Tensions between the Trump administration and Iran have reached new heights after two of Trump’s favorite Middle East dictatorships — the Saudi Arabian and Emirati regimes — claimed four oil-tanking ships were “attacked” near the Emirati port of Fujairah. The reports were short on details, but Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates claimed the ships were damaged in sabotage attacks and implied Iran was involved. National Security Adviser John Bolton may have played a role in these reports, given his openly stated desires for military action in Iran.
History shows we should be suspicious of these claims. The U.S. has a long history of launching new and disastrous wars based on lies, and America’s corporate-owned media outlets have a long history of helping them do it.
The lies that led to the Vietnam War and the Gulf War
The Vietnam War was launched following the Gulf of Tonkin incident, in which it was claimed that North Vietnamese torpedo boats launched two unprovoked attacks on U.S. Navy vessels.
But these turned out to be lies. The first attack was not unprovoked, it was instead a response to U.S. support for attacks on the North Vietnamese Navy, and there was no second attack. Yet, as Fairness and Accuracy In Reporting wrote on the 30-year anniversary of the incident, the media ran with the story, and as a result the U.S. launched the war in Vietnam that led to the deaths of 50,000 Americans and millions of Vietnamese people.
The George H. W. Bush administration also lied to the American people to start the first Gulf War. The Bush administration used faked satellite photos to attempt to demonstrate that Saddam Hussein was about to invade Saudi Arabia. When a reporter with the St. Petersburg Times found satellite images taken at the exact same time as the photos circulated by the White House showing nothing but empty desert, the only response she got in return was simply “trust us.”
George H.W. Bush also repeatedly cited the testimony of an alleged Kuwaiti witness to Saddam’s crimes in the run up to the first Persian Gulf War. The witness happened to be the Kuwaiti ambassador’s daughter and her testimony turned out to be lies. She made wild accusations about Saddam’s troops stealing hospital incubators and leaving babies to die. It was later discovered that an American public relations firm working for the Kuwaiti government organized her testimony.
Is John Bolton lying to go to war in Iran?
In every recent report supposedly demonstrating Iran’s involvement in the “attacks” on the UAE and Saudi ships, the “official” quoted cited no evidence to back up the claim and cited no specifics of the alleged report. Perhaps even more damning, in Reuters’ own reporting this “official” was unable to state which group actually carried out the “attack” and instead named a number of suspects.
The Wall Street Journal report undermines its own lede late in the article by quoting a separate official who stated, “Washington and its allies don’t know who was behind the attacks and doubted Iran’s involvement because of the risk of escalation.”
We can’t be certain who the “anonymous official” making wild claims in regards to Iran is; however, there is no doubt that White House National Security Adviser John Bolton is the one orchestrating the intelligence around Iran.
In a report last week, U.S. officials said they believe John Bolton and the rest of the Trump team are exaggerating the intelligence related to Iran, following a Bolton statement that Iran was preparing to attack the U.S. or its allies in the Middle East.
As a result of this “threat,” Bolton announced the US was sending an aircraft carrier to the region. But in covering the story, no major media outlets mentioned that the carrier team the U.S. was “sending” had already been scheduled to head the region.
— Micah Zenko (@MicahZenko) May 6, 2019
Poorly sourced stories, anonymous officials, claims of a rogue regime planning attacks on U.S. interests, and a media broadcasting disinformation is an eerie reminder of the run-up to the disastrous war in Iraq.
Senators Chris Murphy (D-Connecticut) and Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont) as well as Congresswoman Ilhan Omar (D-Minnesota) and former Obama administration official Ben Rhodes have made strong condemnations of the Trump team’s threats, lies, and manipulation of intelligence in regard to the alleged Iran threat.
“Trump and John Bolton are openly laying the groundwork for another war,” Rep. Omar tweeted. “The only thing we’re relying on to prevent this is Congressional authority and Donald Trump’s sanity. We can’t rely on the latter, so we need to move on the former.”
This is chilling. Trump and John Bolton are openly laying the groundwork for another war.
The only thing we’re relying on to prevent this is Congressional authority and Donald Trump’s sanity. We can’t rely on the latter, so we need to move on the former. https://t.co/pP723mq20h
— Ilhan Omar (@IlhanMN) May 14, 2019
U.S. allies in Europe are also skeptical of the Trump administration’s allegations about Iran.
