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In war, some facts less factual

Some US assertions from the last war on Iraq still appear dubious.

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The roots of modern war propaganda reach back to British World War II stories about German troops bayoneting babies, and can be traced through the Vietnam era and even to US campaigns in Somalia and Kosovo.

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While the adage has it that "truth is the first casualty of war," senior administration officials say they cherish their credibility, and would not lie.

In a press briefing last September, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld noted occasions during World War II when false information about US troop movements was leaked to confuse the enemy. He paraphrased Winston Churchill, saying: "Sometimes the truth is so precious it must be accompanied by a bodyguard of lies."

But he added that "my fervent hope is that we will be able to manage our affairs in a way that that will never happen. And I am 69 years old and I don't believe it's ever happened that I have lied to the press, and I don't intend to start now."

Last fall, the Pentagon secretly created an "Office of Strategic Influence." But when its existence was revealed, the ensuing media storm over reports that it would launch disinformation campaigns prompted its official closure in late February.

Commenting on the furor, President Bush pledged that the Pentagon will "tell the American people the truth."

Critics familiar with the precedent set in recent decades, however, remain skeptical. They point, for example, to the Office of Public Diplomacy run by the State Department in the 1980s. Using staff detailed from US military "psychological operations" units, it fanned fears about Nicaragua's leftist Sandinista regime with false "intelligence" leaks.

Besides placing a number of proContra, antiSandinista stories in the national US media as part of a "White Propaganda" campaign, that office fed the Miami Herald a make-believe story that the Soviet Union had given chemical weapons to the Sandinistas. Another tale – which happened to emerge the night of President Ronald Reagan's reelection victory – held that Soviet MiG fighters were on their way to Nicaragua.

The office was shut down in 1987, after a report by the US Comptroller-General found that some of their efforts were "prohibited, covert propaganda activities."

More recently, in the fall of 1990, members of Congress and the American public were swayed by the tearful testimony of a 15-year-old Kuwaiti girl, known only as Nayirah.

In the girl's testimony before a congressional caucus, well-documented in MacArthur's book "Second Front" and elsewhere, she described how, as a volunteer in a Kuwait maternity ward, she had seen Iraqi troops storm her hospital, steal the incubators, and leave 312 babies "on the cold floor to die."

Seven US Senators later referred to the story during debate; the motion for war passed by just five votes. In the weeks after Nayirah spoke, President Bush senior invoked the incident five times, saying that such "ghastly atrocities" were like "Hitler revisited."

But just weeks before the US bombing campaign began in January, a few press reports began to raise questions about the validity of the incubator tale.

Later, it was learned that Nayirah was in fact the daughter of the Kuwaiti ambassador to Washington and had no connection to the Kuwait hospital.

She had been coached – along with the handful of others who would "corroborate" the story – by senior executives of Hill and Knowlton in Washington, the biggest global PR firm at the time, which had a contract worth more than $10 million with the Kuwaitis to make the case for war.

"We didn't know it wasn't true at the time," Brent Scowcroft, Bush's national security adviser, said of the incubator story in a 1995 interview with the London-based Guardian newspaper. He acknowledged "it was useful in mobilizing public opinion."

Intelligence as political tool

Selective use of intelligence information is not particular to any one presidential team, says former Congressman Hamilton.

"This is not a problem unique to George Bush. It's every president I've known, and I've worked with seven or eight of them," Hamilton says. "All, at some time or another, used intelligence to support their political objectives.

"Information is power, and the temptation to use information to achieve the results you want is almost overwhelming," he says. "The whole intelligence community knows exactly what the president wants [regarding Iraq], and most are in their jobs because of the president – certainly the people at the top – and they will do everything they can to support the policy.

"I'm always skeptical about intelligence," adds Hamilton, who has been awarded medallions from both the CIA and the Defense Intelligence Agency. "It's not as pure as the driven snow."

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