1990 Testimony of Nayirah

A 15-year-old girl named “Nayirah” testified before the U.S. Congress that she had seen Iraqi soldiers pulling Kuwaiti babies from incubators, causing them to die. The testimony helped gain major public support for the 1991 Gulf War, but — despite protests that the dispute of this story was itself a conspiracy theory — it was later discovered that the testimony was false. 
 
The public relations firm Hill & Knowlton, which was in the employ of Citizens for a Free Kuwait, had arranged the testimony. It turned out that she had taken acting lessons on request of the CIA and was actually the niece of a major politician in Kuwait. Nayirah was later disclosed to be Nayirah al-Sabah, daughter of Saud bin Nasir Al-Sabah, Kuwaiti ambassador to the USA. 
 
The Congressional Human Rights Caucus, of which Congressman Tom Lantos was co-chairman, had been responsible for hosting Nurse Nayirah, and thereby popularizing her allegations. When the girl’s account was later challenged by independent human rights monitors, Lantos replied, “The notion that any of the witnesses brought to the caucus through the Kuwaiti Embassy would not be credible did not cross my mind… I have no basis for assuming that her story is not true, but the point goes beyond that. 
 
If one hypothesizes that the woman’s story is fictitious from A to Z, that in no way diminishes the avalanche of human rights violations.” Nevertheless, the senior Republican on the Human Rights Caucus, John Edward Porter, responded to the revelations “by saying that if he had known the girl was the ambassador’s daughter, he would not have allowed her to testify.” 
 
 
 
 
refers to the controversial testimony given before the non-governmental Congressional Human Rights Caucus on October 10, 1990, by a female who provided only her first name, Nayirah. In her emotional testimony, Nayirah stated that after the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait she had witnessed Iraqi soldiers take babies out of incubators in a Kuwaiti hospital, take the incubators, and leave the babies to die. Though reporters did not then have access to Kuwait, her testimony was regarded as credible at the time and was widely publicized. It was cited numerous times by United States senators and the president in their rationale to back Kuwait in the Gulf War.
 
Her story was initially corroborated by Amnesty International and testimony from evacuees. Following the liberation of Kuwait, reporters were given access to the country and found the story of stolen incubators unsubstantiated. However, they did find that a number of people, including babies, died when nurses and doctors fled the country.
 
In 1992, it was revealed that Nayirah's last name was al-Ṣabaḥ (Arabic: نيره الصباح‎) and that she was the daughter of Saud bin Nasir Al-Sabah, the Kuwaiti ambassador to the United States. Furthermore, it was revealed that her testimony was organized as part of theCitizens for a Free Kuwait public relations campaign which was run by Hill & Knowlton for the Kuwaiti government. Following this, al-Sabah's testimony has largely come to be regarded as wartime propaganda.
 
Background
 
Incubator allegations
 
Iraqis are beating people, bombing and shooting. They are taking all hospital equipment, babies out of incubators . Life-support systems are turned off. . . . They are even removing traffic lights. The Iraqis are beating Kuwaitis, torturing them, knifing them, beating them, cutting their ears off if they are caught resisting or are with the Kuwaiti army or police. —Evacuee's description as reported in St. Louis Post-Dispatch
 
Following the Iraqi invasion and occupation of Kuwait, there were reports from of widespread looting. On September 2, 1990 in a letter to the UN Secretary General Javier Perez de Cuellar, Kuwait's UN representative, Mohammad A. Abulhasan, wrote:
 
  • Further to those of our communications which are intended to inform you of the actions perpetrated by the Iraqi occupation authorities in Kuwait in contravention of all international laws, and on the basis of confirmed information provided to us by the Government of Kuwait, we wish to draw attention to a phenomenon which has no precedent in history, namely, the Iraqi occupation authorities' organized operation for the purpose of looting and plundering Kuwait. It is impossible to compare this operation to any similar incidents or to provide an exact account thereof because it is in effect an operation designed to achieve nothing less than the complete removal of Kuwait's assets, including property belonging to the State, to public and private institutions and to individuals, as well as the contents of houses, factories, stores, hospitals, academic institutes, schools, and universities...What has occurred in Kuwait is the perpetration of an act of armed robbery by a State which has used its military, security and technical organs for that purpose.
 
