The Bush administration’s refusal to allow UN inspectors to join the hunt for weapons of mass destruction in US-occupied Iraq has elicited high interest in foreign news media. The most widely accepted interpretation is that the US is well aware that evidence regarding the existence and location of such weapons is “shaky” (the adjective now favored by UN chief weapons inspector Hans Blix), and that the last thing the Pentagon wants is to have Blix’ inspectors looking over the shoulders of US forces as they continue their daunting quest.
Administration leaders will not soon forgive Blix or Mohamed ElBaradei, Director General of the International Atomic Energy Agency, for exposing to ridicule the two main pieces of “evidence” adduced by Washington late last year to support its contention that Iraq had reconstituted its nuclear weapons development program: (1) the forged documents purporting to show that Iraq was trying to obtain uranium from Niger, and (2) the high strength aluminum rods sought by Iraq that the US insisted were to be used in a nuclear application. That contention was roundly debunked not only by IAEA scientists but also by the international engineering community.
The normally taciturn Blix now finds it “conspicuous” that a month after the invasion of Iraq, the US search for weapons of mass destruction had turned up nothing. He expressed eagerness to send UN inspectors back into Iraq, but also served notice that he would not allow them to be led “like dogs on a leash” by US forces there.
The media have raised the possibility that the US might “plant” weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, and that this may be another reason to keep UN inspectors out. This is a charge of such seriousness that we Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity have been conducting an informal colloquium on the issue. As one might expect, there is no unanimity among us on the likelihood of such planting, but most believe that Washington would consider it far too risky. Those holding this view add that recent polls suggest most Americans will not be very critical of the Bush administration even if no weapons of mass destruction are found.
Others, taken aback by the in the in-your-face attitude with which Secretary of State Colin Powell reacted both to the exposure of the Niger forgery and to the requiem for the argument from aluminum rods, see in that attitude a sign that the Bush administration would not necessarily let the risk of disclosure deter it from planting weapons. They also point to the predicament facing the Blair government in Great Britain and other coalition partners, if no such weapons are found in Iraq. They note that the press in the UK has been more independent and vigilant than its US counterpart, and thus the British people are generally better informed and more skeptical of their government than US citizens tend to be.
While the odds of such planting seem less than even, speculation on the possibility drove us down memory lane. Likely or not in present circumstances, there is ample precedent for such covert action operations. VIPS member David MacMichael authored this short case-study paper to throw light on this little known subject. What leaps out of his review is a reminder that, were the Bush administration to decide in favor of a planting or similar operation, it would not have to start from scratch as far as experience is concerned. Moreover, many of the historical examples that follow bear an uncanny resemblance to factors and circumstances in play today.
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1. Faked evidence was a hallmark of post-World War II US covert operations in Latin America. In 1954, for example, it was instrumental in overthrowing the Arbenz government in Guatemala. Arbenz, who was suspected of having Communist leanings, had tried to make the United Fruit Company comply with Guatemalan law. At President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s direction, the CIA organized and armed a force of malcontent Guatemalans living in Nicaragua to invade their home country.
The invasion was explained and “justified” when a cache of Soviet-made weapons planted by the CIA was “discovered” on Nicaragua’s Atlantic coast. Washington alleged that the weapons were intended to support an attempt by Arbenz to overthrow the Nicaraguan government.
2. One of the more egregious and embarrassing uses of fake material evidence occurred on the eve of the Bay of Pigs fiasco in 1961, when Alabama National Guard B-26 bombers attacked a Cuban Air Force base in Havana. When Cuba’s UN ambassador protested, US Ambassador Adlai Stevenson (himself misinformed by the White House) insisted that the attacking planes were those of defecting Cuban Air Force pilots.
Two of the aircraft were shot down in Cuba, however, and others were forced to land in Miami where they could be examined. When it became clear that the planes were not Cuban, Washington’s hand was shown and Stevenson was in high dudgeon.
Legends, however, seem to die more slowly than dudgeon. The US government clung unconscionably long to “plausible denial” regarding the B-26s. Four Alabama National Guardsmen had been killed in the incident and Cuba kept trying to get the US to accept their bodies. Not until 1978 did Washington agree to receive the remains and give them to the families of the deceased.
