In the Wake of Wikileaks:
A Media Critique of Revelations about Canadian Duplicity in Iraq
By Richard Sanders, coordinator, Coalition to Oppose the Arms Trade and editor of COAT's magazine Press for Conversion!
“One of the most striking differences between a cat and a lie is that a cat has
only nine lives.”
Mark Twain, Vice President, American Anti-Imperialist League, and erstwhile writer.
As antiwar activists struggle to oppose Canada’s open participation in the
bombardment of Libya and the lies about humanitarianism used as pretexts to
rationalize it, we should reflect upon Canada’s covert role in yet another
U.S.-led war in the Middle East and the media falsehoods used to revive the
deception that Canada refused to join the Iraq War.
Thanks to a U.S. diplomatic cable released by WikiLeaks, a small crack recently appeared in the still-prevailing national mythology that Canada’s government did not to participate in the 2003 invasion of Iraq.
Although few members of America’s “Coalition of the Willing” actually contributed more to the Iraq war than did Canada, this fact is still being covered up by our mainstream media. Ironically, the media’s unwillingness to report pervasive evidence of Canada’s deep complicity in Iraq was exemplified by recent coverage of the WikiLeaks memo which exposed this country’s shameful duplicity in that illegal war.
The WikiLeaks document in question is an unclassified U.S. embassy communication with Washington which describes a meeting between Canadian, American and British officials, just two days before the war’s launch. While Prime Minister Chrétien and his Liberal cabinet were assuring the public that the government was refusing to endorse -- let alone take part in -- the Iraq war, top Foreign Affairs’ bureaucrats were secretly promising substantial military assistance and diplomatic support for the U.S.-led offensive.
Although media coverage of the WikiLeaks memo painted the story as if this hypocrisy was a startling new revelation, Canadian involvement in the Iraq war has long been documented by antiwar researchers.
The memo, for example, comes as no surprise to the Coalition to Oppose the Arms Trade (COAT) which has itemized a litany of significant Canadian contributions to the Iraq war. In fact, the WikiLeaks revelation vindicates COAT’s efforts to counter this media fable since March 2003.
Although the Wikileaks’ disclosure confirms Canada’s true commitment to supporting the Iraq war, news coverage was disappointingly brief, shallow, misleadingly vague and, in some cases, even helped perpetuate the prevailing myth on noninvolement. Like a small corrective footnote deeply buried in the recesses of the media’s fine-print, this recent newsflash in the WikiLeaks pan could not erase all the damage done by years of countless stories reinforcing the fraudulent official narrative that Canada stayed out of Iraq.
Revealing what was known
The WikiLeaks document is ingenuously called “Canada won't join military action against Iraq without another UNSC [UN Security Council] Resolution.” Contrary to this misleading title, the memo actually confirms Canada commitment of armed-forces personnel, and billions of dollars worth of warships and warplanes to help wage the war.
This flies in the face of the frequently-stated government policy postulating Canada’s supposed stand against the war.
The leaked U.S. report summarises a meeting in Ottawa on March 17, 2003, in which top Canadian, American and British diplomats met to discuss Canada’s support for the imminent assault on Iraq. This was the same day that Prime Minister Jean Chrétien took centre stage in Parliament to posture publicly as if the Liberal government was refusing to assist the attack.
On the next day in Washington, then-U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell unveiled the names of 30 countries in the so-called “coalition of the willing.” These nations, he explained, had “publicly said they could be included in such a listing.” Powell then revealed that “there are 15 other nations, who, for one reason or another, do not wish to be publicly named but will be supporting the coalition.” Canada was, no doubt, on the top of this secret list of willing Iraq-war collaborators who were unwilling “to be publicly named.”
Then, on the following day, the opening phase of the U.S.-led assault began with the infamous “shock and awe” bombardment of Iraq. These brutal attacks were launched, in part, from U.S. aircraft carriers which had just been escorted through the Persian Gulf and into the warzone by Canada’s allegedly-peaceful and supposedly-uninvolved warships.
Although the U.S. document outlines Canada’s official policy of abstaining from the Iraq war, it concludes with damning evidence of the exact opposite:
“Following the meeting, Political Director Jim Wright emphasized that, despite public statements that the Canadian assets in the Straits of Hormuz will remain in the region exclusively to support Enduring Freedom [i.e., the Afghan War], they will also be available to provide escort services in the Straits and will otherwise be discreetly useful to the military effort. The two ships in the Straits now are being augmented by two more enroute, and there are patrol and supply aircraft in the UAE which are also prepared to ‘be useful.’….They are also prepared to be as helpful as possible in the military margins…”
This offers a rare glimpse into the usually hidden world of lies, deception and treachery that are the staples of diplomatic culture.
As the U.S. memo confirms, Canada’s immediate support for the Iraq war included two multi-billion dollar warships already in place and ready for action. Chrétien’s officials then upped the ante by generously pledging that Canadian warships already in the Straits would soon be “augmented by two more” that were conveniently enroute.
