Monthly Archives: March 2013

The Spies Who Fooled the World – BBC

On 18 March 2013, the BBC broadcast a documentary called The Spies Who Fooled the World as part of its Panorama current affairs series. The spies in question were those whose claims that Saddam Hussein’s Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction (WMD) were used by the UK and US governments to justify the invasion of Iraq 10 years ago. Other sources that showed that Iraq did not have WMD were rejected because their intelligence did not fit the views of the UK and US governments.

The programme was presented by Peter Taylor, who has made many programmes about terrorism and espionage, including Modern Spies last year.

The most important source for the existence of Iraq WMD was Rafid Ahmed Alwan al-Janabi, code-named Curveball, an Iraqi who claimed political asylum in Germany in 1999. He claimed to be a chemical engineer who had worked at an agricultural seed plant. According to him, mobile laboratories capable of producing biological and chemical weapons were based there.

August Hanning, then Director of the German Federal Intelligence Service (BND), and Joschka Fischer, then German Foreign Minister, told the programme that the Germans were sceptical about al-Janabi’s claims and had cut their links with him by the start of 2001.

For example, satellite photos showed that an articulated lorry could not get out of the warehouse that he said the mobile labs operated from. A friend and former boss of al-Janabi described him as a congenital liar. Al-Janabi admitted on the programme that he made up his claims.

After 9/11, however, President George W. Bush erroneously linked Saddam Hussein with Al-Qaeda. Curveball’s intelligence was too useful to the US case to dismiss it. There were some doubts within the CIA and MI6 about him, but his claims were accepted. The programme quoted an MI6 report as saying that:

 Elements of [his] behaviour strike us as typical of individuals we would normally assess as fabricators [but we are] inclined to believe that a significant part of [Curveball’s] reporting is true.

Further intelligence came from an Iraqi defector, Major Muhammad Harith, who claimed that the mobile labs were his idea and were mounted on seven Renault trucks. The Americans became suspicious of his story because it was elaborate and unbelievable. He was branded as a fabricator in mid 2002, but his claims remained on record.

Further intelligence appeared to show that Iraq was developing nuclear weapons. Rocco Martino, who had dealings with the Italian and other intelligence services, provided Elisabetta Burba, a journalist who appeared in the programme, with documents that purported to show that Iraq was attempting to buy uranium from Niger. An Iraqi ambassador had visited Niger in 1999, but most of these papers were crude forgeries. Martino’s family said that he was too ill to comment.

An interview with the late Dr Brian Jones, a WMD expert at British Defence Intelligence, was shown in which he said that Saddam had sought nuclear weapons, but there was no suggestion that he had acquired them or was close to doing so. However, the alleged attempt remained on UK and US files.

In April 2002, British Prime Minister Tony Blair met Bush at his ranch in Texas and agreed to support military action against Iraqi WMD if the UN route had been exhausted. In July, Sir Richard Dearlove, head of MI6, told Blair that war with Iraq was seen as being inevitable in Washington as information and intelligence was being fixed round the policy. Dearlove was invited to appear on the programme, but said that he did not want to comment on the subject until the current Chilcot Inquiry into the war has concluded. Blair was too busy to participate.

Pierre Brochand, then Director of the French Foreign Intelligence Service (DGSE), said that intelligence was used to disguise a war of choice as a war of necessity.

In July 2002, Blair was told by Jonathan Powell, his Chief of Staff, that public opinion was ‘fragile’ and a ‘Rolls-Royce’ information campaign was required to convince the British public of the necessity for war.

MI6 received three new pieces of information whilst preparing  a dossier on WMD that would be published on 24 September.

Iraqi WMD could be launched within 45 minutes. This came from the Iraqi National Accord, a group of Iraqi exiles based in Jordan. According to Dr Ayad Allawi of the INA, the source was an Iraqi artillery Colonel, who was assuming that boxes delivered to his unit contained biological or chemical weapons without knowing for certain. His claim that they could be deployed within 45 minutes referred to short range battlefield weapons, but the report applied it to longer range strategic missiles.

The other two new sources were too late to actually be included in the dossier, but reinforced its case. The first was a spy with access to the production of chemical and biological agents. The other was a spy called Red River, who produced hearsay evidence of mobile chemical labs, but made no claim connecting them to WMD.

