The 2016 election was the year of fake news, but fake news is not such a new problem in our country. We take a look back at the congressional testimony of a young Kuwaiti girl in 1990, testimony which propelled the U.S. into the First Gulf War but later proved to be based on a lie.
In October 1990, a fifteen-year-old Kuwaiti girl gave a harrowing testimony before the Congressional Human Rights Caucus, recounting inhumane atrocities committed by Iraqi soldiers in her country. It was credited for helping draw the U.S. into the Gulf War later that year. Her claims were ultimately refuted by evidence to the contrary, exposing deceptive motives and sources behind the ploy.
Known as “Nayirah”, the girl told the caucus that Iraqi soldiers had removed scores of babies from incubators and left them to die. Her story was originally corroborated by Amnesty International and other evacuees of Kuwait at the time.
“Public relations” or “fake news”?
According to the New York Times in 1992, the girl’s testimony was actually orchestrated by the big public relations firm Hill & Knowlton on behalf of a client, the Kuwaiti-sponsored Citizens for a Free Kuwait. The client’s aim was to secure military support from the U.S. through raising awareness about the dangers posed to Kuwait by Iraqi dictator, Saddam Hussein.
The girl who gave the testimony was also revealed to be not just an ordinary civilian but the daughter of the Kuwaiti Ambassador to the U.S.
What led to the contested testimony? In 1990, after the firm was approached by a Kuwaiti expatriate in New York and agreed to collaborate with Citizens for a Free Kuwait, a $1 million study was conducted to determine the best way to win support for strong action.
The firm had the Wirthington Group conduct focus groups to determine the best strategy that would influence public opinion. The study found that an emphasis on atrocities, such as the incubator story, would be the most effective.
Hill & Knowlton is estimated to have been given as much as $12 million by the Kuwaitis for their public relations campaign.
Nayirah’s testimony and the lie that ignited the cry for U.S. military action.
On October 10, 1990, fifteen-year-old Nayirah gave testimony that lasted four minutes, which included this account:
“I volunteered at the al-Addan hospital with twelve other women who wanted to help as well. I was the youngest volunteer. The other women were from twenty to thirty years old. While I was there I saw the Iraqi soldiers come into the hospital with guns. They took the babies out of the incubators, took the incubators and left the children to die on the cold floor. [Crying] It was horrifying.”
The caucus reacted viscerally to her account, claiming they had never heard such brutality, inhumanity and sadism.
Fake news in 1990 traveled around the world too
Nayirah’s testimony was widely publicized. Hill & Knowlton, which had filmed the hearing, sent out a video news release to Medialink, a firm that served nearly 700 television stations in the United States.
That night, portions of the testimony aired on ABC’s “Nightline” and NBC “Nightly News”, reaching an estimated audience between 35 and 53 million Americans.
Then-President George Bush and several senators cited the testimony in their affirmations to use force in the war, in the following weeks.
Iraq denied the allegations. On October 16, Iraqi information minister, Latif Nassif al-Jassem, told the Iraqi News Agency that “now you [Bush] are using what he [Sheikh Jaber] told you to make Congress ratify the budget which is in the red because of your policies,” adding: “you, as the president of a superpower, have to weigh words carefully and not act as a clown who repeats what he is told.”
The Gulf War rallying cry becomes fake news.
In the following months, the veracity of the incubator story would start to crumble under mounting evidence against it.
On October 21, 1990, journalists were escorted by Iraqi information ministry officials in Kuwait and found that doctors at a Kuwaiti maternity facility denied the incubator allegations.
Following the liberation of Kuwait in March 1991, reporters were given access to the country. An ABC report found that “patients, including premature babies, did die, when many of Kuwait’s nurses and doctors… fled” but Iraqi troops “almost certainly had not stolen hospital incubators and left hundreds of Kuwaiti babies to die.”
A year later, The New York Times would publish its exposé on the apparent deceptions orchestrated by Hill & Knowlton. In response, the firm would refute these claims, citing that no media was permitted to enter Kuwait after the testimony to corroborate or refute Nayirah’s accounts.
Also in 1992, the human rights organization Middle East Watch, a division of Human Rights Watch, investigated the claims behind the incubator story and published their results:
“While it is true that the Iraqis targeted hospitals, there is no truth to the charge which was central to the war propaganda effort that they stole incubators and callously removed babies allowing them to die on the floor. The stories were manufactured from germs of truth by people outside the country who should have known better,” its director Andrew Whitley, told the press.
Amnesty International also stated that they found no evidence of such atrocities committed by the Iraqis.
Modern-day propaganda and psychological warfare.
The truth behind the deceptive plot caused public outrage, and Nayirah’s testimony has been deemed an example of atrocity propaganda—the spreading of information about the crimes committed by an enemy, which is often distorted and exaggerated for effect. This can manifest in any form of media such as photographs, videos, illustrations and interviews. It is frequently used as part of psychological warfare campaigns as well as to rally popular support against real atrocities.
It is not entirely uncommon and theoretically can range from high profile to low profile cases. A more recent example includes the lead up to the Iraq War in 2003, where stories alleged that Saddam Hussein fed their adversaries into a plastic shredder or wood chipper, which would later be proven false.
In today’s age of “fake news” and endless media outlets to share and receive information, creating propaganda has only gotten easier.