Previous COAT research had already shown that, in 2003 alone, Canada deployed at least five Canadian frigates and one destroyer to the Persian Gulf. With 225 sailors on each frigate, and 300 aboard the HMCS “Iroquois” destroyer, Canadian naval personnel deployed in war’s first nine months numbered at least 1425.
The WikiLeaks memo divulged that on the eve of the Iraq war, Canada already had “1280 military personnel…in the region,” and that it “intends to leave” these forces in place. Among these forces were personnel attached to Canada’s “patrol and supply aircraft in the UAE which are also prepared to ‘be useful’" to America’s Iraq-war effort. This disclosure concerning Canadian air support corresponds to COAT research on military surveillance/spy (“patrol”) planes (CP-140 “Auroras”) and transport/cargo (“supply”) planes (CC-130 “Hercules”), that Canada contributed to the Iraq war.
We already knew that 200 flight crew and support personnel operating/maintaining two Canadian “Auroras,” plus 180 additional Air Force personnel associated with the three “Hercules” aircraft, were among the Canadian military forces involved in the Iraq war. Added to our naval forces, this brings the initial 2003 total to 1,805. This is a far cry from the mere 31 Canadian “exchange troops” that Chrétien’s government claimed were in Iraq serving under U.S. and UK command.
To these numbers we could also add many more, including dozens of Canadian warplanners who helped prepare for the invasion.
Canada was certainly off to a good start in its so-called nonparticipation in the Iraq War!
COAT has also brought to light details about three top Canadian generals who, serving as deputy commanders of the multinational forces fighting the Iraq war, led tens of thousands of troops between 2004 and 2009.
Since 2003, we have been bombarded by government lies that Canada eschewed the Iraq war. This fairy tale was echoed so often in the corporate news, and the spin of media windmills on this matter gained such momentum, that the legend became virtually unchallengeable. Anyone who has tried tilting at this powerhouse, knows just how quixotic the task of myth-busting can be.
Although several corporate media outlets recently ran brief items about limited examples of Canadian support mentioned in the U.S. diplomatic memo, they ignored many other categories of support unearthed by COAT since 2003. For example, none of the recent stories deigned to mention Canadian airspace and refuelling services; C-17 pilots; E-3 crews coordinating bombing sorties; Canadian command of a multinational fleet; RADARSAT satellite data for weapons targeting; training Iraqi police and Iraqi troops; financing the Iraqi Interior Ministry; testing U.S. weapons and exporting some $4 billion worth military hardware per year to the U.S. war machine.
Besides ignoring this wealth of corroborating evidence, recent coverage further minimized Canada’s contribution to the Iraq war by incorrectly portraying the WikiLeaks memo as uncertain, ambiguous and unclear. In reality, it is very explicit and unequivocal about Canada’s participation.
The first reporter to pick up on the WikiLeaks’ document was the Ottawa Citizen’s Glen McGregor. On April 28, 2011, he quoted from the memo but completely fumbled the ball, saying it "describes Canada’s decision to sit-out the war in Iraq."
Three weeks later, former Sun columnist Greg Weston ran with the story for his new team, CBC News. Although Weston accurately noted that “a high-ranking Canadian official was secretly promising the Americans clandestine military support” for the Iraq war, he changed direction in mid-play by wrongly claiming that the document says only “that Canadian forces may have secretly participated in the invasion of Iraq.”
The memo does not use any such indefinite or uncertain terms. There is no “may have” about it. The memo says quite precisely that “Canadian assets…will also be available to provide escort services in the Straits and will otherwise be discreetly useful to the military effort…”
Weston seems to further downplay the memo’s clarity by using the unnecessarily ambiguous statement that “According to the U.S. account…Canadian naval and air forces could be ‘discreetly’ put to use during the pending U.S.-led assault on Iraq.”
By reducing Canada’s contribution to a mere possibility by saying it “may have…participated,” and following this error with the indefinite phrase that Canadian forces “could…be put to use,” the CBC story throws needless doubt on whole story.
Although the memo shows that Canadian personnel, warships and aircraft were pledged to assist the Iraq war, Weston still wonders “how much they ultimately became involved in the Iraq war” and says the answer “remains a matter of considerable debate.”
The CBC also undermined the cable’s revelations by finding three Liberal-government officials to spin the story their way. The results were predictable. Each one tried to obfuscated the issues, and to absolve themselves from responsibility for the lie that they had helped foist upon Canadians.
Eugene Lang, who was then-Defence Minister John McCallum’s chief of staff, is quoted saying that Canadian naval commanders were given “clear orders not to engage in anything to do with Operation Iraqi Freedom.” But, he added, "who knows whether in fact we were doing things indirectly for Iraqi Freedom? It is quite possible."
McCallum then reassures Canadians that he did his level best "to make sure that we were not in fact committing to help the war in Iraq." But, he quips, "what happens on the high seas is not something I can prove or disprove."
Such statements make it all sound very wishy washy and the reader is led down the path to question the U.S. memo’s accuracy in asserting that Canada was indeed involved.