In the letter, Abulhasan also noted that "theft of all equipment from private and public hospitals, including X-ray machines, scanners and pieces of laboratory equipment."The allegations of looting were also retold by evacuees who described "soldiers looting office buildings, schools and hospitals for air conditioners, computers, blackboards, desks, and even infant incubators and radiation equipment." Douglas Hurd, the British Secretary for foreign affairs surmised that "they are looting and destroying in a way which suggests that they may not expect to be there for very long."
 
The looting of incubators attracted media attention because of allegations that premature babies were being discarded or dying as a result. On September 5, Abdul Wahab Al-Fowzan, the Kuwaiti health minister-in-exile, stated at a press conference in Taif, Saudi Arabia "that Iraqi soldiers had seized virtually all of the country's hospitals and medical institutions after their invasion" and that "soldiers evicted patients and systematically looted the hospitals of high-tech equipment, ambulances, drugs and plasma" which resulted in the death of 22 premature babies. The Washington Post described the origin of the Kuwaiti baby story as follows:
 
  • The Kuwaiti baby story originated with a letter from a senior Kuwaiti public health official that was smuggled out of the country by a European diplomat late last month, according to Hudah Bahar, an architect who received the letter here in London. It was supplemented by information gathered from fleeing Kuwaitis and other sources by Fawzia Sayegh, a Kuwaiti pediatrician living here. The letter claimed that Iraqi soldiers ordered patients evicted from several hospitals and closed down critical units for treating cancer patients, dialysis patients and those suffering from diabetes. Bahar and Sayegh said the Iraqis hauled sophisticated equipment such as dialysis machines back to Baghdad, part of the haul of cash, gold, cars and jewelry that is said by Arab banking sources to exceed $2 billion. Among the equipment taken were the 22 infant incubator units, they said.
 
The Washington Post also noted that it was unable to verify the accusations as Iraq did not permit access to the area and had quarantined diplomats.
 
On September 5, in another letter to the UN Secretary General, Abulhasan reiterated Fowzan's claims writing:
 
  • We are informed by impeccable sources in Kuwait's health institutions that the Iraqi occupation authorities have carried out the following brutal crimes, which may be described as crimes against humanity: ... 2. The incubators in maternity hospitals used for children suffering from retarded growth (premature children) have been removed, causing the death of all the children who were under treatment.
 
The letter did not state how many babies had died.The allegations in the letter received widespread media coverage in the following days. That day, in an interview with released hostages on NPR's All Things Considered, a hostage stated that Iraqi troops were "hitting children with the butts of the guns, taking infants out of incubators and taking the incubators." Reuters also reported they had been told "that Iraqi troops took premature babies out of incubators in Kuwait in order to steal the equipment."
 
On September 9, NPR reported that "in a ward for premature infants, soldiers had turned off the oxygen on incubators and packed the equipment for shipment to Iraq."
 
On September 17, Edward Gnehm Jr., the U.S. ambassador-designate to Kuwait, told reporters that Kuwaiti health officials told him 22 babies had died when Iraqi troops had stolen their incubators. The Los Angeles Times reported that "refugees reported that incubators for premature babies were confiscated by Iraqi troops and the babies inside were piled on the floor and left to die." TheSan Jose Mercury News also reported the same allegation that day, adding that Western diplomats thought "this is the kind of thing that some people call genocide, and if people wanted to construe it as such, it could be cause for some kind of military intervention."
 
 
 
On September 25, the Washington Post reported that "Kuwait City's hospitals are being stripped of incubators."
 
The president ofCitizens for a Free Kuwait wrote to Representative Gus Yatron stating of how he "recently learned that the Iraqi leader has ordered that maternity hospital incubators [in Kuwait], used for treating premature babies, be turned off, allowing these infants to die of exposure."
 
