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Spin Cycles Episode Five - H & K: The Satan of Spin

Since much of Ira Basen's show Spin Cycles is judgment masquerading as fact, it shouldn't have been so surprising that episode five ("Spinning War") repeats the seventeen-year old apocryphal story about how Hill & Knowlton singlehandedly laid the groundwork for the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 1990.  


In brief, the story goes like this: H&K was "secretly paid" $10 million dollars by Kuwaiti royalty and expatriates of questionable provenance to create an organization called the Citizens for a Free Kuwait. This front group then proffered a young woman named Nariyah Al Sabah to testify before the US government's Commission on Human Rights about the atrocities she had seen committed by Iraqui soldiers in Kuwait. (Actually, I believe Basen only refers to her as Nariyah. I guess his painstaking investigation of the events didn't uncover her last name).


Her story of Iraqui soldiers throwing Kuwaiti babies out of incubators and bayoneting them on cold hospital floors became the torchlight for American politicians campaigning to support an invasion. That's the oft-repeated story anyway and Basen -- taking his lead from the self-professed PR "watchdog" Center for Media and Democracy which he features in this episode and, I could be wrong, uses as his source for the "facts" -- buys into it without providing even a scrap of balance.


Here is what I know about what happened 17 years ago, based on my own independent inquiry. I stress independent because about four years ago, I was asked to step in as a substitute speaker for our Canadian CEO at an ethics conference in which the issue of our role in Kuwait was to be discussed. I told Mike Coates I would do so only if I satisfied myself that we were not guilty of the manipulation implied in the apocryphal version of the events or, at the very least, that there was another side to the story. So, I reviewed the committee testimony and media reports from the time. I spoke at length with Frank Mankiewicz (former press secretary to Robert Kennedy), currently H&K's vice-chairman. He tells a much different story of the events. As does the president and COO of our Asian operations Viv Lines in a letter published in the South China Morning Post in 1999.


Their version, argued passionately (in Mankiewicz's case almost apoplectically so irate is he about the distorted history of H&K's role), presents it this way: We were asked to provide public relations support to the Citizens for a Free Kuwait which had been set up by Kuwait expatriates and former members (some government ministers) of the Kuwait National Assembly . . . not members of the Kuwait royal family. According to Lines, during the course of H&K's work to familiarize Americans with the facts about the Iraqui invasion, we were ASKED by Thomas Lantos, chair of the Commission on Human Rights, to provide witnesses for hearings the committee was holding into apparent Iraqui human rights abuses. One such wtiness was Nariyah Al Saba, the daughter of the Kuwaiti Ambassador to the U.S. who had been volunteering in a local hospital at the time of the invasion. Yes, she was coached in preparation for her testimony: She was a teenager and scared, according to Mankiewicz. No, she was not coached to lie or fabricate. No, her identity as the Ambassador's daughter was not purposely hidden to make it seem she was just an innnocent teenager. Various newspapers subsequently verified the facts of her testimony. So did the Pentagon (okay, not the most reliable source of truth and fact). Subsequent investigation by the risk consulting company Kroll also confirmed the crimes.


This is all by way of saying that if Basen was truly interested in uncovering the truth (What happened to the investigative journalistic spirit the absence of which Basen decried in an earlier episode?) he could have dug a little deeper. Mankiewicz is still around. The letter from Lines is available. Or was he more interested in proving a point at the expense of accuracy. Remember my definition of spin: "The wilful distortion of facts and the manipulation of half-truths to create a more persuasive or one-sided story."


In fact, if you want a lesson in spin, listen to the choice of words used in recounting the Kuwaiti war myth :  "following standard operating procedure"; "an astroturf organization with fake grassroots"; "secretly paid"; "selling war"; "the whole campaign was a fabrication".


Could anyone be less circumspect about his own use of language in a series on spin? What hyprocisy.

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Tuesday, February 13, 2007 at 12:00 AM