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Airbrushing History

- November 26, 2008

I seem to remember a lot of jokes about the “coalition of the willing” that supported the Iraq War. Jon Stewart termed it the “Coalition of the Piddling.”

Nevertheless, the Bush administration has apparently taken great pains to ensure that the White House website maximizes the apparent size of this coalition. Or so concludes this study by Scott Althaus, a professor of political science and communications at the U of Illinois, and Kalev Leetaru, who is Coordinator of Information Technology and Research at the Cline Center for Democracy at the U of Illinois. (See also this New York Times story. Ignore the fact that Althaus and Leetaru are misidentified as “historians.”)

Their key findings:

bq. There are at least five documents taking the form of White House press releases that detail the number and names of countries in the “Coalition of the Willing” that publicly supported the 2003 invasion of Iraq. At one time, all five of these documents were archived on the White House web site.

bq. Today, only three of these five documents can still be accessed in the White House archives. One of the missing lists was removed from the White House web site at some point in late 2004, and the other was removed between late 2005 and early 2006. These two “missing” lists represent earlier and smaller lists of coalition members.

bq. The text of three of these five documents was altered at some point after their initial release, even though in most cases the documents still retained their original release dates and were presented as unaltered originals. These alterations to the public record changed the apparent number of countries making up the coalition, as well as the names of countries in the coalition. Some of these alterations appear to have been made as long as two years after the document’s purported release date.

bq. Of the five documents, only two appear to have remained unaltered after the date of their initial release. These are the only two of the five that could be authentic originals. However, we find no evidence that either of these press releases was distributed broadly to the media through normal electronic channels.

bq. Two versions of the coalition list dated March 27, 2003 can be currently accessed on the White House web site. Both claim that there were 49 countries in the coalition, but one lists only 48 by name, omitting Costa Rica. The revision history of this document shows that Costa Rica’s name was removed retroactively at some point in late 2004, after the Costa Rican Supreme Court ruled that continued use of its name on the list was a violation of Costa Rica’s constitution.

bq. Taken together, these findings suggest a pattern of revision and removal from the public record that spans several years, from 2003 through at least 2005. Instead of issuing a series of revised lists with new dates, or maintaining an updated master list while preserving copies of the old ones, the White House removed original documents, altered them, and replaced them with backdated modifications that only appear to be originals.

I am never surprised when political leaders re-write history for their own benefit. But I am struck by how much time and effort the Bush administration apparently puts into this kind of minor-league whitewashing. What difference can it honestly make to their political fortunes? Or to future accounts of Bush’s presidency? I felt the same way when I learned that the Plum Book portrays the Vice-Presidency as outside of any branch of government.

Given that most of the variance in presidential approval is explained by fundamentals like the economy and war, presidents seem to spend far too much energy on penny-ante propaganda.