Blair regarded the dossier as making it beyond doubt that Saddam had WMD. Lord Butler, who headed the first British inquiry into WMD, said that Blair did not lie, but misled himself. General Sir Mike Jackson, Chief of the General Staff at the time,  said that ‘what appeared to be gold in terms of intelligence turned out to be fool’s gold,
because it looked like gold, but it wasn’t.’  Butler and Jackson both argued that Blair was not a liar, but genuinely thought that Saddam had WMD.

The Bush Administration wanted to use Curveball’s evidence to make their case. August Hanning of the BND sent a cable to George Tenet, Director of the CIA, warning that this intelligence was uncorroborated. The CIA claims that it never left the desk of Tyler Drumheller, then head of its European section; Drumheller stated in the programme that he had passed it on.

In early 2003, two pieces of intelligence that claimed that Iraq did not have WMD came to light. French intelligence had a key intermediary, an Arab journalist who knew several Iraqi ministers, including the Foreign Minister, Naji Sabri. . They passed him onto Bill Murray, the CIA’s Paris station chief. The Arab wanted $1m for his information, but Murray beat him down to $200,000, including expenses. The expenses included a new suit for Sabri; he was to wear it when making a speech to the UN in order to prove that the intermediary was genuine.

Murray said that Sabri told the CIA via the intermediary that Saddam was interested in acquiring WMD, but then had only a few chemical weapons left over from the 1990s. Sabri did not appear on the programme, but issued a denial that he had provided information to the CIA. The intermediary was invited to participate, but did not do so because the BBC refused to pay him the €10,000 that he wanted in return.

Murray said that his report on Sabri’s testimony was used selectively. He argued that very bad intelligence reached the leadership quickly, whilst better intelligence did not make it.

The other source was Tahir Habbush al-Tikriti, head of Iraqi intelligence. He met an MI6 officer in Jordan, telling him that Iraq had no WMD. MI6 thought that both these pieces of intelligence were dis-information, designed to  mislead. Tahir is the most senior member of Saddam’s regime to still be at liberty.

On 5 February 2003, US Secretary of State Colin Powell put forward the case for Iraq having WMD. Joschka Fischer presided over the meeting. In the programme, he said that Powell claimed things that he could not be certain of to be facts.

No WMD were found after the war. Red River, the MI6 spy, failed a lie detector test. The 45 minute claim was dropped. In April 2004 the CIA and MI6 met Curveball and declared him to be a fabricator. Tenet resigned from the CIA a week later. Curveball admitted on the programme that the US/UK coalition went to war on a lie.

Overall, it is clear that the war was launched on faulty intelligence. At best, it may be said that the US and UK governments started with a view about Saddam and WMD and rejected intelligence that did not fit with this preconceived notion. All evidence has to be considered, not just that which confirms what one wants to hear.

For viewers in the UK, the programme is available on the I-Player from this link, which says that it is available until 18 March 2014, far longer than programmes normally stay on the I-Player. It was made jointly with ZDF of Germany.

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The War of 1812: In Our Time, BBC Radio 4

A recent broadcast in the BBC Radio 4 series In Our Time dealt with the War of 1812. The programme is introduced by Melvyn Bragg, who discusses the topic with three experts. Subjects are drawn from Culture, History, Philosophy, Religion and Science. It has been broadcast since 1998, and every episode can be downloaded for free from the BBC website. As far as I know, there are no geographic restrictions.

Click here for the programme on the War of 1812, here for the series homepage and here for the archive of history programmes from 1998-2011. More recent programmes, not sorted by category, can be found from this link.

The BBC website describes the 1812 programme as follows:

Melvyn Bragg and his guests discuss the War of 1812, the conflict between America and the British Empire sometimes referred to as the second American War of Independence. In June 1812, President James Madison declared war on Britain, angered by the restrictions Britain had imposed on American trade, the Royal Navy’s capture of American sailors and British support for Native Americans. After three years of largely inconclusive fighting, the conflict finally came to an end with the Treaty of Ghent which, among other things, helped to hasten the abolition of the global slave trade.
Although the War of 1812 is often overlooked, historians say it had a profound effect on the USA and Canada’s sense of national identity, confirming the USA as an independent country. America’s national anthem, The Star-Spangled Banner began life as a poem written after its author, Francis Scott Key, witnessed the British bombardment of Fort McHenry during the Battle of Baltimore. The war also led to Native Americans losing hundreds of thousands of acres of land in a programme of forced removal.
With:
Kathleen Burk Professor of Modern and Contemporary History at University College London
Lawrence Goldman Fellow in Modern History at St Peter’s College, University of Oxford
Frank Cogliano Professor of American History at the University of Edinburgh
Producer: Victoria Brignell

