At Large

The Phony Attack on Iraq

How the New York Times got snookered by a three-sided slide show.

By 7.10.02

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Someone was feeding stuff to the New York Times, but who could it be? A frustrated hawk, a worried dove, an annoyed bureaucrat, or, just possibly, none of the above? Could it even be, God forbid, that the Times had made the whole thing up? Well, no; the Times doesn't do that, but it knows what it knows, and it declines to know otherwise. Most likely the publisher and the executive editor thought that America had to be warned: The Bush Administration was sure to do something stupid over Iraq. Their concern was then passed on to the newsroom, and the result was the strange story that led the paper one day last week under a big two-column headline: "U.S. PLAN FOR IRAQ/IS SAID TO INCLUDE/ATTACK ON 3 SIDES."

The story began on an authoritative note. "An American military planning document," it said, "calls for air, land and sea-based forces to attack Iraq from three directions -- the north, south and west." According to "a person familiar with the document," the story went on, Marines and soldiers probably would invade from Kuwait, "while hundreds of warplanes based in as many as eight countries" would mount a "huge air assault against thousands of targets," and special operations or covert CIA forces would strike "at depots and laboratories storing or manufacturing Iraq's suspected weapons of mass destruction."

According to the "person familiar with the document," who kept turning up throughout the Times story, "the highly classified document was entitled 'CentCom Courses of Action,'" and had been prepared at the Central Command in Tampa, Florida. In other words, the Times story was right from the horse's mouth.

But it really wasn't, and indeed the document wasn't even a document, no matter what the Times called it. It was a "set of briefing slides." Meanwhile the Times said its anonymous source had expressed "frustration that the planning reflected at least in this set of briefing slides was insufficiently creative, and failed to incorporate fully the advances in tactics and technology."

This suggested that the anonymous source was a supporter of Gen. Wayne Downing, who resigned on June 27 as President Bush's principal adviser on counter-terrorism, and who wanted to use air power and special operations forces to dislodge Saddam Hussein. This was the so-called "Downing plan," and it was much admired by civilian hawks both inside and outside the Administration.

It would be reasonable to guess, therefore, that the Times's source was a Pentagon civilian. It would also be reasonable to guess that he was only at a junior level. The Times story said he had not seen all of the briefing slides, and so we may assume he did not have a high-level security clearance. It should also be noted that briefing slides -- or power-point presentations as they are more often called -- are much favored by military bureaucrats, and they usually serve PR purposes. One imagines the junior-level hawk, by definition a staunch conservative, watching the slides, and then thinking he would enroll the liberal Times in his cause. It boggles the mind, but there you are.

But that's only speculation, of course, and so return now to the purportedly factual Times story. It said the slides provided "a rare glimpse into the inner sanctum of the war planners," but it also said that neither Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld nor the Joint Chiefs or even Gen. Tommy Franks, the head of the Central Command, had been briefed on their contents.

In other words, the planning was still low level, and was nowhere near adoption. And it was also only a wish list. If we were to launch hundreds of warplanes against Iraq, as the Times said the war planners wanted to do, for example, it would be fine to base the planes "in as many as eight countries," but it seems unlikely we would find that many cooperative countries.

More important, the Times said the document -- that is, the briefing slides -- "outlined significant aspects of a 'concept' for a war against Iraq as it stood about two months ago," and that the concept was "now highly evolved and is apparently working its way through military channels."

But note the word "apparently." It was the Times's way of admitting it was only guessing, and that it really didn't have a clue. It was also tacit recognition of a front-page story in the Washington Post last month by the Post's very good Pentagon correspondent, Thomas Ricks. He wrote that "the uniformed leaders of the U.S. military believe they have persuaded the Pentagon's civilian leadership to put off an invasion of Iraq until next year at the earliest, and perhaps not do it all."

If that were true, then the "concept" was not working its way through channels; instead it had been quietly junked. As Ricks also reported, the Joint Chiefs had "hammered out a position that emphasizes the difficulty of any Iraq campaign while also quietly questioning the wisdom of a military confrontation with Hussein."

But if the Times were to accept that, there would be no story, and it could hardly warn, as its big headline did, about the "ATTACK ON 3 SIDES." But that wouldn't do, of course. The Times doesn't want to just report the news; it wants to make it. And as an alarmed Mary McGrory wrote in the Washington Post just the other day, "Now we are told by the New York Times that plans for an invasion of Iraq are well advanced."

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About the Author

John Corry is a former New York Times media critic and reporter.