Will MI6 “fix” intelligence on Iran?

By:    Ray McGov­ern, former CIA ana­lyst and Annie Machon, former MI5 intel­li­gence officer

Recent remarks by the head of MI6, Sir John Saw­ers, leave us won­der­ing if the Secret Intel­li­gence Ser­vice is pre­par­ing to “fix” intel­li­gence on Iran, as his imme­di­ate pre­de­cessor, Sir John Scar­lett, did on Iraq.

Scarlett’s pre-Iraq war role in cre­at­ing “dodgy dossiers” hyp­ing the threat of non-exist­ent “weapons of mass destruc­tion” is well known.  As for Saw­ers, the red warn­ing light for politi­ciz­a­tion blinked brightly on July 4, as he told Brit­ish seni­or civil ser­vants that Iran is “two years away” from becom­ing a “nuc­le­ar weapons state.”  How did Saw­ers come up with “two years?”

Since late 2007, the bench­mark for weigh­ing Iran’s nuc­le­ar pro­gram has been the unan­im­ous assess­ment by all 16 U.S. intel­li­gence agen­cies that Iran hal­ted its nuc­le­ar weapons pro­gram in late 2003 and that, as of mid-2007, had not restar­ted it.  Those judg­ments have been reval­id­ated every year since — des­pite strong pres­sure to bow to more omin­ous — but evid­ence-light — assess­ments by Israel and its neo-con­ser­vat­ive sup­port­ers.

Intel­li­gence Can Make a Dif­fer­ence

The 2007 the US Nation­al Intel­li­gence Estim­ate helped to thwart plans to attack Iran in 2008, the last year of the Bush/Cheney admin­is­tra­tion.  This shines through in George Bush’s own mem­oir, Decision Points, in which he rues the NIE’s “eye-pop­ping declar­a­tion: ‘We judge with high con­fid­ence that in fall 2003, Tehran hal­ted its nuc­le­ar weapons pro­gram.’”

Bush con­tin­ues, “But after the NIE, how could I pos­sibly explain using the mil­it­ary to des­troy the nuc­le­ar facil­it­ies of a coun­try the intel­li­gence com­munity said had no act­ive nuc­le­ar weapons pro­gram?” (Decision Points, p. 419)

Hands tied on the mil­it­ary side, US cov­ert oper­a­tions flowered, with $400 mil­lion appro­pri­ated at that same time for a major escal­a­tion of the dark-side struggle against Iran, accord­ing to mil­it­ary, intel­li­gence, and con­gres­sion­al sources cited by Sey­mour Her­sh in 2008.  This clandes­tine but all-too-real war on Iran has included attacks with com­puter vir­uses, the murders of Ira­ni­an sci­ent­ists, and what the Israel­is call the “unnat­ur­al” demise of seni­or offi­cials like Revolu­tion­ary Guards Major Gen­er­al Has­san Moghad­dam fath­er of Iran’s mis­sile pro­gram.

Moghad­dam was killed in a large explo­sion last Novem­ber, with Time magazine cit­ing a “west­ern intel­li­gence source” as say­ing the Israel’s Mossad was behind the blast.  More threat­en­ing still to Iran are the severe eco­nom­ic sanc­tions, which are tan­tamount to an act of war.

Israeli Prime Min­is­ter Ben­jamin Net­an­yahu and pro-Israel neo-con­ser­vat­ives in the U.S. and else­where have been push­ing hard for an attack on Iran, seiz­ing every pre­text they can find.  Net­an­yahu was sus­pi­ciously fast off the blocks, for example, in claim­ing that Iran was behind the tra­gic ter­ror­ist bomb­ing of Israeli tour­ists in Bul­garia on July 18, des­pite Bul­gari­an author­it­ies and even the White House warn­ing that it is too early to attrib­ute respons­ib­il­ity.

Netanyahu’s instant indict­ment of Iran strongly sug­gests he is look­ing for excuses to up the ante.  With the Per­sian Gulf look­ing like an acci­dent wait­ing to hap­pen, stocked as it is with war­ships from the U.S., the U.K. and else­where — and with no fail-safe way of com­mu­nic­at­ing with Ira­ni­an nav­al com­mand­ers — an escal­a­tion-gen­er­at­ing acci­dent or pro­voca­tion is now more likely than ever.

