"Wagging the Dog": The Great Incubator Scam of 1990

A Joint U.S./Kuwaiti Production

Revolutionary Worker #944, February 15, 1998

As the U.S. gears up for a military assault against Iraq, government officials are working overtime to sell the people on the pretext for a war. Saddam Hussein, they scream, is a "madman" and a "threat to the world" who must be stopped by overwhelming military force.

In this situation, it is useful to look back on the lies that paved the way for the U.S. bombing and invasion of Iraq in 1991. Military briefers, Capitol Hill politicians, think tank "experts" and major media reporters worked together like a U.S.-style Ministry of Information to accuse Iraq of multiple atrocities and crimes. Many of these widely publicized stories turned out to be lies. But facts which came to light later to reveal the truth were simply not considered "important news."

One of the most sensational stories of supposed Iraqi atrocities was the report that Iraqi troops who marched into Kuwait in August 1990 had taken 312 babies out of incubators at a Kuwait City hospital and left them on the floor to die. This story was a key piece in the campaign to paint Iraq as totally evil--and to portray the U.S. war against Iraq as a mission to "rescue" Kuwait and "restore democracy."

But, as John Stauber and Sheldon Rampton recount in their book Toxic Sludge Is Good for You!: Lies, Damn Lies and the Public Relations Industry (Common Courage Press, 1995), the incubator story was a complete hoax. It was cooked up by a public relations firm hired by the reactionary oil kingdom of Kuwait.

In the current movie Wag the Dog, White House operatives work with a Hollywood producer to "stage" a whole phony war using doctored video footage and other devices in order to divert attention from a Presidential sex scandal. Some reviewers have described the premise of the movie as "implausible." But director Berry Levinson cited the Kuwaiti incubator scam as one of the real-life events that inspired the movie.

The incubator story was part of a pro-Kuwait campaign handled by Hill & Knowlton (H&K), then the largest PR firm in the world. H&K had close inside connections to the highest levels of government, both Republican and Democrat. Its Washington office was run by Craig Fuller, a close friend and political advisor of President Bush. Robert Gray, chairman of H&K/USA, was a leading figure in Ronald Reagan's two presidential campaigns. Lauri Fitz-Pegado, the head of H&K's Kuwait campaign, had worked for Ron Brown, who became the Secretary of Commerce in the Clinton administration. H&K senior vice president Thomas Ross was a Pentagon spokesman during the Carter administration.

H&K had plenty of experience dressing up brutal pro-U.S. regimes like the rulers of Kuwait. Their other clients included Indonesia and Turkey.

As Stauber and Rampton point out, "Every big media event needs what journalists and flacks alike refer to as `the hook.' An ideal hook becomes the central element of a story that makes it newsworthy, evokes a strong emotional response, and sticks in the memory. In the case of the Gulf War, the `hook' was invented by Hill & Knowlton."

On October 10, 1990 California Democrat Tom Lantos and Illinois Republican John Porter held a hearing that appeared to be an official congressional proceeding. In reality, this was a Hill & Knowlton PR event. The hearing was held by a group of politicians calling themselves the Congressional Human Rights Caucus, headed up by Lantos and Porter. These two politicians also co-chaired the Human Rights Foundation, which had office space in H&K's Washington, D.C. headquarters.

The highlight of the October 10 "hearing" was the testimony of a 15-year-old Kuwaiti, known only by her first name of Nayirah. The Human Rights Caucus said her last name was being kept hidden due to fears of Iraqi reprisals against her family. Sobbing, she claimed that she witnessed first-hand the Iraqi soldiers yanking babies out of incubators at the al-Adden hospital.

This testimony was used to sway public opinion--at a time when there were large demonstrations around the country against the U.S. war moves and polls by major news organizations indicated strong opposition to the taking of military action against Iraq. During the period from October 10 to the start of the air war, the "babies taken from incubators" story was repeated many times by the newspapers, TV and radio. It was raised at the UN Security Council. President Bush told the story in a speech in January 1991, shortly before he launched the bombings on Iraq.

But, as Stauber and Rampton point out, "Hill & Knowlton and Congressman Lantos had failed to reveal that Nayirah was a member of the Kuwaiti Royal Family. Her father, in fact, was Saud Nasir al-Sabah, Kuwait's Ambassador to the U.S., who sat listening in the hearing room during her testimony. The Caucus also failed to reveal that H&K vice-president Lauri Fitz-Pegado had coached Nayirah in what even the Kuwaitis' own investigators later confirmed was false testimony."

By the time the truth came out, the U.S. had brought massive destruction to Iraq with weeks of bombing and killed 200,000 Iraqis. According to Stauber and Rampton, "Following the war, human rights investigators attempted to confirm Nayirah's story and could find no witnesses or other evidence to support it. Amnesty International, which had fallen for the story, was forced to issue an embarrassing retraction. Nayirah herself was unavailable for comment."


Whenever Hitler was about to launch a new war of aggression, he would accuse his opponents of atrocities that never happened. These lies would be repeated over and over again by official spokesmen and the press. The Nazi government would then launch a pre-planned attack. This Hitler technique is called the "Big Lie."

U.S. war-makers used this same technique as part of preparations for the 1991 war against Iraq. And seven years later, the "Big Lie" machine is going full speed once again.

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