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In war, some facts less factual

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Shortly before US strikes began in the Gulf War, for example, the St. Petersburg Times asked two experts to examine the satellite images of the Kuwait and Saudi Arabia border area taken in mid-September 1990, a month and a half after the Iraqi invasion. The experts, including a former Defense Intelligence Agency analyst who specialized in desert warfare, pointed out the US build-up – jet fighters standing wing-tip to wing-tip at Saudi bases – but were surprised to see almost no sign of the Iraqis.

"That [Iraqi buildup] was the whole justification for Bush sending troops in there, and it just didn't exist," Ms. Heller says. Three times Heller contacted the office of Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney (now vice president) for evidence refuting the Times photos or analysis – offering to hold the story if proven wrong.

The official response: "Trust us." To this day, the Pentagon's photographs of the Iraqi troop buildup remain classified.

After the war, the House Armed Services Committee issued a report on lessons learned from the Persian Gulf War. It did not specifically look at the early stages of the Iraqi troop buildup in the fall, when the Bush administration was making its case to send American forces. But it did conclude that at the start of the ground war in February, the US faced only 183,000 Iraqi troops, less than half the Pentagon estimate. In 1996, Gen. Colin Powell, who is secretary of state today, told the PBS documentary program Frontline: "The Iraqis may not have been as strong as we thought they were...but that doesn't make a whole lot of difference to me. We put in place a force that would deal with it – whether they were 300,000, or 500,000."

John MacArthur, publisher of Harper's Magazine and author of "Second Front: Censorship and Propaganda in the Gulf War," says that considering the number of senior officials shared by both Bush administrations, the American public should bear in mind the lessons of Gulf War propaganda.

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