Secrets and Lies

Richard Norton-Taylor writes that intelligence reports on Iraq are distorted and manipulated for political ends

June 1, 2003
4 min read

Intelligence – an issue at the heart of the US-UK invasion and occupation of Iraq – is the trump card for the prime minister and his inner circle. Other senior ministers – the foreign, home and defence secretaries and the chancellor – see weekly intelligence summaries (called ‘Wizard’ by Whitehall insiders) that are prepared by the Joint Intelligence Committee in the Cabinet Office. But the prime minister alone regularly sees the director general of the Security Service, MI5, and the chief (or C as he is still quaintly called) of the Secret Intelligence Service, MI6. So the prime minister and his closest advisers know more than anyone else (except the Queen, who sees all intelligence reports).

It is a position of power strengthened immeasurably by the supine approach of the vast majority of MPs when it comes to matters relating to security and intelligence. The parliamentary intelligence and security committee, chaired by former leader of the House Ann Taylor, meets only in private and has an all too cosy relationship with the agencies it is supposed to monitor. But privileged access to intelligence leads to dangers other than the unaccountable power knowledge provides.

Blair’s determination to go to war against Iraq led to a more insidious and deeply sinister development – the distortion and manipulation of intelligence for political ends. It is a black art practised by totalitarian regimes and, more recently, in the US. Frustrated by unwelcome intelligence provided by the CIA (it had no evidence of official links between al-Qaeda and Saddam Hussein’s regime, for example) and its distrust of Ahmad Chalabi’s Iraqi National Congress, Donald Rumsfeld and his Pentagon cronies set up an alternative intelligence agency, the sinisterly-titled Office of Special Plans, to provide information to suit their hawkish agenda.

In Britain Blair and his closest advisers, Alastair Campbell especially, adopted a slightly more subtle approach. They took intelligence from MI6 and other sources and distorted it to suit their agenda. The result was a series of misleading dossiers designed to influence ministers, MPs and the general public.

With a phrase bearing all the hallmarks of a Campbell sound bite, Blair said in last September’s dossier on Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) that Saddam’s ‘military planning… allows for some of the WMDs to be ready within 45 minutes of an order to use them’. Blair made much of the discovery that Iraq was importing aluminium tubes – evidence, he claimed, of Saddam’s nuclear weapons programme. Further evidence of Baghdad’s nuclear aspirations, 10 Downing Street insisted, was provided by Iraq’s attempt to procure uranium from Niger.

Experts from the UN’s International Atomic Energy Agency exposed the documents on which these claims were made as forgeries. Britain’s intelligence services subsequently admitted they were forged. The government has failed to put the record straight. Even Downing Street was embarrassed when contents of another dossier (handed out by Campbell to Westminster lobby journalists on the plane back from Camp David in February) were discovered to have been lifted from academic sources, including a PhD thesis by a US student. The dossier was put together by Downing Street with the help of the Coalition Information Centre, a body set up after the 11 September attacks to put the US-British case on the war against terrorism.

Already angry about the politicisation of the work of their cousins in the US, Britain’s security and intelligence agencies were furious that the same thing was happening here – with shady corners of the government undermining their credibility.

One would have hoped this would all prove self-defeating. Alas, such is the appetite, not least in the media, for stories about ‘intelligence’ that journalists – including those from the once-revered New York Times and Washington Post – publish anything fed to them. Thus files taken from Iraqi intelligence and foreign ministries about George Galloway, alleged links between al-Qaeda and Baghdad and how the French were allegedly spying for the Iraqis on the US were all conveniently available for journalists, notably from the Telegraph, to peruse. Heaven knows what tittle-tattle and self-serving allegations would be found if the files of MI6 and MI5 were looted. There is a difference between that kind of thing and what the security and intelligence agencies actually tell the prime minister. (Or I certainly hope there is.)


✹ Try our new pay-as-you-feel subscription — you choose how much to pay.

Civic strike paralyses Colombia’s principle pacific port
An alliance of community organisations are fighting ’to live with dignity’ in the face of military repression. Patrick Kane and Seb Ordoñez report.

Greece’s heavy load
While the UK left is divided over how to respond to Brexit, the people of Greece continue to groan under the burden of EU-backed austerity. Jane Shallice reports

On the narcissism of small differences
In an interview with the TNI's Nick Buxton, social scientist and activist Susan George reflects on the French Presidential Elections.

