In war, some facts less factual
Some US assertions from the last war on Iraq still appear dubious.
When George H. W. Bush ordered American forces to the Persian Gulf to reverse Iraq's August 1990 invasion of Kuwait part of the administration case was that an Iraqi juggernaut was also threatening to roll into Saudi Arabia.Skip to next paragraph
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Citing top-secret satellite images, Pentagon officials estimated in midSeptember that up to 250,000 Iraqi troops and 1,500 tanks stood on the border, threatening the key US oil supplier.
But when the St. Petersburg Times in Florida acquired two commercial Soviet satellite images of the same area, taken at the same time, no Iraqi troops were visible near the Saudi border just empty desert.
"It was a pretty serious fib," says Jean Heller, the Times journalist who broke the story.
The White House is now making its case. to Congress and the public for another invasion of Iraq; President George W. Bush is expected to present specific evidence of the threat posed by Iraq during a speech to the United Nations next week.
But past cases of bad intelligence or outright disinformation used to justify war are making experts wary. The questions they are raising, some based on examples from the 1991 Persian Gulf War, highlight the importance of accurate information when a democracy considers military action.
"My concern in these situations, always, is that the intelligence that you get is driven by the policy, rather than the policy being driven by the intelligence," says former US Rep. Lee Hamilton (D) of Indiana, a 34-year veteran lawmaker until 1999, who served on numerous foreign affairs and intelligence committees, and is now director of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington. The Bush team "understands it has not yet carried the burden of persuasion [about an imminent Iraqi threat], so they will look for any kind of evidence to support their premise," Mr. Hamilton says. "I think we have to be skeptical about it."
Shortly before US strikes began in the Gulf War, for example, the St. Petersburg Times asked two experts to examine the satellite images of the Kuwait and Saudi Arabia border area taken in mid-September 1990, a month and a half after the Iraqi invasion. The experts, including a former Defense Intelligence Agency analyst who specialized in desert warfare, pointed out the US build-up jet fighters standing wing-tip to wing-tip at Saudi bases but were surprised to see almost no sign of the Iraqis.
"That [Iraqi buildup] was the whole justification for Bush sending troops in there, and it just didn't exist," Ms. Heller says. Three times Heller contacted the office of Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney (now vice president) for evidence refuting the Times photos or analysis offering to hold the story if proven wrong.
The official response: "Trust us." To this day, the Pentagon's photographs of the Iraqi troop buildup remain classified.
After the war, the House Armed Services Committee issued a report on lessons learned from the Persian Gulf War. It did not specifically look at the early stages of the Iraqi troop buildup in the fall, when the Bush administration was making its case to send American forces. But it did conclude that at the start of the ground war in February, the US faced only 183,000 Iraqi troops, less than half the Pentagon estimate. In 1996, Gen. Colin Powell, who is secretary of state today, told the PBS documentary program Frontline: "The Iraqis may not have been as strong as we thought they were...but that doesn't make a whole lot of difference to me. We put in place a force that would deal with it whether they were 300,000, or 500,000."
John MacArthur, publisher of Harper's Magazine and author of "Second Front: Censorship and Propaganda in the Gulf War," says that considering the number of senior officials shared by both Bush administrations, the American public should bear in mind the lessons of Gulf War propaganda.
"These are all the same people who were running it more than 10 years ago," Mr. MacArthur says. "They'll make up just about anything ... to get their way."
On Iraq, analysts note that little evidence so far of an imminent threat from Mr. Hussein's weapons of mass destruction has been made public.
Critics, including some former United Nations weapons inspectors in Iraq, say no such evidence exists. Mr. Bush says he will make his decision to go to war based on the "best" intelligence.
"You have to wonder about the quality of that intelligence," says Mr. Hamilton at Woodrow Wilson.
"This administration is capable of any lie ... in order to advance its war goal in Iraq," says a US government source in Washington with some two decades of experience in intelligence, who would not be further identified. "It is one of the reasons it doesn't want to have UN weapons inspectors go back in, because they might actually show that the probability of Iraq having [threatening illicit weapons] is much lower than they want us to believe."