In 1812, the USA was caught in the middle of a major war between Britain and France. It was trying ineffectually to defend itself against stronger powers who wanted to dictate who it could trade with. Both Britain and France introduced measures aimed at preventing the USA from trading with the other.

The Royal Navy had 130-140,000 men, and used impressment of British merchant seamen to maintain its strength. It was losing men to the USA;  some deserted the RN, whilst others were British merchant seaman who had decided to work on US ships and had become naturalised US citizens. The British did not recognise naturalisation, arguing that once a British subject, always a British subject. Up to 8,000 US sailors were impressed into RN.

Other causes of the war were Canada and also the Native Americans. Some Americans, including Thomas Jefferson, thought that the USA could just march into Canada and Canadians would willingly become Americans. Some wanted to annex territory, others wanted to take territory as a bargaining chip in negotiations.

There was increasing tension between Native Americans and settlers from 1808-9 in Michigan, Wisconsin, Ohio, Indiana and Illinois. A Native American revival was led by two Shawnee brothers; Tecumseh, who provided strategic and military leadership, and Tenskwatawa, the spiritual leader. The British provided arms and support as they wanted a Native American buffer between USA and Canada.

In 1807 HMS Leopard forced the USS Chesapeake to strike her colours. Four US sailors were killed and four sailors removed; one was British born and the others were US born, but had been impressed into the RN and then deserted. Two were African-American, one of them a former slave, so had no British heritage.

Previous British impressment of US sailors had been from merchant ships, but the Chesapeake was a warship. The USA was not prepared for war, lacking the naval power for a conflict with Britain, so President Jefferson tried to exert economic pressure on Britain. His measures stopped US exports to Britain, but not US imports from Britain, so damaged the USA more than Britain

Some Americans feared that the British wanted to re-annex their former colonies, but this was not a British war aim, although some British newspapers still called the USA the colonies.

By 1812, there was a belief in USA that national honour was at stake and that this required war.

The British were initially under-resourced; they had 5,000 troops in Canada and limited naval forces in North America and the Caribbean. They were able to send reinforcements as the Napoleonic Empire collapsed, and had 100 ships in the war zone by the summer of 1814 and 50,000 troops there by the end of the war.

The USA was  unprepared; it had 7,000 regulars at start of war and had a particular problem with lack of trained officers. It did have state militias, totalling 4oo-500,000 men in theory, but some states were unwilling to pay the taxes needed to raise large forces. Some, especially in New England, wanted to fight only in defence of their territory and were unwilling to allow their militias to take part of an invasion of Canada.

The Americans were shocked that the Canadian militia fought well in defence of their territory. Invasions by both sides were unsuccessful because their militias fought better when defending than when attacking.

Links between the British and Native Americans severed in 1813; the naval battle on Lake Erie cut the supply route and Tecumseh was killed at the Battle of the Thames. The USA was waging two wars, one with the British and one with the Native Americans.

The British were never going to be able to conquer the USA, but in 1814 they landed at Washington as a diversion to take pressure off Canada. They intended to march in with a small party under a white flag and use the threat of burning the city to levy a fine, but were fired on from a private house.

Consequently, they executed the inhabitants of the house and burnt government buildings, including the Presidential Palace (now the White House) and the Library of Congress. They did not attack private property except for the house from which they were fired on. This was revenge for the US burning of public buildings in York (now part of Toronto).

There were few major battles, but the British launched a number of punitive expeditions to punish the Americans. At Baltimore in 1814, the RN had to stand-off Fort McHenry,  so could not support the army, which had to withdraw. Fort McHenry withstood bombardment by the RN, resulting in Francis Scott Key writing a poem called the Defence of Fort McHenry. It was later set to the music of a British song and became The Star Spangled Banner, the US National Anthem.

