Plagiarism and Fraud in George W. Bush's Foreign Policy


Rebecca Moore Howard

Syracuse University


The United States is a nation obsessed with facts.  We are daily barraged with random facts that we cluck over and gobble up.  Witness the quotidian lower left-hand corner of USA Today, page one:  On August 2, 2004, the USA Today factoid (aka "snapshot") told us how many electoral votes George W. Bush received in 2000 that in 1996 had gone to Bill Clinton.  The next day, the factoid alerted readers to how many people in the U.S. had been annually killed by lightning during the past five years.  Just how random those USA Today factoids actually are is questionable.  While the lightning factoid does indeed seem to be a bolt from the journalistic blue, the electoral vote factoid comes at the bottom of a page that trumpets John Kerry's failure to get a post-convention "bump."

Despite the seeming availability of information and the public's seeming hunger for it, U.S. voters and legislators do not necessarily insist that arguments be backed by facts.  In American political decisions, facts are unmoored from claims.  To decide an argument, it seems, all we need is ideology.  And that collective failing has enabled George W. Bush to use forged data and plagiarized documents to justify the invasion and destruction of a sovereign nation, with the support of the people of the United States.  Michael Moore, in Fahrenheit 911 and Dude, Where's My Country?, argues that this president has pursued a military course for financial gain.  Al Franken, in Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them, points to the lies about uranium purchased from Niger for alleged Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, lies that the President used to justify an invasion.  On 26 May 2004, Al Gore dissected the ways in which Bush's claims of success in Iraq are contradicted by the facts and by the interpretations of military and diplomatic experts.  The Washington Post examines the possibility that the most recent terrorism alert was based on stale data and was manufactured to counterbalance the effects of the Democratic National Convention; Howard Dean questions the motivations behind the terrorism alerts; and blogger Julius Civitatus graphs the relationship between terrorism alerts and Bush's popularity.  On 4 August 2004 the Independent of London reports on the "dirty" campaign tactics that Republicans are readying to counter Kerry's candidacy.  The next day, reports John McCain's condemnation of an anti-Kerry ad:  "I can't believe the President would pull such a cheap stunt." 

I'm a rhetorician with expertise in plagiarism, research, information literacy, and the ethics of argument, and from that base, I offer additional information about and interpretation of the Bush administration's construction of national emergency and foreign policy.  My focus is on the forged, falsified, misrepresented, and plagiarized documents that have been adduced in support of Bush foreign policy. In addition to what has already been established by other observers, Bush's misuse of texts confirms that his arguments are ideologically rather than factually based, and that he is unscrupulous in pursuing them.  George W. Bush seems willing to go to any length to achieve his goals, and those goals are too often in his own interest and not that of the country that he is expected to serve—much less the world in which his country does, indeed, wield dominance.  Foreign policy in the Bush presidency is advanced through a variation on what public relations experts call "astroturf" campaigns—in which "research" is manufactured in support of ideologically based claims that serve the interests of the President and his corporate allies.  The combined efforts of the British and U.S. governments on what came to be known as the "dodgy dossier" illustrate the method. 

The Dodgy Dossier

Actually, there were two of them—two dossiers produced by the British government that purported to be intelligence reports and that raised questions about their fundamental integrity.  Here I will focus not on the first dossier, from 24 September 2002 (but which has been "updated" as recently as 8 May 2004), used by the U.S. to justify attacking Afghanistan, but on the second—the one that U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell cited in his argument to the U.N. Security Council on 5 February 2003, the argument in favor of making war on Iraq. 

On Monday, 3 February 2003, the British government posted "Iraq—Its Infrastructure of Concealment, Deception and Intimidation" to the 10 Downing Street website.  The dossier purported to provide intelligence data supporting a hostile stance toward Iraq.  The decision to write this dossier had been made when little time remained before Hans Blix, United Nations chief weapons inspector in Iraq, would make a crucial mid-February report to the U.N.  In its previous (and controversial) dossier on Iraq, the British government had made some extravagant claims but had consigned them to the introduction authored by Jack Straw, the British Foreign Secretary. "But when it came to the [3 February] document," the Manchester Guardian would later observe, "there was no time for such niceties." 

By the next night, Tuesday, 4 February, the shortage of "niceties" in the new Iraq dossier was being detailed in a three-page email circulating among some anti-war academics and described by the Guardian: 

Full of academic outrage, [the email] explained how the so-called "secret spy dossier" published . . .  by the Government as a crucial plank in the argument for why the West should go to war was largely cribbed from an American postgraduate's doctoral thesis—grammatical mistakes and all—based on evidence 12 years out of date.

