Long Read: Britain’s Propaganda Campaign in Iraq – The Whole Story
By Mark Curtis – 30 minute read. An edited extract from Unpeople: Britain’s Secret Human Rights Abuses
Politics has been described as many things but in Britain currently a good summary is that it is the art of deceiving the public. Clare Short, after resigning her position as International Development Secretary, told a parliamentary inquiry of ‘a series of half-truths, exaggerations and reassurances that were not the case to get us into conflict [with Iraq] by the spring’ of 2003. This is, in my view, an understatement: all the evidence suggests that – at least over Iraq – the public has been subjected by the government to a campaign of managed deception.
‘Dark actors playing games’
In June 2003 it was revealed that the British government had for twelve years been promoting an operation designed to produce misleading intelligence that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. Operation Rockingham had been established by the Defence Intelligence Staff in 1991 to provide information proving that Saddam had an ongoing WMD programme and quashing evidence that stockpiles had been destroyed or wound down.
According to Scott Ritter, a former chief UN weapons inspector, Operation Rockingham and MI6:
‘institutionalised a process of ‘cherry picking’ intelligence produced by the UN inspections in Iraq that skewed UK intelligence about Iraqi WMD towards a predordained outcome that was more in line with British government policy than it was reflective of ground truth’.
He added that ‘they had to sustain the allegation that Iraq had WMD [when] Unscom [the UN weapons inspectors] was showing the opposite’. This ‘intelligence’ was supplied to the Joint Intelligence Committee, the body that drew up the September 2002 dossier alleging Iraq’s ongoing WMD programmes.
One of the tactics used in the operation, according to Ritter, was leaking false information on weapons to inspectors and then when the search for them proved fruitless, using that as ‘proof’ of the weapons’ existence. He cited an example from 1993 when information led to inspections of a suspected ballistic-missile site; when the inspectors found nothing ‘our act of searching allowed the US and UK to say that the missiles existed’, he said. The government revealed in January 2004 that Operation Rockingham continued into 2002/3 with a budget of £79,000.
Another operation – called Mass Appeal – was revealed by the press in late 2003. This was launched in the late 1990s by MI6 and aimed to gain public support for sanctions and war against Iraq and involved planting stories in the media about Iraqi WMD. Scott Ritter was personally involved in this operation in 1997–1998 after being approached by MI6. He said that ‘the aim was to convince the public that Iraq was a far greater threat than it actually was’, and that the operation involved the manipulation of intelligence material right up to the invasion of Iraq.
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Poland, India and South Africa were initially chosen as targets for these media stories, with the intention that they would then feed back into Britain and the US. Ritter notes that ‘stories ran in the media about secret underground facilities in Iraq and ongoing [WMD] programmes. They were sourced to Western intelligence and all of them were garbage’. He also said that ‘they took this information and peddled it off to the media, internationally and domestically, allowing inaccurate intelligence data to appear on the front pages’.
US investigative journalist Seymour Hersh notes that the British propaganda programme was known to a few senior officials in Washington. ‘We were getting ready for action in Iraq, and we wanted the Brits to prepare’, he quotes a former Clinton administration official saying. A former US intelligence officer told him that at least one member of the UN inspections team who supported the US and British position arranged for dozens of unverified intelligence reports and tips to be funnelled to MI6 operatives and quietly passed to newspapers in London and elsewhere. The source said: ‘it was intelligence that was crap, and that we couldn’t move on, but the Brits wanted to plant stories in England and around the world’. Hersh notes there was a series of clandestine meetings with MI6 at which documents were provided and quiet meetings were held in safe houses in the Washington area.
British propaganda campaigns on Iraq were established well before the new phase began in late 2002. In the run up to the invasion, the government established a Coalition Information Centre technically based in the Foreign Office Information Directorate but chaired by Alastair Campbell and run from Downing Street. Campbell also chaired another cross-Whitehall committee, the Iraq Communication Group. It was these organs that played a key part in controlling the campaign that misled the public about Iraq’s WMD and which oversaw the production of the dossiers.
