In January 1991, immediately after the bombs started falling on Baghdad, the American public’s support for the war against Iraq was strong and, according to New York Times/CBS News polls, President George HW Bush’s approval rating stood at a record level.
It later emerged that much of this support was engineered by a vast propaganda exercise. As part of a public relations campaign to manipulate and harden American opinion against Saddam Hussein, it is estimated that the government of Kuwait galvanised and funded as many as twenty PR, law and lobby firms. Prominent among these was Hill & Knowlton, at that time the world’s largest PR firm, acting on behalf of the Kuwaiti-sponsored group ‘Citizens for a Free Kuwait’. Hundreds of meetings and briefings were arranged with editors of daily newspapers; calls and mailings were directed towards staff of all other media outlets. At a cost of well over half a million dollars, dozens of video news releases were produced and distributed to eager television news directors around the world. Few of these directors identified the international PR firm as the source of the footage. They simply fed the carefully-crafted propaganda to unwitting viewers, who obviously assumed they were watching authentic journalism.
In October 1990, Hill & Knowlton manufactured a bombshell of a story. The Congressional Human Rights Caucus held a hearing on Capitol Hill which provided the first opportunity for formal presentations of Iraqi human rights violations. A 15-year-old Kuwaiti girl who gave only her first name, Nayirah, testified that she had been a volunteer at Kuwait’s al-Addan hospital and had witnessed Iraqi soldiers snatching Kuwaiti babies from incubators. Her written testimony was passed out in a media kit prepared by ‘Citizens for a Free Kuwait’: “I volunteered at the al-Addan hospital. While I was there, I saw the Iraqi soldiers come into the hospital with guns, and go into the room where … babies were in incubators. They took the babies out of the incubators, took the incubators, and left the babies on the cold floor to die.” Portions of her tearful testimony were aired that evening on ABC’s ‘Nightline’ and NBC’s ‘Nightly News’. American senators promptly cited her testimony in speeches urging Americans to support the case for war, George HW Bush made repeated references to the story during the weeks that followed and the story was even recited as fact at the UN Security Council.
Subsequent investigations by independent journalists, Amnesty International and other bodies such as Human Rights Watch revealed that the story was completely bogus. Iraqi soldiers may have looted Kuwaiti hospitals, but the harrowing image of babies dying on the floor was a fabrication. In 1992, the writer John MacArthur revealed in The New York Times that Nayirah was in fact a member of the Kuwaiti Royal Family. Her father, Saud bin Nasir Al-Sabah, was Kuwait’s Ambassador to the USA. Hill & Knowlton vice-president Lauri Fitz-Pegado had coached Nayirah in what even the Kuwaitis’ own investigators later confirmed was false testimony.
According to MacArthur, “Of all the accusations made against the dictator, none had more impact on American public opinion than the one about Iraqi soldiers removing 312 babies from their incubators and leaving them to die on the cold hospital floors of Kuwait City.”
There can be little doubt that the story of babies thrown from incubators may well have turned the tide of public opinion in favour of the Bush administration’s subsequent declaration of war.