The World Should Have Revolted Over America’s Illegal War on Iraq

You may have seen discussions about this project around the Toobz. In it, scholars use supercomputers to analyze the tone of news coverage. Their results from Egypt and Tunisia–showing low sentiment right before this year’s revolutions–suggest you can predict volatile events with such analysis.

I decided to look further at the study, not least, because of Dianne Feinstein’s complaint earlier this year that the CIA had totally missed stirrings of rebellion in both countries.

Feinstein set a skeptical tone at the opening of the hearing, saying Obama and other policymakers deserved timely intelligence on major world events. Referring to Egypt, she said, “I have doubts whether the intelligence community lived up to its obligations in this area.”

After the hearing, Feinstein said she was particularly concerned that the CIA and other agencies had ignored open-source intelligence on the protests, a reference to posts on Facebook and other publicly accessible Web sites used by organizers of the protests against the Mubarak government.

Speaking more broadly about intelligence on turmoil in the Middle East, Feinstein said, “I’ve looked at some intelligence in this area.” She described it as “lacking . . . on collection.”

According to DiFi, the CIA missed the Arab Spring because they weren’t monitoring open source materials (an argument that WikiLeaks cables seem to confirm). And this study is all the more damning for our intelligence community, because this study uses their own (actually, Britiain’s) open source collection.

Recognizing the need for on–the–ground insights into the reaction of local media around the world in the leadup to World War II, the U.S. and British intelligence communities formed the Foreign Broadcast Information Service (FBIS — now the Open Source Center) and Summary of World Broadcasts (SWB) global news monitoring services, respectively. Tasked with monitoring how media coverage “varied between countries, as well as from one show to another within the same country … the way in which specific incidents were reported … [and] attitudes toward various countries,” (Princeton University Library, 1998) the services transcribe and translate a sample of all news globally each day. The services work together to capture the “full text and summaries of newspaper articles, conference proceedings, television and radio broadcasts, periodicals, and non–classified technical reports” in their native languages in over 130 countries (World News Connection, 2009) and were responsible for more than 80 percent of actionable intelligence about the Soviet Union during the Cold War (Studeman, 1993). In fact, news monitoring, or “open source intelligence,” now forms such a critical component of the intelligence apparatus that a 2001 Washington Post article noted “so much of what the CIA learns is collected from newspaper clippings that the director of the agency ought to be called the Pastemaster General.” (Pruden, 2001)

While products of the intelligence community, FBIS and SWB are largely strategic resources, maintaining even monitoring coverage across the world, rather than responding to hotspots of interest to the U.S. or U.K. (Leetaru, 2010). A unique iterative translation process emphasizes preserving the minute nuances of vernacular content, capturing the subtleties of domestic reaction. More than 32,000 sources are listed as monitored, but the actual number is likely far lower, as the editors draw a distinction between different editions of the same source. Today, both services are available to the general public, but FBIS is only available in digital form back to 1993, while SWB extends back more than three decades to 1979, and so is the focus of this study. During the January 1979 to July 2010 sample used in this study, SWB contained 3.9 million articles. The only country not covered by SWB is the United States, due to legal restrictions of its partner, the CIA, on monitoring domestic press.

If you believe that study author Kalev Leetaru’s research is valid (I think it’s very preliminary), then you basically grant that using his data analysis methods would have warned our intelligence services that the unrest in North Africa was exceptionally high.

But that’s not what I found most intriguing about Leetaru’s research.

To measure whether the data from the SWB was an outlier, Leetaru compared how trends he saw from that data compared to the NYT and English language news more generally.

And as he explains, they generally track during this period, though with key deviations.

To verify that these results are not merely artifacts of the SWB data collection process, Figure 4 shows the average tone by month of Summary of World Broadcasts Egyptian coverage plotted against the coverage of the New York Times (16,106 Egyptian articles) and the English–language Web–only news (1,598,056 Egyptian articles) comparison datasets. SWB has a Pearson correlation of r=0.48 (n=63) with the Web news and r=0.29 (n=63) with the New York Times, suggesting a statistically significant relationship between the three. All three show the same general pattern of tone towards Egypt, but SWB tone leads Web tone by one month in several regions of the graph, which in turn leads Times tone. All three show a sharp shift towards negativity 1–24 January 2011, but the Times, in keeping with its reputation as the Grey Lady of journalism, shows a more muted response.

