Sometimes it really is possible to fail to see the wood for the trees. We need to be clear that Tony Blair is claiming that the threat of Iraqi WMD justified a massive war against Iraq. We are to believe that after a major conflict in which 88,500 tons of bombs were dropped in 1991, after eight years of inspections, and after more than a decade of continuous bombing raids, and of crippling sanctions imposed under the most intensive and sophisticated surveillance operation in history, both Blair and Bush received intelligence suggesting that Iraq was a “serious and current threat”.
As we now know, this alleged intelligence is said to have been related to WMD and links with al-Qaeda that did not exist. We are to believe, then, that a rush of terrifying information relating to non-existent perils – a rush so overwhelming that long-standing policy was abandoned – suddenly emerged to lead Bush and Blair to believe that nothing less than war was required to avert the danger.
This truly is remarkable. We might expect one or two erroneous reports warning of something that isn’t there – but a weight of evidence sufficient to actually revolutionise policy? Beyond the possibility of some kind of mass hysteria, it seems almost unbelievable – this just isn’t how the world works. Of course it could be argued that the threat was always “serious and current” – in which case why do nothing for ten years? And in which case why did Colin Powell say of Saddam on February 24, 2001:
“He has not developed any significant capability with respect to weapons of mass destruction. He is unable to project conventional power against his neighbours.”? (Quoted, John Pilger, Daily Mirror, September 22, 2003)
Blind And Deaf – Faith-Based Intelligence
On the BBC’s News At Ten O’Clock (February 2, 2004) reporter Gavin Hewitt suggested that the inquiry into the failure to discover Iraq’s alleged WMD would likely focus on two issues: 1) Did the intelligence services “get it wrong”? and 2) Did politicians “fail to ask the people here [MI6] the right searching questions?”
In other words, were politicians at worst merely indolent in failing to challenge the wild intelligence claims they dutifully passed on to the public?
Consider Hewitt’s range of possible questions in light of comments made by Greg Thielmann to CBS News last October. Thielmann, an expert on Iraqi WMD and former senior foreign-service officer for 25 years, claims that key evidence presented by Colin Powell to the UN on February 5, 2003 was misrepresented and the public deceived:
“The main problem was that the senior administration officials have what I call faith-based intelligence. They knew what they wanted the intelligence to show. They were really blind and deaf to any kind of countervailing information the intelligence community would produce. I would assign some blame to the intelligence community, and most of the blame to the senior administration officials.” (‘The man who knew’, October 15, 2003, www.cbsnews.com)
Ray McGovern, a former high-ranking CIA analyst, told John Pilger last year that the Bush administration demanded that intelligence be shaped to comply with political objectives: “It was 95 per cent charade”, he said. (John Pilger, ‘Blair’s Mass Deception, Daily Mirror, February 3, 2004)
Almost identical complaints have been voiced on this side of the Atlantic. Weapons expert David Kelly told the BBC’s Susan Watts that “lots of people” were concerned, that “people at the top of the ladder didn’t want to hear some of the things” and “in your heart of hearts you must realise sometimes that’s not actually the right thing to say”. (‘Beyond doubt: facts amid the fiction’, Vikram Dodd, Richard Norton-Taylor and Nicholas Watt, The Guardian, August 16, 2003)
“The 45 minute point was a statement that was made and it got out of all proportion. They [the government] were desperate for information. They were pushing hard for information that could be released. That was the one that popped up and it was seized on and it is unfortunate that it was. That is why there is the argument between the intelligence services and Number 10, because they picked up on it and once they had picked up on it you cannot pull back from it, so many people will say ‘Well, we are not sure about that’ because the word smithing is actually quite important.”
Curiously, in declaring Andrew Gilligan’s claims “unfounded” in his January 28 report, Lord Hutton said merely of Watts’ report:
“Ms Watts recorded this conversation on a tape recorder and the recording was played in the course of the Inquiry.” (The Hutton Inquiry, Statement by Lord Hutton, January, 28, 2004, http://www.the-hutton-inquiry.org.uk)
Brian Jones, a top analyst in the defence intelligence staff, told the Hutton inquiry how the “shutters came down” in government, preventing experts on chemical and biological weapons from expressing widespread disquiet about the language and assumptions in the September 2002 dossier. Jones told Hutton:
“My concerns were that Iraq’s chemical weapons and biological weapons capabilities were not being accurately represented in all regards in relation to the available evidence. In particular … on the advice of my staff, I was told that there was no evidence that significant production had taken place either of chemical warfare agent or chemical weapons.” (‘The whistleblower’, Richard Norton-Taylor and Vikram Dodd, The Guardian, September 4, 2003)
Jones writes in today’s Independent (February 4):
“In my view the expert intelligence analysts of the DIS [Defence Intelligence Staff] were overruled in the preparation of the dossier in September 2002 resulting in a presentation that was misleading about Iraq’s capabilities.” (‘Hutton report: the aftermath – there was a lack of substantive evidence … We were told there was intelligence we could not see’, Brian Jones, The Independent, February 4, 2004)
Responding to Colin Powell’s February 2003 speech to the UN, former chief UN weapons inspector, Scott Ritter, said in an interview at the time:
“He just hits you, hits you, hits you with circumstantial evidence, and he confuses people – and he lied, he lied to people, he misled people… The Powell presentation is not evidence… It’s a very confusing presentation. What does it mean? What does it represent? How does it all link up? It doesn’t link up.” (‘Ritter dismisses Powell report’, Kyodo News, February 7, 2003)
In his speech, Powell described as “a fine document” the Blair government’s February 3, 2003 dossier. Glen Rangwala of Cambridge University quickly spotted that much of the dossier had been copied word for word (including punctuation and spelling errors) from an article written by an American PhD student twelve years earlier and available on the internet. The only changes involved the doctoring of passages to make them more ominous: the assertion that Iraq had been “aiding opposition groups” was changed to “supporting terrorist organisations”. The comment that the Iraqi intelligence agency Mukhabarat had been “monitoring foreign embassies in Iraq” was changed to “spying on foreign embassies in Iraq”. (Jonathan Rugman, ‘Downing St dossier plagiarised’, February 6, 2003, www.channel4.com)
It’s hard to argue that the politicians merely misinterpreted intelligence in this case – the dossier was put together by a four-man team in Downing Street reporting to Alastair Campbell, then the prime minister’s director of communications.
