On September 11, 1990, President George Bush rallied a surprised nation to support a war in the Persian Gulf with reports of a massive Iraqi army which had poured into Kuwait and moved south to threaten Saudi Arabia. At the time, the Department of Defense (DOD) estimated there were as many as 250,000 Iraqi troops and 1,500 tanks in Kuwait.
On January 6, 1991, Jean Heller, a journalist with the St. Petersburg (Fla.) Times, reported that satellite photos of Kuwait did not support Bush’s claim of an imminent Iraqi invasion. In fact, the photos showed no sign of a massive Iraqi troop buildup in Kuwait.
Journalist Heller told In These Times, which reprinted her article, “The troops that were said to be massing on the Saudi border and that constituted the possible threat to Saudi Arabia that justified the U.S. sending of troops do not show up in these photographs. And when the Department of Defense was asked to provide evidence that would contradict our satellite evidence, it refused to do it.”
The pictures, taken by a Soviet satellite on September 11 and 13, were acquired by the St. Petersburg Times in December. The Times contacted two satellite image specialists to analyze the photos: Peter Zimmerman, a nuclear physicist who now is a professor of engineering at George Washington University in Washington, D.C.; and a former image specialist for the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) who asked to remain anonymous.
The specialists saw extensive U.S. occupation at the Dhahran Airport in Saudi Arabia, but few Iraqi troops or weapons in Kuwait. They said the roads showed no evidence of a massive tank invasion, there were no tent cities or troop concentrations, and the main Kuwaiti air base appeared deserted. Both analysts agreed there were several possible explanations for their inability to spot Iraqi forces: the troops could have been well camouflaged, or they could have been widely dispersed, or the Soviets deliberately or accidentally produced a photo taken before the Iraqi invasion. But the latter explanation was not considered likely and, given the reported massive deployment, the specialists found it “really hard to believe” they could miss them even if they were well camouflaged and/or widely dispersed.
When asked by the Times for evidence to support the official U.S. estimate of the Iraqi buildup, the Defense Department said “We have given conservative estimates of Iraqi numbers based on various intelligence resources, and those are the numbers we stand by.”
While the St. Petersburg Times submitted Heller’s story to both the Associated Press and the Scripps-Howard news service, neither wire service carried the story.
SSU CENSORED RESEARCHER: MARIA BROSNAN
SOURCE: ST. PETERSBURG TIMES, 1/6/91 11321 U.S. 19, Fort Richey, FL 34668
Reprinted in: IN THESE TIMES, 2040 N. Milwaukee Ave., Chicago, IL 60647, DATE: 2/27/91
TITLE: “Public doesn’t get picture with Gulf satellite photos” AUTHOR: Jean Heller
COMMENTS: St. Petersburg Times journalist Jean Heller said that while the story appeared on page one of the St. Petersburg Times, and was made available to The Associated Press, the Scripps-Howard wire service and CNN, none chose to use it. ” … It failed to get any national attention at all until after the Persian Gulf War ended, and it was picked up and reprinted in an alternative newspaper in Chicago (In These Times), she said. “The main-line media still have not picked up on the story, despite the fact that the Pentagon now admits that the number of Iraqis in and around Kuwait was overestimated by American military intelligence.”
Heller added that while the story should have received wider coverage before the war began, and lives were lost, the public deserves to know the truth about the Iraqi threat even now. “Some data, newly released, indicates that the administration, knowingly or through misreading of intelligence data, way over-estimated the number of Iraqis and their state of readiness in and around Kuwait. If that’s true, the public still deserves to know.”
Heller says she discussed the issue on about two dozen live radio talk shows from coast to coast during the war and has been interviewed by the publisher of Harper’s magazine. (John R. MacArthur, publisher of Harper’s, is author of the “Second Front: Censorship and Propaganda in the Gulf War.”) She adds that MacArthur cited the story as one of the only efforts by any national media to break through the government’s wall of disinformation and packaged information and get at the truth.
Heller concludes that ‘The (St. Petersburg) Times itself could not have done any more to get the story out there. The paper paid a great deal of money to get the photos, spent a great deal of time and effort to reproduce them, and played the story at the top of page one. But nobody wanted to listen.”