That is, for these events, local coverage was both more attuned to a change in sentiment and more reflective of the volatility of it. Or to put it another way, the NYT was slow to consider Egypt a major story, and never thought it was as big of a deal as the rest of the world did.

A far more interesting comparison of how the NYT outlook compared with the rest of the world comes in these two graphs, which show the NYT sentiment from 1945 to 2005 and the SWB sentiment from 1979 to 2010 (caution–neither the X nor Y axes here use the same scale; click to enlarge or go to the study for larger images).

You can sort of pick out events that might be driving sentiment on both scales. And they don’t entirely line up. Just as an example, the US seems to have reacted far more strongly–2 deviations as compared to .5 deviation–to what appears to be the first Gulf War in January 1991.

But note where both data sets converge more closely: with our second war against Iraq, with even the chief cheerleader for war, the NYT, measuring in the high 2 deviations from the mean in early 2003, and the international SWB measuring almost 2 deviations from the mean.

Significantly, the study shows that Egyptian sentiment before they revolted was in the 3+ range–more incensed than we were with the Iraq invasion, but not by much; whereas sentiment in Tunisia and Libya was less negative. Were we that close to revolting?

Now, I could be misreading both the stats and the explanation for the global bad mood as we lurched toward war against Iraq (though it also shows up in the Egyptian and Tunisian graphs; the sentiment is least severe in Libya). But if I’m not, it raises questions about what was driving the sentiment. In Europe especially and even in the US, there were huge protests against the war, though we never seemed all that close to overthrowing the war-mongers in power. I wonder, too, whether the sentiment also reflects the ginned up hatred toward Saddam Hussein. That is, it may be measuring negative sentiment, but partly negative sentiment directed against an artificial enemy.

So are these graphs showing that we were even closer to revolt than those of us opposed to the war believed? Or is the NYT graph showing that warmongers reflect the same nasty mood as people attempting to prevent an illegal war?

In any case, the NYT coverage reflected the crankiest mood in the US of the entire previous half century, significantly worse than the VIetnam period. I knew I was cranky; I wasn’t entirely sure everyone else was, too.

28 replies
  1. rugger9 says:

    The protests simply weren’t covered in the corporate media, providing a key factor in why the revolt never occurred here. So, the narrative was 9/11-Saddam-WMD all through the USA, not that some of us figured it all out.

    So, while Arab Spring had Al Jazeera, Vietnam had a competitive free press, both broadcasting into their respective countries’ homes, we got Faux and the others toeing the corporate line to protect their “access”, which was the price the Bu$hies demanded. It was exactly the outcome predicted by the loss of the fairness doctrine and the effect of the Clinton changes to the FCC and station ownership, to the point where we now have something like 90% of the media in four or five corporate hands.

    That’s why the net neutrality discussion was so important, and why the free internet is so critical now. There are no other outlets.

  2. rugger9 says:

    It was, we had plenty of unhappiness out here in UN Plaza, not a peep. Kind of like how we still don’t hear about the Keystone XL protests.

    What comes out of this is the perception that the people are “okay” with the policy when the opposite is true. It also makes it easier to divide, wedge, and conquer since KS folks wouldn’t realize we in CA agree with them on key issues.

    FWIW, after 9/11 I was seriously thinking about going back in the military, I was too old then to re-up. However, when Iraq rolled around I had already sniffed out the oil connection and even though the Bu$hies raised the age high enough [and were calling in 60-yr-old inactive reservists with key designators] I no longer had the interest, the Iraq war aim was already to obvious.

  3. scribe says:

    I’ll speculate, without reading the underlying article, that the negativity index these graphs show is not a requirement for revolt, but rather an indicator of conditions being such that the ground is fertile for revolt.

    Then again, one needs to consider that, in engaging in aggressive war against a country it was at peace with, engaging in and normalizing torture, killing the republic by (inter alia) warrantless wiretapping (March 11, 2004 and Ashcroft in the hospital stands out as a signal date and event) and ratifying all the atrocities committed in the name of a war on terror, we have had a revolt in this country, albeit one by the criminals taking over from the law-abiders and enforcers, and that therefore the revoltin’ index was accurate even then, but we just don’t want to admit it.

