A lie about Mike Pompeo’s Gulf War service started with an anonymous Wikipedia edit

Mike Pompeo testifying to the Senate during hearings on his appointment as Secretary of State.
Mike Pompeo testifying to the Senate during hearings on his appointment as Secretary of State.
Image: Reuters/Leah Millis
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

US Central Intelligence Agency director and Army veteran Mike Pompeo never served in the Gulf War.

But that’s not what prominent members of the US Congress and major media outlets have said in articles and in public statements in recent months. Pompeo was never deployed there, the CIA says.

The fake claim seems to have first appeared in public in a Wikipedia biography of Pompeo, which was changed anonymously in December 2016. Pompeo has never repeated it himself, but he and the CIA have never corrected the prominent error.

The Los Angeles Times, the Wall Street Journal, and the New Yorker reported incorrectly last month that Pompeo was an Army officer who served in the 1991 Gulf War. South Carolina Republican Congressman Trey Gowdy cited his Gulf War service in an April 12 letter expressing his support for Pompeo’s nomination as Secretary of State, and Florida senator Marco Rubio referred to his service in the Gulf in a Senate session in January last year.

But after Ned Price, a former CIA spokesman, questioned Pompeo’s Gulf War service on Twitter, Anna Merlan, a reporter with Gizmodo Media Group, reported on April 20 that the CIA had told her that Pompeo had never served there. The CIA confirmed this to Quartz, saying Pompeo “was in the Army during the Gulf War, but he didn’t deploy to that theater.”

Wikipedia is the expert

The situation shows how much major media outlets have come to rely on Wikipedia, a crowd-sourced encyclopedia run by the Wikimedia Foundation, a non-profit that employs less than 300 people.

Early Pompeo media reports don’t mention his Gulf War “service.” The closest connection is a July 2014 Wichita Eagle report that Pompeo left the US Army because the “military began drawing down after the first Gulf War,” but it never says he served in the war.

Pompeo served in the Army after graduating first in his class from West Point in his 1986, his official CIA biography says. He “served as a cavalry officer patrolling the Iron Curtain before the fall of the Berlin Wall,” the biography says, and also “served with the 2nd Squadron, 7th Cavalry in the US Army’s Fourth Infantry Division.”

But from Dec. 1, 2016 until the error was corrected on April 20, 2018, Pompeo’s Wikipedia entry also said he served with that division “in the Gulf War.” The article was viewed 886,777 times during 2017, Wikipedia says.

Pompeo’s bogus Gulf War service appears to have been added to his Wikipedia profile by an IP address usually assigned to the Richmond, Virginia area. The changes included the same sentence about his military unit as Pompeo’s biography from the CIA and his Congressional years, but added a new sentence: “He served his last tour in the Gulf War.” The Wikipedia entry was flagged by another editor within hours as needing better sourcing (see line 116).

A LexisNexis database search of news publications and broadcast transcripts shows no mention of Pompeo serving in the Gulf until a Washington Post article on Dec. 7, 2016—six days after the information was added to Pompeo’s Wikipedia entry. In the weeks following, the error was repeated by The Globe and Mail, on Dec. 13, then Rubio in the Senate on Jan. 23, and then by multiple news outlets.

The user who made the changes on Wikipedia made them from a mobile phone, the site’s history shows. Because phone IPs can change as users move between locations, it’s impossible to know if the user had made other edits previously or since. Only one other Wikipedia edit has come from the same IP address, a change to the entry for US Army Sargent Gary Gordon, who died in the “Black Hawk Down” accident in Somalia in 1993. The change, adding “Persian Gulf War” to Gordon’s list of battles (a fact also reflected on Gordon’s headstone), was made minutes after the changes to Pompeo’s entry:

Image for article titled A lie about Mike Pompeo’s Gulf War service started with an anonymous Wikipedia edit

Why not correct it?

Pompeo, a former Congressman from Kansas, has become one of the rising stars in Donald Trump’s ever-shifting cabinet. He was nominated to be Secretary of State, America’s top diplomat, in March. He was recently dispatched to North Korea to meet with dictator Kim Jong-un, ahead of a summit between the dictator and Trump that could have global repercussions.

Just about anyone could have added some fake military history to Pompeo’s Wikipedia page. But the fact that no one in the US government noticed, or corrected it, or let members of Congress or the media know they had the wrong information as they were making public statements about him, is puzzling.

The White House, and Senator Tom Cotton, one of Pompeo’s biggest boosters in Congress, didn’t respond to a request for comment. The CIA didn’t answer a follow-up question about why the error wasn’t corrected.

Pompeo has been known to tell colleagues he was a “Cold War guy” sent to Europe to “work on tanks,” one current US official told Quartz. “My presumption is there is some place where the language is loose.”

This article was updated to include the addition of a flag in Pompeo’s Wikipedia entry noting it needed better sourcing.