Subliminal Programming, or “Strategic Ambiguity”?

No one should underestimate the power of the Bush administration’s subtle but persistent efforts for the past two years to link Iraq to 9/11:

The Washington Post: Nearing the second anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, seven in 10 Americans continue to believe that Iraq’s Saddam Hussein had a role in the attacks, even though the Bush administration and congressional investigators say they have no evidence of this.

Sixty-nine percent of Americans said they thought it at least likely that Hussein was involved in the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, according to the latest Washington Post poll. That impression, which exists despite the fact that the hijackers were mostly Saudi nationals acting for al Qaeda, is broadly shared by Democrats, Republicans and independents.

How did they do this? They never overtly stated that there was a connection, but they used two other techniques:

a) continually putting the words “Iraq” or “Saddam” and “9/11” in the same sentence – they appeared in the same sentence 11 times during the 2003 State of the Union address, for example.

b) putting together facts that lead to the desired (though incorrect) conclusion. Here’s an example from a Bush speech on Oct 7, 2002 (quoted in a nice piece about the use of this technique more generally by Spinsanity):

”We know that Iraq and the al Qaeda terrorist network share a common enemy — the United States of America. We know that Iraq and al Qaeda have had high-level contacts that go back a decade. Some al Qaeda leaders who fled Afghanistan went to Iraq. These include one very senior al Qaeda leader who received medical treatment in Baghdad this year, and who has been associated with planning for chemical and biological attacks. We’ve learned that Iraq has trained al Qaeda members in bomb-making and poisons and deadly gases. And we know that after September the 11th, Saddam Hussein’s regime gleefully celebrated the terrorist attacks on America.”

Obviously the techniques work: you don’t have to explicitly tell people what conclusion to draw (because you would get called a liar, given that it’s an incorrect conclusion), but rather simply put things together in a way that most reasonable people would draw the incorrect conclusion you’re hoping for. Spinsanity calls this technique “strategic ambiguity.” I’d say that’s a generous way of putting it.