    A careful look at the SWB allows one to pick out, among others, the Clinton impeachment, the Rethug takeover of 1994, 9/11, Abu Ghraib, Katrina, the ’06 election run-up, the ’08 financial crash – all as new lows – and the Obama win/inaugural as both a new upward spike and, shortly thereafter (probably when it became clear “Change” meant “no change for the better”) another spiky new low. One can also see:the jingoistic rise during 91, post Gulf War I, when the Sovs were breaking up, the Cold War ending, the New World order coming to the fore; the lows rising all through Clinton’s first term such that by January 97 even the lows were at zero or above and the highs higher, followed by a collapse in late 97-98 as the Asian currency debacle and the coming impeachment storm.

    The World’s coverage/opinion of us, reflected in the SWB, has not been positive since 1998, when Newt was taking us down the road to fascism. The rest of the world recoginzed it, but we were insulated from it by the corporate media.

  4. scribe says:

    You write:

    “That is, for these events, local coverage was both more attuned to a change in sentiment and more reflective of the volatility of it. Or to put it another way, the NYT was slow to consider Egypt a major story, and never thought it was as big of a deal as the rest of the world did.”

    This is hardly new. Historically speaking, thousands could die in some natural disaster or other in a remote-to-NYC corner of the world and be relegated to a couple inches on page A13. The Euro coverage of Egypt that I recall (I wasn’t really paying attention) was more indepth than NYC, but they’re closer to Egypt, too.

  5. Eureka Springs says:

    I was in SF the night desert storm broke out… over a 100k citizens under no particular organization I was aware of marched through town ending up in front of the federal building and city hall. Within minutes of the police arriving, surrounding the bulk of the people and backing up busses and vans… suddenly one person threw a stone through the plate glass window of an army recruiting office. The timing of a single provocateur could not have been more obvious.

    All of the thousands who saw this, calmly turned to the provocateur and chanted no violence, no violence…. as the police all to ready turned it into a nightmare arresting tens of thousands, filling all jails and several large outdoor piers in Fisherman’s Warf with peaceful protestors.

    I was being interviewed by an a.m. radio journalist live as we both were cuffed and tossed into a paddy wagon. Though I tried several times i was never able to talk them into giving me copy of the recording/broadcast.

    And that was just the first night of over a solid weeks protests which did turn unruly at times after so much police provocation and spread throughout the bay area.

    The local news barely covered it, like frightened sheep when they did. A week or so later the SF Chamber of Commerce took out a full page ad in the NYT apologizing on behalf of all of us. That pissed me off almost as much as the bloody war.

    I don’t know how remotely peaceful people break through such a tyrannical juggernaught. If there are no ways to demonstrate peacefully… violence will and at some point should break out.

    On an different point… Marcy, I thought of you when I read about this trial. Might be worth watching for more info. You probably know all about it…

  6. Sojourner says:

    In the study synopsis, it states, “Along the way, common assertions about the news, such as “news is becoming more negative” and “American news portrays a U.S.–centric view of the world” are found to have merit.”

    I think what is fascinating is the swing from positive deviations to negative (news becoming more negative) in the later 60s. I suspect that would be the Vietnam War, and increasing questions about the US role there. I recall there was considerable scrutiny of LBJ, and people were just mad as hell!

    There were so many things that people were concerned about from 1972-1974… China entered the nuclear era. US domination of nuclear energy was clearly at an end, because the USSR was doing a lot of testing and was signing peace treaties with Libya and Iraq and other countries. Jack Anderson came out with a major revelation concerning Dita Beard (ITT scandal). Then, Nixon went to China somewhere in there and I recall hearing a lot of concern about trading with China.

    In other words, the NYT graph is also a measure of confidence in our leadership. Before the mid 60s, there was not nearly so much “in your face” reporting — it was unheard of for reporters to ask too many questions. There was a lot more belief in the President and elected officials. Since then, we have all learned to ask more questions…

    I just think it is an interesting comparison.

  7. Kathleen says:

    “In any case, the NYT coverage reflected the crankiest mood in the US of the entire previous half century, significantly worse than the VIetnam period. I knew I was cranky; I wasn’t entirely sure everyone else was, too.”

    Across the nation and around the world 30 million marched, protested the invasion of Iraq before the invasion. MSM outlets barely touched who was really at those marches.