On September 29, in a meeting between Kuwaiti leader Sheik Jabbar al Ahmed al Sabah and president George Bush Sr., the exiled emir told the president that Iraqis were "going into hospitals, taking babies out of incubators and people off life-support machines to send the equipment back to Iraq."
 
In his remarks following the discussion, Bush stated that "Iraqi aggression has ransacked and pillaged a once peaceful and secure country, its population assaulted, incarcerated, intimidated, and even murdered" and that "Iraq's leaders are trying to wipe an internationally recognized sovereign state, a member of the Arab League and the United Nations, off the face of the map."
 
On September 28, Kuwait's planning minister, Sulaiman Mutawa reported that 12 babies had died as a result of incubator looting.
 
On September 30, U.S. News & World Report reported that that it had obtained secret US government cables based on eyewitness accounts that revealed "shocking acts of brutality inflicted by the Iraqis against innocent citizens at Kuwaiti hospitals." The cables stated that on the sixth day of Iraqi invasion, Iraqi soldiers "entered the Adan Hospital in Fahaheel looking for hospital equipment to steal" and that "they unplugged the oxygen to the incubators supporting 22 premature babies and made off with the incubators" thus killing the 22 children.
 
On October 9, at a Presidential news conference, Bush stated:
 
  • I thought General Scowcroft [Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs] put it very well after the Amir left here. And I am very much concerned, not just about the physical dismantling but of the brutality that has now been written on by Amnesty International confirming some of the tales told us by the Amir of brutality. It's just unbelievable, some of the things at least he reflected. I mean, people on a dialysis machine cut off, the machine sent to Baghdad; babies in incubators heaved out of the incubators and the incubators themselves sent to Baghdad. Now, I don't know how many of these tales can be authenticated, but I do know that when the Amir was here he was speaking from the heart. And after that came Amnesty International, who were debriefing many of the people at the border. And it's sickening.
 
Advertising
 
As far as the East is from the West, that's how far most U.S. advertisers want to be removed from any hint of capitalizing on the Iraqi conflict. Advertisers steer clear of Mideast,St. Petersburg Times 
 
Initially, most advertisers were ignoring the Middle East crisis in their ads. It was noted that companies selling information, such as news organizations, were running advertisements for their coverage of the conflict.
 
Citizens for a Free Kuwait
 
The Citizens for a Free Kuwait was a public relations committee set up by the Kuwaiti embassy, described by The Times News as a "Washington, D.C.- based committee comprised of concerned Kuwaitis and Americans".
 
Though the committee occupied embassy office space, they were to be working independently of the embassy.
 
Hill & Knowlton
 
In 1990, after being approached by a Kuwaiti expatriate in New York, Hill & Knowlton took on "Citizens for a Free Kuwait." The objective of the national campaign was to raise awareness in the United States about the dangers posed by Iraqi dictator, Saddam Hussein to Kuwait.
 
Hill & Knowlton conducted a $1 million study to determine the best way to win support for strong action. H & K had the Wirthington Group conduct focus groups to determine the best strategy that would influence public opinion. The study found that an emphasis on atrocities, particularly the incubator story, was the most effective.
 
Hill & Knowlton is estimated to have been given as much as $12 million by the Kuwaitis for their public relations campaign.
 
 
 
Congressional Human Rights Foundation
 
The Congressional Human Rights Foundation is a non-governmental organization that investigates human rights abuse. It was headed by Democratic U.S. Representative Tom Lantos and Republican Representative John Porter and rented space in Hill & Knowlton's Washington headquarters at a $3000 reduced rate.
 
Testimony
 
On October 10, 1990 Nayirah was the last to testify at the Caucus. In her oral testimony, which lasted about 6 minutes, she stated:
 
  • I volunteered at the al-Addan hospital with twelve other women who wanted to help as well. I was the youngest volunteer. The other women were from twenty to thirty years old. While I was there I saw the Iraqi soldiers come into the hospital with guns They took the babies out of the incubators, took the incubators and left the babies on the cold floor to die.[crying] It was horrifying.
 
