without the proper denials. Even the most sympathetic reader would be lost at this point, or, rather, would conclude that the piece is just not very serious.

Allegations made by William Safire of The New York Times should be placed in another category. The problem here is that his columns belong to the editorial pages, and that even when columnists give facts instead of analysis, newspapers do not publish a correction when these facts are contested. Rather, the rebuttal must take the form of a “Letter to the Editor,” as if it was a mere question of opinion, not fact. This shocking situation allows columnists to write basically whatever they want, accurately or not, on any subject, in America’s most prominent newspaper. And William Safire, by conviction, is ready to use even the most flimsy piece of information that would confirm his anti-French views.

The third category is made up of more serious articles, like the first two from the list, published in The New York Times and The Washington Post, which generally recognize their mistakes, print detailed denials and take them into account in later articles.

Even in this case, it seems difficult not to conclude that there is indeed a persistent campaign of disinformation about France (no other country has been targeted the same way) from within the ranks of the intelligence community and the Defense community. Depending on their professional standards, journalists choose to use these so-called “leaks” or not, and to hold on to them or not.

So two questions should be asked. First, how “organized” has this campaign been, and at what level? Second, what are the motivations behind it?

Previous examples of leaks or “dirty tricks” tend to show that high-level officials are not generally implicated in these operations, whether because it could backfire on them, or because lower-level operatives take the initiative, sometimes on their own, sometimes following up on vague hints from their bosses. But the reluctance of administration spokespersons, who knew there was no basis to the allegations (especially in case of the passport allegation), to deny them publicly, show at least that the higher levels of government were not unhappy with the bad-mouthing of France.

But in order to understand the origins of this campaign of disinformation, it needs to be put in the context of rampant France-bashing since 2002, which climaxed in the winter and spring of 2003.

When it became clear that France was becoming a major hurdle in the run-up to the war, the parts of the Bush administration favorable to an early war and their allies increasingly used France both as a scapegoat for Washington’s own diplomatic failures (at the UN, but also in Turkey, as Newt Gingrich suggested ), and, more importantly, to discredit opposition to the war by branding it “French,” hence unpatriotic.

Bashing France, denouncing it as the active agent of anti-Americanism in the world and making all kinds of allegations about its supposed close relationship to Saddam, in the economic realm for example, was a way to incite patriotism and coerce the opposition, from the anti-war movement to Republican dissenters, into acquiescence.

This is why some administration officials and conservative groups tied the democrats, or even moderate republicans, to France, calling them “French” or even (for senator Kerry) “French-looking.”

The anti-French campaign had different aspects. First, the administration has created a favorable climate in which francophobia and stigmatization of any kind of dissent could thrive.

The rationale “You’re either with us or against us” as repeated by the President on different occasions after 9/11 leaves no way of discussing the best political options to fight terrorism or deal with the Middle East. And both George W. Bush and his spokesman Ari Fleischer seemed to endorse the supposedly “spontaneous” reaction (“not stirred up by anybody except by the people”) by Americans: “What you have to do is watch your television and see the natural reaction of the American people.

They’re reacting. […] And that is their right […] I think you are seeing the American people speak spontaneously.”

Some parts of the administration have played “the French card,” either by using Paris as a scapegoat, by fanning francophobia or by spreading rumors damaging for France, even if it remains difficult to know at what level this last initiative has been taken. They were helped by journalists who shared their pro-war agenda and belonged to the same ideological camp on these matters, like Bill Gertz and William Safire. They were also helped in their assault against France by Rupert Murdoch media outlets. These range from the low-brow Fox News network to the more intellectual Weekly Standard magazine, and include The New York Post tabloid and its British counterpart The Sun. It was a consistent position of all Murdoch (and Lord Black) media outlets to encourage war in Iraq, to bash France and to use negative stereotypes and insults when referring to it.

And this is important at least in one respect: if nobody reads The Washington Times, quite a few Americans watch Fox News. And this network, on the basis of what the press—especially The Washington Times—has written, has made constant references to France’s supposed connivance with Saddam, its material support for the Iraqi military that was fighting and killing Americans, and the like, essentially asserting that such loose conjectures were established facts. The image of France, which had already suffered of its diplomatic posture, deteriorated even more.

This brings us back to the ambassador’s letter, which offers a real case study in public communication. Was it a smart move? Did it stem the tide of disinformation about France? On the negative side, this highly-publicized move allowed all of the allegations to be printed and read once again, this time in more respected newspapers, it attracted even more attention and gave the impression of the French as whiners. Moreover, the fight against anonymous sources is always an uphill battle. But considering the accumulation of false information, the letter was a formal way to reject all of them, and to cast doubts on future allegations. More importantly, it was a message sent to supporters of France or of the French position (as well as the French-American community, confronted to accusations of stabbing the US in the back) that this older ally of America, while having dissented on an important policy issue, was in no way the treacherous country some Americans had tried to paint.