Don't trust TV history — ever.
That's the big conclusion I came to this week after starting out on the simple assignment of previewing a two-hour National Geographic special on the Iraq War.
"America Vs. Iraq," which premieres at 9 p.m. Monday on the National Geographic Channel, drove me to it with a maddening hole at its core. And that squishy center of imprecise research and confusing assertions has enormous consequences in that it gives former Vice President Dick Cheney and the rest of George W. Bush's administration loads of wiggle room to try and rewrite history with their claims that they didn't lie about possessing evidence that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. They really believed he had them.
This is a good time to be thinking about the role TV plays in shaping our shared sense of who we are as a people and how we got to where we are today. This weekend has been packed with TV specials, reports and documentaries marking the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington.
TV is a major cultural force in telling us what's worth remembering and how it should be remembered. And for a long time, thanks to filmmakers like Ken Burns, of "Civil War" fame, I thought that was largely a good thing.
But this year, I have revised my thinking about entrusting our history to TV as I watched Cheney being given a stage to try and spin himself out of the infamy he seemed destined for when he left the White House on the day of Barack Obama's inauguration.
In fact, the producers for Brook Lapping Productions, which made the film, provide more than a stage in "America vs. Iraq." They actually aid Cheney's spin by their failure to do the all-important grunt work of journalism and history — sorting through conflicting accounts and trying to nail down what exactly happened and who did what to make it happen.
Here the conflicting accounts come from former Iraqi military officers, one-time government officials, ex-CIA officers and such major players as Cheney, former British Prime Minister Tony Blair and U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell.
National Geographic trumpets that access, saying in its news release, "Never before have the big players from Washington, London and Baghdad been brought together in one program to tell the inside story of the Iraq War."
I admit, I was impressed by the access — until about 35 minutes into the special when I realized that not all the "big players" were on hand, mostly just the ones who behaved badly and were eager to try and change how history might remember them.
There's Powell, who told the world at the United Nations that Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. And there's Cheney, who helped create an echo chamber of lies in the media by going on Sunday morning shows such as "Meet the Press" and citing stories in America's leading newspapers as evidence of the weapons — stories based on false information leaked by the White House or quoting unnamed administration officials.
Ten years out, the question we as a society need an answer to is whether our leaders lied to us to win support for a war that shredded the economy and left more than 4,500 American service members and 120,000 Iraqis dead. We need historical accountability to know not only what kind of a nation we live in, but also how we, the people, can try to avoid letting it happen again.
Intellectually — and morally — you cannot fudge that. Historical clarity is essential
But what viewers get from National Geographic is fudge and double fudge during a five-minute stretch that deals with what was or wasn't known at Langley or 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue about WMDs.
The filmmakers interview three people: Bill Murray, who was CIA station chief in Paris in 2002; John McLaughlin, then deputy CIA director; and Naji Sabri, Hussein's foreign minister, who is characterized in the film as possibly looking for a safe place to land in the West and willing to trade information on Iraq to get it.
Two ex-CIA guys and a high-level Iraqi minister who was working both sides of the street — not exactly a trio on which to build a sound record.
Against a backdrop of nighttime cloak-and-dagger visuals, the producers tell the story of Sabri meeting in New York with an unnamed "journalist" who was "close to top Iraqis." The so-called journalist was acting as an "intermediary" for the CIA. His role was to find out whether Hussein had WMDs.
In the film, Sabri says he and the "intermediary" never discussed WMDs. But McLaughlin says on-camera that a report of the meeting with the "intermediary" that was sent to CIA headquarters provided confirmation from Sabri that Iraq had WMDs.
"President Bush and his allies had been saying for years that Saddam had WMDs," the film's narrator says. "Now, CIA bosses believe they finally have high-level confirmation. They sent the report to the White House."
But Murray, the CIA agent in Paris who debriefed the intermediary, contradicts both Sabri and McLaughlin: They did get answers on WMDs from the intermediary's meeting with Sabri, he says, but what the Iraqi minister told them was that Iraq did not have stockpiles of WMDs.
"… The CIA officer [Murray] who met the intermediary later claims the report has been changed and does not reflect what the intermediary actually said," viewers are told.
The report that sent us to war had been changed? And not just altered, but changed from white to black? If that's true, how did it happen? How did an informant allegedly saying Iraq did not have WMDs become Iraq does have them? Who in the chain of command could have changed it that way?
At this point, there are a million questions to be asked, and there should be at least an attempt to answer them. But the producer-directors David Alter and Charlie Smith answer almost none.
Instead they reiterate the line that gives Bush White House historical cover: "But in 2002, the Bush White House believes Sabri has confirmed what they suspected all along: that Iraq has weapons of mass destruction. The countdown to war had begun."
What viewers are left with is the sense that no one is to blame for this destructive and reckless war, except perhaps Sabri or the mysterious intermediary or someone who might have had access to the report somewhere between Paris and Langley and allegedly changed it.
Just what America needs: another dark mystery.
Hey, maybe the report was altered by someone seen in the blurry photographs taken on the grassy knoll in Dallas on Nov. 22, 1963. Or maybe, the alteration took place in a hangar in Area 51 near Roswell, N.M.
This is tabloid history. It raises dark and mysterious or sensational possibilities and then fails to responsibly explore them. I believe historians and journalists who raise such possibilities have an obligation to investigate them as best they can.
An example of a responsible historian is Robert Caro, who is confronted with many dark moments in his marvelous serial biography of Lyndon Johnson. When Caro comes to a point where he has conflicting accounts and confusion as to what actually happened, he always stops the narrative and sorts out what can and cannot be confirmed — and offers readers what he thinks is the best assessment of the truth, given the data available.
Given the cover provided by the lack of such diligence in "America vs. Iraq," I'm not surprised Cheney, Powell, Blair, et al. participated.
I'm just surprised National Geographic doesn't have a promotional blurb from George W. Bush saying, "Don't miss it — Monday night at 9. This is the real deal — the real story of how Dick and I really, truly, deeply and madly believed Hussein had those weapons. We didn't lie. Honest."
Don't trust TV history — ever.