Peter Arnett

From Academic Kids

Peter Arnett (born 1934) is a New Zealand-born journalist. Arnett worked for National Geographic magazine, and then for television. He is well known for his coverage of war, including the Vietnam War and the Gulf War. He was awarded the 1966 Pulitzer Prize in International Reporting for his work in Vietnam, where he was present from 1962 to 1975, most of the time reporting for the Associated Press news agency. He became respected as someone who did not trust anything he had not seen with his own eyes.

In 1994, Arnett wrote Live from the Battlefield: From Vietnam to Baghdad, 35 Years in the World's War Zones.


The Gulf War

Arnett worked for CNN for 18 years ending in 1999. During the Gulf War he became a household name worldwide when he became the only reporter with live coverage directly from Baghdad. Together with two other CNN journalists, Bernard Shaw and John Holliman, Arnett brought continuous coverage from Baghdad for the 16 initial intense hours of the war (January 17 1991). Even though 40 foreign journalists were present at the Al-Rashid Hotel in Baghdad at the time, only CNN possessed the means to communicate to the outside world. Very soon the other journalists left Iraq, including the two CNN colleagues, which left Peter Arnett as the sole reporter remaining there. His reports on civilian damages caused by the bombing were not received well by the coalition war administration, who by their constant use of terms like smart bombs and surgical precision had tried to project an image that civilian casualties would be at a minimum. On January 25 the White House said Arnett was used as a tool for Iraqi disinformation, while CNN received a letter from 34 Members of Congress accusing Arnett of unpatriotic journalism.

The week after that start of the war, Arnett was able to obtain an uncensored interview with Saddam Hussein.

The Gulf War became the first war seen truly live on TV, and Arnett was in many ways the sole player reporting from the "other side" for a period of five weeks.

In March 1997, Arnett was able to interview Osama bin Laden, as the first western journalist to do so.

The Baby Milk Factory Controversy

One of Arnett's most controversial reports during the Gulf War was a report on how the coalition had bombed a baby milk factory. Shortly after the report, an Air Force spokesman stated "Numerous sources have indicated that [the factory] is associated with biological warfare production". Later that day, Colin Powell stated "It was a biological weapons facility, of that we are sure". White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater stated "That factory is, in fact, a production facility for biological weapons," and "The Iraqis have hidden this facility behind a facade of baby-milk production as a form of disinformation." The image of a crudely-made hand-painted sign reading "Baby Milk" in English and Arabic in front of the factory, and a lab coat dressed in a suit containing stitched lettering reading "BABY MILK PLANT IRAQ" only served to further the perception that purportedly civilian targets were simply being made to look like that by Saddam Hussein, and that Arnett was duped by the Iraqi government. The sign appeared to have been added by the Iraqis before the camera crews arrived as a cheap publicity ploy. Newsweek called the incident a "ham-handed attempt to depict a bombed-out biological-weapons plant near Baghdad as a baby-formula factory."

Arnett remained firm. He had toured the plant in the previous August, and was insistent that "Whatever else it did, it did produce infant formula". Described as being a veritable fortress by the Pentagon, Arnett reported seeing only one guard at the gate and a lot of powdered baby milk, stating ""That's as much as I could tell you about it," he added carefully. "It looked innocent enough from what we could see.".

A CNN camera crew had been invited to tour this plant last August [1990]. They videotaped workers wearing new uniforms with lettering in English reading, "Iraq Baby Milk Plant." The correspondent, Richard Roth, was suspicious at that time and expressed doubts about the authenticity of the plant when he aired his report. Arnett expressed no such suspicions.

Interviewed later, the plant's French contractor who helped build it, Michel Wery, gave an interview in which he stated that the plant was producing solely baby milk when it started up in 1979, and was not equipped to breed pathogens. The plant closed in 1980, he said, when the last French technicians working for his company left Baghdad. No one from Wery’s company has been back since then. Wery said he had heard that production had restarted after the United Nations embargo put in place last fall, but he doubted whether that was possible after a 10-year lull. Two dairy technicians who had been in the plant at least four times since to make repairs; one stated that, during a visit as recent of May 1990, said that it was all normal dairy equipment and that the plant was actually canning milk powder. The suspicious uniform stitching was actually part of the original uniforms supplied by the French, and in fact the footage showing the uniforms was shot in August, 1990.

