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