The lies and half-truths of the Bush Administration are by now old news. And since so much of what the Administration says publicly is fabricated, it’s easy to let certain things go in order to get on with our lives.

Still, certain statements continue to shock and infuriate us, because we can’t, for the life of us, figure out where Bush & Co. got the information on which their statements are based.

This was my reaction to the declaration by Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld in the September 29 issue of the Wall Street Journal that “5,000 small businesses [in Iraq] have opened since liberation on May 1.”

On what data, I wondered, did the Secretary base this statement? And what exactly did he mean by “small businesses”?

For a month I tried to get an answer to these questions from the US government, sadly, I must admit, without success. Below is the story–not without its comic elements–of my minor quest for truth.

USAID’s Limited Success

I initially contacted the US Agency for International Development (USAID), which, according to its website, “is committed to helping the newly freed Iraqi people rebuild their own nation after decades of oppression and mismanagement. We provide humanitarian and reconstruction resources to help improve the daily lives of the Iraqi people.”

The statement further notes that “USAID is working to improve the efficiency and accountability of the Iraqi government and to expand the economic opportunities of all its citizens. From helping build and refurbish schools and medical clinics to helping restore essential infrastructure like electricity and roads, USAID is working with the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) to help the Iraqi people build a stable and democratic society with a future full of hope in a land that is free.”

But USAID, despite its numerous economic projects in Iraq, could not assist me.

A Ms. Palmer, whom I contacted there, showed little interest in my questions (indeed, she said she was not pleased by an article I had written about Iraqi schools that recently appeared in the Washington Post), and she immediately directed me to the Department of Defense.

An Amiable Major at the Defense Department

So I e-mailed Maj. Joseph Yoswa, defense press officer, Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense, seeking answers to how Rumsfeld had arrived at the 5,000 figure and how his department defined “small businesses.”

In his prompt reply, the major wrote that “the Secretary received this information from the CPA during his last visit to Baghdad. So you would need to get the details from them.”

After some insistence on my part, the major eventually provided me with the e-mail address of an actual person at the CPA whom I could contact, Ms. Karen Triggs, CPA public affairs.

Ms. Triggs Does Her Best

On October 10, Ms. Triggs replied to my e-mail with the encouraging statement that “you’ll be pleased to know that we are looking at your questions. I will be back in touch by email with answers as soon as they come in.”

In reply to my e-mail thanking her for the quick response, Ms.Triggs noted, “Yes I do really exist! And someone is really looking at your questions.”

My delight in having found a friendly human being willing to provide me with information turned out, however, to be premature.

On October 16, in reply to my query on how her search was proceeding, Ms. Triggs sent me a curt note stating that “Major Joe Yoswa of the Pentagon Public Affairs office is dealing. You should communicate directly with him. Many thanks, Karen.”

The CPA Reacts

Meanwhile, I was severely reprimanded by a senior member of US administrator in Iraq Paul Bremer’s staff for having gotten in touch with Ms. Triggs.

In an e-mail dated October 15, this official, for whom I have great professional admiration and thus will remain nameless, said:

I am surprised and disappointed at you. Why in the world are you even asking (never mind attempting to bully) a junior press officer in Baghdad about remarks by the Secretary of Defense? If you want expansion of Rumsfeld’s remarks, ask Rumsfeld’s press office!

At this point I cannot deny a certain irritation on my part.

Noting in an e-mail to the above-mentioned official that I had been referred to Ms. Triggs by Major Yoswa, a Defense Department press officer, I sent a copy of the official’s e-mail regarding Ms. Triggs’s “junior” status to both Major Yoswa and Ms. Triggs.

Keeping everyone in the loop did not pay off: I have not heard from the good major or Ms. Triggs since–nor, of course, from the above-mentioned official.

Trying to Leave No Stone Unturned

In my search for information, I have hardly limited myself to USAID, the Defense Department and the CPA.

At the advice of the Commerce Department, I contacted the courteous Thomas M. Sullivan, chief counsel for advocacy, Office of Advocacy, US Small Business Administration. In response to my query about small businesses in the United States, he informed me that “with 550,100 estimated employer firm openings in 2001, the number of employer business start-ups per day would be 1,507 (or 2,200 per workday).”

This information, I thought, suggested that perhaps Rumsfeld’s figure was not that outlandish. But it still did not confirm its accuracy.

I’ve had less success–in fact, thus far, no success–getting information from the Commerce Department’s Iraq Reconstruction Task Force, whose purpose is to assist US companies interested in reconstruction and commercial opportunities in Iraq. The task force maintains a website, where US companies can obtain information about Iraqi reconstruction. I, however, couldn’t find anything on the topic that interested me, and my many calls (where I left messages on an answering machine) were never returned.

But I was intrigued by a Q and A in a brochure on the site, “Doing Business In Iraq: Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs),” dated October 22, 2003:

–How can companies obtain background information on Iraqi companies?

–The U.S. Government is currently unable to provide background information on Iraqi companies.

I had a brief telephone conversation with an official at the State Department who demanded that I not quote him by name or in any way identify him (how dangerous, I wondered, were my efforts to obtain information?).

He said sotto voce that the department had nothing to do with Rumsfeld’s statement and suggested that I turn to the National Security Council for further information.

