Frontline report names names, shreds the spin on how U.S. messed up on ISIS

Frontline's report focuses on Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and the story of how the U.S. missed the boat so badly on ISIS.
Frontline's report focuses on Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and the story of how the U.S. missed the boat so badly on ISIS. (Image courtesy of Frontline)

If you are sick of all the spin, lies and revisionist histories as to how the U.S. so desperately missed the boat on the Islamic State group, Frontline's "The Secret History of ISIS" is a report you definitely will want to see.

Finally, some clarity from the brightest beacon of journalism anywhere in public broadcasting. Yes, that includes NPR, which has nothing that comes close to Frontline in journalistic firepower or integrity.


Like most monumental problems in the Middle East today, this one grew exponentially during those years of insane foreign policy during the administration of George W. Bush when Vice President Dick Cheney was allowed to run unchecked, creating nothing but mayhem and destruction in his path.

The focus of the Frontline report is Abu Musab al-Zarqawi who wrote the game plan for the terrorist organization that is now inflicting its barbarism throughout the world — and broadcasting it on the internet. Zarqawi, who was killed in 2006, was succeeded by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, known as the founder of the Islamic State.


According to the report, the U.S. could have killed Zarqawi as early as 2002, and the CIA wanted to do just that. But the Bush White House nixed the plan, because it didn't want to do anything that would interfere with its excellent strategy to invade Iraq and take out Saddam Hussein.

You will hear from the CIA analysts involved at the time, whose candor in the special seems remarkable.

That's the other thing about a Frontline report, especially when Michael Kirk is writing and directing, as he is here: Everything — and I mean everything — is sourced. Names are named and the people naming them are on camera — this isn't hot dog, online, innuendo journalism.

You will hear how Cheney and his aide Scooter Libby, the Batman and Robin of Washington and international ignorance, wrongheadedly sought to link Zarqawi to Hussein and Osama bin Laden in an attempt to justify the invasion. And you'll see how Colin Powell went along with it and fronted that excellent idea in his speech at the United Nations.

One of several really bad consequences of that speech is that Zarqawi became a jihadi rock star with the credibility to go on to create ISIS.

The report shows Powell on camera saying now that he doesn't remember the details as to what he said about Zarqawi.

"I don't, I don't remember," he says. "Zarqawi was not anything uppermost in my mind. It was not a significant part of the speech for me. It was almost a passing reference."

Not exactly, according to the report.

"But it was more than a passing reference," the narrator says. "Seven minutes of Powell's speech was devoted to Zarqawi. ... His name is mentioned 21 times. ... Powell transformed Abu Musab al-Zarqawi in the eyes of the world."

That's what I mean about Frontline nailing it chapter and verse, facts versus "I don't remember."

See this report and wonder, after the decade of the history it chronicles, how the leader of the next administration, President Barack Obama, could have possibly compared ISIS to a junior varsity team.

If only our foreign policy leaders did their jobs as well as the journalists at Frontline do theirs.


"The Secret History of ISIS" airs at 10 p.m. Tuesday on Maryland Public Television and other PBS affiliates. 

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