The CBC failed its audience by recruiting spokespeople with personal, vested interests in maintaining the myth of Canadian noninvolvement in Iraq. For these media-savvy former officials to now embrace the truth of Canada’s multifaceted engagement in Iraq would amount to a confession that they lied in 2003 when helping create the cover story that Canada opposed the war.
The worst impact of the CBC’s spin on the WikiLeak’s revelation is that it sets the tone for most of the media stories that followed.
Almost all subsequent coverage used the CBC story as their starting point, either paraphrased or quoting from it, rather than exposing the WikiLeaks memo itself.
In the National Post, Matt Gurney succeeds in reinforcing Canada’s undying myth by saying “it’s probably for the best that Canada didn’t take part in the Iraq War, given how chaotic it became.” Seemingly missing the point of the WikiLeaks memo, he follows this with another whopper, saying “Canada was lucky to have missed what could have been a very costly experience for our armed forces.”
For its part, Foreign Policy (FP) magazine spun a review which excels in vagueness and prevarications. Despite the simple clarity of the WikiLeaks revelation, FP gallingly declares: "It's not really clear whether the Canadian ships and surveillance aircraft... did, in fact, carry out any activities that contributed to the effort in Iraq."
Then, in caveat-loaded bureaucratese, FP postulates that it’s "certainly not unreasonable to suspect that Canada may in fact have played a larger military role in Iraq than a number of declared members of the Coalition of the Willing."
But the truth is, as U.S. Ambassador Cellucci said, just days after the March-2003 meeting described in the WikiLeaks memo: “Ironically, Canadian vessels, aircraft and personnel in the Persian Gulf…will provide more support indirectly to this war in Iraq than most of the 46 countries that are fully supporting our efforts.”
After having initially fumbled the ball, the Ottawa Citizen reentered the game with partisan columnist, Michael Taube, a former speech writer for Prime Minister Stephen Harper. He began by arguing that Canada should have joined the war, saying “prime minister Jean Chrétien disgraced our nation when he told the House of Commons that Canada wouldn't aid the U.S. in the war against Iraq.”
Another paper joining the fray was the Guelph Mercury, whose columnist Matthew Bondy, like all the other reporters, ignored Canada’s many contributions to the war. Bondy downplayed Canada’s involvement by admitting that the Liberal’s “kinda were” “on board with the Iraq war.” He also asserts that all our allies really “wanted was Canada’s political and moral support. Our military contribution would be negligible, with our Forces being maxed out by the mission in Afghanistan.”
In saying this, Bondy further diminishes Canada’s role, calling it “negligible.” Ironically, he performs this sleight by raising one of Canada’s actual contributions to the conflict, which was to free up U.S. troops for use in Iraq, by shifting 2000 Canadian soldiers into Afghanistan.
Bondy’s comment also misses another point in the WikiLeaks’ memo which is that Canada did in fact also give “political and moral support” to the war. As the U.S. memo explains, Chretien’s bureaucrats assured their counterparts that Canada “will refrain from criticism of our actions, express understanding, and focus their public comments on the real culprit, Iraq.”
Such diplomatic cheerleading was one of many real Canadian contributions to the Iraq war.
The Myth Lives On
And so, the widespread myth of Canada’s supposed noninvolvement in Iraq continues to live on like the proverbial cat with nine lives.
The WikiLeak’s cable revealing Canada’s undertaking to “discreetly” support the Iraq war could have inspired explosive coverage to finally lay to rest one of this country’s most enduring political deceptions.
The media had an wonderful opportunity to expose the truth about Canada’s many contributions to the Iraq war and to pry open new cracks in this myth. Instead, the coverage generally served as damage control to plaster over emerging fractures in the established storyline.
Most of the reporters mentioning the disclosure were inclined to understate or downplay its significance. Some even contradicted the gist of memo, making it appear that the document merely hinted at some vague potential for token Canadian participation in Iraq. Evidence of Canada’s actual contributions to the war still remain almost entirely hidden from public view.
Even in ostensibly confirming an example of Canadian duplicity in Iraq, the media subtly reinforced the dominant mythology that this country did little or nothing to help the Iraq war.
The myth continues to lumber forcefully along, like some unstoppable juggernaut crushing whatever awkward truths sprout up under the media-powered spin of its mighty wheels.
Unlike the task of spreading lies, the job of reversing them is a difficult, longterm struggle. As Mark Twain said “How easy it is to make people believe a lie, and how hard it is to undo that work again!”
Hopefully, we will not have to wait eight long years before whistleblowers release evidence cracking through the fabrications now being propagated to deceive us about Libya, and this latest imperial war for Middle-East oil.
The above article will be published by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives in The CCPA Monitor.
Learn more about Canada’s role in Iraq at the Coalition to Oppose the Arms Trade’s website.
Read Press for Conversion! Issue 65
"Operation Silent Partner: Canada's Quiet Complicity in the Iraq War"
Canada's Covert War in Iraq (The CCPA Monitor, Sept. 2008)
George Orwell meets
Canada’s General Walt Natynczyk in Iraq (The
CCPA Monitor, Sept. 2008)