Vietnam and Iraq: Intelligence Mistakes
Current debate over Iraq often centers over allegations that the Bush administration fixed intelligence to suit a pre-conceived policy.
Bush partisans disagree. They often suggest that errors about Iraq's WMD programs were just that, errors.
This brings to mind the now disputed "Tonkin Gulf incident" intelligence that LBJ used when he asked Congress for authorization to conduct American ground combat operations in Vietnam.
Our involvement in Vietnam ended tragically. Did it begin tragically? Who deserves blame? How much blame is shared? Was it fated to end tragically, because our involvement began in error? Ws it intentional error or accidental error? Did the beginning foreshadow the ending? Was it all inevitable?
From the Vietnamese perspective, just as with the different Iraqi factions, the whole debate differs, from all sides and all points of view.
Yet, when debating Vietnam or Iraq from an American perspective, which is the only one we can honestly try to speak to, the debate necessarily centers, for obvious reasons, on what reasons our President gives for war, how Congress responds, and what Consititions demands, requires, and allows.
Democrats now often note that our involvement in Vietnam began in earnest with with Eisenhower, following the French disaster at Dien Bien Phu. Further, they note that Vietnam had been part of French Colonial Indochina, much as Iraq was once occupied and carved out of the British Empire.
To over-simplify, many Dems suggest that LBJ inherited the problem, then he tried to improve what turned out to be incapable of American improvement. Thus, the tragedy of Vietnam.
Republicans point out that Ike never wanted to involve American ground troops in Indochina. Further, they note that it was Lyndon Johnson, who began America's ground combat role, after asking for and receiving authority from Congress via the Tonkin Gulf Resolution. (Which was based on disputed intel, as was the Iraq Res.)
To over-simplify, many Repubs believe Nixon inherited LBJ's tragedy, then tried to extricate "with honor."
(Incidentally, De Gaulle warned the U.S., from experience, not to go into Vietnam. Also, M. Chirac, an old Algerian war vet, warned President Bush not to invade Iraq. Whether or not M. De Gaulle or M.Chirac had the right motives will long be debated. Regardless, their advice now seems sound.)
According to the excepted story below, which we link to here, America's heavy combat involvement in Vietnam may have began by accidental intelligence errors.
If that is true, Vietnam's tragedy can now be blamed, in part, on a few errors made by a few guys in a some cubicle, rather than the Commander in Chief or the Congress.
(Incidentally, Bush has Halliburton in common with LBJ. LBJ's political career was funded primarily by a company (Brown & Root) that is now a subsidiary of Halliburton. The elder Bush worked with another company (Dresser) that is also a part of Halliburton.)
Why do Texas pols seem to be the victims of intel errors? Why was LBJ tricked? Why was Bush?
Are Texan President's fated to receive poor Intel that lead to war?
Scott Shane, New York Times, October 31, 2005:
"WASHINGTON, Oct. 28 - The National Security Agency has kept secret since 2001 a finding by an agency historian that during the Tonkin Gulf episode, which helped precipitate the Vietnam War, N.S.A. officers deliberately distorted critical intelligence to cover up their mistakes (italics and emphasis added by us)..."
"... first serious accusation that communications intercepted by the N.S.A., the secretive eavesdropping and code-breaking agency, were falsified so that they made it look as if North Vietnam had attacked American destroyers on Aug. 4, 1964, two days after a previous clash."
"... President Lyndon B. Johnson cited the supposed attack (Bush' "sixteen words," also accidental, inspired by the Niger yellowcake forgeries) to persuade Congress to authorize broad military action in Vietnam (Just like Bush's Iraq authorization) , but most historians have concluded in recent years that there was no second attack."
"The N.S.A. historian, Robert J. Hanyok, found a pattern of translation mistakes that went uncorrected, altered intercept times and selective citation of intelligence that persuaded him that midlevel agency officers had deliberately skewed the evidence." (LBJ was tricked! By accident?)