    Hell some of us even marched, lobbied etc against the invasion of Afghanistan. Was not difficult to see where we were headed. Especially with former weapons inspector Scott Ritter, Seymour Hersh, El Baradei, former CIA analyst Ray McGovern etc etc were all trying their best to warn us

    Krugman is getting whacked for telling the truth about the decade of Shame

  8. MadDog says:

    Totally OT – The National Security Archive has a release of 26 Secret or Top Secret documents that detail “America’s Strategic Response to 9/11”. The documents can be found here:

    New Documents Detail America’s Strategic Response to 9/11

    Though not the most important, I first started reading Document 22 (32 page PDF) which is a “detailed timeline of the activities of Vice President Richard Cheney and his family from September 11-27, 2001″ compiled by the Secret Service “at the request of the Vice President”. (My Bold)

    What I found interesting was the Secret Service toing and froing toadying with regard to Lizard Cheney and family as the Secret Service went about protecting and servicing her.

    I was unaware of the importance of “Advocate” (the Secret Service codename for Lizard) in the running of the Executive Branch.

    As I was also unaware of any role, simple or otherwise, that “Advocate” might possibly have in the classified “Continuity of Operations Plan” for the US government in the event of a national emergency that “Angler” (PapaDick’s Secret Service codename) had been constructing for the last 30 years.

    Given the Secret Service toadying of Lizard, she must have been really, really important to the running of the US government immediately upon 9/11. Right? /s

  9. MadDog says:

    @MadDog: Btw, that entire Document 22 is replete with over-the-top Cheney paranoia. And not just PapaDick. The entire Cheney family belongs in a rubber room.

  10. rugger9 says:

    One could say that SS protection is necessary for the family because of the potential leverage on making decisions. Look how Shrub had SS protection for Jenna and NotJenna. Those guys earned their overtime, for sure.

    I would agree about Darth’s paranoia, but Lizard [who I normally refer to as “Spawn”] is merely a loathsome cheerleader [I wonder if she was one…], but she was [IIRC] at the State Department so there was a government . So, remember that leverage only has an effect if one cares about said “lever”, and I don’t see Darth caring deep down about anyone but himself.

  11. rugger9 says:


    There was an direct relationship regarding headlines:

    The body count needed to make the front page is directly proportional to the distance to the event.

  12. MadDog says:

    @MadDog: Hmmm…what “government” function does “Author” (Secret Service codename for Lynne Cheney) perform for PapaDick?

    On September 18, 2001 “Author” arrives at the Pentagon at 5:35 PM, stays for only 1/2 hour, and then departs the Pentagon to arrive at 6:11 PM at the VP residence – Naval Observatory.

    What was Lynne Cheney’s purpose for being at the Pentagon? To pickup stuff for PapaDick’s latenight stovepiping reading?

  13. MadDog says:


    “…but she was [IIRC] at the State Department so there was a government…”

    Actually, at the time of this document, Lizard “worked” at the World Bank. I put “worked” in quotes because of this example of her working day on Tuesday, September 18, 2001:

    “From around 8:05 AM until 8:49 AM, Lizard is squiring her children to gradeschool (via I suppose Secret Service squires).

    Lizard then departs for the VP’s home – the Naval Observatory where she arrives at 9:15 AM.

    Lizard then departs the Naval Observatory at 9:39 AM to arrive at her workplace – the World Bank at 9:53 AM.

    “Advocate” (Lizard Cheney) then goes to a hair salon at 2:15 PM where she stays until 3:10 PM when she departs back for the World Bank arriving at 3:20 PM.

    Lizard stays at her World Bank workplace for a while and then leaves at 5:37 PM for her Mclean home.”

    I think that’s what has been commonly and derisively referred to as “banker’s hours”.

  14. joberly says:

    A fascinating study (the one by U of Ill Institute for Computing in the Humanities). Thank you, EW, for linking. This was a tremendous amount of coding and geo-coding on the part of the Illinois scholars. The fine print in the piece says the Egyptian data only goes to January 24 of this year, before the daily protests in Tahir Square. I wonder if the coverage–“tone”–turned positive after the Revolution began?

    By the way, the former director of the Institute at UIUC, Prof. Vernon Burton, is a leading US historian and I recommend his *Age of Lincoln* (2008) highly. He did a presentation for some of my students and used “Wordle” to show the sharper political conflict of the congressional rhetoric between the antislavery North and Slave South in the 1850s.