Why Corbyn’s ‘unpopularity’ is exaggerated: Polls show he’s more popular than most other parties’ leaders – and on the up
Headlines about Jeremy Corbyn’s poor approval ratings in polls don’t tell the whole story, writes Alex Nunns

The media wants to demoralise Corbyn’s supporters – don’t let them succeed
Michael Calderbank looks at the results of yesterday's local elections

In light of Dunkirk: What have we learned from the (lack of) response in Calais?
Amy Corcoran and Sam Walton ask who helps refugees when it matters – and who stands on the sidelines

Osborne’s first day at work – activists to pulp Evening Standards for renewable energy
This isn’t just a stunt. A new worker’s cooperative is set to employ people on a real living wage in a recycling scheme that is heavily trolling George Osborne. Jenny Nelson writes

Red Pepper’s race section: open editorial meeting 24 May
On May 24th, we’ll be holding the third of Red Pepper’s Race Section Open Editorial Meetings.

Our activism will be intersectional, or it will be bullshit…
Reflecting on a year in the environmental and anti-racist movements, Plane Stupid activist, Ali Tamlit, calls for a renewed focus on the dangers of power and privilege and the means to overcome them.

West Yorkshire calls for devolution of politics
When communities feel that power is exercised by a remote elite, anger and alienation will grow. But genuine regional democracy offers a positive alternative, argue the Same Skies Collective

How to resist the exploitation of digital gig workers
For the first time in history, we have a mass migration of labour without an actual migration of workers. Mark Graham and Alex Wood explore the consequences

The Digital Liberties cross-party campaign
Access to the internet should be considered as vital as access to power and water writes Sophia Drakopoulou

#AndABlackWomanAtThat – part III: a discussion of power and privilege
In the final article of a three-part series, Sheri Carr gives a few pointers on how to be a good ally

Event: Take Back Control Croydon
Ken Loach, Dawn Foster & Soweto Kinch to speak in Croydon at the first event of a UK-wide series organised by The World Transformed and local activists

Red Pepper’s race section: open editorial meeting 19 April
On April 19th, we’ll be holding the second of Red Pepper’s Race Section Open Editorial Meetings.

Changing our attitude to Climate Change
Paul Allen of the Centre for Alternative Technology spells out what we need to do to break through the inaction over climate change

Introducing Trump’s Inner Circle
Donald Trump’s key allies are as alarming as the man himself

#AndABlackWomanAtThat – part II: a discussion of power and privilege
In the second article of a three-part series, Sheri Carr reflects on the silencing of black women and the flaws in safe spaces

Joint statement on George Osborne’s appointment to the Evening Standard
'We have come together to denounce this brazen conflict of interest and to champion the growing need for independent, truthful and representative media'

Confronting Brexit
Paul O’Connell and Michael Calderbank consider the conditions that led to the Brexit vote, and how the left in Britain should respond

On the right side of history: an interview with Mijente
Marienna Pope-Weidemann speaks to Reyna Wences, co-founder of Mijente, a radical Latinx and Chincanx organising network

Disrupting the City of London Corporation elections
The City of London Corporation is one of the most secretive and least understood institutions in the world, writes Luke Walter

#AndABlackWomanAtThat: a discussion of power and privilege
In the first article of a three-part series, Sheri Carr reflects on the oppression of her early life and how we must fight it, even in our own movement

Corbyn understands the needs of our communities
Ian Hodson reflects on the Copeland by-election and explains why Corbyn has the full support of The Bakers Food and Allied Workers Union

Red Pepper’s race section: open editorial meeting 15 March
On 15 March, we’ll be holding the first of Red Pepper’s Race Section open editorial meetings.

Social Workers Without Borders
Jenny Nelson speaks to Lauren Wroe about a group combining activism and social work with refugees

Growing up married
Laura Nicholson interviews Dr Eylem Atakav about her new film, Growing Up Married, which tells the stories of Turkey’s child brides

The Migrant Connections Festival: solidarity needs meaningful relationships
On March 4 & 5 Bethnal Green will host a migrant-led festival fostering community and solidarity for people of all backgrounds, writes Sohail Jannesari

Reclaiming Holloway Homes
The government is closing old, inner-city jails. Rebecca Roberts looks at what happens next

Intensification of state violence in the Kurdish provinces of Turkey
Oppression increases in the run up to Turkey’s constitutional referendum, writes Mehmet Ugur from Academics for Peace