Tag Archives: Panorama

North Korea Undercover – BBC Panorama

On Monday 15 April 2012 the BBC broadcast a documentary in its Panorama series featuring an undercover report on North Korea from John Sweeney. The programme was controversial before it was broadcast because Sweeney, posing as a professor, joined a party of LSE students who were on an eight day tour of North Korea.

The students were told that the party would include a journalist, but at least some of them thought that this meant a single print journalist, rather than a three person TV crew. Some of the students have complained, claiming that the BBC put their safety at risk, and that they have received threatening emails from North Korea. The programme did obscure the identities of some members of the party.

The LSE and other academics have attacked the programme, alleging that the affair may damage their reputation for independence and transparency. See the websites of the Guardian, the Daily Telegraph and the BBC for more details of the controversy.

UK viewers can view the programme online via the I-Player. Panorama documentaries remain available for 12 months on the I-Player rather than the normal one week.

The most interesting part of the programme turned out to be a series of comments from Western experts and North Korean defectors filmed elsewhere, rather than the undercover film. The programme showed what Sweeney described as a ‘landscape bleak beyond words’, but did not add a great deal to our knowledge of North Korea because the tourists were closely supervised by two guides.

The tour featured numerous power cuts, including one when the party was visiting a factory that made electricity generators. They could not go further than the visitor’s centre because the factory has switched over to making military equipment because of the threat of war.

Other visits included a bottling plant where no bottling was taking place and a collective farm that lacked fields, crops and animals. In the words of The Independent’s TV critic, ‘North Korea is so poor that it can’t even build a convincing Potemkin village.’ For part of the tour, they stayed at a spa hotel that was surrounded with barbed wire.

One afternoon the party visited a hospital that had some impressive medical equipment, but no patients. It was explained that they are treated in the morning, and work or carry out social activities in the afternoon. The tourists could not meet the patients without their permission, and could not obtain their permission without meeting them,

The BBC crew did manage to take some photos of signs of poverty witnessed from the tour bus, despite being told not to do so by one of the tour guides. They included a women doing her washing in an icy river, people scavenging in mud and a market that appeared to lack any produce.

There were some interesting snippets from the tour. Posters of Marx and Lenin had disappeared from Pyongyang over the previous year, suggesting a focus on Nationalism rather than Communism.

There are now a million mobile phones in North Korea; they are not supposed to be used for international calls, but Sweeney got a South Korean signal on his i-phone when near the border.

A bank was being built next to the party’s Pyongyang hotel by a joint venture with a Chinese bank, showing continued Chinese investment.

The party visited the De Militarised Zone between the North and South on a day when North Korean TV was stepping up its threatening rhetoric against the South and the USA. There were no South Korean guards at the Joint Security Area, which Sweeney said was unusual. Perhaps they had been withdrawn to avoid an incident that might escalate?

Overall, however, the film from inside North Korea added nothing to a previous BBC documentary that was made openly a couple of years ago. The most interesting parts were the brief interviews with three Western experts and, especially, three North Korean defectors.

Professor Brian Myers of Donseo University said that the North Koreans were not planning a nuclear war, but one could come about due to some disastrous miscalculation. A higher proportion of population is in uniform than was the case in Nazi Germany or Fascist Italy before WWII. He argued that it is a far right, ultra Nationalist state, not a Communist one.

John Everard, the UK Ambassador to North Korea in 2006-8, describes it as being a  ‘deeply racially biased’ society. He said that Kim Jong Il was an admirer of Hitler and copied him, eg North Korean rallies are modelled on the Nuremberg ones. He commented that ordinary North Korean people would admit to him that their country was poor and backward, but blame this on outside pressures. He pointed out that the growth in the use of mobile phones means that news can now spread round the country far more quickly than in the past.

Mark Fitzpatrick of the International Institute for Security Studies, explained that Kim Il Sung, still head of state 19 years after his death, is regarded as a ‘kind of god.’

The best part of the programme was the brief interviews with three of the 25,000 North Korean defectors living in the South. Sweeney could have avoided the controversy and made a better programme by staying in the South and showing more of these.

Ji Seong Ho said that saying the wrong thing would mean being sent to a political prison camp; ‘disagreement means death.’ There was a famine in 1990s after North Korea lost of support from the USSR. He lost a leg and a hand after he fell under train whilst trying to stealing coal to pay for food. His grandmother and neighbours died of starvation, and he saw lots of corpses in cities at alleyways, markets and at railway stations. Two years ago the UN estimated 6m North Koreans (25% of population) needed urgent food aid.

A female doctor  who declined to be interviewed, presumably because she still has family in the North, said that the people of the North do not rebel because they are brainwashed from an early age. Doctors who asked for more money for medicines would have been killed regardless of their ranking.

Defector Jung Gwang Il was formerly an inmate of one of North Korea’s concentration camp, Camp 15. He said that the dead were not buried in winter because of the hard ground, but were left in a warehouse until April, by when the corpses were decomposing. They were then buried, 70-80 bodies per hole. Defectors say that the concentration camps getting bigger under Kim Jong Un’s regime. The programme showed brief footage of the Yodok Camp, which is available on You Tube.

Sweeney’s conclusion is that Kim Jong Un is an untested leader, who feels that he must threaten war to establish his position, but could take it too far and cause a war.

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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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