In March 2004, the all-party House of Commons Defence Committee produced a report showing that ‘the Ministry of Defence began working on its media strategy [on Iraq] in September 2002 in consultation with the Americans’. This strategy plan ‘was an integral part of the overall military plan’ and was ‘coordinated across Whitehall with a daily interdepartmental media coordination meeting chaired by No. 10’. In all, some 200 additional press officers were deployed by the Ministry of Defence ‘to support the media campaign effort’.
The system of embedding journalists within the military in operations in Iraq – described by the Defence Secretary as ‘one of the more novel aspects of the media campaign’ – ‘helped secure public opinion in the UK’, the Defence Committee notes. It quotes the British land force commander, General Brims, stating that ‘from my point of view . . . none of them [the embedded journalists] let the side down’. Air Vice Marshall Torpy, the commander of the air force in the invasion of Iraq, said that his staff were ‘very satisfied with the coverage that they got’. The all-party Defence Committee entirely approves of these operations and recommends they should be significantly stepped up in future.
Media stories which may have been based on disinformation put out by British officials during the Iraq operation, included: a supposed ‘uprising’ in Basra; the death of Saddam; three giant cargo ships said to contain WMD (carried in the Independent); Saddam killing Iraq’s ‘missile chief’ to thwart the UN inspectors (carried in the Sunday Telegraph); ‘Saddam’s Thai gem spree hints at getaway plan’ (covered in the Sunday Times); and a story from ‘American and British war planners’ that Iraq was preparing a ‘scorched earth policy ahead of any US military attack’ to ‘engineer a devastating humanitarian crisis against his own people’ (carried in the Observer).
The propaganda campaign has continued into the occupation period. In November 2003 the Guardian revealed that the government was conducting a ‘media offensive’ with a code name of ‘Big October’ to convert the public to supporting the outcome of the Iraq war. Leaked documents showed that the Ministry of Defence had drawn up the strategy in September, a time when Britain and the US were facing increasing opposition; they stated that ‘information operations are seen as a tool to help keep the situation manageable’. One document specified that ‘the MoD’s main target is the UK public and media while [the main target] of the Basra headquarters for British troops is the Iraqi people’. The two main issues to stress through the British media were: ‘security in Iraq – try to push the perception that Iraq is becoming more secure’, and ‘utilities and reconstruction – try to demonstrate that services and utilities are as good if not better than before the war’.
Iraq was not perceived as a serious threat
Two myths widely conveyed in the mainstream media are, first, that there was simply a huge ‘failure of intelligence’ over Iraq and, second, that ministers acted in good faith in presenting to the public their view of the threat posed by Iraq, but simply got it wrong. These myths combine to let the government off the hook and protect the decision-making system.
When the Butler report was published, the Economist wrote an editorial about Bush and Blair entitled ‘sincere deceivers’. It noted that ‘in making the case for last year’s invasion of Iraq, they were honest about what they believed’. ‘Such salesmanship’ about the threat from Iraq ‘was understandable’ given ‘widespread scepticism about whether war was the right solution’. Similarly, a New Statesman editorial noted that Blair ‘got it wrong’, adding that ‘Mr Blair was almost certainly sincere when he said he was “in no doubt” that the threat from the Iraqi dictator was “serious and current”’. Blair therefore made a ‘catastrophic misjudgement’ and ‘failed to do his job’.
The reality is quite the opposite. It is clear from both the Hutton and Butler inquiries that the intelligence given to ministers was regularly vague and uncertain about an Iraqi threat. The Butler report notes that after the departure of the UN weapons inspectors in 1998, ‘information sources were sparse, particularly on Iraq’s chemical and biological weapons programmes’. ‘The number of primary human intelligence sources remained few’ while MI6 ‘did not generally have agents with first-hand, inside knowledge of Iraq’s nuclear, chemical, biological or ballistic missile programmes. As a result, intelligence reports were mainly inferential’.
Joint Intelligence Committee reports were variously saying that intelligence on Iraqi WMD was ‘patchy’, ‘unclear’, ‘limited’ or ‘poor’ while noting that ‘there is very little intelligence’ and ‘our picture is limited’. A JIC report produced a few weeks before the release of the government’s September 2002 dossier stated that it ‘knew little about Iraq’s CBW [chemical biological weapons] work since late 1998’. In March 2003 the Joint Intelligence Committee provided an assessment stating, according to the government, that:
‘Intelligence on the timing of when Iraq might use CBW was inconsistent and that the intelligence on deployment was sparse. Intelligence indicating that chemical weapons remained disassembled and that Saddam had not yet ordered their assembly was highlighted’.
