A Senior Source at The Independent on Iraq, WMD and Editorials

We recently canvassed the views of a senior journalist at the Independent about that paper’s response to UK government claims on Iraq and its alleged weapons of mass destruction (WMD). The journalist has written many of the paper’s editorials on Iraq over the last couple of years, and also writes many of the editorials on foreign policy more generally. We are grateful for the response.

In Part 1 of this alert we quote extensively from our source’s response (3 October) to our initial query, and include a minimum of commentary. In Part 2, we include our full reply.

The source began by arguing that since no WMD have been found in Iraq, there had likely been, “a failure of intelligence AND a failure of judgement by our political leaders, i.e. I would not argue that failure of intelligence absolves Blair et al.”

The source continued: “One of the reasons I say that is because I have been one of the arch-sceptics at the Indy [The Independent], arguing from way back that Iraq probably did not have WMD and that any capability it once had was destroyed after the Gulf War and that the UN sanctions had basically worked. I tend to think that if I could reach this conclusion, then Blair etc. could at least have asked rather more searching questions about the intelligence than they did.”

We find it remarkable that this senior Independent journalist can proclaim themselves an “arch-sceptic”, since arch-scepticism in response to government claims on WMD was notable by its absence in the paper. Indeed, the Independent overlooked or ignored some of the most obvious and credible evidence that Iraq had been, in the words of chief UNSCOM inspector, Scott Ritter, “fundamentally disarmed”. We return to this in Part 2.

Our source continued: “I was especially concerned about three aspects. One was the provenance of the 45 minute claim. I actually asked the foreign office the same question that “Mr A.” was asking in the communication that came to light during the Hutton inquiry: could the ‘source’, however reliable, have had an ulterior motive to producing this piece of info at just that juncture. I found it very suspect that this turned up just as the British government was known by the Americans to be having difficulties with public opinion here, and asked whether it might not have come from the Chalabi people via the Pentagon.

“Another [concern] was the principle behind the conclusion that Iraq still had WMD. What the UN and the US and the Brits did was to tot up what they, and others, were known to have sold Iraq in advance of the Gulf War, subtract what they knew had been used and ask Saddam to account for the rest, while claiming that he actually had it. Hence the ‘exact’ figures of anthrax, VX, etc that we were regaled with at every turn. This had a simple logic to it, but I felt that it was highly dubious. Third was the assertive tone that the Foreign Office and Downing Street always took when they made their accusations. I found it propagandistic and immediately suspect for that reason.”

There was, nevertheless, an astonishing failure on the part of journalists to scrutinise claims originating from the Foreign Office and Downing Street. This is surely a good example of the distorting influence of powerful sources – the third filter in Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky’s propaganda model of media control. Journalists are highly dependent on these sources – such as the Downing Street propaganda machine – for fresh news. Journalists who cause offence risk losing their main access to information. Media analyst Phillip Knightley recently provided a rare glimpse into this world in the Independent on Sunday:

“Back in the 1960s, the Sunday Times appointed journalist and author Tony Howard as its Whitehall correspondent, announcing, ‘The job of a newspaper is to bring into public information the acts and processes of power. National security alone excepted, it is the job of newspapers to publish the secret matters of politics whether the secrets are the secrets of the Cabinet, of Parliament, or of the Civil Service.’

“The then Prime Minister, Harold Wilson, was having none of that. He quickly shut Howard down. Howard remembers: ‘He said he understood I was only trying to do my job but he had a job to do, too, and his was more important than mine. He made it very plain that all conventional sources of information would remain shut until I was willing to return to the cosy but essentially sham game of being a political correspondent.'” (Phillip Knightley, ‘Of secrets and spies’, The Independent on Sunday, August 17, 2003)

Political correspondents in 2003 are subject to similar pressures of the “sham game”. To take on power, today, is also very much to risk being “shut down”. Our source points out: “my views on the war were very close to the editor’s, so there is probably little divergence between the leaders and my signed columns.” In particular, the “editorial line was …. sceptical of the WMD claims – though we all have to remember that those times were different when the inspectors were in Iraq. There was always the chance that the anthrax, VX, etc. could be found the very next day and I don’t think any editor felt it wise to go out on a limb completely.”

This is fair enough, but then no reasonable critic has suggested that the media should have stated categorically that Iraq had +no+ WMD whatever. The real issue is why the paper’s editorials – and more generally its news reporting – failed to reflect authoritative testimony from weapons inspectors to the effect that Iraq posed no +threat+ whatever.