And, to cap it all, the finished document appeared to have been cobbled together not by Middle East experts, but by the secretary of Alastair Campbell, the Government's chief spin doctor, and some gofers.

It is no surprise, then, that when the email from Glen Rangwala—a 28-year-old Cambridge politics lecturer who stumbled across the plagiarism when he was sent a copy of the dossier by researchers in Sweden—reached two teenage Cambridge students they decided it deserved a wider audience.

One, 19-year-old Daniel O'Huiginn, forwarded the email to journalists. 


The 4 February email names four authors of the 10 Downing Street dossier:  "Paul Hamill, a Foreign Office official; John Pratt, a junior gofer from Number 10's Strategic Communications Unit; Alison Blackshaw, Campbell's PA; and Mustaza Khan, another official working under Campbell."  But in fact Campbell himself edited the dossier.  Campbell, it is important to remember, used to be the Prime Minister's Official Spokesman and was now Director of Communications and Strategy.  Not a member of British Intelligence.  The London Independent charges, "So desperate were Mr. Blair's aides to prove the case for war they published an outdated thesis by a postgraduate student and presented it as contemporary intelligence material. The Government's junior spin-doctors have been let loose on a matter as serious as war." 

The next morning, on Wednesday, February 5, U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell appeared before the United Nations Security Council: "I asked for this session today for two purposes. First, to support the core assessments made by Dr. Blix and Dr. El Baradei. . . . My second purpose today is to provide you with additional information, to share with you what the United States knows about Iraq's weapons of mass destruction, as well as Iraq's involvement in terrorism. . . ." Presumably unaware of the plagiarism in the British document, Powell alluded to its support for his case: "I would call my colleagues' attention to the fine paper that the United Kingdom distributed yesterday which describes in exquisite detail Iraqi deception activities." 

On that same morning, says the Guardian, "[T]he BBC's Today programme started broadcasting the contents of a classified defence intelligence briefing warning bluntly that there was no link between Iraq and al-Qaeda—there had been contacts in the past but, as a secular state, Iraq was anathema to the fundamentalist terror group—ears pricked up all over Whitehall."  As the Guardian describes the BBC's assertions, it also explains their significance:  "An unprecedented leak, it was immediately interpreted as a warning: if Blair continued to imply, in the teeth of the evidence, that there was some kind of connection between Iraq and al-Qaeda he would not be able to get away with it."

On Thursday, 6 February, commentators who were also presumably unaware of the allegations of plagiarism in the British document debated the trustworthiness of Secretary Powell's address.  Those criticizing it complained of a paucity of evidence for Powell's case against Iraq, urging the United Nations to support war.  In a WorkingforChange article reprinted on AlterNet, Geov Parrish observed, "Powell's evidence rests primarily on two assertions: that Iraq's government cooperates with Al-Qaeda, and that it has also sought to hide evidence from U.N. weapons inspectors."  Parrish continues,

There is still absolutely no evidence that the Iraqi government, now or at any foreseeable point in the future, poses a security threat even to its immediate neighbors – let alone to the United States, halfway around the world. There is no evidence that Iraq, a country whose military is a fifth of its size ten years ago, a country crippled militarily (and in many other ways) by the most rigorous sanctions in world history, a country whose every move is closely monitored, a country which knows that any aggressive twitch would be instantly suicidal, now even possesses the capacity to inflict harm on any other country – let alone is a threat to do so, and let alone that the United States is among those threatened.


Writing for The Nation, editor Katrina Vanden Heuvel went further, pointing out not just a paucity of evidence in Powell's argument but also asserting that some Powell's claims had already been invalidated by Hans Blix. 

Published on the same day is a contrasting piece in the Miami Herald that began, "If Colin Powell were a prosecuting attorney summarizing his evidence at trial, a fair jury would vote unanimously for conviction."  The Herald specifically challenged the argument that the case for war was being made on the grounds of pathos rather than logos:  "For Americans who think that President Bush's campaign for war on Iraq thus far has had more heat than light, Mr. Powell provided sobering, chilling details that bolster the U.S. position."  Later in the article, the Herald asserted that Powell had now put "hard evidence behind the administration's emotional push for war. . . ."  Writing for the Los Angeles Times, Bob Drogin noted that Powell had now revealed far more evidence than had previously been publicly available, but he also observed that many of the cognoscenti were skeptical of the conclusions that Powell drew from that evidence. 