The JIC also pointed out that other intelligence suggested that Iraq’s 750km range ballistic missiles remained disassembled and that it would take ‘several days to assemble them once orders to do so had been issued’. The government also noted the ‘uncertainty of the assessments and the lack of detailed intelligence’ provided by the JIC.
In July 2003, the Ministry of Defence produced a report called Operations in Iraq: First Reflections, which noted that ‘very little was known about how [Iraqi forces] planned to oppose the coalition or whether they had the will to fight’. The regime might ‘possibly’ use WMD ‘if it could make the capabilities available for operational use’. This admission that very little was known of Iraqi capabilities, in tune with the JIC reports noted above, is in stark contrast to the certainties of the Iraq threat contained in the September 2002 dossier and elsewhere, presented to the public at the time.
According to former Foreign Secretary Robin Cook, Tony Blair probably knew two weeks before the war that Iraq had no functioning WMD. Cook recalls a briefing on 20 February 2003 from John Scarlett, the chairman of the JIC. Cook notes that:
‘When I put to him my conclusion that Saddam had no long range weapons of mass destruction but may have battlefield chemical weapons, he readily agreed. When I asked him why we believed Saddam would not use these weapons against our troops on the battlefield, he surprised me by claiming that, in order to evade detection by the UN inspectors, Saddam had taken apart the shells and dispersed them – with the result that it would be difficult to deploy them under attack. Not only did Saddam have no weapons of mass destruction in the real meaning of that phrase, neither did he have useable battlefield weapons’.
Cook states that he put these points to Blair on 5 March, noting that he ‘gave me the same reply as John Scarlett, that the battlefield weapons had been disassembled and stored separately. I was therefore mystified a year later to hear him say he had never understood that the intelligence agencies did not believe Saddam had long range weapons of mass destruction’. Indeed, Blair had already said, almost a year before, in May 2002, that ‘there is no doubt in my mind’ that Iraq had concealed its weapons and that it would be ‘far more difficult for them to reconstitute that material to use in a situation of conflict’.
Although the intelligence presented to ministers was vague and uncertain, the JIC still miraculously came to the conclusion that Iraq was likely to possess some forms of WMD – and it is this which has been interpreted as an intelligence ‘failure’. Yet the critical issue here is that, as the Butler report makes clear, Iraqi use of WMD was seen as a threat only in response to an invasion. The intelligence was telling ministers that Iraq was otherwise little or no threat.
A JIC report from September 2002 notes that ‘faced with the likelihood of military defeat and being removed from power, Saddam is unlikely to be deterred from using chemical and biological weapons by any diplomatic or military means’. It also noted that ‘the use of chemical and biological weapons prior to any military attack would boost support for US-led action and is unlikely’. Yet when this intelligence came to be inserted into the September 2002 dossier, it simply read: ‘It [the intelligence] shows that he does not regard them [WMD] only as weapons of last resort’. This raises a further issue for those who accept that ministers really did believe Iraq possessed WMD – that they were still prepared to authorise an invasion knowing that this was the most likely provocation for Iraq to use them.
After the invasion of Iraq, Foreign Secretary Jack Straw told a parliamentary inquiry that before the war neither he nor Blair ‘had ever used the words “immediate or imminent” threat’ to describe Iraq, but that they had spoken of ‘a current and serious threat, which is very different’. Straw added: ‘Impending, soon to happen, as it were, about to happen today or tomorrow, we did not use that because plainly the evidence did not justify that’. In other words, we could have waited for weapons inspections, potentially avoiding the deaths of thousands of people.
One email which emerged from the Hutton inquiry well-reported at the time showed that Jonathan Powell, Blair’s chief of staff, raised serious doubts about a draft of the September dossier:
‘The document does nothing to demonstrate a threat, let alone an imminent threat from Saddam . . . we will need to make it clear in launching the document that we do not claim that we have evidence that he is an imminent threat’.
