Iraq is merely the latest example of the US going to war under apparently false pretenses. In the debate leading up to the war against Iraq, the “mushroom cloud” fears were almost completely unfounded.

Ironically, of course, intelligence to challenge the claim was publicly available before the war. Mohamed ElBaradei, Nobel prize winning Director of the IAEA, reported on March 7, 2003:

After three months of intrusive inspections, we have to date found no evidence or plausible indication of the revival of a nuclear weapons programme in Iraq.

The IAEA conducted 281 inspections at 141 sites, examined the forged Niger documents, looked into the question of uranium importation and enrichment, looked at the importation of aluminum tubes and high-strength magnets, and interviewed key scientists and public officials.

Did the administration distort the evidence? Or, were the intelligence agencies completely and horribly wrong? A third possibility also exists: did some intelligence sources knowingly distort the evidence?

Don’t dismiss the third alternative out of hand.

The work of an historian for the National Security Agency (NSA) has recently been disclosed by a non-governmental historian, revealing that NSA officers may have intentionally cooked the intelligence about a North Vietnamese attack on a US warship that never happened. This transgression was deliberate, but it was apparently designed to cover up honest mistakes of tradecraft. There had been an attack against US assets on August 2 and someone completely misinterpreted followup communiques about the first attack. The New York Times, October 31, 2005:

The N.S.A. historian, Robert J. Hanyok, found a pattern of translation mistakes that went uncorrected, altered intercept times and selective citation of intelligence that persuaded him that midlevel agency officers had deliberately skewed the evidence.

Mr. Hanyok concluded that they had done it not out of any political motive but to cover up earlier errors, and that top N.S.A. and defense officials and Johnson neither knew about nor condoned the deception.

The claim that the attack did not happen is now new. For some time, historians have been pointing out that the alleged second North Vietnamese attack on US destroyers, ostensibly on August 4, 1964, never happened. In 1988, for example, Admiral James Stockdale revealed in The Washington Post that he was a personal observer to the supposed incident — and that it did not happen.

The new claim is that intelligence operatives intentionally relayed false information about an alleged threat (a second attack).

In reaction to the phantom attack, Congress passed the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution and the Lyndon B. Johnson adminstration used that to prosecute all-out war against North Vietnam. By 1969, the US had over half a million troops “in country.”

As John Prados and others have previously discussed, the US conducted a covert operation on August 2, 1964, which provoked the initial North Vietnamese attack that day. Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, however, later misleadingly told Congress that the covert operations were conducted by South Vietnamese forces. The US conducted additional covert raids on August 3-4, but the North did not respond with another attack on the US destroyer deployed near the Gulf.

The White House knew by August 5, 1964, that the evidence for the second attack was uncertain, at best. However, it appears that the initial US response was made in relatively good faith — the Secretary of Defense and President thought the North Vietnamese had made a second attack.

Want another case? Consider the Persian Gulf War, though it is harder to assess the threat analysis because the Pentagon data has not yet been declassified. Christian Science Monitor, September 6, 2002:

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….

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.

A House Armed Services Committee report also later concluded that Iraq had only 183,000 troops in 1990, less than half the number the Pentagon claimed it was facing at the time.

As some sources in the CSM story point out, the same people who lied (and/or were wrong) in 1990 were many of the same people talking about Iraq’s threat in 2002. For example, the first Bush’s Secretary of Defense in 1990-1991 was Dick Cheney.

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