Later that same day, word of the plagiarism in the British document began to spread to the press.  By the next day—Friday, 7 February 2003—the world (or at least that portion of it who were reading and hearing certain media sources) knew that Colin Powell's case to the United Nations was based in part on a document that was not only plagiarized but was also fraudulent:  a synthesis of stale, online, public-domain texts had been plagiarized by a politician's staff members and then represented as an intelligence document. "Glenn Rangwala,[1] an Iraq specialist at Cambridge University who analyzed the Downing Street dossier, told Reuters that 11 of its 19 pages were 'taken wholesale from academic papers,'" says Reuters reporter Dominic Evans, who continues,

Sections in the dossier on Saddam's security apparatus drew heavily on an article written last year by Ibrahim al-Marashi, an American postgraduate student of Iraqi descent who works at the Monterey Institute of International Studies in California. . . .  Experts who pored over the document said it also lifted material from articles published in 1997 and 2002 in Jane's Intelligence Review. 

On that same day, 7 February, the editor of Jane's confirmed that 10 Downing Street had appropriated three articles from its pages:  two 1997 articles by Sean Boyne, and one 2002 article by Ken Gause.  The Manchester Guardian notes the irony that Boyne is "an analyst opposed to war on Iraq."  The Times of London adds that some of the material appropriated from Marashi's article referenced "a 1999 book by the former weapons inspector Scott Ritter, who opposes President Bush's Iraq policy" (Bennett & Monaghan).  The 10 Downing Street dossier, which was designed to support war against Iraq, had copied, without attribution, extended passages from four sources available online.  Two of these four sources were written by an opponent of war with Iraq.  Passages copied from a third source were referencing another anti-war source.  So 10 Downing Street had not only engaged in extensive plagiarism but had manipulated plagiarized anti-war sources to make the case for war. 

And on that same day, Friday, 7 February, President Bush placed the United States on orange (high) alert, because of what the Detroit Free Press reported as a "torrent of terrorist activity worldwide." Five days later, the Village Voice would suggest that the alert might have been diverting attention not specifically from the plagiarism story but more generally from anti-war sentiment:  ". . . we'll probably never know to what extent Attorney General Ashcroft's orange alarm Friday was to drum up support for the coming war, or how much to rationalize the need for a conservative rewrite of the U.S. Patriot Act." 

And also on 7 February, Tony Blair's office acknowledged the plagiarism in the dossier—which amounted to acknowledging that it had been falsified as an intelligence document—yet, according to the Washington Post, "insisted" that the information in the report was "accurate."  The Manchester Guardian explains,

Downing Street insists that, for all the red faces, nobody—including al-Marashi—has challenged the accuracy of what is in the dossier. Academics disagree. "The information presented as being an accurate statement of the current state of Iraq's security organisations may not be anything of the sort," Rangwala's email concluded.


Guy Raz, speaking on NPR's "All Things Considered," agreed.  Barry Rubin, editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (one of the sources from which the British document plagiarized) concurs: "The fact is that the report was a good one. The information was correct and highly useful." 

How, please, could Rubin know that the information was correct and highly useful?  If reliable documents could be produced to prove that claim, why weren't they?  Why did commentators, while acknowledging that the dossier was both plagiarized and fraudulent, continue to assert that it was true, yet fail to demonstrate that claim? 

Powell dissociated himself from the research behind the report while reaffirming its findings.  On 8 February the Times of London announced, "Last night the US State Department said that General Powell was aware of the reports. 'The British report contained good information. We'll leave it to them to talk about how it was put together,' a senior official told The Times."

Powell declined to evaluate the reliability of the dossier's evidence, yet perversely, he continued to embrace its claims as evidence for his argument for war.  Whether the document was in fact a contemporary, timely intelligence document does not matter;  what matters is that it purports to support an argument that Powell wants to advance.  Facts?  Truth?  All that seems to matter is ideologically based claims. 

Through Sunday, 9 February, the news media carried stories about the plagiarism incident.  Yet those stories were usually separate from analysis of the buildup toward war.  Despite claims from the Left that the plagiarism was the tip of an iceberg of government deception, the Iraq dossier story was self-contained;  it did not enter into the media's main stories about the impending war. 

On 14 February, Hans Blix reported to the United Nations that the United States was withholding intelligence information from the weapons inspectors;  that Iraq was increasingly cooperative in the inspections;  and that the weapons inspectors had found no evidence that the Iraqis were engaged in new production of weapons of mass destruction. Though not mentioning the British dossier, Blix challenged some of the claims made by Powell in his speech to the U.N. the previous week.  The Security Council then voted by a "solid majority" to continue inspections.  The Washington Post concluded, "The session dealt a severe blow to the administration's carefully calibrated campaign to gain early approval for a U.S.-led invasion."  From the point of view of the Boston Globe, the Blix speech "complicated" the American position;  from the perspective of the Independent of London, it may have turned the tide away from war. 