Powell also stated that the drafters ‘need to make it clear that Saddam could not attack at the moment. The thesis is he could be a threat to the UK in the future if we do not check him’. Yet a week later, Blair launched the document, together with a warning that Iraq could deploy WMD within 45 minutes of an order to do so.
The lack of a credible threat from Iraq was also outlined in a report from the Pentagon’s Defence Intelligence Agency, leaked to the media in June 2003. A summary obtained by CNN stated that ‘there is no reliable information on whether Iraq is producing and stockpiling chemical weapons or where Iraq has or will establish its chemical warfare agent production facilities’. This report was produced in September 2002, the same month as the British dossier.
Robin Cook has plausibly commented that many of the most stark assertions in the September 2002 dossier were not repeated in the debates in March on the eve of the invasion – by this time, there was no reference to weapons being ready in 45 minutes, to Iraq seeking to procure uranium from Niger or to a nuclear-weapons programme that had been reconstituted. His argument is that if the government had not already known in September 2002 that Iraq presented no real threat, it certainly did by March 2003, when it went to war.
It should also be said that the September 2002 dossier – the key public plank of the British government’s whole case against Iraq – provided no actual evidence of a threat from Iraq. The Guardian reported at the time that ‘British government officials have privately admitted that they do not have any “killer evidence” about weapons of mass destruction. If they had, they would have already passed it to the inspectors’. On the day before Blair announced that the dossier would soon be published, a Whitehall source was quoted as saying that the dossier was based on information found up to 1998, when the inspectors withdrew from Iraq, and that there was ‘very little new to put into it’.
Also worth remembering is that the September 2002 dossier was not the first produced by the government to prepare the country for military intervention. Before the bombing of Afghanistan, the government produced a report called ‘Responsibility for the terrorist atrocities in the United States, 11 September 2001’, making the case against al Qaeda. This includes various mentions of al Qaeda’s alleged ‘substantial exploitation of the illegal drugs trade from Afghanistan’. It also said that ‘in the spring of 1993 operatives of al Qaeda participated in the attack on US military personnel serving in Somalia’. These are false accusations that ended up in the pot, like many of the fabrications on Iraq.
Observer journalist Jason Burke comments in his book on al Qaeda that:
‘The British intelligence specialists must have known that the dossier they gave to the prime minister to reveal to parliament and the British public to justify involvement in a major conflict included demonstrably false material but felt the war in Afghanistan needed to be fought and the public needed to be convinced of it’.
The government’s media propaganda on Afghanistan continued well after the bombing phase and the collapse of the Taliban. In March 2002, for example, the Observer published a story under a headline ‘Story of find in Afghan cave “was made up” to justify sending marines’. The paper stated that:
‘Britain was accused last night of falsely claiming that Al Qaeda terrorists had built a ‘biological and chemical weapons’ laboratory in Afghanistan to justify the deployment of 1,700 Royal Marines to fight there. The allegation follows a Downing Street briefing by a senior official to newspapers on Friday which claimed US forces had discovered a biological weapons laboratory in a cave in eastern Afghanistan . . . The claim, carried by a number of newspapers yesterday, was denied emphatically last night by Pentagon and State Department sources’.
This precedent suggests that similarly false claims about Iraq were to be expected. That many journalists still played along shows the degree to which mainstream news reporting is characterised by wilful self-deception.
The case for going to war was fabricated
Amazingly, various parliamentary committees and the Hutton inquiry cleared the government of ‘sexing up’ intelligence. In the real world, all the evidence suggests that the case for going to war was not just ‘sexed up’ but consciously fabricated; it needed to be, given the understanding of the level of threat posed by Iraq. Blair’s cabal was so bent on promoting its perceived interests through invasion, that the result was a public deception strategy that sought to justify it. This shows how far removed from the national interest is that of the narrow policy-making elite.
Clare Short told a parliamentary inquiry that ‘the suggestion that there was the risk of chemical and biological weapons being weaponised and threatening us in the short term was spin. That didn’t come from the security services’. When asked whether she thought that ministers had exaggerated the use of intelligence material, she replied: ‘That is my suggestion, yes’. This was done in order ‘to make it [the threat] more immediate, more imminent, requiring urgent action’.
