Jeffrey LewisIHOP of Doom

People often ask me why, as a philosophy major, I ended up in this particular field. I was an epistemologist — someone who studied knowledge and justified belief. The art of intelligence is, in that way, a massive exercise in practical epistemology.

Today, Erroll Morris — a wonderful film-maker who shares my epistemological predilections — continues his wonderful discussion begun last month of the doctored Shahab-3 images, including a brief commentary on Colin Powell’s execrable UN presentation:

ERROL MORRIS: No. Not that I’m aware of. But doctored photographs are the least of our worries. If you want to trick someone with a photograph, there are lots of easy ways to do it. You don’t need Photoshop. You don’t need sophisticated digital photo-manipulation. You don’t need a computer. All you need to do is change the caption.

[The photographs presented by Colin Powell at the United Nations in 2003 provide several examples. Photographs that were used to justify a war. And yet, the actual photographs are low-res, muddy aerial surveillance photographs of buildings and vehicles on the ground in Iraq. I’m not an aerial intelligence expert. I could be looking at anything. It is the labels, the captions, and the surrounding text that turn the images from one thing into another.6

Photographs presented by Colin Powell at the United Nations in 2003.Photographs presented by Colin Powell at the United Nations in 2003. (U.S. Department of State)

Powell was arguing that the Iraqis were doing something wrong, knew they were doing something wrong, and were trying to cover their tracks. Later, it was revealed that the captions were wrong. There was no evidence of chemical weapons and no evidence of concealment.

Morris’s mockery of the sweeping interpretations made in Powell’s photographs.Reinterpretation of photographs presented by Colin Powell, by Daniel Mooney.

There is a larger point. I don’t know what these buildings were really used for. I don’t know whether they were used for chemical weapons at one time, and then transformed into something relatively innocuous, in order to hide the reality of what was going on from weapons inspectors. But I do know that the yellow captions influence how we see the pictures. “Chemical Munitions Bunker” is different from “Empty Warehouse” which is different from “International House of Pancakes.” The image remains the same but we see it differently.7

Change the yellow labels, change the caption and you change the meaning of the photographs. You don’t need Photoshop. That’s the disturbing part. Captions do the heavy lifting as far as deception is concerned. The pictures merely provide the window-dressing. The unending series of errors engendered by falsely captioned photographs are rarely remarked on. – E.M.]

6 The Times a year later ruefully admitted that the “intelligence” was in error. “According to the interviews conducted by The New York Times, the administration’s argument that Iraq was producing biological weapons was based almost entirely on human intelligence of unknown reliability. When mobile trailers were found by American troops, the White House and C.I.A. rushed out a white paper reporting that the vehicles were used to make biological agents. But later, an overwhelming majority of intelligence analysts concluded the vehicles were used to manufacture hydrogen for weather balloons or possibly to produce rocket fuel…” Powell’s Case, a Year Later: Gaps in Picture of Iraq Arms, by Douglas Jehl and David E. Sanger, The New York Times, Feb. 1, 2004.

7 Powell’s words before the United Nations provide little justification beyond various appeals to authority:

“Let me say a word about satellite images before I show a couple. The photos that I am about to show you are sometimes hard for the average person to interpret, hard for me. The painstaking work of photo analysis takes experts with years and years of experience, poring for hours and hours over light tables. But as I show you these images, I will try to capture and explain what they mean, what they indicate, to our imagery specialists. Let’s look at one. This one is about a weapons munitions facility, a facility that holds ammunition at a place called Taji. This is one of about 65 such facilities in Iraq. We know that this one has housed chemical munitions. In fact, this is where the Iraqis recently came up with the additional four chemical weapons shells… Let me give you a closer look. Look at the image on the left. On the left is a close-up of one of the four chemical bunkers. The two arrows indicate the presence of sure signs that the bunkers are storing chemical munitions. The arrow at the top that says ’security’ points to a facility that is a signature item for this kind of bunker. Inside that facility are special guards and special equipment to monitor any leakage that might come out of the bunker. The truck you also see is a signature item. It’s a decontamination vehicle in case something goes wrong. This is characteristic of those four bunkers. The special security facility and the decontamination vehicle will be in the area, if not at any one of them or one of the other, it is moving around those four and it moves as needed to move as people are working in the different bunkers.”


  1. Muskrat (History)

    Talk about WMD… every time I go to IHOP for my eggs, pancakes, and bacon breakfast (pretty darn bad, right?) they ask “do you want cheese in your eggs?”

    Which has killed mroe Americans — Iraqi WMD or IHOP-induced heart disease?

    (The truly ironic thing, of course, is that IHOP in fact does have only two or three highly standardized building designs, including the iconic big blue roof, so they would be reliably identifiable in overhead imagery. There’s a thin line between Soviet-Style military standardization and aggresive brand marketing….)

  2. Major Lemon (History)

    Didn’t Debkafile at the time report that Saddam’s WMD had been secreted into Syria? OK, so the US probably got the “proof” wrong but who could deny that Saddam (may he rest in pieces) was a threat to his neighbors.

  3. FSB

    Agreed — of course photoshopping doesn’t hurt, in addition to the incorrect labels, as with the alleged Syrian nuclear reactor that was just about to start! Did they ever release their treasure trove of inside pictures?

    Ich don’t think so.

  4. erik (History)

    Perhaps ACW readers are also familiar with Edward Tufte, whose website hosts, among other erudition, a long-running discussion on similar topics.

  5. Allen Thomson

    Did anyone ever visit the Taji site after the invasion and try to determine what the buildings were actually used for?

  6. Major Lemon (History)

    FSB, please admit to all of us that without deception in international politics, your job would be less interesting.

  7. FSB

    right you are sir: I drive a cab — deception in international politics does, in fact, make my job fun — lots more to talk about with my rides!

    Oh, gotta go — someone’s flagging me!

    ===sent from my IPhone===

  8. Andy (History)

    The thing about satellite imagery is that it rarely stands alone, particularly for fixed facilities, which are imaged regularly over an extended period of time. Such was the case with virtually every Iraqi military/government-related facility of any importance during the 1990’s and prior to OIF. Imagery analysis, perhaps more than other types of intelligence, is subject to hindsight bias because interpretation of the images is usually based, in part, on past patterns of behavior at a particular site. So if certain activity is seen on an image, an imagery analyst will look at the historical record when attempting to figure out what is going on in the image.

    The example here reminds me of some of the post-mortems, particularly the IPP Phase 1 report (pp 91-95, big PDF).

    So taking that section of the IPP report into account we find the labels in the photographs were not necessarily wrong – but the inferred conclusion of what they meant was wrong.


    Taji was one of Iraq’s primary ammo depots (and a very large facility) and the site was visited after the war. According to the Duefler report, no chemical munitions were found, but UNMOVIC did find a small number of empty 122MM CW shells there just prior to the war in January 2003.


    You’re probably familiar with it, but one of the best works on perception and cognition of intelligence is Perception and Misperception in International Politics by Jervis particularly chapter four.

  9. Allen Thomson

    > Taji was one of Iraq’s primary ammo depots (and a very large facility) and the site was visited after the war. According to the Duefler report, no chemical munitions were found, but UNMOVIC did find a small number of empty 122MM CW shells there just prior to the war in January 2003.

    It is indeed very extensive, as Google Earth amply shows.

    But what I meant to ask was whether the specific buildings shown in Powell’s presentation were examined and any conclusions reached about their past use.

  10. Andy (History)


    Sorry, I don’t know. The only info I’ve been able to find is on Taji as a whole.