Nayirah al-Ṣabaḥ

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Event.png Nayirah al-Ṣabaḥ (propaganda)  History CommonsRdf-entity.pngRdf-icon.png
Nayirah al-Sabah pictured during testimony to the Congressional Human Rights Caucus
DateOctober 10, 1990
DescriptionA spectacular and effective stunt in a $10 million propaganda campaign orchestrated by the Kuwaiti government, which may well have swung the balance in what was a close congressional vote on the use of the US military against the Iraqi invasion.

"Nurse" Nayirah al-Ṣabaḥ was a young Kuwaiti woman who, in the run up to the 1990-91 Gulf war, gave fraudulent testimony to a non-governmental Congressional Human Rights Caucus on October 10, 1990. She was presented as a 15 year old volunteer nursing assistant who needed to hide her identity for security reasons.

In 1992, it was revealed that Nayirah's last name was al-Sabah and that she was the daughter of Saud bin Nasir Al-Sabah, the Kuwaiti ambassador to the United States and member of the Kuwaiti royal family who had been sitting just a few feet from her as she gave her evidence. It was further revealed that she was not in Kuwait at the time of the invasion and her testimony was organized as part of the Citizens for a Free Kuwait public relations campaign which was run by the advertising and PR firm Hill & Knowlton for the Kuwaiti government.


"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

In her emotional testimony, Nayirah stated that she had witnessed Iraqi soldiers take babies out of incubators, take the incubators, and leave the babies to die. Though reporters did not have access to Kuwait at the time, her testimony was regarded as credible 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 and it had a massive impact on both US and Western public opinion about the impending war.

Propaganda resources

US Congressman Jimmy Hayes of Louisiana later estimated that the government of Kuwait funded as many as 20 PR, law and lobby firms in its campaign to mobilize US opinion and force against Hussein.[1] Participating firms included the Rendon Group, which received a retainer of $100,000 per month for media work, and Neill & Co., which received $50,000 per month for lobbying Congress. Sam Zakhem, a former US ambassador to the oil-rich gulf state of Bahrain, funneled $7.7 million in advertising and lobbying dollars through two front groups, the "Coalition for Americans at Risk" and the "Freedom Task Force." The Coalition, which began in the 1980s as a front for the contras in Nicaragua, prepared and placed TV and newspaper ads, and kept a stable of fifty speakers available for pro-war rallies and publicity events.[2]

Hill & Knowlton, then the world's largest PR firm, served as mastermind for the Kuwaiti campaign. Its activities alone would have constituted the largest foreign-funded campaign ever aimed at manipulating American public opinion. By law, the Foreign Agents Registration Act should have exposed this propaganda campaign to the American people, but the Justice Department chose not to enforce it. Nine days after Saddam's army marched into Kuwait, the Emir's government agreed to fund a contract under which Hill & Knowlton would represent "Citizens for a Free Kuwait," a classic PR front group designed to hide the real role of the Kuwaiti government and its collusion with the Bush administration. Over the next six months, the Kuwaiti government channeled $11.9 million dollars to Citizens for a Free Kuwait, whose only other funding totaled $17,861 from 78 individuals. Virtually all of CFK's budget - $10.8 million - went to Hill & Knowlton in the form of fees.[3]

The man running Hill & Knowlton's Washington office was Craig Fuller, one of Bush's closest friends and inside political advisors. The news media never bothered to examine Fuller's role until after the war had ended, but if America's editors had read the PR trade press, they might have noticed this announcement, published in O'Dwyer's PR Services before the fighting began: "Craig L. Fuller, chief of staff to Bush when he was vice-president, has been on the Kuwaiti account at Hill & Knowlton since the first day. He and [Bob] Dilenschneider at one point made a trip to Saudi Arabia, observing the production of some 20 videotapes, among other chores. The Wirthlin Group, research arm of H&K, was the pollster for the Reagan Administration.... Wirthlin has reported receiving $1.1 million in fees for research assignments for the Kuwaitis. Robert K. Gray, Chairman of H&K/USA based in Washington, DC had leading roles in both Reagan campaigns. He has been involved in foreign nation accounts for many years... Lauri J. Fitz-Pegado, account supervisor on the Kuwait account, is a former Foreign Service Officer at the US Information Agency who joined Gray when he set up his firm in 1982."[4]

Throughout the campaign, the Wirthlin Group conducted daily opinion polls to help Hill & Knowlton take the emotional pulse of key constituencies so it could identify the themes and slogans that would be most effective in promoting support for US military action. After the war ended, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation produced an Emmy award-winning TV documentary on the PR campaign titled "To Sell a War." The show featured an interview with Wirthlin executive Dee Alsop in which Alsop bragged of his work and demonstrated how audience surveys were even used to physically adapt the clothing and hairstyle of the Kuwait ambassador so he would seem more likeable to TV audiences. Wirthlin's job, Alsop explained, was "to identify the messages that really resonate emotionally with the American people." The theme that struck the deepest emotional chord, they discovered, was "the fact that Saddam Hussein was a madman who had committed atrocities even against his own people, and had tremendous power to do further damage, and he needed to be stopped."[5]

In addition to Republican notables like Gray and Fuller, Hill & Knowlton maintained a well-connected stable of in-house Democrats who helped develop the bipartisan support needed to support the war. Lauri Fitz-Pegado, who headed the Kuwait campaign, had previously worked with super-lobbyist Ron Brown representing Haiti's Duvalier dictatorship. Hill & Knowlton senior vice-president Thomas Ross had been Pentagon spokesman during the Carter Administration. To manage the news media, H&K relied on vice-chairman Frank Mankiewicz, whose background included service as press secretary and advisor to Robert F. Kennedy and George McGovern, followed by a stint as president of National Public Radio. Under his direction, Hill & Knowlton arranged hundreds of meetings, briefings, calls and mailings directed toward the editors of daily newspapers and other media outlets......