3. The war in Vietnam is replete with examples of fabrication and/or misrepresentation of intelligence to justify US government policies and actions. The best-known case, of course, is the infamous Tonkin Gulf incident_the one that did not happen but was used by President Lyndon Johnson to strong-arm Congress into giving him carte blanche for the war. Adding insult to injury, CIA current intelligence analysts were forbidden to report accurately on what had happened (and not happened) in the Tonkin Gulf in their daily publication the next morning, on grounds that the President had already decided to use the non-incident to justify launching the air war that very day. The analysts were aghast when their seniors explained that they had decided that they did not want to “wear out their welcome at the White House.”
More directly relevant to the current search for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq is the following incident, which was related to the author at the time by one of the main participants. US officials running the war in Vietnam believed that North Vietnamese Communist troops operating in South Vietnam were supported by large, secret supply dumps across the border in Cambodia. In 1968, the US military in Saigon drew up plans to raid one of those suspected supply bases.
The colonel in charge of logistics for the raid surprised other members of the raiding party by loading up large amounts of North Vietnamese uniforms, weapons, communications equipment, and so forth. He clearly had supplementary orders. He explained to the members of his team that, since it would be necessary to discover North Vietnamese supplies to justify the incursion into neutral Cambodia, it behooved them to be prepared to carry some back.
4. With William Casey at the helm of the CIA during the Reagan presidency, the planting of evidence to demonstrate that opponents of governments in Central America were sponsored by the USSR reached new heights_or depths. The following are representative examples:
(a) In January 1981 four dugout canoes were “discovered” on a Salvadoran beach. The US claimed that the boats had carried 100 armed Sandinista guerrillas from Nicaragua to support leftist insurgents in El Salvador. Neither weapons nor Nicaraguans traceable to the boats were ever found, but Washington drew attention to the fact that the wood from which the boats were made was not native to El Salvador.
This kind of “proof” might at first seem laughable but this was no trivial matter. The Reagan administration successfully used the incident to justify lifting the embargo on US arms to El Salvador that President Carter had imposed after members of the Salvadoran National Guard raped and murdered three US nuns and their lay assistant. The names of those four women now sit atop a long list of Americans and Salvadorans subsequently murdered by US weapons in the hands of the National Guard in El Salvador.
(b) In February 1981, the State Department issued a sensational “White Paper” based on alleged Salvadoran rebel documents. Authored by a young, eager-to-please Foreign Service officer named John Glassman, the paper depicted damning links between the insurgents, Nicaragua, Cuba, and the Soviet Union. A smoking gun.
Unfortunately for Glassman and the Reagan administration, Wall Street Journal reporter Jonathan Kwitny got access to the same documents and found little resemblance to what was contained in Glassman’s paper. Glassman admitted to Kwitny that he had made up quotes and guessed at figures for the Soviet weapons supposedly coming to the Salvadoran insurgents.
(c) Certainly among the most extraordinary attempts to plant evidence was the Barry Seal affair_a complicated operation designed to incriminate the Nicaraguan Sandinista government for international drug trafficking. The operation began in 1982, when CIA Director Casey created the position of National Intelligence Officer for Narcotics. Casey’s handpicked NIO wasted no time telling representatives of other agencies that high priority was to be given to finding evidence linking both Castro and the Sandinistas to the burgeoning cocaine trade.
Coast Guard and Drug Enforcement Agency officers protested that this might be counterproductive since Cuba was the most cooperative government in the Caribbean in the fight against drugs and there was no evidence showing that the Nicaraguan government played any significant role. Never mind, said the NIO, the task was to put black hats on our enemies.
In 1986 Barry Seal, a former TWA pilot who had trained Nicaraguan Contra pilots in the early eighties, was facing a long sentence after a federal drug conviction in Florida. Seal made his way to the White House’s National Security Council to make the following proposition to officials there. He would fly his own plane to Colombia and take delivery of cocaine. He would then make an “emergency landing” in Nicaragua and make it appear that Sandinista officials were aiding him in drug trafficking.
Seal made it clear that he would expect help with his legal problems.
The Reagan White House jumped at the offer. Seal’s plane was flown to Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, where it was fitted with secret cameras to enable Seal to photograph Nicaraguan officials in the act of assisting him with the boxes of cocaine.