Although Nayirah did not specify how many babies were in the incubators in her oral testimony, in the written testimony distributed by Hill and Knowlton, it read "While I was there I saw the Iraqi soldiers come into the hospital with guns, and go into the room where 15 babies were in incubators." The testimony was not given under oath.
 
Representative John Porter, co-chairman of the caucus, remarked that in his eight years of service on the caucus, he had never heard such "brutality and inhumanity and sadism." Nayirah's testimony was described as the most dramatic.
 
Hill & Knowlton
 
It is unclear how much of Nayirah's testimony was coached. Though the firm was supposed to provide only stylistic help, it was reported that H&K "provided witnesses, wrote testimony, and coached the witnesses for effectiveness."
 
Effect
 
Nayirah's testimony was widely publicized. Hill & Knowlton, which had filmed the hearing, sent out a video news release to Medialink, a firm which served about 700 television stations in the United States.
 
That night, portions of the testimony aired on ABC's Nightline and NBC Nightly News reaching an estimated audience between 35 and 53 million Americans. Seven senators cited Nayirah's testimony in their speeches backing the use of force.[Note 1] President George Bush repeated the story at least ten times in the following weeks. Her account of the atrocities helped to stir American opinion in favor of participation in the Gulf War.
 
Initial response
 
On January 13, 1991, the Sunday Times reported that a Dr Ali Al-Huwail could vouch for 92 deaths.
 
Iraq denied the allegations. On October 16, Iraqi information minister, Latif Nassif al-Jassem, told the Iraqi News Agency that "now you [Bush] are using what he [Sheikh Jaber] told you to make Congress ratify the budget which is in the red because of your policies" adding that "you, as the president of a superpower, have to weigh words carefully and not act as a clown who repeats what he is told."
 
In a visit to Kuwait on October 21, 1990, journalists who were escorted by Iraqi information ministry officials, doctors at a Kuwaiti maternity facility denied the incubator allegations.
 
In the visit, the Iraqi head of the Kuwaiti health department, Abdul-Rahman Mohammad al-Ugeily, said that "Baghdad had sent 1,000 doctors and other medical to staff to help run Kuwait's 14 hospitals and health centres following the invasion."
 
Revelation
 
A little reportorial investigation would have done a great service to the democratic process.—John MacArthur
 
On March 15, 1991, shortly after Kuwait was liberated, John Martin, an ABC reporter, reported that "patients, including premature babies, did die, when many of Kuwait's nurses and doctors stopped working or fled the country" and discovered that Iraqi troops "almost certainly had not stolen hospital incubators and left hundreds of Kuwaiti babies to die."
 
On January 6, 1992, The New York Times published an op-ed piece by John MacArthur entitled "Remember Nayirah, Witness for Kuwait?" MacArthur discovered that Nayirah was the daughter of the Kuwaiti Ambassador to the U.S., Saud Nasir al-Sabah. MacArthur noted that "the incubator story seriously distorted the American debate about whether to support military action" and questioned whether "their [Representatives Lantos and Porter] 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." The story earned MacArthur the Monthly Journalism Award from The Washington Monthly in April 1992, and the Mencken Award in 1993.
 
 
 
Subsequent response
 
Hill and Knowlton
 
We disseminated information in a void as a basis for Americans to form opinions. —Frank Mankiewicz, Vice Chairman, Hill & Knowlton
 
On January 15, 1992, the CEO of Hill & Knowlton, Thomas E. Eidson, responded to the concerns raised by MacArthur in a letter to the editor to The New York Times. Eidson stated that "at no time has this firm collaborated with anyone to produce knowingly deceptive testimony" asserting that the firm "had no reason to question her veracity when she testified following her escape from Kuwait." The letter explained that Nayirah's charge that Iraqi soldiers removed newborn babies from incubators was corroborated by Dr. Ibraheem Behbehani, head of the Red Crescent, before the United Nations Security Council and that the media was not permitted back inside Kuwait "until after the liberation, there was no way to check immediately on the stories of refugees." Eidson concluded that "Nayirah's credibility should no more be questioned than if she had been a doctor or teacher" and the company's work with the Kuwaitis was consistent with firm's standards stating that "the public interest was fairly served."
 