The war was a disaster for the Native Americans, who lost their historic links to Britain. After a decisive defeat by militia led by Andrew Jackson, they were forced to cede land and pushed westwards. Jackson became a national hero and was elected President in 1828. He then pursued a policy of removing the Native Americans from US territory.

There was opposition to war in both countries. In the US, this came from the north east, which traded with Canada. In addition, many in centre of country were uninvolved, in contrast to the War of Independence, which had effected everybody. In Britain opposition came from liberals and also on the grounds of the cost of a war that was diverting military and financial power from the more important conflict with France.

Peace attempts began in 1813 with an attempt at mediation by Tsar Alexander of Russia. It was rejected because both sides still thought they might gain an advantage and get more.

Napoleon’s abdication in 1814 lessened friction between the countries. The British no longer needed to interfere with US commerce or to impress US sailors. Negotiations at Ghent begin in August 1814 and a treaty signed on 24 December 1814. However, the final and biggest battle took place at New Orleans on 8 January 1815 as news of the treaty had not arrived.

New Orleans was a decisive victory for the USA, which inflicted 25% casualties on the 10,000 strong force British force. This led to the US people thinking that they had won the war, as they heard first about this victory and then learnt of the peace treaty soon afterwards. However, the British might have repudiated the treaty and tried to hold New Orleans if they had won the battle there.

The treaty settled nothing about the causes of the war, but the war boosted US self-confidence and gave the Canadians a sense of national identity. There was no further Anglo-American war. It was not very important to the British, for whom it was quickly over-shadowed by Waterloo. By 1823, Britain and the USA were co-operating over the Monroe Doctrine. The big losers of the War of 1812 were the Native Americans.

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MI6 and the Media: Document, BBC Radio 4

The latest programme in the BBC radio series Document dealt with alleged links between MI6, as the organisation officially called the Secret Intelligence Service is popularly known, and the British media during the Cold War. The format of this programme is that it starts with a document or documents and then tries to find the historical story behind the document or documents. A previous post on this blog discussed an earlier episode, which analysed relations between Britain and Vichy France during WWII.

Click here to listen to it from the BBC website; as far as I am aware, there are no time or geographic restrictions on its availability. Note that the online recording starts with a brief trailer for a later programme.

The BBC describes the programme as follows:

Jeremy Duns examines leaked documents which suggest close links between MI6 and the British press during the Cold War.

In December 1968, the British media was shaken by a series of secret documents leaked to Soviet state newspapers. The documents claimed a range of key Fleet Street correspondents and news chiefs were working for the intelligence services. Further papers alleged close links between the BBC and MI6.

At the time, the documents were dismissed by the British media as forgeries, part of an escalating propaganda battle played out in the Russian press. In this edition of Document, Jeremy Duns uncovers evidence which suggests that the papers were genuine and examines how they might have found their way into Soviet hands.

Notorious spies George Blake and Kim Philby are among those under suspicion of having leaked the documents.

Jeremy Duns speaks to distinguished Sunday Times journalist Phillip Knightley, and historian of the intelligence services Professor Christopher Andrew.

The story began with in August 1968, when the Red Army invaded Czechoslovakia in order to put down the Prague Spring, crushing the Czech leadership’s vision of ‘Socialism with a human face.’ The invasion was heavily criticised in Britain by both the media and the government.

This coverage appeared to anger the USSR, since in December the Soviet newspaper Izvestia published a series of articles attacking the British media, which it accused of ‘being an accomplice in ideological subversion.’ Jeremy Duns came across this whilst researching a book on an unrelated spy operation. The Soviets claimed that a large part of the British media was directly working with MI6.

Their source was what they claimed to be a series of MI6 memos. These are the documents analysed in this programme. They included the code names of MI6 officers assigned to work with named journalists, all beginning with BIN. It was also alleged that the BBC was broadcasting coded messages on behalf of MI6.

The allegations were described as ‘rubbish’ by the left-wing Guardian, whilst the right-wing Daily Telegraph thought that they were ‘clumsy and crude.’

Duns looked into the story to see if there is any truth in it. He started with government archives, but MI6 has not released any relevant documents, and none could be found in the UK National Archives.