A top British general in the U.S.-led war against ISIS undercut the U.S. position on Iran, saying there was no increased threat from Iran in Syria or Iraq. Also a Spanish vessel pulled out of a US Navy group due to the Trump administration’s provocative actions towards Iran.
Bolton—who has a framed copy of Trump’s executive order exiting the U.S. from its nuclear agreement with Iran—appears focused on a war with Iran. Given that Bolton has openly and repeatedly called for strikes on Iran, there’s growing concern that he will likely push Trump into starting a war.
“Iran will not negotiate away its nuclear program. Nor will sanctions block its building a broad and deep weapons infrastructure.” Bolton wrote in a New York Times op-ed three months before Iran entered the nuclear deal with the Obama administration. “The inconvenient truth is that only military action like Israel’s 1981 attack on Saddam Hussein’s Osirak reactor in Iraq or its 2007 destruction of a Syrian reactor, designed and built by North Korea, can accomplish what is required. Time is terribly short, but a strike can still succeed.”
Bolton has already pushed for wars against North Korea and Venezuela, and he continues to unapologetically support the second Iraq War. While at Yale, Bolton was a passionate supporter of the Vietnam War, but refused to join the military himself.
In his memoir, [Bolton] explained that he felt that the war had already been lost, by liberals who had prevented America from doing what it needed to do to win. “I wasn’t going to waste time on a futile struggle,” Bolton wrote.
In April, Bolton held an “unusual meeting” at the CIA headquarters on Iran. To put the meeting in context, an NBC News report states,
“Then-Vice President Dick Cheney frequently traveled to C.I.A. to grill analysts about intelligence, [former CIA Director John] McLaughlin said. Critics later accused Cheney of seeking to cherry-pick intelligence suggesting that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction.”
John Bolton, who was part of the Bush administration, also played a major role then as part of the State Department, in manipulating intelligence about Iraq’s non-existent WMDs by sidelining part of the intelligence community that wasn’t giving him the answers he wanted.
Bolton even went as far as flying to the Hague in 2002 to threaten the children of José Bustani, who was, at the time, the head of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW). Bustani had been negotiating with Saddam Hussein to increase arms inspections in Iraq, which undercut the Bush administration’s rationale for war.
So Bolton may lie and manipulate intelligence, but could he really push for a fake attack? Given recent history, it can’t be written off.
In 2008, renowned investigative reporter Seymour Hersh stated that Dick Cheney had discussed plans to start a war with Iran using fake attacks from boats painted to look like they were part of Iran’s naval force.
“There [were] a dozen ideas proffered about how to trigger a war,” Hersh said, according to his source. “The one that interested me the most was why don’t we build — we in our shipyard — build four or five boats that look like Iranian PT boats, put Navy seals on them with a lot of arms. And next time one of our boats goes to the Straits of Hormuz, start a shoot-up.”
According to the New York Times, George W. Bush also discussed a plan with then-British Prime Minister Tony Blair on January 31, 2003 to paint a U.S. jet to look like a U.N. plane and induce Saddam Hussein to fire on it, creating a pre-text for the war in Iraq.
But the history of the U.S. considering the use of a staged attack to start a war goes back decades. In the 1960s, the Pentagon’s top generals considered blowing up U.S. military vessels and even staging attacks on the U.S. and blaming Cuba in Operation Northwoods. Also in the 1960s, the CIA considered using aircraft made to resemble Soviet planes in order to launch a fake attack, thereby justifying a war with the U.S.S.R.
With recent reports showing that Bolton has asked the Pentagon for military options against Iran, which include sending 120,000 troops and plans for a ground invasion, it’s clear we’re entering a very dangerous period that could very well lead to war.
Given Bolton’s past, we’re likely to see continued attempts from both Bolton and others within the Trump administration to manipulate intelligence, take provocative actions designed to draw Iran to lash out, and possibly even stage fake “incidents” like the “attacks” on the oil vessels.
As they’ve done in the past, corporate-owned media outlets will likely help sell this new war to the American people. This means it’s up to Americans to see through the lies to prevent another disaster in the Middle East.
Paul Gottinger is a journalist whose work has appeared at The Daily Beast, Alternet, and Middle East Eye. You can reach him on Twitter @paulgottinger.