George Bush Sr. took no actions to deter Saddam Hussein from invading neighboring Kuwait on August 2nd, 1990. Did his inaction proceed from a failure of the CIA and other agencies to collect and transmit intelligence of the impending attack or from a judgment failure of President Bush, Sr. and his National Security apparatus?


It was a risk assessment failure on the part of President Bush and his national security apparatus, which included Brent Scowcroft, his national security advisor, Secretary of State James Baker, Secretary of Defense Richard Cheney and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Colin Powell.

In early July 1990, Saddam threatened Kuwait for conspiring to destroy Iraq economy and stealing Iraqi oil by cross-drilling. Then on July 17th, two weeks prior to the invasion, a US KH-11 satellite passing over the previously empty desert area between Iraq and Kuwait spotted Iraqi troops assembling on the Iraqi side of the border.

When the National Reconnaissance Office focused other satellite imaging devices on the area, it identified over the next week a formidable Iraqi force that included 300 of Saddam Hussein's most modern T-72 tanks, an elite Republican Guard division, and about 35,000 Iraqi troops poised in a coil formation on Kuwait's northern border. Even more ominous, a long line of fuel trucks had joined the tail of the coil, indicating the force was prepared to move an extended distance.

Those examining the imagery included Colonel Walter P. Lang of the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) and Charles Eugene Allen, the national intelligence officer for warning. They had little doubt that this was an invasion force preparing to attack Kuwait. By July 23 the DIA was conducting twice-a-day briefings on the Iraqi deployments. On August 1, Allen (correctly) warned the National Security Council's staff that Iraq would invade Kuwait with 24 hours.

The Bush White House had no reason to doubt Saddam's hostile intent towards Kuwait. On July 25th, the State Department instructed Ambassador April Glaspie to directly ask Saddam why his troops were massed close to Kuwait's borders.

According to the State Department transcript, Saddam answered: "As you know, for years now I have made every effort to reach a settlement on our dispute with Kuwait. There is to be a meeting in two days; I am prepared to give negotiations only this one more brief chance. (pause) When we (the Iraqis) meet (with the Kuwaitis) and we see there is hope, then nothing will happen. But if we are unable to find a solution, then it will be natural that Iraq will not accept death."

He therefore made it clear that if Kuwait failed to acquiesce to his demands by July 27th, he intended to take other actions against Kuwait, and he made no effort to conceal the continued military build up from US satellites.

So there was no lack of solid intelligence. By July 27th, the National Security staff in the White House knew the precise order of battle of Saddam's invasion force, and, from the fuel tankers, that its range extended to Kuwait City. It also knew from Glaspie's meeting that not only had Saddam not renounced the use of force, but stated that he planned to take action against Kuwait. The issue for Bush was assessing the risk of an invasion against the cost of taking action, such as moving US jets planes to the region or issuing a warning.

Bush had many scenarios to choose from: 1) Saddam was bluffing and would not invade an Arab country (As Egyptian President Mubarak had suggested), 2) Iraq would move into the Rumayla oilfield, where it accused Kuwait of drilling into an adjacent Iraqi field 3) Iraq would take the disputed islands of Warba and Bubiyan (as Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze suggested) or 4) Saddam intended to occupy all of Kuwait.

Bush, as President, made a judgment call: not to act. In doing so, he mistook intelligence from his agencies (satellite imagery) for disinformation (bluffing) and mistook misinformation from foreign sources (Shevardnadze, Mubarak) for intelligence.