History Lesson

The Bellicose Curve

Faulty intelligence has catapulted the United States into war all too many times before.

Should have listened to the Brits

After dragging its feet, the Bush administration has joined concerned Republicans and Democrats in calling for an inquiry into the intelligence failures in Iraq that helped pave the way for the American attack. But don’t count on us to learn from our mistakes. Iraq is only the latest episode in a centurylong series of misinterpreted, misunderstood, misapplied, suppressed, and flat-out incorrect intelligence that has led the United States into war.

Grenada, 1983: Grenada, a small, Caribbean island-nation whose primary export is nutmeg, was invaded by U.S. troops in October 1983. No, it wasn’t to secure the supply of the spice for the upcoming eggnog season. The ostensible reason was to prevent American medical students from being held hostage by a hardline Marxist government in the throes of an internal coup.

What was the primary source of intelligence for the idea that another Tehran-like hostage incident was under way? Concerned parents and the telephone game. Students at St. George’s University Medical School phoned home with news of the fighting in the streets, and their worried parents in turn called the State Department. At least one politically connected family contacted Secretary of State George Schultz directly. Passing through the hands of Maj. Oliver North, Adm. John Poindexter, and National Security Adviser Robert MacFarlane before eventually reaching President Reagan, the threat of students being taken hostage took on a life of its own.

The students were probably more in danger of flunking their midterms. The Grenadian government denied any hostage-taking intentions and dispatched police to protect the students during the coup. Since the medical school was Grenada’s primary source of steady foreign income, the government had no real motivation to take its students hostage. British intelligence categorically rejected the possibility.

The further failures of intelligence in Grenada would be comical were it not for the 23 U.S. combat deaths and the hundreds of Cubans and Grenadians who were killed. The CIA had no agents on the island, and the U.S. Army was reduced to using tourist maps. Detailed intelligence on Cuban and Grenadian troop deployments from the government of Barbados was forwarded to Washington, filed, and forgotten. The National Military Intelligence Center reported the medical students were all on one campus, when they were scattered at multiple locations. Consulting the medical school’s catalog would have corrected this erroneous assumption; and while the phone lines continued to operate for the duration of the three-day invasion, no one in Washington thought to call the students (or any other Grenadian phone number) to find out what was happening.

The Mayaguez Incident, 1975: Cambodian troops seized an American merchant vessel, the Mayaguez, on May 12, 1975, for allegedly violating Cambodian territorial waters. The 40 crew members were held captive in an incident disturbingly reminiscent of the capture of the USS Pueblo by the North Koreans in 1968.

President Ford dispatched a Marine force to rescue the crew, which was being held on an island. The only problem: U.S. intelligence had identified the wrong island. The crew of the Mayaguez was being returned by the Khmer Rouge to U.S. custody even as the Marine invasion force hit Koh Tang island. The aborted invasion was a catastrophe, resulting in 41 American combat deaths.

The Gulf of Tonkin Incident/Vietnam, 1964: In August 1964, North and South Vietnamese forces were engaged in a battle over an island radar installation several miles from one of North Vietnam’s major ports in the Gulf of Tonkin. The destroyer USS Maddox was monitoring North Vietnamese activities and in particular signal intelligence, which it was interpreting and relaying to the South Vietnamese. One North Vietnamese message indicating they were prepared for “military operations”—in all probability against the South Vietnamese—was interpreted by the skipper of the Maddox as being directed toward the U.S. vessel.

A quickly convened Congressional investigation questioned the authenticity of the reports, but the Johnson administration stood by the Maddox’s skipper. The official U.S. version of the ensuing incident was that North Vietnamese torpedo boats fired on the Maddox, after which the Maddox fired upon and sank several North Vietnamese boats. The North Vietnamese steadfastly maintain to this day that they never approached, much less fired upon, U.S. vessels; the Maddox had only a single bullet mark to show for the engagement. The incident served as the justification for the Gulf of Tonkin resolution passed by Congress Aug. 10, which authorized the subsequent U.S. build-up of forces.

World War II and Pearl Harbor, 1941: By far the most celebrated instance of a failure of U.S. intelligence prior to 9/11 was the “surprise” Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. And how much of a surprise it actually was, and to whom, is open to interpretation. As early as 1932, a 1925 novel that laid out the scenario of a surprise attack on Pearl Harbor was on the curriculum at the U.S. Naval War College. Intelligence reports in March 1941 warned of the possibility of a pre-emptive attack on the U.S. fleet by Japan. Sources differ, but it remains a possibility that signal intelligence intercepted in late November 1941, after the Japanese had decided to go to war and dispatched their fleet, positively indicated Japanese intentions.

More famously, last-minute decryptions of Japanese diplomatic communications on Dec. 6, 1941, resulted in a warning to U.S. Pacific commanders that was not transmitted in time to be useful in preparing for the attack because of radio interference; it was sent via commercial Western Union telegram and sat unread in the inbox of U.S. naval intelligence officials in Honolulu during the attack because it hadn’t been marked “urgent.”

World War I and the Zimmerman Telegram, 1917: U.S. public sentiment had been running against Germany since the sinking of the Lusitania by a submarine in 1915, but such losses at sea were not quite enough to bring isolationist America to the point of entry into a European war. The tide shifted in January 1917, when the British turned over a telegram their intelligence service had intercepted, sent by Germany to Mexico.

The Zimmerman telegram promised a return of Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona to Mexico upon successful “joint conduct of the war.” In other words, Mexico was being encouraged to invade the United States in coordination with a German declaration of war. The telegram was leaked to the American press on March 1, and the subsequent public outcry lead in part to the U.S. declaration of war on April 2.

There was one problem: The telegram stirred up a controversy akin to the uranium from Niger affair. The U.S. State Department, without independent means to verify the telegram, was concerned that it would be viewed by the American public as a forgery—and indeed some newspapers openly questioned its authenticity. German Foreign Minister Arthur Zimmerman at first denied, and then admitted, sending the telegram, but claimed weakly that it was intended as a warning to Mexico about Germany’s intention to launch unrestricted submarine warfare and not a genuine invitation to engage the United States. * Rumors continued to circulate after the war that the telegram had been a hoax perpetrated by British intelligence designed to push the United States into war, although the basic aggressive stance of the German foreign ministry underlying the incident was clear.

The Spanish-American War and the Sinking of the USS Maine, 1898: For the generation of 1898, the phrase “Remember the Maine” was as powerful as “Remember Pearl Harbor” was to the Greatest Generation and “Remember the Alamo” was to the John Wayne generation. The USS Maine was dispatched to Havana, Cuba, on Jan. 24, 1898, on a flag-showing mission whose ostensible purpose was to “protect American lives and property” during the growing Cuban uprising against Spanish colonial rule. On the evening of Feb. 15, quietly at anchor, the Maine exploded, sinking the ship and killing 266 crew members.

The U.S. Navy convened a board of inquiry, which declared, without any forensic evidence of the wreck itself, that the sinking was due to a mine dispatched by unknown parties. The yellow press, public, and President McKinley eagerly seized on this as an attack by Spain and a reason to go to war.

Subsequent investigations in 1976 and in the 1990s strongly suggest the explosion was caused by bad coal-handling procedures, which spontaneously combusted the fuel and in turn set off the poorly located ammunition magazine nearby. In other words, the Navy blew up its own ship accidentally.

As for the Pig War between the U.S. and Britain in 1859 … oh, let’s not go there. We don’t want to stir up hard feelings at 10 Downing Street.

Correction, Feb. 3, 2004: The original version of this piece incorrectly stated that no evidence was found after the war that Germany ever sent the Zimmerman telegram. (Return  to corrected item.)