The New York Times
Op-Ed, Monday, January 6, 1992
Remember Nayirah, Witness for Kuwait?
By John R. MacArthur
In his urgent arguments during the fall and winter of 1990 for military action against Saddam Hussein, President Bush made much of the Iraqi leader’s cruelty toward the Kuwaiti people. Mr. Bush’s allegations of atrocities by Iraqi forces generally went unchallenged. Mr. Hussein’s violent disposal of dissident Iraqis was a matter of record, so few politicians, journalists or human rights investigators were prepared to question the President’s campaign to paint his opponent as Adolf Hitler reborn.
Some claims were no doubt true, but the most sensational one–that Iraqi soldiers removed hundreds of Kuwaiti babies from incubators and left them to die on hospital floors–was shown to be almost certainly false by an ABC reporter, John Martin, in March 1991, after the liberation of Kuwait. He interviewed hospital doctors who stayed in Kuwait throughout the occupation.
But before the war, the incubator story seriously distorted the American debate about whether to support military action. Amnesty International believed the tale, and its ill-considered validation of the charges likely influenced the seven Senators who cited the story in speeches backing the Jan. 12 resolution authorizing war. Since the resolution passed the Senate by only five votes, the question of how the incubator story escaped scrutiny–when it really mattered–is all the more important. (Amnesty International later retracted its support of the story.)
A little reportorial investigation would have done a great service to the democratic process. Americans would have been interested to know the identity of “Nayirah,” the 15-year-old Kuwaiti girl who shocked the Congressional Human Rights Caucus on Oct. 10, 1990, when she tearfully asserted that she had watched 15 infants being taken from incubators in Al-Adan Hospital in Kuwait City by Iraqi soldiers who “left the babies on the cold floor to die.” The chairmen of the Congressional group, Tom Lantos, a California Democrat, and John Edward Porter, an Illinois Republican, explained that Nayirah’s identity would be kept secret to protect her family from reprisals in occupied Kuwait.
There was a better reason to protect her from exposure: Nayirah, her real name, is the daughter of the Kuwaiti Ambassador to the U.S., Saud Nasir al-Sabah. Such a pertinent fact might have led to impertinent demands for proof of Nayirah’s whereabouts in August and September of 1990, when she said she witnessed the atrocities, as well as corroboration of her charges. The Kuwaiti Embassy has rebuffed my efforts to interview Nayirah.
Today, we are left to ask why Mr. Lantos and Mr. Porter allowed such glaring omissions. What made Nayirah so believable that no one on the caucus staff bothered to check out her story?
One explanation might lie in how Nayirah came to the Congressmen’s attention. Both Congressmen have a close relationship with Hill and Knowlton, the public relations firm hired by Citizens for a Free Kuwait, the Kuwaiti-financed group that lobbied Congress for military intervention. A Hill and Knowlton vice president, Gary Hymel, helped organize the Congressional Human Rights Caucus hearing in meetings with Mr. Lantos and Mr. Porter and the chairman of Citizens for a Free Kuwait, Hassan al-Ebraheem. Mr. Hymel presented the witnesses, including Nayirah. (He later told me he knew who she was at the time.)
Until he started working on the Kuwait account, Mr. Hymel was best known to the caucus for defending the human rights record of Turkey, a Hill and Knowlton client criticized for jailing people without due process and torturing and killing them. He is also one of the firm’s lobbyists for the Indonesian Government, which has killed at least 100,000 inhabitants of East Timor since 1975.
Mr. Lantos’s spokesman says that Hill and Knowlton’s client list doesn’t concern the Congressman, who accepted a $500 contribution from the firm’s political action committee in 1988. In fact, Mr. Lantos and Mr. Porter allowed the Congressional Human Rights Foundation, a group they founded in 1985, to be housed in Hill and Knowlton’s Washington headquarters. The firm provides a contribution to the foundation in the form of a $3,000 annual rent reduction, and the Hill and Knowlton switchboard delivers messages to the foundation’s executive director, David Phillips.
Hill and Knowlton’s client, Citizens for a Free Kuwait, donated $50,000 to the foundation, sometime after Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait on Aug. 2, 1990. (The foundation’s main supporter is the U.S. Government-financed National Endowment for Democracy.)
Since the gulf war, Hill and Knowlton’s collaboration with the Lantos-Porter human rights enterprise has been strengthened by the naming of the firm’s vice chairman, Frank Mankiewicz, to the foundation’s board in October 1991. Perhaps the Congressmen and directors were impressed by the recent addition of China to Hill and Knowlton’s prestigious portfolio of clients. (The firm’s clients, Indonesia and Turkey, were notably absent from the foundation’s 1990-91 list of human rights “activities.”)
Congress and the news media deserve censure for their lack of skepticism about the incubator story. As for Representatives Lantos and Porter, they deserve a medal from the Emir for their work on behalf of the Kuwaiti cause. But their special relationship with Hill and Knowlton should prompt a Congressional investigation to find out if their actions merely constituted an obvious conflict of interest or, worse, if they knew who the tearful Nayirah really was in October 1990.
John R. MacArthur, publisher of Harper’s Magazine, is the author of Second Front: Censorship and Propaganda in the Gulf War and The Selling of “Free Trade.”