Part of the problem in reconciling the various U.S. and foreign accounts is that administration officials said they were constrained by security considerations from revealing exactly how they knew about the plant. At the same time, the New Zealand technicians and the French builder were not at the plant after May and cannot be certain of what happened after their departure.

White House reports diverged at this time. One official claimed that the plant was converted in 1990. Another claimed that it was a "backup" bioweapons facility, which had not yet been converted. A third said that it was not a bioweapons facility, but that it was used to make items crucial to bioweapons research; all three claimed insider information. In a confidential memo from December 1992, a State Department employee discussed the issue of the plant and reported that there were no hidden chambers or inappropriate machinery, and that it appeared to be a perfectly normal factory for producing powdered milk.

The Iraqi “Baby Milk Factory” camouflaged on the right
The Iraqi “Baby Milk Factory” camouflaged on the right

The plant had undergone security modifications since May of 1990. Amongst these were camouflage paint on all buildings in the complex, a security fence, and the positioning of two SA-2 Surface to air missile batteries. In addition, the Iraqis had claimed that they were getting powdered milk for the plant from Nestlé, but Nestlé said that was false. They said they had supplied no products to this plant.

Colin Powell gave the president a briefing a week before the plant was bombed. Powell told President Bush that intelligence based from agents inside Iraq stated that the Iraqis had altered the plant into a biological weapons plant.

Operation Tailwind

In 1998 Arnett narrated a joint venture between CNN and Time Magazine called NewsStand, which described what he called "Operation Tailwind." The report said that the US Army had used Sarin against a group of deserting US soldiers in Laos in 1970. In response, The Pentagon commissioned another report contradicting CNN's. CNN subsequently retracted the story after conducting an internal investigation, and a number of the persons responsible for the report were fired or forced to resign. Arnett was reprimanded by his employer, and his contract was not renewed.

Interview in Iraq

On assignment for NBC and National Geographic, Arnett went to Iraq in 2003 to cover the U.S. invasion. After a press meeting there he granted an interview to state-run Iraq TV on March 31, 2003, in which he stated, "Now America is reappraising the battlefield, delaying the war against Iraq, maybe a week and rewriting the war plan. The first plan has failed because of Iraqi resistance. Now they are trying to write another plan... So our reports about civilian casualties here, about the resistance of the Iraqi forces, are going back to the United States. It helps those who oppose the war when you challenge the policy to develop their arguments."

When Arnett's remarks sparked a "firestorm of protest", NBC initially defended him, saying he had given the interview as a professional courtesy and that his remarks were "analytical in nature". A day later, though, NBC, MSNBC and National Geographic all severed their relationships with Arnett.

In response to Arnett's statement on Iraqi TV, the corporation stated, "It was wrong for Mr. Arnett to grant an interview with state-controlled Iraqi TV, especially at a time of war and it was wrong for him to discuss his personal observations and opinions." Arnett responded, "My stupid misjudgment was to spend fifteen minutes in an impromptu interview with Iraqi television...I said in that interview essentially what we all know about the war, that there have been delays in implementing policy, there have been surprises."

Later that day, Arnett was hired by the British tabloid newspaper the Daily Mirror, which opposed the war. A couple of days later he was also assigned to Greek television channel NET television, and Belgian VTM.


  • Arnett quoting a U.S. army officer in Vietnam, when asked about the background for the use of much heavy artillery against a small village. Whether Arnett made this up or not is disputed, as the officer in question cannot remember making the statement:
"We had to destroy the village in order to save it."
  • When asking Saddam Hussein if he realized he had made a mistake by not withdrawing from Kuwait at the insistence of the coalition, Saddam answered:
"I don't care of the consequences, Allah is beside me in this struggle."
  • When asked what he intended to do after being fired from NBC in 2003:
"There's a small island, inhabited in the South Pacific, that I will try to swim to."

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