When is a Fact Not a Fact? When It's a Lie.
21 January 2006
'Facts are simple and facts are straight
Facts are lazy and facts are late
Facts all come with points of view
Facts don't go where you want them to
Facts just twist the truth around
Facts are living turned inside out...'
- Talking Heads
Former US Secretary of State Colin Powell was in town this week, giving interviews left, right and centre and generally gadding about like a man with a book to plug. But of course he wasn't plugging a book. Not this time. This time, Powell was plugging a war. 'Iran's behaviour over the last 18 months has not been open and candid,' he told the Sun on Monday. 'I don't see a way through it,' he added, followed by, 'We cannot afford another two years chatting back and forth between the international community.' On the same day he told Jeremy Paxman, 'I don't think we're anywhere near thinking about military intervention at this point,' before adding quickly, 'although you can never rule it out. You can never take it off the table.' Oh, fuck. Here we go again.
The Sun however, was always going to give Powell an easy ride. Your average Sun reader would like nothing better than to see our boys bombing the shit out of another nation of terror-plotting ragheads. Thankfully Paxman gave him a somewhat harder time in the Newsnight interview. Again, the focus was the perceived threat of Iran's nuclear power programme, but conversation turned
quickly, and naturally, to Iraq.
'When you look at what you believe may be happening in Iran,' Paxman deadpanned, 'and you look at the fact that Iran is known to be a sponsor of what you call Islamic terrorism, you chose the wrong target when you attacked Iraq, didn't you?' The tinker. In response, Powell listed the reasons why Iraq was a worthy target for military force and why they were therefore the right target, before remembering the tenor of the question and adding, 'The United States is not looking for places to go and invade.' Paxman gave a little purse of the lips. Powell ignored it.
The highlight of the interview however, was when Paxman referred to Powell's notoriously inaccurate address to the UN Security Council in February 2003. This was the speech which stated categorically that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction; the speech during which Powell declared, 'My colleagues, every statement I make today is backed up by sources, solid sources. These are not assertions. What we're giving you are facts and conclusions based on solid intelligence.'
Paxman spoke of his feelings on hearing that speech. He said that like 'many many millions' of other people, 'we looked at you and we thought, "There is a man we respect. If he says Saddam Hussein has weapons of mass destruction, then he has." And he didn't!' Powell was unruffled. 'The intelligence community got it wrong,' he replied. Like butter wouldn't melt. Paxman was incensed. 'But you said it was "fact",' he sputtered. Powell, slightly ruffled now, replied, 'It was a fact that the intelligence community...' Then he stopped, remembered that it wasn't actually a fact at all and stuttered, 'I... I am not somebody who walked around Iraq looking for it.'
He then blathered for a while, protesting that it wasn't just the Americans that had the same intelligence. Everybody had it. He knows this, of course, because he gave it to them. To his eternal credit, Paxman wasn't having any of it. He got right back on track with another screeched, 'They weren't "facts and conclusions"!' Powell argued that they most certainly were, *as they existed at that time*. He went on to speak of 'subsequent facts', as if the very essence of fact were whimsy, as if facts themselves were impulsive sprites that dance and scurry, shifting their shape where they may.
But of course, whether Powell likes it or not, a fact is a fact, just as sure as eggs is eggs. Facts don't go back on themselves. The Earth, for example, was never flat. People thought it was flat because the intelligence they had at the time was not particularly advanced. They were acting on hunches. The fact that the Earth is in fact an oblate spheroid is not a 'subsequent fact'. It's a fact! Plain and simple common or garden fact. As is the fact that the US wanted to go to war so badly that they conjured up the fake facts they required in order to do so. It's as plain as the nose on Karl Rove's face and Paxman, looking suitably disgusted, came closer than anyone so far to forcing a confession. Well, he got this far:
'...the intelligence community said it was a fact was that [Saddam] had actual stockpiles [of WMDs]. We subsequently discovered that was wrong. *We were wrong*. The intelligence community was wrong. The British intelligence community and all of the other intelligence communities were wrong and I presented wrong information because it was the information that I believed to be true at the time.'
And then, Paxman's finest moment: 'Would you like to apologise for misleading the world?' Quickly followed by an equally sublime moment when Powell replied, 'I didn't mislead the world. You can't mislead somebody when you are presenting what you believe to be the facts... That wasn't misleading, that was being wrong.'
Untold joy though it is to hear top-ranking politicians admit to hideous mistakes, ultimately, this was but a delicious footnote to Powell's rather unappetising main thrust, which was essentially that we have to do something about Iran. After all, the last thing we want is another bunch of crazy Muslims developing weapons that might have a chance in hell of standing up to ours.