In war, some facts less factual (FWD: Christian Science Monitor)

Jim Farmelant farmelantj at
Fri Sep 6 04:35:13 MDT 2002

from the September 06, 2002 edition - 

In war, some facts less factual
Some US assertions from the last war on Iraq still appear dubious.
By Scott Peterson | Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor 

MOSCOW - 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.

Citing top-secret satellite images, Pentagon officials estimated in 
mid–September 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.
says. "I think we have to be skeptical about it."

Examining the evidence 

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
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."

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.

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
found that some of their efforts were "prohibited, covert propaganda

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

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."

Copyright 2002 The Christian Science Monitor. All rights reserved

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