Smart Bribes: Centcom's real secret weapon

By Fred Kaplan (May 20, 2003)

A fascinating piece in the May 19 Defense News quotes Gen. Tommy Franks, chief of U.S. Central Command, confirming what had until now been mere rumors picked up by dubious Arab media outlets-that, before Gulf War II began, U.S. special forces had gone in and bribed Iraqi generals not to fight.

"I had letters from Iraqi generals saying, 'I now work for you,' " Franks told Defense News reporter Vago Muradian in a May 10 interview. The article quotes a "senior official" as adding, "What is the effect you want? How much does a cruise missile cost? Between one and 2.5 million dollars. Well, a bribe is a PGM [precision-guided munition]-it achieves the aim, but it's bloodless and there's zero collateral damage." One official is quoted as saying that, in the scheme of the whole military operation, the bribery "was just icing on the cake." But another says that it "was as important as the shooting part, maybe more important. We knew that some units would fight out of a sense of duty and patriotism, and they did. But it didn't change the outcome because we knew how many of these [Iraqi generals] were going to call in sick." All of which further reinforces the vague sense that-for all the embeds, armchair generals, and round-the-clock news coverage-we still know startlingly little about what really happened in this war. The Defense News article raises what could be the biggest military question of all: Just what won this war so swiftly-the high-tech prowess and agility of the modern American military, or old-fashioned back-alley spycraft?

Which was the real wonder weapon-the smart bomb or the greenback? I suspect a bit of both. But before we rush ahead and restructure the entire U.S. military on the basis of the lessons from the war, it might be good to find out for sure just what those lessons were. A month ago, I posed eight unanswered questions about this war. (Only one of them has since been resolved.) Here's another: How many Iraqi generals, representing how many brigades or divisions, were paid off? How much money passed hands? Where are these generals today? As a broader assessment, to what degree did the Republican Guard collapse because they were bombarded and outmaneuvered-and to what degree because their generals went on paid leave? This is not a matter of mere curiosity. If bribes played a major part, we should understand that the tactic may not work against more ideologically driven commanders-say, North Koreans (who would have nothing to buy with the money, in any case) or al-Qaida higher-ups (who have apparently turned up their noses at the $25 million reward for turning over Osama Bin Laden). While we're at it, here's another question, about the continuing mystery of the missing weapons of mass destruction. When Secretary of State Colin Powell made his Feb. 5 presentation to the U.N. Security Council-the much-lauded but rejected pitch for taking action against Iraq-he played two tape recordings of intercepted conversations between Iraqi officers. On one, from Nov. 26, 2002, the day before U.N. weapons inspectors were to visit a certain site, an Iraqi colonel told a Republican Guard brigadier general, "We evacuated everything. We don't have anything left." On the second, one Republican Guard commander told another, "Write this down: Remove the expression 'nerve agent' whenever it comes up in wireless instructions." These tapes struck many at the time as persuasive evidence (I called it a "smoking gun") that a) Iraq possessed illegal weapons, b) was deliberately hiding them from the inspectors, and c) was not likely to give up the weapons on its own. So, here's the question, which could now presumably be answered: Who were these officers on the tapes? Are they still alive? Were they among the Iraqi officers who were bribed before the war? Were they taken away someplace and interrogated-or could they be interrogated now-on exactly what was "evacuated" and just where those hushed-up "nerve agents" are? If not, why not? The U.S. intelligence officials involved in this intercept must have known, or could have found out, the identities of the Iraqis speaking. Is it possible that we let these A-list witnesses disappear?

Fred Kaplan writes the "War Stories" column for Slate.

home vicpeace.org