WASHINGTON - A
third of the American public believes U.S. forces have found weapons of
mass destruction in Iraq, according to a recent poll. Twenty-two
percent said Iraq actually used chemical or biological weapons.
But such weapons have not been found in Iraq and were not used.
Before the war, half of those polled in a survey said Iraqis were
among the 19 hijackers on Sept. 11, 2001. But most of the Sept. 11
terrorists were Saudis; none was an Iraqi.
The results startled even the pollsters who conducted and analyzed
the surveys. How could so many people be so wrong about information
that has dominated news coverage for almost two years?
"It's a striking finding," said Steve Kull, director of the Program
on International Policy Attitudes at the University of Maryland, which
asked the weapons questions during a May 14-18 poll of 1,256
He added: "Given the intensive news coverage and high levels of
public attention, this level of misinformation suggests some Americans
may be avoiding having an experience of cognitive dissonance."
That is, of having their beliefs conflict with the facts. Kull noted
that the mistaken belief that weapons had been found "is substantially
greater among those who favored the war."
Pollsters and political analysts offer several reasons for the gaps
between facts and beliefs: the public's short attention span on foreign
news, fragmentary or conflicting media reports that lacked depth or
skepticism, and Bush administration efforts to sell a war by
oversimplifying the threat.
"Most people get little whiffs and fragments of news, not in any
organized way," said Thomas Mann, a scholar at the Brookings
Institution, a centrist-liberal think tank. "And there have been a lot
of conflicting reports on the weapons."
Before the war, the U.S. media often reported as a fact the
assertions by the Bush administration that Iraq possessed large
stockpiles of illegal weapons.
During and after the war, reports of possible weapons discoveries
were often trumpeted on front pages, while follow-up stories debunking
the reports received less attention.
"There were so many reports and claims before the war, it was easy
to be confused," said Larry Hugick, chairman of Princeton Survey
Research Associates. "But people expected the worst from Saddam Hussein
and made connections based on the administration's policy."
Bush has described the preemptive attack on Iraq as "one victory in
the war on terror that began Sept. 11." Bush officials also say Iraq
sheltered and helped al-Qaeda operatives.
"The public is susceptible to manipulation, and if they hear
officials saying there is a strong connection between Iraq and al-Qaeda
terrorists, then they think there must be a connection," Mann said.
"Tapping into the feelings and fears after Sept. 11 is a way to sell a policy," he added.
Polls show strong support for Bush and the war, although 40 percent
in the May survey found U.S. officials were "misleading" in some of
their justifications for war. A majority, 55 percent, said they were
Several analysts said the murky claims and intelligence data about
lethal weapons and terrorist ties allowed most people to see such news
through the filter of their own political beliefs.
And GOP pollsters said any controversy over weapons won't change
public attitudes, because ridding Iraq of an oppressive regime was
reason enough for war for many Americans.
"People supported the war for national-security reasons, and that
shifted to humanitarian reasons when they saw evidence of Saddam's
atrocities," Republican strategist Frank Luntz said. "There's an
assumption these weapons will be found because this guy was doing so
many bad things."
Several analysts said they were troubled by the lack of knowledge
about the Sept. 11 hijackers, shown in the January survey conducted for
Knight Ridder newspapers. Only 17 percent correctly said that none of
the hijackers was Iraqi.
"That really bothers me, because it shows a lack of understanding
about other countries - that maybe many Americans don't know one Arab
from another," said Sam Popkin, a polling expert at the University of
California-San Diego who has advised Democratic candidates. "Maybe
because Saudis are seen as rich and friendly, people have a hard time
dealing with them as hijackers."
Hugick said his analysis showed those who were misinformed were not necessarily those who had less education.
"I think a lot of people are just confused about the threats out there," he said.