From the Hutton inquiry emerged various emails from Downing Street officials, described by the Guardian as ‘a frantic attempt to produce a dossier that will justify aggressive action against Saddam Hussein. Within the space of a fortnight and with almost no new evidence – other than the now infamous “45 minute warning” – Mr Blair’s aides turned British policy towards Iraq upside down’.
One Downing Street press official wrote that:
‘Much of the evidence we have is largely circumstantial so we need to convey to our readers that the cumulation of these facts demonstrates an intent on Saddam’s part – the more they can be led to this conclusion themselves rather than have to accept judgements from us, the better’.
He also wrote that ‘the more we advertise that unsupported assertions (eg Saddam attaches great importance to the possession of WMD) come from intelligence the better’. This should ‘add to the feeling that we are presenting real evidence’. A Downing Street press officer similarly wrote: ‘Can we show why we think he [Saddam] intends to use them [WMD] aggressively, rather than in self-defence?’ The Guardian also reported that Julian Miller, John Scarlett’s deputy, was having meetings with Downing Street media staff to ensure that everyone was ‘on the right track’.
In the material intended for public consumption, the government transformed possibilities about Iraqi capabilities into certainties and removed vital caveats. To give three examples in the process of drafting the September dossier:
- The dossier stated that Iraq ‘continued to produce chemical and biological weapons’. Yet the JIC ‘did not know what had been produced and in what quantities’, according to the parliamentary Intelligence and Security Committee.
- A draft of Blair’s foreword to the dossier read: ‘The case I make is not that Saddam could launch a nuclear attack on London or another part of the UK (he could not)’. This was omitted from the final document.
- An email from Jonathan Powell commenting on a draft of the dossier stated that the claim that Saddam would use chemical or biological weapons only if his regime was under threat posed ‘a bit of a problem’. So the passage was redrafted and all reference to Saddam’s defensive use of such weapons was taken out, leaving the impression that Britain was 45 minutes from attack.
Brian Jones, a former senior Defence Intelligence Staff (DIS) official, stated that ‘the expert intelligence analysts of the DIS were overruled in the preparation of the dossier’ which resulted ‘in a presentation that was misleading about Iraq’s capabilities’. It is ‘the intelligence community leadership . . . that had the final say on the assessment presented in the dossier’, he noted. Jones told the Hutton inquiry that his staff had told him ‘that there was no evidence that significant production had taken place either of chemical warfare agent or chemical weapons’. But ‘the impression I had was . . . the shutters were coming down on this particular paper [i.e., the September dossier], that the discussion and the argument had been concluded’. An MoD civil servant similarly said that ‘the perception was that the dossier had been round the houses several times in order to try to find a form of words which would strengthen certain political objectives’.
The case against Iraq was indeed ‘sexed up’ both by No. 10 staff and some senior ‘intelligence’ officials. According to the Guardian’s Richard Norton-Taylor, John Scarlett was ‘hopelessly seduced by Blair’s coterie. Under Scarlett’s control, drafters of the dossier put things in at Downing Street’s suggestion. They also took things out’. Robin Cook noted that ‘John Scarlett was only too consciously aware that the Prime Minister expected him to come up with a justification for war’.
Alastair Campbell suggested more than a dozen separate changes to the draft dossier on Iraq; Scarlett responded by saying the language had been ‘tightened’. Crucially, Campbell suggested that the word ‘may’ was weak and be substituted for the word ‘are’ so that when the dossier was published the assertion was that Iraq possessed weapons that ‘are deployable within 45 minutes of an order to use them’.
Campbell also suggested another significant change to the dossier. The September 5th draft stated that after the lifting of sanctions ‘we assess that Iraq would need at least five years to produce a [nuclear] weapon. Progress would be much quicker if Iraq were able to buy fissile material’. In a memo on September 17th Campbell wrote to John Scarlett that the Prime Minister ‘like me, was worried about the way you have expressed the nuclear issue . . . Can we not go back, on timings, to “radiological device” in months; nuclear bomb in 1–2 years with help; 5 years with no sanctions’. The final document stated that: ‘Iraq could produce a nuclear weapon in between one and two years’.
Perhaps the most amazing thing about the 45-minute claim is that anyone fell for such transparent hype. David Kelly apparently ‘just laughed about the 45 minute claim’, believing it ‘risible’. If journalists had done the same thing, the government’s case for invading Iraq might have collapsed.
