At the time, more than two months after the Iraq invasion, George W. Bush was getting edgy because the promised stockpiles of banned weapons hadn't materialized. So, on May 29, 2003, he hailed the discovery of the supposed mobile biological laboratories as conclusive proof that we have found the weapons of mass destruction, a claim that would be repeated by administration officials for the next several months.
But any careful reading of the published intelligence reports about the train cars would have shown Bush's assertion to be just the latest exaggeration of WMD evidence about Iraq. Even the evidence marshaled in a white paper by the Central Intelligence Agency and the Defense Intelligence Agency fit much better with the explanation that the train cars were designed to produce hydrogen for battlefield weather balloons.
Now, nearly three years later, the Washington Post has published an article revealing that Bush made his flat assertion about the train cars two days after a Pentagon-sponsored mission informed Washington that the trailers had nothing to do with producing biological weapons. Those findings from a nine-member team of U.S. and British scientists and engineers were in a three-page field report -- followed three weeks later by a 122-page final report -- but the contrary information was stamped secret and shelved.
Back in spring 2003, however, the readiness of the Bush administration to mislead the American people and the readiness of the U.S. news media -- and many citizens -- to go along led me to compare what was happening in the United States to the false reality of the Matrix movies. (The second film in the trilogy, The Matrix Reloaded, had just been released.)
In a slightly edited form, we are reprinting our June 1, 2003, story below:
Some living in this American Matrix are like the everyday people in the movies, simply oblivious to whats going on beneath the surface, either too busy or too bored to find out. Others appear to know better but behave like Cipher, the character in the original movie who chooses the fake pleasures of the Matrix over what Morpheus calls the desert of the real.
Many Americans so enjoyed the TV-driven nationalism of the Iraq War, for instance, that they didnt want it spoiled by reality. During the conflict, they objected to news outlets showing mangled bodies or wounded children or U.S. POWs. Presenting the ugly face of war was seen as unpatriotic or somehow disloyal to the troops. Only positive images were welcome and dissent was deemed almost treasonous.
Now, even as U.S. forces in Iraq slide closer to the guerrilla-war quagmire that some skeptics predicted, Americans continue to say they trust George W. Bush to handle the situation. Some military analysts close to the Bush administration are beginning to feel differently, however. Were hanging on by our fingernails, one told me.
But Americans still prefer to feel good about the war. They want to believe that the U.S. invasion was just, and that Saddam Hussein really was poised to use weapons of mass destruction. By large majorities, Americans either believe that these weapons have already been found or they dont care that the Bush administration may have misled the world.
The Disputed Labs
For its part, the U.S. news media from Fox News to the New York Times repeatedly trumpeted supposed weapons discoveries, only to play down later stories showing that the original reports were bogus. The only evidence Bush now cites is the discovery of two mobile labs that the CIA and Defense Intelligence Agency insist could be used for producing biological weapons.
Those who say we havent found the banned manufacturing devices or banned weapons are wrong, Bush declared, referring to the mobile labs. We found them.
Yet, the U.S. intelligence analysis of these labs is more a piece of the American Matrix than a dispassionate examination of the evidence. The report reads like one more example of selective intelligence, which spurns plausible alternatives if they dont fit Bushs political needs.