  15. orionATL says:

    we americans, not the world, should have revolted.

    we should have revolted!

    but where were the political leaders to lead us?

    where were the opinion leaders to lead us?

    where was the media committment to lead us?

    where were the corporate and individual big-money leaders to advise us of this folly?

    all the “bigs”, in all the power and money venues, were lying low.

    so, who was left to milch the cow?

  16. P J Evans says:

    @Eureka Springs: Long time since I’ve seen you around.
    I’m not sure that I’d trust any police department any more – individual officers, maybe.
    (I e-mailed my local department to ask for some enforcement on the street serving the local train station, as a lot of people are ignoring the stop signs on it. They literally answered that I should call the Traffic Division. Shouldn’t they capable of passing messages within their own organization?)

  17. MikeD says:

    What exactly would the USG have done had they known Arab Revolutions were coming? Are we sure we wish it had done them?

  18. Brian Silver says:

    A majority of Americans were subject to an elite-generated hysteria about Saddam Hussein. Recall that an astounding 70% (IIRC) of Americans responded in polls in early 2003 that Saddam Hussein was behind the 9/11 attack. Many of our major media were complicit in this hoodwinking, or were hoodwinked themselves. The charge was led by Bush, Cheney, Rice, and others, speaking of preemptive war (indeed a whole new “doctrine” was trotted out in Fall 2002).

    This campaign of redirecting the focus toward Iraq began beneath public view immediately after the 9/11 attack but we saw it emerge publicly most dramatically in Bush’s “axis of evil” declaration in his January 2002 State of the Union address. The Downing Street Memo also makes clear we were beginning to construct facts to fit an artificial casus belli, and rallying our allies to join in the deception.

    This official propaganda effort was so relentlessly and thoroughly rolled out over two years — to create a massive deception about the facts and a displacement of anger over 9/11 toward Saddam Hussein — that I don’t think there was any way that it could have been stopped by broad public protests or formal “no” votes in the Congress.

    Of course attentive folks “knew” the Bushies began taking their eye off the ball in Afghanistan very early on, and there were reports of redeploying key military resources from Aghanistan in preparation for an Iraqi adventure about the time of the Tora Bora event. You could read in the NYT and WaPo that this was happening.

    But the mass hysteria campaign was in full force by late summer 2002 (can’t wait to see mushroom clouds in order to attack) and a great success. And then on March 20, 2003 came Shock and Awe. Bush’s somewhat flagging “approval ratings” shot up for a few weeks — til a few days after Saddam’s statue was pulled down in Firdos Square on April 10, 2003, and Bush played military leader-fly-boy and swaggered into his “mission accomplished” declaration.

    My own research showed that most self-declared liberals could be scared into support for limits on civil liberties, and fear, too, was well manipulated by the powers-that-be.

    So while there could in principle have been much more massive civil protests in the U.S., a large majority of the population went with the flow of official propaganda about the threat from Iraq.

  19. rugger9 says:

    @Brian Silver:
    The protests that were there, and here in CA they had more than a few people, were not reported on. I’ll agree the media was cowed, and in flyover country where Faux rules they were sufficiently rabid, but unanimity wasn’t there. There were already plenty of us not in power who didn’t trust Shrub.

    Notice also how Saddam was lynched conveniently before he could name names in his trial. I don’t think enough can be made of that, because even though Saddam was a despicable wretch, he had help from various Bushies at various times.

  20. Larue says:

    Yeah, I was and remain cranky . . .

    So polite a term for what many of we the people feel.

    Great read, yer drifting into heavy research areas above it seems, also with this.

    Some of us little people would ask for more summary on yer part at beginning or end . . . this is complicated stuff for non Ph.D’s . . . ;-)

  21. Kathleen says:

    Millions of us marched, protested, lobbied, petitioned our Reps, some of us even went to jail trying to stop the invasion of Iraq. The MSM basically ignored us. If the MSM is not watching and reporting do the protest exist?

    30 million world wide marched/protested before the invasion.

  22. Susan says:

    At my workplace of 40 some people (nearly all with college degrees) the support for the war on Iraq was pretty high. I don’t know how so many people can be so fucking stupid….. I believe that they get up in the morning, look in the mirror, and swear to be stupid all day long. They are all just as stupid today.

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