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James Bamford: The Gulf of Tonkin Incident, Operation Northwoods, and Iraq

History is layered with the bodies of those who have died when someone mistakes zealotry for patriotism and pretext for truth

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U.S.A. Today

August 29, 2002

Bush wrong to use pretext as excuse to invade Iraq

By James Bamford

As the Bush administration raises prospects of war with Iraq, USA TODAY asked experts to explore critical military, diplomatic and political factors involved and the possible consequences. This is part of that occasional series.

Vice President Cheney's speech this week showed that the administration has no new evidence to support its claim that Iraq poses an immediate threat to the United States. Instead, Cheney used standard, vague terms: "no doubt" Saddam Hussein has weapons of mass destruction or will acquire nuclear weapons "fairly soon." The administration also points to the possible presence of fleeing al-Qaeda members in northern Iraq, perhaps of senior rank. But it has difficulty tying them directly to Saddam because the area is largely under the control of Kurdish opposition leader Jallal Tallabani, who has worked with the Bush administration against Saddam.

Without convincing evidence of imminent danger, administration officials have been dusting off old cases that hint at Iraqi plots and conspiracies, but are unsupported by facts. Many worry that such incidents will be exploited as pretexts to justify pre-emptive strikes. The Navy, for instance, is considering changing the status of a pilot shot down over Iraq during the Gulf War from missing in action to captured. But, given no known physical evidence to support that possibility nor any new facts, some see this as one more cynical political pretext for invasion.

Bush administration officials also have been reviving the old story that Sept. 11 hijacker Mohamed Atta met in the Czech Republic capital of Prague with an Iraqi agent five months before the attacks — a possible link between Iraq and al-Qaeda. An unnamed senior administration official told the Los Angeles Times that evidence of such a meeting "holds up." A federal law enforcement official, the Times reported, said the FBI has been reviewing Atta's records with "renewed vigor" for a possible link to Iraq. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld recently added at a news conference that Iraq "had a relationship" with al-Qaeda.

But senior U.S. intelligence officials have discounted the meeting. "We ran down literally hundreds of thousands of leads and checked every record we could get our hands on," said FBI Director Robert Mueller. The records revealed that Atta was in Virginia Beach during the time he supposedly met the Iraqi in Prague.

While the administration is under increasing pressure to make its case for invasion, using as pretexts supposed instances such as these carries grave dangers. The past holds lessons about pretext and making the right — and wrong — decisions.

One of the most outrageous uses of pretext took place during the Kennedy administration after the failed Bay of Pigs operation, in which the CIA wrongly underestimated the amount of internal support for Fidel Castro.

With the CIA out of the picture, the Joint Chiefs of Staff saw a grand opportunity for the military to launch an all-out war against Cuba. But they needed a pretext. The answer was Operation Northwoods: The Joint Chiefs would secretly launch a war of terror on the U.S. public — then blame it on Castro.

According to long-hidden top-secret documents I obtained from the National Archives, Operation Northwoods called for innocent people to be shot on U.S. streets; for boats carrying refugees fleeing Cuba to be sunk; for waves of terrorism in Washington, Miami and elsewhere. Using phony evidence to blame Castro, the Joint Chiefs would get their needed pretext.

Each member of the Joint Chiefs signed off on the plan. Then the chairman hand-carried it to Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara — who promptly rejected it.

Two years later, U.S. generals were looking for another pretext to go to war, this time in Vietnam. In the summer of 1964, President Lyndon Johnson sought to escalate U.S. involvement in Vietnam's civil war. The decision was made to launch hit-and-run attacks against coastal North Vietnamese targets while a slow-moving destroyer, the USS Maddox, sat just off the shore in international waters. Knowing the North Vietnamese would associate the nearby warship with the attacks, the Pentagon likely hoped to provoke a retaliatory strike against the vessel — the perfect pretext for a declaration of war.

Indeed, North Vietnamese patrol boats fired torpedoes at the ship — but missed. The Maddox sailed safely away. McNamara ordered the largely useless coastal attacks to continue and sent the ship back to its original dangerous position.

Two nights after the first attack, the USS C. Turner Joy, escorting the Maddox, sent messages to Washington indicating the ship was under attack. It was later found that no such attack took place; the messages were blamed on nervous crewmembers and radar "ghost images." But it was the excuse Johnson and McNamara sought. They pressed Congress for a declaration of war. Captured by the moment's hysteria, Congress passed the Gulf of Tonkin resolution. An incident that never took place became the pretext for expanding a war that would claim the lives of more than 50,000 Americans as well as a million-plus Vietnamese.

"Many of the people who were associated with the war were looking for any excuse to initiate bombing," recalled George Ball, at the time a State undersecretary. "The sending of a destroyer up the Tonkin Gulf was primarily for provocation. ... There was a feeling that if the destroyer got into some trouble, that it would provide the provocation we needed."

History is layered with the bodies of those who have died when someone mistakes zealotry for patriotism and pretext for truth. If the Bush administration does embark on a bloody war in the Middle East, it should be based on certainty, not pretext.

James Bamford, author of Body of Secrets: Anatomy of the Ultra-Secret National Security Agency, is a member of USA TODAY's board of contributors.

Further Reading:

The Morgan Report - A 9/11 Commission & War on Terror Retrospective?