CHAMPAIGN, Ill. - Why were so many Americans, as early as the first anniversary of Sept. 11, convinced that Saddam Hussein was behind the terrorist attacks in the United States? Did their mistaken belief that the Iraqi dictator was responsible for the attacks result from the Bush administration's information campaign to convince the public to go to war in Iraq, or was something else at work?
A new study - the first to investigate U.S. public opinion about who was to blame for the Sept. 11 attacks - finds that there was, indeed, "something else."
"News coverage and presidential rhetoric may have replaced Osama with Saddam over time," write the authors of the study, "but Saddam was on the short list of most-likely suspects from the beginning for most Americans."
The authors say that the high levels of "public misperception" about Saddam's culpability can be attributed to two things: the American public's predisposition to believing Saddam was the culprit, and the wording and format of polling questions put to them, which overstated the degree of misperception that Saddam was the villain behind Sept. 11.
"In other words, this mistaken belief was not a product of the Bush administration's information campaign," the researchers wrote. "Instead, the Bush administration inherited and played into a favorable climate of public opinion, which may have greatly facilitated its task of building public support for war against Iraq."
Moreover, the levels of misperception - most polls showed that majorities of Americans held this mistaken belief about Saddam - "were artificially inflated by the way those survey questions were worded," said Scott Althaus, one of the researchers and a professor of political science at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign; Devon Largio, a law student at Vanderbilt University, was co-author.
Their findings will appear in the October issue of PS: Political Science & Politics in an article titled "When Osama Became Saddam: Origins and Consequences of the Change in America's Public Enemy #1." The article will be posted on the journal's Web site on Sept. 10. It is on Althaus' Web site.
Last May, as a senior at Illinois and under the guidance of Althaus, Largio released her own study on the Bush administration's rationales for going to war in Iraq. Charting reasons voiced by the Bush administration, Congress and the American media during the 2001-2002 pre-war period, Largio found 27 stated rationales. Her honors thesis continues to receive wide coverage by the news media.
To clarify whether misperceptions about Saddam were a product of the Bush administration's effort to build popular support for going to war, the researchers charted the changing levels of public attention given to bin Laden and Saddam in U.S. news coverage and in Bush's public statements. They also examined the full range of pollsters' survey findings that appear to reveal widespread misperceptions about the link between Iraq and the Sept. 11 attacks.
According to the researchers, the story of widespread popular misconceptions about Saddam's role in the September 2001 attacks grabbed headlines in the national media around the first anniversary of the attacks. This "discovery" was startling at the time, the researchers wrote, and many commentators suggested that the majorities of Americans who blamed Saddam for the attacks had somehow been misled by the Bush administration.
In contrast to this popular account, Althaus and Largio found that the number of Americans willing to blame Saddam "has been dropping ever since the first days following 9/11." After examining every publicly available survey question that asked Americans whether Hussein might be responsible for the attacks, they concluded that this "mistaken belief was already widespread among Americans long before President Bush began publicly linking Saddam Hussein with the war on terror."
In fact, nearly seven months before the Sept. 11 attacks, an Opinion Dynamics poll found that 73 percent of Americans believed it was very or somewhat likely that Saddam would organize terrorist attacks on U.S. targets to retaliate for the air strikes that recently had been conducted in Iraq by U.S. and British air forces.
"Saddam was widely seen as a bad guy by ordinary Americans since the Gulf War of 1991," Althaus said. "He later tried to assassinate former President Bush and was regularly bombed by U.S. and British planes long before 9/11 for violations of the no-fly zone. Thus, the stage was set for people to believe that Saddam would try to strike back using terrorism."
The authors also show that the wording of opinion surveys exaggerated how widespread these misperceptions were. The very earliest surveys in the days immediately after Sept. 11 showed that Americans spontaneously mentioned Osama bin Laden as the main person responsible for the attacks. Other questions in those surveys asked only about Saddam and "forced survey respondents to pick an option. In response to those questions, as many as eight in 10 Americans appeared willing to believe Saddam could have had a hand in the terror attacks."
After September 2001, pollsters switched from recording spontaneous responses to presenting respondents with "forced-choice" questions. This switch, "probably made in order to more efficiently process the survey data, had the unintended effect of exaggerating the degree to which Americans saw a connection between Hussein and the attacks," Althaus said.
In addition, most polls only permitted respondents to assess the likelihood that Saddam was involved in the Sept. 11 attacks. Only one poll allowed respondents a range of options. This poll, sponsored by the Program on International Policy Attitudes, revealed that about one in five Americans believed Saddam was directly involved in the attacks.
"It appears that rather than becoming duped, as the popular account has it, the American public has gradually grown more critical of the idea that Hussein had a hand in 9/11," the researchers wrote. "Rather than showing a gullible public blindly accepting the rationales offered by an administration bent on war, our analysis reveals a self-correcting public that has grown ever more doubtful of Hussein's culpability since the 9/11 attacks."