In August 1992, Howard Paster replaced Robert K. Gray as the general manager of the Washington office in order to clean up the firm's image.
 
Critics contended that the Hill & Knowlton had concocted a fake popular movement, Citizens for a Free Kuwait, and subsequently used questionable evidence and suspect witnesses to influence public opinion and policy in the United States and the UN.
 
Hill & Knowlton's actions taken on behalf of Citizens for a Free Kuwait, together with those of other major clients including Bank of Credit and Commerce International, the Church of Scientology, and an anti-abortion campaign by Catholic bishops raised ethical concerns among public relations professionals. The concerns, though not new, were more vigorous than previous ones due to the prominence of the issues.
 
Tom Lantos response
 
Hold on to your hats. The grand campaign to rewrite the history of the Persian Gulf war is on. —Tom Lantos' response to MacArthur
 
In an interview, Lantos stated that he had concealed Nayirah's identity at the request of her father in order to protect her family and friends. Lantos denied any allegations of wrongdoing arguing that "The media happened to focus on her. If she hadn't testified, they would have focused on something else." Lantos also stated that:
 
  • The notion that any of the witnesses brought to the caucus through the Kuwaiti Embassy would not be credible did not cross my mind. I have no basis for assuming that her story is not true, but the point goes beyond that. If one hypothesizes that the woman's story is fictitious from A to Z, that in no way diminishes the avalanche of human rights violations.
 
In a letter to the editor to the New York Times on Jan 27, 1992 entitled "Kuwaiti Gave Consistent Account of Atrocities", Tom Lantos responded to MacArthur's allegations. He wrote that "Mr. MacArthur's deceptive article serves only the cynics who seek to rewrite the history of the Persian Gulf war" noting "the article's sinister innuendo suggests that the girl was not even in Kuwait at the time of the Iraqi invasion, and that the whole gruesome incident was a diabolical plot by an American public relations firm."  Lantos wrote that "the fact that Nayirah was the daughter of the Ambassador of Kuwait made her a more credible witness" and that her "her relationship to the Ambassador and Government enhanced her credibility." He also noted that "her account was consistent with the information we received from other witnesses, with hundreds of other atrocity stories from Kuwait carried by media around the globe, and consistent with reports by independent human rights organizations, such as Amnesty International, who also testified at our hearing and subsequently published accounts similar to Nayirah's." Lantos concluded that "given the countless cases of verified Iraqi human rights violations", it was "unnecessary and counterproductive to invent atrocities."
 
Lantos also rejected the allegations of a special relationship between the caucus and Hill & Knowlton stating that "caucus activities are held without regard to whether these countries are represented by any law firm or public relations firm."
 
In a subsequent letter to New York Times, MacArthur pointed out that the testimony had been retracted.
 
Ambassador Sabah
 
The ambassador has stated that his daughter had witnessed the atrocities she described, and that her presence in Kuwait could be verified by the United States Embassy in Kuwait.[50] He also stated "If I wanted to lie, or if we wanted to lie, if we wanted to exaggerate, I wouldn't use my daughter to do so. I could easily buy other people to do it."
 
Investigations
 
Human Rights Watch
 
In 1992, the human rights organization Middle East Watch, a division of Human Rights Watch, published the results of their investigation of the incubator story. Its director, Andrew Whitley, told the press, "While it is true that the Iraqis targeted hospitals, there is no truth to the charge which was central to the war propaganda effort that they stole incubators and callously removed babies allowing them to die on the floor. The stories were manufactured from germs of truth by people outside the country who should have known better." One investigator, Aziz Abu-Hamad, interviewed doctors in the hospital where Nayirah claimed she witnessed Iraqi soldiers pull 15 infants from incubators and leave them to die. The Independent reported, "The doctors told him the maternity ward had 25 to 30 incubators. None was(were) taken by the Iraqis, and no babies were taken from them."
 