MacArthur also noticed another telling detail about the October 1990 hearings: "The Human Rights Caucus is not a committee of congress, and therefore it is unencumbered by the legal accouterments that would make a witness hesitate before he or she lied.... Lying under oath in front of a congressional committee is a crime; lying from under the cover of anonymity to a caucus is merely public relations."[6]

In fact, the most emotionally moving testimony on October 10 came from a 15-year-old Kuwaiti girl, known only by her first name of Nayirah. According to the Caucus, Nayirah's full name was being kept confidential to prevent Iraqi reprisals against her family in occupied Kuwait. Sobbing, she described what she had seen with her own eyes in a hospital in Kuwait City. Her written testimony was passed out in a media kit prepared by Citizens for a Free Kuwait. "I volunteered at the al-Addan hospital," Nayirah said. "While I was there, I saw the Iraqi soldiers come into the hospital with guns, and go into the room where ... babies were in incubators. They took the babies out of the incubators, took the incubators, and left the babies on the cold floor to die."[7]

Three months passed between Nayirah's testimony and the start of the war. During those months, the story of babies torn from their incubators was repeated over and over again. President Bush repeated the story at least ten times in the following weeks.[8] It was recited as fact in Congressional testimony, on TV and radio talk shows, and at the UN Security Council. "Of all the accusations made against the dictator," MacArthur observed, "none had more impact on American public opinion than the one about Iraqi soldiers removing 312 babies from their incubators and leaving them to die on the cold hospital floors of Kuwait City."[9]

"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." - Saud Nasir al-Sabah, Kuwait's Ambassador to the United States and Canada (unverified quote in "Toxic Sludge Is Good For You" at PRwatch.)

Fraud Unmasked

Following the war, human rights investigators attempted to confirm Nayirah's story and could find no witnesses or other evidence to support it. Amnesty International first defended the story ("believes there is compelling evidence of large-scale killing of incubator babies" 21st March 1991) and then (13 June 1991) reluctantly "examined the conflicting evidence and concluded that the story did not stand up", condemning as offensive the implication from Alexander Cockburn that financial interests had influenced their impartial advocacy of human rights.[10]

Nayirah herself has made no comment. "This is the first allegation I've had that she was the ambassador's daughter," said Human Rights Caucus co-chair John Porter. "Yes, I think people ... were entitled to know the source of her testimony." When journalists for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation asked Nasir al-Sabah for permission to question Nayirah about her story, the ambassador angrily refused.[11]

Hill & Knowlton were are not known to have been subjected to any disciplinary action, since the testimony was not to an official session of Congress or Congressional committee.

See Also

  • Dr Rola - An anonymous woman who in 2013 testified about the importance of an attack on the Syrian government

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  1. "H&K leads PR charge in behalf of Kuwaiti cause," O'Dwyer's PR Services Report, Vol. 5, No. 1, Jan. 1991, p.8. Cited in "Toxic Sludge Is Good For You" at PRwatch.
  2. "Citizens for Free Kuwait Files with FARA After a Nine-month Lag," O'Dwyer's FARA Report, Vol. 1, No. 9, Oct. 1991, p. 2. See also Arthur E. Rowse, "Flacking for the Emir," The Progressive, May, 1991, p. 22. Cited in "Toxic Sludge Is Good For You" at PRwatch.
  3. O'Dwyer's FARA Report, Vol. 1, No. 9, Oct. 1991, pp. 2. Cited in "Toxic Sludge Is Good For You" at PRwatch.
  4. O'Dwyer's PR Services Report, Vol. 5, No. 1, Jan. 1991, pp. 8, 10. Cited in "Toxic Sludge Is Good For You" at PRwatch.
  5. Transcript, "To Sell A War", pp. 3-4. Cited in "Toxic Sludge Is Good For You" at PRwatch.
  6. MacArthur, p.58. Cited in "Toxic Sludge Is Good For You" at PRwatch.
  7. MacArthur, p.58. Cited in "Toxic Sludge Is Good For You" at PRwatch.
  8. ISBN 9780791434611 Appeal to pity: Argumentum ad misericordiam, Chapter:The Nurse Nayirah Case, P771. by Douglas N Walton, SUNY Press June 1997, p.771
  9. MacArthur, p.54. Cited in "Toxic Sludge Is Good For You" at PRwatch.
  10. Amnesty International reluctantly retracts allegation "examined the conflicting evidence and concluded that the story did not stand up" London Review of Books, Exchange of letter with Alexander Cockburn. Letters Vol. 13 No. 6. 21 March 1991.
  11. "To Sell A War," pp. 4-5. Cited in "Toxic Sludge Is Good For You" at PRwatch.