Below the Beltway

In February 2002, The New York Times revealed that the Pentagon was launching a new Office of Strategic Influence to "provide news items, possibly even false ones, to foreign media organizations." The story caused an outcry, and the Pentagon announced it was abandoning the new office. But Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and Undersecretary of Defense Douglas Feith, who would have been in charge of the new office, indicated that the Pentagon would not rule out some kind of disinformation project. In a press conference Nov. 18, Rumsfeld, when asked about the office, said, "You can have the name, but I'm gonna keep doing every single thing that needs to be done -- and I have."

During this year's buildup to the war with Iraq, and during the war itself, several stories appeared that had the earmarks of government disinformation. They were attributed to "U.S. intelligence officials," "intelligence sources," "defense officials" or "officials familiar with intelligence reports," which could include officials from the Pentagon, the Department of State and the White House, as well as the CIA. Unlike classic leaks, though, they did not reveal hidden truths that the administration wanted to cover up. Instead, they consisted of highly inflammatory but very dubious charges against countries with which the United States was quarreling over the Iraq War. They appeared first in American publications but were widely circulated overseas.

Most of these stories first appeared in the conservative Washington Times and were written by Bill Gertz. Gertz is controversial, but he has had his share of scoops. Last year he published a book, Breakdown, on the failure of American intelligence to anticipate September 11. In that book, he anticipated the findings of the congressional joint committee that were released in July. There is no reason to believe that he made up his reports, but there is reason to believe that people in the Bush administration used him without his knowledge to spread false stories about the Germans and the French.

On Feb.18, The Washington Times published a front-page story by Gertz about a North Korean ship, the Sosan, which had been stopped earlier on its way to delivering missiles to Yemen. Gertz wrote that according to "U.S. intelligence officials," the Sosan had continued on to Germany and taken "a large shipment of chemical weapons material," which it then carried back to North Korea. The story said that the chemical it acquired, sodium cyanide, was an ingredient of sarin, a deadly nerve gas. (In fact, sodium cyanide is used to produce the gas tabun, not sarin.) Germany's actions would have violated international agreements; they would have also cast doubt upon Germany's claim that it, too, wanted to deprive Iraq's Saddam Hussein of his weapons of mass destruction, though it opposed the American means of doing so. Germany, the story implied, was itself a player on the WMD circuit.

Gertz's story was reprinted in the United States and was cited internationally. Gertz was also interviewed on FOX television. But there is almost no reason to believe the story. State Department officials I queried told me they had heard of no evidence that it was true. The German embassy, which Gertz did not contact before publishing the story, issued a firm denial afterward and demanded that The Washington Times retract the story. Embassy officials say they offered to show Gertz classified documents from German customs and intelligence services to prove that the ship had never docked in Hamburg. Ships are large, relatively slow-moving objects that can be tracked by radar, and -- as I learned myself when I once did a story on a shipping company executive -- governments and international ship registries are aware of which cargo ships land at which ports.

Gertz said he couldn't recall the Germans' offer to see the documents. When the Germans offered to show them to me, I went to the embassy to read them. According to German customs officials, the Sosan never docked in Hamburg. According to German intelligence, the ship never even got through the Suez Canal; after discharging its cargo in Yemen, it headed back toward North Korea by way of Singapore and Malaysia.

By the time Gertz appeared Feb. 20 on FOX television, he was backing down from his story in the face of the German denials. Asked where the North Koreans had gotten their chemicals, he said, "That's an open question. The initial intelligence was that it was a German origin. The German government is denying that. There are also reports that it picked up the shipment in China. It may have been German in origin and transferred in a third country, such as Singapore." But when I asked Gertz about the original story, he said, "I stand by the story. My track record speaks for itself."

After the Iraq war began, seven Gertz stories were published in which U.S. intelligence and defense officials charged that the French government or French companies were secretly aiding the Iraqis. The most explosive of these, which appeared May 6, said that according to "officials familiar with intelligence reports ... the French government secretly supplied fleeing Iraqi officials with passports in Syria that allowed them to escape to Europe." Gertz's story got picked up all over the world and became a talk-show staple. It suggested that the French opposed the American invasion because they secretly supported Saddam Hussein's regime.

The French vociferously denied the story, but so, too, did the State Department. Spokesman Richard Boucher, asked repeatedly that day about the story, said that the State Department had "nothing that would lead us to doubt" the French denial. Last month, a State Department official who oversees Europe told me categorically, "There were no such intelligence reports." Rep. James Sensenbrenner Jr. (R-Wis.), the chairman of the House Committee on the Judiciary, requested that the Department of Homeland Security look into the matter. According to a spokesman for Sensenbrenner, the department reported back that there was "no indication that France supplied passports to Iraqis."

When I asked Gertz if the "U.S. intelligence officials" he cited referred to officials in the CIA or the Defense Intelligence Agency, he said, "It would mean people with access to intelligence reports. I am not going to go into it any further." That could include politicians on Capitol Hill who have access to classified information. But purely circumstantial evidence points to Rumsfeld, Feith and that part of the Pentagon that also houses the infamous Office of Special Plans, which promoted, among other things, the view that there were close ties between Saddam Hussein and al-Qaeda.

There was a telling difference between the way that State Department and Pentagon officials responded to Gertz's story about the French passports. While the State Department said it had no evidence to support the story, Rumsfeld virtually confirmed it. In a press conference May 10, Rumsfeld said, "France has historically had a very close relationship with Iraq. My understanding is that it continued right up until the outbreak of the war. What took place thereafter, we'll find out." When asked specifically about the passports, he said, "I've read those reports, but I don't have anything I can add to them."

Defense officials were explicitly linked to other possible examples of disinformation. On April 21, Newsweek cited an "intelligence officer with the Third Infantry division" who said that "U.S. forces discovered 51 Roland-2 missiles, made by a partnership of French and German arms manufacturers, in two military compounds at Baghdad International Airport. One of the missiles he examined was labeled 05-11 knd 2002, which he took to mean that the missile was manufactured last year." According to the French, these missiles were not manufactured after 1993 and were sold to Iraq before 1991, back when the United States was also selling military equipment to the Iraqis.

On May 24, Gertz, citing defense officials, wrote that "a U.S. military intelligence team in Iraq has uncovered a dozen French passports, and defense officials believe other French passports from the same batch were used by Iraqis to flee the country." State Department officials question the veracity of this story. And no one besides the "military intelligence team" that Gertz cites seems to have seen these passports. Repeated French requests to examine them have been ignored.

The United States and the Soviet Union used disinformation techniques against each other at the height of the Cold War, but disinformation, like political assassinations, was something that the United States had officially repudiated in the last three decades. Under the Bush administration, however, what was once forbidden seems to have become acceptable. These stories suggest that while the Pentagon shelved its plans for an Office of Strategic Influence, it didn't abandon its effort to launch a new campaign of information warfare -- one that is spreading outrageous falsehoods at home as well as abroad.

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