We asked: “Surely The Independent’s editors and journalists ought to be asking fundamental questions, such as why the US and UK governments would break international law, and mislead their respective populations, to launch an invasion of Iraq. Which interests were served by so doing?”

Avoiding the crucial question about whose interests might be served by invading Iraq, the response we received was that: “the problem with arguing no holds barred that Britain broke international law is that the Attorney General produced (only just) a measure of legal cover and I think they will continue to cite that, if pushed. The [Foreign Secretary Jack] Straw argument is that Iraq was in breach of international law and that action was already sanctioned by resolution 1441, so the war was not illegal. It would have been illegal, on the other hand, if there had been a vote on the so-called second reoslution and the US and Britain had been defeated.

“Now I know this is hair-splitting, and my view is that there is a clear mismatch between the reasons why Blair said he was going to war (WMD, the risk to national security  etc) and the reasons he and Straw are now giving (Iraq’s alleged non-compliance),  but I think they are probably saved from flagrant illegality on the technicality of the failed second resolution (and the deliberate ambiguity of  1441). As a paper, we haven’t really got around to considering this yet. The Hutton inquiry has taken precedence.”

The Hutton inquiry has indeed served a useful function in diverting media scrutiny from the government’s war crimes. Moreover, there is a considerable body of respected legal opinion that holds that the US-UK action +was+ clearly illegal. The leading legal peer Lord Alexander of Weedon QC recently accused attorney general Lord Goldsmith of “scraping the bottom of the legal barrel” to give a spurious legitimacy to the war on Iraq. Lord Alexander reportedly said that the great majority of the international lawyers who had expressed a view did not agree with the attorney general’s advice. (‘Goldsmith “scraped the legal barrel” over Iraq war’, Clare Dyer, The Guardian, 15 October, 2003)

However, this is presumably an editorial line that would involve “going out on a limb”, for any newspaper wishing to remain on good terms with Downing Street.

Our source then goes on to address the issue of whether Blair consciously, or unconsciously, misled the country – a side issue beside the reality that the government +did+ deploy deception in leading the country to war:

“Personally, I am not certain that Blair consciously misled the country. It would be easier to think so, as it opens the way for believing  also that he wanted to please the US, preserve the transatlantic alliance, special relationship etc. at all cost and considered that this overrode all other considerations. I fear that Blair may have convinced himself that Iraq presented a real and imminent threat and was at a loss as to how to convince the sceptical British public. (You could sense the desperate frustration in Downing Street especially through last autumn as phlegmatic Brits steadfastly refused to get alarmed about the threat from Iraq).

“The one explanation I offer is that the shadow of 9/11 loomed much larger in Blair’s thinking than it did in public opinion generally, and that he was terrified of being held responsible when – for instance – the Houses of Parliament were demolished by terrorist attack on his watch. I find this absurd. No one proved any link between 9/11 and Iraq, nor even between Iraq and terrorism generally.”

The assertion that Blair was particularly concerned about an attack on British targets is contradicted by his own post-9/11 statements on Iraq. In November 2001, for example, Blair stood shoulder to shoulder with Jacques Chirac insisting that “incontrovertible evidence” of Iraqi complicity in the September 11 attacks would be required before military action would be considered.

The source goes on: “It is also worth noting that the Indy has so far stopped short of calling for Blair to resign (I would have done, but have not written a column that would accommodate that). So far, I think, the feeling is that the political route (being booted out of office by the electorate or an unhappy party) would be more effective than a legal challenge. I also happen to think that the real reason why [Blair’s former communications director Alastair] Campbell went ballistic about [BBC reporter Andrew] Gilligan and the BBC is that he saw the vulnerability of Blair’s legal position if the charge stuck that Downing Street had inserted intelligence into the dossier ‘knowing that it was wrong’.

“I am generally sympathetic to Gilligan and so has the paper been in its leaders… because I think the thrust of his report was absolutely right. I can see, however, that in those details – especially the charge that the 45 minute detail was inserted even though it was known to be wrong – Campbell may have seen big legal dangers ahead that could threaten Blair’s survival.  I think that is why he – in his words – opened a new front at the FAC [Foreign Affairs Committee], partly to divert attention and partly to ensure that this legal weakness was closed.”

In Part 2, Media Lens replies to the Independent source, describing the paper’s failure to challenge the government’s deceptions on UN sanctions and inspections.