Defence Secretary Geoff Hoon admitted that when the dossier was published he knew that the claim that Iraq could launch weapons within 45 minutes referred only to ‘battlefield munitions’ such as shells; i.e., that they could be used by Iraq only in response to an invasion. Many press reports (dutifully reporting propaganda as fact) assumed that the claim related to strategic or long-range missiles; one paper suggested they could reach bases in Cyprus. Clare Short told a parliamentary inquiry that in the numerous verbal and written briefings she received from the intelligence services, the 45-minute allegation was never a feature.
It was JIC chairman John Scarlett who told the Hutton inquiry that the claim was meant to refer only to short-range battlefield weapons. According to the Guardian’s citation of well-placed sources, both Scarlett and Sir Richard Dearlove, head of MI6, assumed that the 45-minute warning referred to short-range battlefield weapons when they read the intelligence report at the end of August. Hutton’s report would have us believe that Blair, reputedly an avid consumer of ‘intelligence’, did not know this.
When asked in parliament on how many occasions between January and May 2003 the 45-minute claim was raised with him, the Prime Minister replied: ‘as far as I am aware, none’. This tallies with what Geoff Hoon told the Defence Committee inquiry, that in the run-up to the invasion he briefed the Prime Minister regularly and:
‘Had this [i.e., the 45-minute claim] been a significant issue in terms of the decision to take the country to war, I am sure that this issue would have arisen in conversation between us, but, as I emphasise, it was not a significant issue’.
Hoon is probably being honest – it was never a significant issue since it was understood to be false; it appears to have been intended simply for public relations. The Butler report referred to ‘suspicions’ that the claim had been included in the September dossier because of its ‘eye-catching character’.
We also know that the ‘intelligence’ on this claim, which miraculously appeared at the end of August 2002, just before the government began drawing up its dossier, was extremely vague. The source – an Iraqi brigadier-general – said that Iraq had a command, control and communication system that would have enabled Saddam or his close associates to contact commanders in the field within 45 minutes authorising the use of WMD. This does not mean deploying WMD or even having them ready. Rather, there was ‘no specific intelligence of their [Iraqi] plans as to how/when/with what they would do’, the press reported.
Moreover, the Iraqi general who is thought to have acted as this source – Nizar al-Khazraji – was living in exile in Denmark and received his information from another Iraqi officer serving in the army. Al-Khazraji had neither any means of checking the assertion himself nor any documentary evidence. Furthermore, he was considered by the CIA to be a possible replacement for Saddam if the army staged a coup, and so had a vested interest in the invasion taking place.
If the 45-minute claim had been perceived as real, one might have expected the March 2003 JIC report to refer to it, rather than stating that any chemical weapons ‘remained disassembled’. We might also have expected the government to refer to it in the debates on the eve of war.
Today reporter Andrew Gilligan’s broadcast on 29 May 2003 – the source of the fierce argument between No. 10 and the BBC – was largely accurate, and surely one of the best media discoveries on Iraq, which may explain the attack on him and the BBC by Alastair Campbell. Gilligan correctly noted that the dossier had been ‘sexed up’ against the wishes of some intelligence officers, and that his unnamed source, David Kelly, refuted the government’s 45-minute warning. (Kelly also told Newsnight reporter Susan Watts that the 45-minute claim ‘just got out of all proportion’ and that ‘they were desperate for information’.)
Kelly was not the only source for Gilligan’s story. The editor of the Today programme, Kevin Marsh, had two other sources: Sir Richard Dearlove, the head of MI6, along with two of his colleagues; and Clare Short. According to The Times, Marsh interviewed Dearlove and interpreted his words:
‘as meaning that the intelligence did not support the case for war against Iraq . . . that hard evidence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq would never be found. This, it is said, struck him [Marsh] as an odd conclusion if, at the time the September dossier was published, these weapons were being held at 45 minutes’ readiness’.
Then, also before Gilligan’s report, Marsh met Clare Short who told him that ‘no intelligence had been produced which conclusively demonstrated that Iraq was an imminent threat’. According to The Times, ‘her words helped to persuade the programme to believe Mr Gilligan’s apparent scoop: that Downing Street inserted a claim, against the wishes of experts, that Iraq could launch weapons of mass destruction within 45 minutes’.
