Deceiving Saddam

Was the New York Times an unwitting collaborator in Pentagon misdirection?

By Richard A. Muller
Technology for Presidents
June 13, 2003

On Feb 2, 2003, the New York Times and other papers leaked the Pentagon's plan for the imminent invasion of Iraq. It called for "unleashing 3,000 precision-guided bombs and missiles in the first 48 hours of the opening air campaign, an effort intended to stagger and isolate the Iraqi military and quickly pave the way for a ground attack to topple a government in shock…. some experimental weapons are expected to be used—including high-powered microwave weapons that could flash millions of watts of electricity to cripple Iraqi computers and equipment."

I was fascinated by the plans and horrified by the leak. The Times had given away the most valuable information that Saddam Hussein could possibly want. The Iraqis now knew how to prepare, and they did that by hunkering down to counter the coming shock and awe. They would fight the battle in same way the great boxer Muhammad Ali did as his career waned: rope-a-dope, absorbing blows until the tormenter grew tired.

Only it didn't happen. After a small aerial attack on Baghdad that may or may not have killed Saddam, the military thrust ground troops rapidly and deeply into Iraq. The Iraqis were caught off guard as their southern oilfields were suddenly seized. I sat mesmerized as CNN's live video carried me rapidly over kilometers of desert. From the TV screen I could estimate the speed of the tanks and I could see that they would arrive in Nasiriyah within a few hours.

Saddam could see that too, unless he had shielded his satellite TV dishes to prevent destruction from the threatened high-powered microwave attack that never materialized. But he couldn't get his troops to Nasiriyah in time to stop the Americans from taking a key (and undefended) bridge across the Euphrates.

Reporters asked Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld when the shock and awe would come. Soon, he replied. Why had the military changed its battle plan? they asked. Because of the opportunity, Pentagon briefers replied. The putative decapitation had supposedly created disarray in the Iraqi military, so a last-minute change made sense.

I'm skeptical of this explanation. My guess is that the Pentagon just didn't want to admit that it had purposely leaked a discarded battle plan to the Times, and that its publication had successfully tricked the Iraqis into preparing for the wrong attack. The art of deception has a long history in war, and has often proven as important as the size of a force, its level of training, and the state of its weaponry. General Norman Schwarzkopf made good use of deception in Gulf War I. According to Jon Latimer's fascinating 2001 book Deception in War, Schwarzkopf’s commanders used press briefings to describe in detail how amphibious landings would be managed, giving the impression (without directly lying) that the invasion would come not by land but by sea. Psychological Operations pamphlets, put into bottles that floated to the enemy-held shore, had cartoons depicting a "Tidal Wave of Marines." Their nominal purpose was to intimidate the Iraqi troops; their real purpose was subtly to confirm the mistaken belief that the main attack would be amphibious. Then, at the last moment, 100,000 U.S. ground troops made a massive westward move, covering 600 kilometers of territory that had been cleared of potential Bedouin spies. Operation "Hail Mary" hit the Iraqis on their relatively unprotected western flank, and then circled around to attack them from behind.

The art of deception, in other venues, is known as magic. Its fundamental principle is misdirection. A magician suddenly appears, with much noise and fanfare, in the rear of the auditorium. While everyone turns, his assistants walk an elephant into the previously empty cage on stage, unnoticed by the distracted audience. A fascinating example (not mentioned in Latimer's book) comes from the initial years of World War II. Unbeknownst to the Germans (or even to the Americans) the British had made a working radar system that could alert them to Nazi airborne attacks. As a result, whenever and wherever enemy pilots reached the shores of England, they were met by British airplanes. The Germans concluded that the British had thousands of airplanes defending the coast, when in fact there were only hundreds. As a result of this deception, Hitler held back the massive airborne attack that could have overwhelmed Britain early in the war.

Misdirection is most effective when it makes uses of the habits and prejudices of the intended victim. To help keep radar secret (and therefore far more potent), the British spread a wonderful rumor. They leaked word that their pilot's performance was enhanced by excellent night vision—due in turn to a diet heavy in carrots! Even though it was utter nonsense, the story had the required verisimilitude, since carrots are rich in Vitamin A, and Vitamin A deficiency is a leading cause of a disease known as "night blindness." But the idea that extra doses of Vitamin A improve vision in healthy people is a myth, one perpetuated by my own mother when I was a child and, I suspect, even by today’s parents.

I have never seen this carrot deception story in print. I learned it from Luis Alvarez, who had invented a radar landing system, and had traveled to Britain during the war to teach the airmen how to use it. I later verified the story with R. V. Jones, Churchill's chief science advisor during WWII, when I had the opportunity to have dinner with him shortly before his death in 1997.

Tom Nixon, a professional magician friend of mine, is invariably asked after his performance, "How did you do that?" Tom whispers in response, "Can you keep a secret?" The expectant reply is invariably, "Yes!" Tom then says with a smile, "So can I." Every magician (including amateurs such as me) learns that when magic is explained, it loses its magic. When a spectator learns how easily he was fooled, he feels foolish, possibly disappointed, and often annoyed.

In contrast, magic unexplained can confer power. Magicians have often worked their way to positions of great influence. The Greek priestesses of Delphi employed numerous tricks and illusions, now uncovered at the ruins of the Temple of Apollo, that gave them enormous influence in the ancient world. Magicians were high in the court of Pharaoh—but they were defeated by the miracles (magic?) of the Jewish leader Moses. James Randi, following in the tradition of Houdini, exposed many religious charlatans who use magic tricks and phony healings to convince followers that donating money will give access to God. The art of deception can amplify power, and that is why its study is a key part of military training.

Did the Department of Defense deliberately deceive the New York Times? Were the leaked invasion plans a purposeful misdirection? If so, don't expect the Pentagon to confess. Such an admission would make the Times look foolish. The admission might even tarnish the military victory; given its quickness, the public might feel that such lying, even about war, was unnecessary and unfair. And candor now could make it tougher for the military to use similar deception in the future.

Richard A. Muller, a 1982 MacArthur Fellow, is a physics professor at the University of California, Berkeley, where he teaches a course called "Physics for Future Presidents." Since 1972, he has been a Jason consultant on U.S. national security. His historical novel The Sins of Jesus is about misdirection used 2000 years ago.