Glenda Jackson, the former Labour minister, pointed out at the time that the government was misleading parliament and the public, adding:
“And of course to mislead is a parliamentary euphemism for lying.” (‘Downing St admits blunder on Iraq dossier’, Michael White, Ewen MacAskill and Richard Norton-Taylor, The Guardian, February 8, 2003)
All of this was beyond the remit of Lord Hutton, of course, who consequently cleared Blair and his Keystone Cops of all wrongdoing. Recall that Hutton was one of five law lords who accused their colleague Lord Hoffmann of acting as “a judge in his own cause” by failing to declare his links with Amnesty International when deciding whether the Chilean dictator, Augusto Pinochet, was immune from arrest and extradition in 1999. The Guardian reported:
“Lord Hutton said public confidence in the integrity of the administration of justice would be shaken if Lord Hoffmann’s deciding vote that General Pinochet could be prosecuted was allowed to stand.” (‘Law lords condemn Hoffmann’, Clare Dyer, The Guardian, January 16, 1999)
Pinochet was released and, on arriving in Chile, rose miraculously from his wheelchair to embrace well-wishers.
Former cabinet minister, Clare Short, insists that Tony Blair was guilty of “honourable deception” using “various ruses” and “a series of half-truths, exaggerations, reassurances that were not the case to get us into conflict by the spring”. (‘Short: I was briefed on Blair’s secret war pact’, Patrick Wintour, The Guardian, June 18, 2003) Short has described how a small cabal around Blair ignored normal procedures of cabinet government, and ignored the advice of the intelligence and diplomatic community, which she claims privately opposed the war.
Former foreign secretary, Robin Cook, describes how “there was a selection of evidence to support a conclusion… intelligence was not being used to inform and shape policy, but to shape policy that was already settled”. (Ibid)
Like most of the media, Gavin Hewitt chose to ignore comments made by Paul O’Neill, former US Treasury secretary, last month. O’Neill, who attended countless national security council meetings, has explained how the Bush administration came to office determined to topple Saddam Hussein, using the September 11 attacks as a pretext:
“It was all about finding a way to do it. The president saying ‘Go find me a way to do this’… From the very beginning, there was a conviction that Saddam Hussein was a bad person and that he needed to go.” (‘Bush decided to remove Saddam “on day one”‘, Julian Borger, The Guardian, January 12, 2004)
O’Neill reports seeing one memorandum preparing for war dating from the first days of the administration. Another, marked “secret” said, “Plan for Post-Saddam Iraq”. O’Neill also saw a Pentagon document entitled “Foreign Suitors For Iraqi Oilfield Contracts”, which discussed dividing Iraq’s fuel reserves up between the world’s oil companies.
The BBC’s Matt Frei chose to ignore these claims and instead instantly smeared the man and his message:
“If you remember, Paul O’Neill was sacked mainly because he was incompetent, and he was more infamous for his gaffes than his insights on economic theory. He once famously said that the collapse of the energy giant Enron was an example of the genius of capitalism, and perhaps more accurately that the tax code in America was 9,500 words of complete gibberish.” (Matt Frei, Newsnight, BBC2, January 12, 2004)
But the issue, clearly, is the credibility of what O’Neill has to say as supported by the 19,000 government documents he claims to have in his possession, one of which he revealed on live TV. US media analyst Alexander Cockburn comments:
“What bothers the White House is one particular National Security Council document shown in the 60 Minutes interview, clearly drafted in the early weeks of the new administration, which showed plans for the post-invasion dispersal of Iraq’s oil assets among the world’s great powers, starting with the major oil companies.
“For the brief moment it was on the TV screen one could see that this bit of paper, stamped ‘Secret’, was undoubtedly one of the most explosive documents in the history of imperial conspiracy. Here, dead center in the camera’s lens, was the refutation of every single rationalization for the attack on Iraq ever offered by George W. Bush and his co-conspirators, including Tony Blair.” (Cockburn, ‘The O’Neill/Suskind Bombshells – Bush, Oil & Iraq: Some Truth at Last’, Counterpunch, January 14, 2004)
And consider O’Neill’s revelations in the light of Tony Blair’s claims in the infamous BBC Newsnight interview of February 7, 2003:
“When people say you’re hell bent on this war, I’ve tried to avoid being in this position and I honestly thought there was some prospect last November when we passed the UN Resolution that he [Saddam] would realise we were serious about this and that if he didn’t cooperate he was going to be in trouble.” (‘Tony Blair on Newsnight – part one’, The Guardian, February 7, 2003)
It’s the use of the word “honestly” that is interesting.
David Edwards os co-editor of Media Lens. Sign up for free Media Alerts at www.medialens.org.