Faulty Intelligence Has Misled America in a String of Wars

Roundup: Historians' Take

Matthew Wall, author of a forthcoming book on Grenada, writing in Slate (Feb. 3, 2004):

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 Cuban 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.

Click here to read the rest of this article, which explores intellige cefailures in connection with Vietnam, Pearl Harbor, World War I, and the Spanish-American War.

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