The operation went as planned. Seal flew to Colombia and then to Nicaragua where he landed at a commercial airfield. There he was met by a Nicaraguan named Federico Vaughan, who helped with the offloading and reloading of boxes of cocaine and was duly photographed_not very well, it turned out, because the special cameras malfunctioned. Though blurred and grainy, the photos were delivered to the White House, and a triumphant Ronald Reagan went on national TV to show that the Sandinistas were not only Communists but also criminals intent on addicting America’s youth. What more justification was needed for the Contra war against the Sandinistas!
Again, the Wall Street Journal’s Jonathan Kwitny played the role of skunk at the picnic, pointing out substantial flaws in the concocted story. Vaughan, who according to the script was an assistant to Nicaraguan Interior Minister Tomas Borge, was shown not to be what he claimed. Indeed, congressional investigators found that the telephone number called by Seal to contact Vaughn belonged to the US embassy in Managua.
It was yet another fiasco, and Seal paid for it with his life. His Colombian drug suppliers were not amused when the Reagan administration identified him publicly as a US undercover agent. As he awaited trial on other narcotics charges in Louisiana, Seal was ambushed and killed by four gunmen who left his body riddled with 140 bullets.
5. Fabricated evidence also played an important role in the first President Bush’s attempt to secure congressional and UN approval for the 1991 Gulf War.
(a) Few will forget the heart-rending testimony before a congressional committee by the sobbing 15 year-old Kuwaiti girl called Nayirah on October 10, 1990:
“I saw the Iraqi soldiers come into the hospital with guns, and go into the room where 15 babies were in incubators. They took the babies out of the incubators, took the incubators, and left the babies on the cold floor to die.”
No congressperson, no journalist took the trouble to probe the identity of “Nayirah,” who was said to be an escapee from Kuwait but was later revealed to be the daughter of the Kuwaiti ambassador in Washington. With consummate skill, the story had been manufactured out of whole cloth and the 15 year-old coached by the PR firm Hill & Knowlton, which has a rich history of being “imbedded” in Republican administrations. Similar unsubstantiated yarns made their debut several weeks later at the UN, where a team of seven “witnesses,” also coached by Hill & Knowlton, testified about atrocities in Iraq. (It was later learned that the seven had used false names.) And in an unprecedented move, the UN Security Council allowed the US to show a video created by Hill & Knowlton.
All to good effect. The PR campaign had the desired impact, and Congress voted to authorize the use of force against Iraq on January 12, 1991. (The UN did so on November 29, 1990.) “Nayirah’s” true identity did not become known until two years later. And Hill & Knowlton’s coffers bulged when the proceeds arrived from its billing of Kuwait.
Interestingly, the General Manager of Hill & Knowlton’s Washington, DC office at the time was a woman named Victoria Clarke. She turned out to be less successful in her next job, as Press Secretary for the re-election campaign of President George Bush in 1992. But she is now back in her element as Assistant Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs.
(b) There was a corollary fabrication that proved equally effective in garnering support in Congress for the war resolution in 1991. The White House claimed there were satellite photos showing Iraqi tanks and troops massing on the borders of Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, threatening to invade Saudi Arabia. This fueled the campaign for war and frightened the Saudis into agreeing to cooperate fully with US military forces.
On September 11, 1990, President George H. W. Bush, addressing a joint session of Congress, claimed “120,000 Iraqi troops with 850 tanks have poured into Kuwait and moved south to threaten Saudi Arabia.” But an enterprising journalist, Jean Heller, reported in the St. Petersburg Times on January 6, 1991 (a bare ten days before the Gulf War began) that commercial satellite photos taken on September 11, the day the president spoke, showed no sign of a massive buildup of Iraqi forces in Kuwait. When the Pentagon was asked to provide evidence to support the president’s claim, it refused to do so_and continues to refuse to this day.
Interestingly, the national media in the US chose to ignore Heller’s story. Heller’s explanation:
“I think part of the reason the story was ignored was that it was published too close to the start of the war. Second, and more importantly, I do not think that people wanted to hear that we might have been deceived. A lot of the reporters who have seen the story think it is dynamite, but the editors seem to have the attitude, ‘At this point, who cares?'”
Does some of this have a familiar ring?
Ray McGovern worked as a CIA analyst for 27 years. He co-authored this article with David MacMichael. Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity (VIPS) is a coast-to-coast enterprise; mostly intelligence officers from analysis side of CIA. McGovern can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org