Amnesty International
 
Amnesty International initially supported the story, but later issued a retraction. It stated that it "found no reliable evidence that Iraqi forces had caused the deaths of babies by removing them or ordering their removal from incubators."
 
Kroll Report
 
Kuwaiti officials do not discuss the matter with the press. In order to respond to these charges, the Kuwaiti government hired Kroll Associates to undertake an independent investigation of the incubator story. The Kroll investigation lasted nine weeks and conducted over 250 interviews. The interviews with Nayirah revealed that her original testimony was wildly distorted at best; she told Kroll that she had actually only seen one baby outside its incubator for "no more than a moment." She also told Kroll that she was never a volunteer at the hospital and had in fact "only stopped by for a few minutes."
 
Hill & Knowlton spokesman Tom Ross describes the report as a "vindication of Hill and Knowlton" and that "it conclusively demonstrates that there were incubator atrocities and that Nayirah was a witness to them."
 
Television
 
Both 20/20 and 60 minutes featured investigative pieces on the testimony.
 
Criticism
 
The campaign has been described by critics as corrupt, deceptive and unethical and charge that it was used to spread false or exaggerated tales of Iraqi atrocities.
 
Lantos was criticized for his withholding the information.
The testimony has been regarded as false by the Chicago Tribune, Huffington Post  and numerous other publications.
 
Aftermath
 
In fact, nearly everyone involved in peddling the tale of the unplugged babies, from Amnesty International to Kuwaiti doctors, has sprinted away from it. —Newsday
 
Following the end of the war, Reuters reported that Iraq returned "98 truckloads of medical equipment stolen from Kuwait, including two of the baby incubators". Abdul Rahim al-Zeid, an assistant under-secretary at the Kuwaiti Public Health Ministry, said that by returning the incubators the Iraqis had unwittingly provided proof that they took them.  Kuwait's chief ambulance officer, Abdul Reda Abbas, stated that "We think the Iraqis might have returned the incubators by mistake."
 
Following the revelation of Nayirah's identity, there was a public outrage that the information had been withheld.
 
Scholarly commentary
 
In the end, the question was not whether H&K effectively altered public opinion, but whether the combined efforts of America's own government, foreign interests, and private PR and lobbying campaigns drowned out decent and rational, unemotional debate. —The power house: Robert Keith Gray and the selling of access and influence in Washington
 
The content, presentation, distribution, effectiveness, and purpose of Nayirah's testimony have been the subject of multiple public relations studies.
 
In his book, Strategic Maneuvering in Argumentative Discourse, Frans H. van Eemeren stating that "visual messages which accompany verbal argumentation can be so drastic that rational argumentation becomes almost impossible" described Nayirah's story as an argumentum ad misericordiam. In the paper The Hill & Knowlton Cases: A Brief on the Controversy by Susanne A. Roschwalb, the author noted that as H&K was a British firm, "what effect did British concerns -such as the possible collapse of its financial institutions, if the Kuwaiti currency, the dinar, became worthless -have on Hill & Knowlton’s efforts?"
 
Ted Rowse, in his article Kuwaitgate — killing of Kuwaiti babies by Iraqi soldiers exaggerated in the The Washington Monthly noted that "Most reporters, having apparently been burned by Hill & Knowlton's handiwork in spreading the original Nayirah story without checking it out, seem to prefer to let the story fade away, passively falling, once again, for the company's public relations guile." John R. MacArthur, who authored Second Front: Censorship and Propaganda in the Gulf War has noted that "at the time, it was the most sophisticated and expensive PR campaign ever run in the U.S. by a foreign government."
 
In popular culture
 
The 2002 HBO movie Live From Baghdad included several scenes dealing with the incubator allegations, without presenting the story as unquestioned truth. In that movie, several characters try to determine the accuracy or inaccuracy of the story, but are unable to draw any conclusions. After the final credits, a note stated that the incubator allegations were never substantiated.

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