Gilligan’s assertion that the government ‘probably knew’ that the 45-minute claim was false but still included it in the report is also essentially correct. He appears to have been wrong in suggesting that Alastair Campbell was responsible for inserting the claim. But the dossier’s first mention that Iraq had WMD ready for use within 45 minutes appears in a paragraph concerned with Iraq’s ‘goal of regional domination’ and just after the claim that Saddam ‘has been able to extend the range of his ballistic missile programme’. Thus the government at worst encouraged, and at best did nothing to correct, the view that the 45-minute claim referred to long-range weapons. Yet Hoon, Scarlett and Dearlove all knew it referred to battlefield rather than long-range strategic weapons.
The link with al Qaeda and the February 2003 dossier
A further unsound claim by the government intimated links between Saddam’s regime and al Qaeda. Before this campaign began, Foreign Office minister Ben Bradshaw had told parliament in both January and April 2002 that ‘I have seen no evidence which demonstrates that an al Qaeda network exists in Iraq’. By late 2002, however, this was the wrong story; now the new Foreign Office minister Mike O’Brien was saying that ‘we believe that there are al Qaeda operatives in Iraq’. On 5 February 2003, Tony Blair told the House of Commons that:
‘It would be wrong to say that there is no evidence of any links between al Qaeda and the Iraqi regime. There is evidence of such links. Exactly how far they go is uncertain . . . There is intelligence coming through to us the entire time about this . . . It is not correct to say that there is no evidence of any links between the Iraqi regime and al Qaeda’.
Later, government ministers denied ever having made such direct links between Baghdad and al Qaeda. Yet, contradicting this, even in June 2004, a Downing Street spokeswoman was claiming that the Prime Minister ‘has always said Saddam created a permissive environment for terrorism and we know that the people affiliated to al Qaeda operated in Iraq during the regime’. The Butler report concluded that in the intelligence presented to ministers ‘the JIC made clear that, although there were contacts between the Iraqi regime and al Qaeda, there was no evidence of cooperation’.
This suggestion of a link was scuppered by intelligence sources quoted in the press who, asked whether Saddam had any connections with al Qaeda, said ‘quite the opposite’. Downing Street then hit on an ingenious new formula: ‘Terrorism and rogue regimes are part of the same picture’, Jack Straw started saying around the turn of 2002/2003, a framing often repeated by Blair. The reason was that ‘the most likely sources of technology and know-how for such terrorist organisations are rogue regimes’, Straw said.
The alleged al Qaeda link was simply a case of making-it-up-as-you-go-along, perhaps the clumsiest of the propaganda fabrications in this period. A close rival for this accolade, however, was the second government report released in February 2003, which has become known as the ‘dodgy dossier’ (though in content it hardly seems dodgier than the first). Blair misled parliament in passing this off as ‘an intelligence report’; it was later revealed that much of the document had been directly copied from a source on the Internet. Indeed, the dossier was not checked by any of the intelligence agencies before publication. The authors of the dossier were close to Alastair Campbell, who oversaw the project, which was intended mainly as a briefing for the media. The dossier exaggerates the original text in a number of places, changing, for example, Iraq’s ‘aiding opposition groups in hostile regimes’ to ‘supporting terrorist organisations in hostile regimes’.
Uranium from Niger
The government claimed in the September dossier that Iraq was seeking to procure uranium from Niger for use in its nuclear programme. On 7 July 2003 the Guardian, under a headline of ‘Britain “knew uranium claims were false”’, wrote that ‘British officials knew there had been no secret trade in uranium from Africa to Iraq seven months before such claims were raised in the September dossier released by Downing Street’, according to the retired US ambassador who investigated the issue for the CIA. The Guardian repeated the following week that ‘Joe Wilson, an envoy sent by the US to Niger to check the documents, has said that Britain knew there was no secret trade in uranium months before publishing the claim in the September dossier’.
Note that this report carries the same message as Gilligan’s – that the government knew something was false but invoked it anyway. That there has been so much less furore about this claim is further evidence of how the media in effect allow the government to frame their agenda.
