Lies, damned lies, and WMDs

The Iraq conflict continues to embroil the prime minister in allegations of dishonesty, writes Manny Neira

It is now some years since the Daily Sport, a paper not frequently quoted in the Weekly Worker, ran the headline “World War II bomber found on moon!” This startling intelligence was supported with a photograph, quite clearly showing a Lancaster bomber silhouetted against the lunar surface.

At the time, the story seemed to catch the popular imagination - though it is perhaps fair to say that, in general, the population remained sceptical. The Sport was not to be beaten, though, and had the last laugh when it breathlessly published the follow-up piece some weeks later: “World War II bomber missing from moon!” The story was supported by a second photograph: this time simply of the moon.

The British and American governments seemed to have learned a lesson from this: gradually lower the evidence threshold, and sooner or later you will be able to prove anything. First these defenders of truth told the world that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction which presented an imminent threat to us all. Though the world remained unconvinced, the invasion went ahead. But if he had WMDs Saddam Hussein was uncharacteristically coy about using them. No matter: with hundreds of thousands of soldiers on the ground, Blair expressed “no doubt” that the weapons would be found. They were not.

A slight note of hysteria edging into his voice, Blair hoped nobody would notice as a subtle change crept into the claims ­- that evidence would turn up of WMD programmes. What would a WMD “programme” look like? A research establishment? A chemical laboratory? Hussein’s personal copy of Dr Strangelove? Despite being so vague as to be almost meaningless, even this claim could not be substantiated.

But there was still hope. At least it could be established that Hussein had tried to start a WMD programme by buying nuclear material from the state of Niger. Such at least was the claim in president Bush’s state of the union address in January. With the kind of generosity which takes a pork pie to a bar mitzvah, Bush credited his closest ally as the source: “The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein has recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa.”

Bush is relatively unconcerned. The American working class, traumatised by the attacks on the World Trade Center, protested against the war, but not on the scale that the British did. Whatever Powell said to the UN, at home the Republican case for war was based nakedly on the determination to oust Saddam Hussein.

In Britain, Blair faced a bigger problem. Mean estimates put the number who demonstrated in London on February 15 at 1.5 million. This statistic has been repeated so often that it begins to dull on the mind, but it means that one in every 40 men, women and children throughout the country marched to Hyde Park that day. Blair needed every scrap of support he could get: he particularly needed the sanction of the UN. To make the case to the UN and the British people, he needed to prove that Iraq was in breach of UN resolutions imposed after the invasion of Kuwait which forbade it to hold WMDs. He therefore lied like a man caught in bed with Mike Tyson’s girlfriend.

The war won, there is no sense of triumph in the British people - no ‘Baghdad bounce’ - and, as his lies are exposed, Blair is descending into crisis.

The claim that Iraq thought it could buy uranium from Niger was never likely to be true. The country’s mines are tightly controlled by the French, and the material they produce is entirely exported to France, Spain and Japan. Experts doubt it could have been smuggled out unnoticed, and, though the French may be dubbed ‘cheese-eating surrender monkeys’, it is difficult to believe the US administration really thought they would allow such exports. Even secretary of state Colin Powell was not persuaded that this story was true. He refused to include it in his presentation to the UN on February 5 because it was not “sufficiently reliable”.

This is doubly so because in 2002, well before the state of the union address, the CIA sent Joseph Wilson, former US ambassador in Gabon, to Africa to investigate any possible link between Iraq and Niger. Wilson recently told the New York Times and NBC that he had concluded in a report that it was very doubtful that any such link existed, adding that he had sent his report to both Congress and the White House.

He said: “Either the administration has some information that it has not shared with the public or, yes, they were using the selective use of facts and intelligence to bolster a decision that had already been made.”

Bush first blamed his intelligence services, and Central Intelligence Agency director George Tenet duly took the fall: “First, CIA approved the president’s state of the union address before it was delivered,”’ he said in a statement. “Second, I am responsible for the approval process in my agency. And, third, the president had every reason to believe that the text presented to him was sound.”

His own justification for the error? The CIA approved the line because, though their own intelligence did not support the claim, it was attributed to the British. “This should not have been the test for clearing a presidential address,” he said. “This did not rise to the level of certainty which should be required for presidential speeches and CIA should have ensured that it was removed.”

More embarrassingly still, in February the US passed to the International Atomic Energy Agency documents purportedly supporting the argument that Iraq had been shopping for uranium in Niger. Days before the war, IAEA director-general Mohamed El Baradei announced they were forgeries. Again showing the kind of loyalty to its ally that a dog shows a lamp post, US officials simply replied that the documents had been provided them by the British.

Indeed, Blair must be wondering rather about his new friends. Defending her president’s assertion that “The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein has recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa”, US national security advisor Condoleeza Rice said, “The statement Mr Bush made was indeed accurate. The British government did say that.” I would have given a week’s wages to have seen Tony’s face when he heard that one.

Given the treatment he has received at the hands of his allies, it is little wonder Blair felt he could portray the report of the foreign affairs select committee as, by comparison, supportive. The report concerned the dossiers of evidence produced by the British government claiming that Iraq possessed WMDs. Alistair Campbell stood accused by a BBC anonymous source of ‘sexing up’ the information provided by the security services, in that he had allegedly added a claim that Hussein could mobilise his WMDs within 45 minutes. The committee, on a split vote, did not accept Campbell’s guilt.

The way Campbell was cleared is strangely typical of the whole grubby affair. Apparently Nicholas Soames, the former Conservative armed forces minister, intervened on Campbell’s behalf at the 11th hour. He spoke to Richard Dearlove, director of MI6, and simply passed back to the committee the top spook’s assurance that Campbell had not been cooking the books. Either Dearlove is content to admit that this ludicrous intelligence was provided by his own organisation, or he knows perfectly well no one will believe a word of it.

The report was not, however, a complete whitewash. It euphemistically said that Blair “misrepresented” information in another dossier largely copied from a graduate student’s thesis, and that the 45-minute claim was given “undue prominence”. Neither does this end the row about this latter claim. Hans Blix, interviewed in The Sunday Telegraph shortly after the report’s publication, went further: it was a “fundamental mistake” for Blair to support it.

Meanwhile, the row about Hussein’s alleged window-shopping expedition in Niger continued: but Blair has been sticking to his story, and it seems that with the help of foreign secretary Jack Straw he may have found the perfect political alibi.

The latest spin is that the government was not relying on the forged documents provided to the US to substantiate this story: they had documents from another country, which they were not free to pass on to the Americans without the supplier’s permission.

So who was causing this confusion? Who else? It is all the fault of the French. Here is a nation the British and American administrations can unite in disparaging.

Much to the frustration of the British government, however, this WMD story shows no signs of going away. Blair joined with the US in the invasion of Iraq in contempt of the clear, democratic will of the British people, and he lied to justify this.

As the story continues, it is perhaps more interesting for the glimpses it gives into the murderous and cynical workings of imperialism.

It is possible that, should the political pressure become great enough, the occupiers of Iraq will yet produce evidence of WMDs. If they do, they should submit it for publication in the Daily Sport, which is used to dealing with such stories.