It didn't.  The campaign of "shock and awe," which the Columbia Online Encyclopedia historicizes as "an airstrike aimed at Hussein personally," began on 19 March 2003. 

The war was declared over in only a few weeks, but the world kept asking about those weapons of mass destruction.  Yet on May 1, 2003, Time magazine observed that the majority of Americans thought the war had been worthwhile, regardless of whether WMD were found. American officials were now admitting that the WMD claims were false but were saying that WMD hadn't been the real reason for making war on Iraq anyhow;  the real reason had been "to establish a beachhead for democracy against terrorism in the Middle East."  The emphasis on WMD, the Time writer continues, had been for the purposes of winning public American support for the invasion.  Recurring to the February 5 Colin Powell presentation to the U.N. Security Council, Time observes that "so far, little evidence has emerged to back up some of his allegations."

It's okay to tell lies.  It's okay to plagiarize and falsify documents.  It's okay to mislead a populace that can gain access to reliable information only by mighty effort, by tirelessly accessing a variety of media sources from around the globe.  It's okay to dupe them into believing that there are moral reasons for making war on another nation, when in fact those "reasons" are themselves lies, advanced through plagiarized, fraudulent documents. 

And He's at It Again

It's not just that the Brits plagiarized and falsified a dossier nor that the U.S. endorsed and relied upon the document.  The U.S., too, was busily manufacturing evidence against Saddam—as became apparent in June 2003, when former U.S. intelligence official Greg Thielmann questioned Bush's use of intelligence data. 

And it's not just that Bush's questionable use of documents and corrupt methods of persuasion were confined to justifying the invasion of Iraq.  He's at it again, this time with reference to Fidel Castro and Cuba.  In a speech on 20 July 2004 that was reported in the Los Angeles Times and picked up by only a handful of other U.S. media, including the Common Dreams Newscenter, Bush asserted that Castro promotes sex tourism in Cuba.  Challenged on this, his handlers produced a source from the Internet:  a prize-winning undergraduate paper (Trumbull) written in 2001.  When Trumbull was subsequently interviewed about the incident, he expressed surprise as well as frustration:  Bush's speechwriters had misinterpreted what Trumbull was saying, and moreover, Trumbull's undergraduate paper did not cite its source on the topic.  Nor could Charles Trumbull himself, now a law student, remember what they might have been.  Another Presidential argument made without evidence!  Government by public relations:  decide what actions you want to take, and then offer insubstantial evidence for it.  That evidence can be plagiarized;  it can be fraudulent;  and it can be the undocumented work of college students.  What's next—the claims of talk-show participants as evidence for foreign policy? 

Grinding Bush's axes of evil against the Castro administration has not yet resulted in demonstrable loss of life in Cuba, nor has that government yet been overthrown.  Iraq is quite a different matter.  There, thousands of soldiers, soldiers of fortune, hired guns, civilians, and children have been maimed and killed;[2]  one country's infrastructure destroyed;  and U.S. integrity undermined discarded. 

With an eerie sense of déją vu, on September 3, 2004, I read the previous day's Martini Republic blog (DeLarge et al.), which asserts that Zell Miller's attack on John Kerry at the Republican National Convention was derived from two false email hoaxes, one of which Miller plagiarized from. 

It may not be easy to answer falsehoods with facts, but it is worth the effort.  That effort will have to be made by each individual citizen, through multiple means.  We cannot depend on a single medium—whether television, radio, film, print, or Internet—for our information.  Nor can we find a single reliable source.  The (inter)national emergency in which we find ourselves, an emergency rife with falsification and withholding of essential data, requires that each of us work energetically to gather, evaluate, interpret, and share information.  It requires, too, that we speak up, in whatever media are available to us—in our blogs, in the beauty salon and bowling alley, in public demonstrations—and encourage others to do the same.  If you are eligible to vote and have not yet registered, please do it now—before political chicanery or your own inaction robs you of the opportunity for honest government. 


First posted:  5 August 2004

Last revised:  3 September 2004

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[1] Rangwala's analysis would later be published on 11 February 2003 by the Montreal-based Centre for Research on Globalisation <>. 

[2] According to the Iraq Body Count website, as of 16 July 2004, between 11,429 and 13,398 civilians had been killed in Iraq.  Among the compilers of the database are Glen Rangwalla, who initiated the alert about the plagiarisms in the second dodgy dossier.  According to the website edited by Michael Ewens, as of 7 August 2004, American military deaths totaled 929, with another 5692 wounded.  On August 10, an editorial in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reports that 123 soldiers from other countries have been killed, along with somewhere on the order of 10,000 to 15,000 Iraqi combatants.  The numbers of "enemy combatants" are hard to pin down, because of the U.S. refusal to do a "body count."