During the Opium Wars between Britain and China in the 19th century, eunuchs at the court of the Chinese emperor had the problem of informing him of the repeated and humiliating defeat of his armies. They dealt with their delicate task by simply telling the emperor that his forces had already won or were about to win victories on all fronts.
For three and a half years White House officials have dealt with bad news from Iraq in similar fashion. Journalists were repeatedly accused by the US administration of not reporting political and military progress on the ground. Information about the failure of the US venture was ignored or suppressed.
Manipulation of facts was often very crude. As an example of the systematic distortion, the Iraq Study Group revealed last week that on one day last July US officials reported 93 attacks or significant acts of violence. In reality, it added, "a careful review of the reports ... brought to light 1,100 acts of violence".
The 10-fold reduction in the number of acts of violence officially noted was achieved by not reporting the murder of an Iraqi, or roadside bomb, rocket or mortar attacks aimed at US troops that failed to inflict casualties. I remember visiting a unit of US combat engineers camped outside Fallujah in January 2004 who told me that they had stopped reporting insurgent attacks on themselves unless they suffered losses as commanders wanted to hear only that the number of attacks was going down. As I was drove away, a sergeant begged us not to attribute what he had said: "If you do I am in real trouble."
Few Chinese emperors can have been as impervious to bad news from the front as President George W Bush. His officials were as assiduous as those eunuchs in Beijing 170 years ago in shielding him from bad news. But even when officials familiar with the real situation in Iraq did break through the bureaucratic cordon sanitaire around the Oval Office they got short shrift from Mr Bush. In December 2004 the CIA station chief in Baghdad said that the insurgency was expanding and was "largely unchallenged" in Sunni provinces. Mr Bush's response was: "What is he, some kind of a defeatist?" A week later the station chief was reassigned.
The only response to that last bit is a bitter horse laugh.