A Report and a Specialist

Thanks to information provided by a Congressional aide whom I had contacted regarding Rumsfeld’s statement, I did download a recent report prepared by the Iraqi-American Chamber of Commerce and Industry, “Conditions and Expectations for Private Enterprise in Iraq.”

This report, however, did not have the facts that I sought. I sent e-mails to the chamber, but thus far it too has not been able to figure out how Rumsfeld came up with the 5,000 figure.

As a result of the Iraqi-American Chamber of Commerce report I identified a US government organization involved in business development in Iraq.

There I spoke with a privatization specialist who had recently returned from Iraq.

Requesting strict anonymity, he informed me that Rumsfeld’s data was “not crazy” because there was in fact a growing private sector in Iraq. He underscored, however, that to the best of his knowledge the kind of statistics cited by the Secretary were simply not available. He suggested that I contact Thomas C. Foley, the director of private sector development for the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq, for further information.

At the mention of Foley, I recalled that while researching Iraqi businesses I had come across his name in an article in the October 20, 2003, Los Angeles Times, in which he appeared to contradict the public optimism expressed by Rumsfeld’s figures:

Already, the privatization program, which US officials began mapping out before the invasion, is taking longer than many in Washington hoped. Thomas C. Foley, a big fund-raiser for President Bush who heads Iraq’s private-sector development, now predicts that the transition may take three to five years. “It’s going to take a long time to convert these assets,” Foley said.

My efforts to obtain Mr. Foley’s e-mail address from the State Department have been unsuccessful.

Cheney, Bush and Evans

I may not have been happy with Rumsfeld’s 5,000 figure, but his colleagues in the Bush Administration evidently were, expanding upon the figure in their rhetorical flourishes.

On October 3, the Vice President noted that “the economy [of Iraq] is picking up. There are thousands of new small businesses. The city of Baghdad, the streets are bustling with economic activity.”

It’s not without interest to observers of the Administration’s use of language that, in Cheney’s speech, Rumsfeld’s already vague “5,000” had now been substituted for the less concrete and even more dubious figure “thousands.”

And on October 11, in his Saturday radio address, George W. Bush–making a statement even more general and therefore even less verifiable than Rumsfeld’s or Cheney’s–noted that “Iraq has a strong entrepreneurial tradition, and since the liberation of that country, thousands of new businesses have been launched.” Note that the adjective “small” used by Rumsfeld has disappeared.

Later, during his visit to Baghdad in mid-October, Secretary of Commerce Don Evans said the following, as reported by the October 21, 2003, New Republic Online:

As I drive through the streets of Baghdad, I see commerce is coming back–I see–I talk to people–I talk to the Iraqi people… I have talked to a lot of young entrepreneurs who are excited about the opportunity to now be real entrepreneurs and start new companies, thousands of new companies as a matter of fact have started since the end of the war.

Contacting the Commander in Chief

Like any frustrated taxpayer, I finally decided to write to the White House.

In order to get the full flavor of our exchange, allow me first to cite my letter in full, followed by the President’s response.

Dear President Bush:

Could you please provide more details on your statement in your [October 11] radio address:

“Iraq has a strong entrepreneurial tradition, and since the liberation of that country, thousands of new businesses have been launched.”

Specifically, I’d like to know:

What is the source for your statement? How many thousands are you referring to? What is the geographical distribution of these new businesses? Are they scattered throughout the country, or concentrated in certain areas? What exactly do you mean by “businesses”? Do certain kinds of “businesses” predominate? How many people would an average Iraqi “business” employ? Are these “businesses” the same businesses that Secretary Rumsfeld was referring to in the Sept 29 issue of the Wall Street Journal in which he notes that 5,000 new small businesses have opened in Iraq since “liberation” (May 1)?

Thank you.
Sincerely,
John Brown

And here is the President’s response:

October 24, 2003

Dear Dr. Brown:

Thank you for your letter about Operation Iraqi Freedom. In Iraq, we sought to remove a threat to our security and to free the Iraqi people from oppression. Saddam Hussein’s regime has ended and the Iraqi people are regaining control of their own country and future. Pockets of resistance still remain. American and coalition forces are helping restore civil order, and providing critical humanitarian aid to the Iraqi people. Iraqis are already meeting openly and freely to discuss the future of their country.

Coalition forces have made every effort to spare innocent civilians from harm and continue to do so. We respect the Iraqi people, its rich culture, and religious faiths. We will continue to bring food, water, medicine, and other aid to Iraq, and we will help to build a government of, by, and for the Iraqi people.

Our war on terrorism continues. We look to our Nation’s Armed Forces, with the support of our coalition partners, to help advance peace in a troubled world. By answering the call of duty, these brave men and women serve as examples of courage, dedication, and sacrifice. Laura and I join our military families and countless others in praying that all who serve return home safely and soon.

Thank you again for writing. Best wishes.

Sincerely, George W. Bush

I somehow don’t think that this letter will ever be found in the George W. Bush Presidential Library. But then one never knows.

Finally, Trust the New York Times

In an October 6, 2003, article on the Iraqi economy, “Baghdad Merchants Find a Boulevard of Dreams,” Alex Berenson of the Times writes:

Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld has said that 5,000 new businesses have opened in Iraq since May 1.The consensus on the street is that business has improved since American troops ousted Saddam Hussein.

Berenson also noted, however, that “there is no way to know exactly” if what the Secretary said is correct.

Always trust the New York Times.