He then proceeded to interview a number of people who might know the truth. In 1969 Bill Norris reported on the Nigerian Civil War for The Times. He was approached by the British military attaché, who wanted him to provide intelligence on military strength in the north of the country. He declined as he was not a spy and regarded what he was being asked to as being both unethical and very risky. Others agreed to help the military attaché , but Norris would not say who they were.

Kim Philby, the KGB double agent inside MI6 who defected in 1963, made allegations about links between MI6 and the British media in a 1971 interview with Izvestia. One of documents was dated 1959, raising the possibility that Philby might have supplied them to the KGB.

Rupert Allason, who writes on intelligence matters under the pseudonym of Nigel West and studied the KGB files on Philby in the 1990s, did not find this credible as Philby had no access to MI6 files after 1951. Allason was unsure of the authenticity of the documents. He said that MI6 was very cautious of journalists, although some of them were ex MI6 officers.

Dr Stephen Dorril of the University of Huddersfield found the documents more compelling; he has written several books on the British security and intelligence services. He said that the details of how MI6 operates and its relations with journalists revealed in the memos suggested that they were real. He had previously been told of the BIN code names by an ex officer. He suspects that the memos came from George Blake, another KGB double agent in MI6. Blake was involved in recruiting journalists for MI6 and gave almost all the documents he encountered to the KGB.

Philip Knightley, a former Sunday Times journalist, was a contemporary of many of the journalists named in the memos. The allegations do not surprise him, as he had heard the same names quoted before around Fleet Street. He thinks that the documents are genuine.

The former Labour Cabinet Minister Tony Benn wrote in his diary in December 1979 that Mark Arnold-Forster had told him that he worked for MI6 whilst being a Guardian journalist during the period covered by these allegations..

One of the journalists accused of working for MI6 was David Astor, editor of The Observer. Jeremy Lewis, who is writing a biography of him, thinks that the allegations are plausible. Astor had a relationship with MI6 at start of WWII, and this may have continued.

Duns then visited the BBC archives in order to investigate allegations against it. A redacted memo of 24 April 1969 could be read by holding it up to the light. It expresses sympathy for friends who had been caught up in the Soviet propaganda attacks; friends is a euphemism for MI6, but there was nothing else on the subject in the BBC files.

Prof Jean Seaton of the University of Westminster, the official BBC historian, pointed out that the KGB would try to brand BBC World Service Russian broadcasters as spies in order to discredit them.

There is less evidence against BBC than the print media of the employment of journalists by MI6, but the question of it transmitting secret messages on behalf of MI6 remains. This involved the broadcast of prearranged tunes or sentences so that an MI6 officer could prove to somebody from the Soviet Bloc that he was trying to recruit that he had official backing. This is plausible according to Seaton, who pointed out that it was WWII tradecraft.

Prof. Christopher Andrew of Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, the official historian of MI5, said that his first instinct on seeing the documents was that they were photographs taken by a Minox miniature camera rather than the originals. This points towards them having been taken by Blake, who used a Minox to copy large number of MI6 documents.

All the journalists singled out as potential MI6 agents are now dead, but cross-referencing of their careers suggests that the documents are from the late 1950s, when Blake was operating as spy. He was discovered and sentenced to 42 years in prison in 1961, but escaped in 1966 and reached the Soviet Bloc. Philby was already in Moscow, and the KGB would have sought Philby’s advice on what propaganda  would have the greatest impact on the UK public. Andrew pointed out that this would apply whether or not the documents were genuine.

Sir Alastair Horne worked for British intelligence in WWII. After the war he became a journalist for the Daily Express, which sent him to Berlin in the early 1950s. He was asked by Maurice Oldfield, his wartime boss, to run three agents in West German ministries. He did not want to and thought that it would interfere with his journalism, but felt that it was something he had to. He thought that it was unethical, but that we were fighting a war against a miserable and ghastly dictatorship that wanted to take over our way of life.

Soviet propaganda may actually have been the truth in this case, but the nature of the contacts remains unknown; they might have been more informal than claimed by the Soviets. Andrew has no doubts that there were contacts, but is cautious about their nature. Dorril thinks that there is much more to come out about co-operation between MI6 and newspapers during Cold War. Knightley believes that such links are dangerous as the opposition will assume all journalists have intelligence links if one is shown to have them.

An interesting programme in an interesting series. The intelligence services played a major role in the Cold War, and there is no doubt much more still to be discovered on the subject.

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