"Mr. Hanyok concluded that they had done it not out of any political motive but to cover up earlier errors, and that top N.S.A. and defense officials and Johnson neither knew about nor condoned the deception. (Whew, we were worried LBJ may have lied)"
"Mr. Hanyok's findings were published nearly five years ago in a classified in-house journal, and starting in 2002 he and other government historians argued that it should be made public. But their effort was rebuffed by higher-level agency policymakers, who by the next year were fearful that it might prompt uncomfortable comparisons with the flawed intelligence used to justify the war in Iraq...",
"... Mr. Hanyok believed the initial misinterpretation of North Vietnamese intercepts was probably an honest mistake. But after months of detective work in N.S.A.'s archives, he concluded that midlevel agency officials discovered the error almost immediately but covered it up and doctored documents so that they appeared to provide evidence of an attack."
"Rather than come clean about their mistake, they helped launch the United States into a bloody war that would last for 10 years..." ( Mr. Aid, an independent historian of the NSA said)
"The intelligence official (Someone who spoke with Timesman Mr.Shane, and confimed Mr. Aid's revelation of Hanyok's work) ... said N.S.A. historians began pushing for public release in 2002, after Mr. Hanyok included his Tonkin Gulf findings in a 400-page, in-house history of the agency and Vietnam called "Spartans in Darkness." Though superiors initially expressed support for releasing it, the idea lost momentum as Iraq intelligence was being called into question, the official said."
"Many historians believe that even without the Tonkin Gulf episode, Johnson might have found a reason to escalate military action against North Vietnam. (Sounds like Bush cleverly attributing Yellowcake to impossible to verify British reports, when the forgeries were busted)"
"They note that Johnson apparently had his own doubts about the Aug. 4 attack and that a few days later told George W. Ball, the under secretary of state, "Hell, those dumb, stupid sailors were just shooting at flying fish!"" (Sounds like something Bush would say.)
"But Robert S. McNamara, who as defense secretary played a central role in the Tonkin Gulf affair, said in an interview last week that he believed the intelligence reports had played a decisive role in the war's expansion.
"I think it's wrong to believe that Johnson wanted war," Mr. McNamara said. "But we thought we had evidence that North Vietnam was escalating." (What evidence? Cheney said he had evidence...yada, yada, yada)
Mr. McNamara, 89, said he had never been told that the intelligence might have been altered to shore up the scant evidence of a North Vietnamese attack." (Whiz kid?)
"That really is surprising to me," said Mr. McNamara, who Mr. Hanyok found had unknowingly used the altered intercepts in 1964 and 1968 in testimony before Congress. "I think they ought to make all the material public, period."
(McNamara is easily gulled. So much for being a whiz kid.)
"The supposed second North Vietnamese attack, on the American destroyers Maddox and C. Turner Joy, played an outsize role in history. Johnson responded by ordering retaliatory air strikes on North Vietnamese targets and used the event to persuade Congress to pass the Gulf of Tonkin resolution on Aug. 7, 1964.
It authorized the president "to take all necessary steps, including the use of armed force," to defend South Vietnam and its neighbors and was used both by Johnson and President Richard M. Nixon to justify escalating the war, in which 58,226 Americans and more than 1 million Vietnamese died."
(Very similar to the Iraq authorization, which is often falsely called a vote for war, by people who never read the authorization.)
"... the phrase, "we sacrificed two comrades" - an apparent reference to casualties during the clash with American ships on Aug. 2 - was incorrectly translated as "we sacrificed two ships." That phrase was used to suggest that the North Vietnamese were reporting the loss of ships in a new battle Aug. 4, the intelligence official said.
The original Vietnamese version of that intercept, unlike many other intercepts from the same period, is missing from the agency's archives, the official said." (Big mistake!!)
(N.B. Commenting to the reporter, an intelligence official said this mistake was like a smoking gun (no musroom cloud, though), that illustrated a deliberate falsehood. Later, Mr. Prados, from the National Security Archive, pointed out the tragedy of treating intel like the Holy Grail. Maybe that was uninteded irony on Mr. Prados part. We have never read the Da Vinci code, nor do we intend to, but some conspiracy theorists think the Holy Grail story contains errors too, maybe intentionally, maybe not.)