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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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By Scott Peterson Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / September 6, 2002

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. 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.

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