In March 2003, Mohamed El Baradei, the director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), told the UN Security Council that the Niger uranium documents were fakes. US investigative journalist Seymour Hersh, noting the British propaganda campaign on Iraq in the late 1990s, writes that these documents were initially circulated by the British, although it cannot be ascertained whether MI6 actually forged them. One member of the IAEA told Hersh that ‘these documents are so bad that I cannot imagine that they came from a serious intelligence agency’. One letter was signed by a minister in Niger who had been out of office for the past 11 years. Meanwhile, the government has admitted that ‘just before the dossier was published, the CIA offered a comment noting that they did not regard the reference to the supply of uranium from Africa as credible’, but Britain went ahead anyway based on its own ‘reliable intelligence’, which, it says, came from more than a single source.
Even this might all be beside the point. As Professor Norman Dombey of the University of Sussex has pointed out, ‘so what if Iraq sought the supply of uranium from Africa? Iraq already has hundreds of tons of uranium at its disposal. Without enrichment facilities this material is useless for nuclear weapons’.
The Butler report rejects most of this evidence and concludes that the government had intelligence from several quarters that indicated that the Iraqi visit to Niger was for the purpose of acquiring uranium. Yet it fails to mention evidence from Joseph Wilson and its only reference to the CIA is to state: ‘The CIA advised caution about any suggestion that Iraq had succeeded in acquiring uranium from Africa, but agreed that there was evidence that it had been sought’.
Once the invasion had taken place, and the pretext of an Iraqi threat had served its purpose, ministers began to backtrack on their earlier claims. In an interview in April 2003, Blair said that ‘we were never going to be able to find them [WMD] until the conflict is at a stage where the Iraqi scientists and experts working on these programmes are prepared to talk about them’. Jack Straw’s comment that the government never regarded Saddam as an imminent threat has been detailed above. Straw said at one point that it was ‘not crucially important’ to find weapons of mass destruction, despite their elimination being the official rationale for the operation.
Straw also told a parliamentary inquiry that ‘I do not happen to regard the 45 minute statement having the significance which has been attached to it’ – and this despite Blair’s emphasis on the claim in the foreword to the dossier and associated media briefings. Straw was also asked whether he still stood by the 45-minute claim. Rather than simply replying ‘yes’ Straw first said ‘it was not my claim. I stand by the integrity of the JIC’. The most he could say was ‘I accept the claim but did not make it’.
Invading Iraq will if anything increase terrorism
At one level, it was obvious that invading Iraq would increase the likelihood of terrorism. The use of Anglo-American brute force in the occupation of Iraq, coupled with de facto support for Israeli aggression in the West Bank, was always going to provide a spur to a second generation of terrorists – in much the same way that Anglo-American covert support for the mujahidin fighters in 1980s Afghanistan helped to create the first.
On 10 February 2003, five weeks before the invasion began, a secret JIC report stated that any terrorist threat would increase by invading Iraq:
‘Al Qaeda and associated groups continued to represent by far the greatest threat to Western interests and that threat would be heightened by military action against Iraq . . . Any collapse of the Iraq regime would increase the risk of chemical and biological warfare technology or agents finding their way into the hands of terrorists, including al Qaeda’.
Over the 10 days following this assessment, 18 senior politicians were briefed by JIC chairman, John Scarlett, about Iraq. It seems likely that the increased threat to Britain resulting from an invasion of Iraq was known to a wide set of people; the same politicians, that is, who now pose as our saviours in protecting the country from the scourge of terrorism.
In December 2003, the government wrote in a memorandum to the Foreign Affairs Committee that ‘coalition action in Iraq, and other regional issues, has sustained and may have increased terrorist motivation’, although added that ‘we have no direct evidence that it has increased al Qaeda recruitment’. The Foreign Affairs Committee concluded in a report published in February 2004 that ‘the war in Iraq has possibly made terrorist attacks against British nationals and British interests more likely in the short term’.
This article is posted with kind permission from Mark Curtis.
Mark Curtis is an author and consultant. He is a former Research Fellow at the Royal Institute of International Affairs (Chatham House) and has been an Honorary Research Fellow at the University of Strathclyde and Visiting Research Fellow at the Institut Francais des Relations Internationales, Paris and the Deutsche Gesellschaft fur Auswartige Politik, Bonn.