Why I...believe security dossiers have been cooked up to justify war with Iraq

February 14, 2003

For analysts of the Middle East, the prospect of a detailed report by the British intelligence services on the security infrastructure of Iraq was rousing. A secretive system of multiple layers of authority and complex chains of command was about to be uncovered. Prime minister Tony Blair told the House of Commons: "It is obviously difficult when we publish intelligence reports, but I hope that people have some sense of the integrity of our security services. It is the intelligence that they are receiving, and we are passing it on to people."

To me, it seemed somewhat familiar. Checking the dossier against three journal articles published over the past six years, I discovered that the majority of the British document - including the entire section detailing the structures of the Iraqi security services - was lifted straight from their pages. Academics had become caught up in the justification for war.

The only exceptions were the tweaking of specific phrases. A reference to how Iraq was "aiding opposition groups" in neighbouring states in one article turned into "supporting terrorist groups" in the dossier. A description of one group as being made up of "bullies and country bumpkins" was shorn of its last three words in the dossier: Iraqi country bumpkins, clearly, are not about to launch an attack on the UK, and so have no role in the document's rhetorical strategy. Apart from such amendments, the texts were identical.

The slapdash manner in which the dossier was put together was also apparent from its mistakes. For example, in lifting a section on the General Security Service from one article and using it in a section on the Military Security Service, the MSS moved its headquarters two years before its creation in 1992.

This is the UK government's third dossier. In September, the first addressed what is purportedly the reason for potential military action against Iraq: Saddam Hussein's alleged production of nuclear, chemical and biological weapons. The problem was that these claims could be checked: Iraq invited UN inspectors to visit the sites of concern and they found nothing to raise suspicions.

With the argument about the large-scale development of prohibited weapons looking increasingly implausible, the US shifted tack. Now the problem was not the immediate threat of Iraq, but Saddam's "unique evil". Eager to support that changing line, the British government responded with a second dossier. This was on human rights and the crimes committed by the Iraqi regime mostly in the 1980s. As human-rights organisations said at the time, this was a crass and opportunistic attempt to justify a war based on events committed largely with the compliance of the UK and US.

So the US focus changed again. Now the problem was the ineffectiveness of weapons inspections without Iraq's full cooperation. This was implausible: a key role of inspections is to deter any attempt by Iraq to reconstruct industries to produce these weapons. In present circumstances, Iraq may be able to hide a few canisters of agents but it cannot develop the means to threaten the outside world.

US secretary of state Colin Powell made it clear that his statement to the Security Council on February 5 would concentrate on this theme. Mr Blair may have sensed that his government needed to produce something quickly to substantiate the US position.

The case for war on Iraq has largely been made on the back of information that politicians claim to be from the intelligence services. In this case, the intelligence services either were not consulted or, possibly more likely, provided an assessment that did not fit with the politicians' argument. Downing Street, in trying to pander to the US stance, resorted to a strategy that many have adopted in similar circumstances: petty plagiarism.

Glen Rangwala
Lecturer in politics
Cambridge University

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