July 23: Mark­ing a Day of Infamy

Oddly, Sawers’s speech of July 4 came just as an import­ant date approached — the tenth anniversary of a sad day for Brit­ish intel­li­gence on Iraq.  On July 23, 2002 at a meet­ing at 10 Down­ing Street, then-MI6 head, John Dear­love, briefed Tony Blair and oth­er seni­or offi­cials on his talks with his Amer­ic­an coun­ter­part, CIA Dir­ect­or George Ten­et, in Wash­ing­ton three days before.

In the offi­cial minutes of that brief­ing (now known as the Down­ing Street Memo), which were leaked to the Lon­don Times and pub­lished on May 1, 2005, Dear­love explains that George Bush has decided to attack Iraq and the war was to be “jus­ti­fied by the con­junc­tion of ter­ror­ism and weapons of mass destruc­tion.”  While then-For­eign Sec­ret­ary Jack Straw points out that the case was “thin,” Dear­love explains mat­ter-of-factly, “The intel­li­gence and facts are being fixed around the policy.”

There is no sign in the minutes that any­one hic­cupped — much less demurred — at mak­ing a case for war and fur­ther­ing Blair’s determ­in­a­tion to join Bush in launch­ing the kind of “war of aggres­sion” out­lawed by the post-world war Nurem­berg Tribunal and the UN treaty.

Helped by the acqui­es­cence of their chief spies, the Blair gov­ern­ment main­lined into the body polit­ic un-assessed, raw intel­li­gence and forged doc­u­ments, with dis­astrous con­sequences for the world.

UK cit­izens were spoon-fed fake intel­li­gence in the Septem­ber Dossier (2002) and then, just six weeks before the attack on Iraq, the “Dodgy Dossier”, based largely on a 12-year old PhD thes­is culled from the Inter­net — all presen­ted by spy and politi­cian alike as omin­ous pre­mon­it­ory intel­li­gence.

So was made the case for war. All lies, res­ult­ing in hun­dreds of thou­sands dead and maimed and mil­lions of Iraqis dis­placed — yet no one held to account.

Sir Richard Dear­love, who might have pre­ven­ted this had he had the integ­rity to speak out, was allowed to retire with full hon­ours and became the Mas­ter of a Cam­bridge col­lege.  John Scar­lett, who as chair of the Joint Intel­li­gence Com­mit­tee signed off the fraud­u­lent dossiers, was rewar­ded with the top spy job at MI6 and a knight­hood. George W. Bush gave George Ten­et the Pres­id­en­tial Medal of Free­dom — the highest civil­ian award.

What need have we for fur­ther proof? “So are they all, all hon­our­able men” — remin­is­cent of those stand­ing with Bru­tus in Shakespeare’s play, but with no Mark Anthony to expose them and stir the appro­pri­ate pop­u­lar reac­tion.

Therein lies the prob­lem: instead of being held account­able, these “hon­our­able men” were, well, hon­oured. Their soft land­ings offer a nox­ious object les­son for ambi­tious bur­eau­crats who are ready to play fast and loose with the truth and trim their sails to the pre­vail­ing winds.

Ill-got hon­ours offer neither deterrent nor dis­in­cent­ive to cur­rent and future intel­li­gence chiefs temp­ted to fol­low suit and cor­rupt intel­li­gence rather than chal­lenge their polit­ic­al lead­ers with hard, un-“fixed” facts. Integ­rity? In this milieu integ­rity brings know­ing smirks rather than hon­ours. And it can get you kicked out of the club.

Fix­ing Intel­li­gence on Iran

Are we in for anoth­er round of “fix­ing” — this time on Iran? We may know soon.  Israeli Prime Min­is­ter Net­an­yahu, cit­ing the ter­ror­ist attack in Bul­garia, has already provided what amounts to a vari­ation on Dearlove’s ten-year old theme regard­ing how war can be “jus­ti­fied by the con­junc­tion of ter­ror­ism and weapons of mass destruc­tion.”

Accord­ing to the Jer­u­s­alem Post on July 17, Net­an­yahu said that all coun­tries that under­stand that Iran is an export­er of world ter­ror must join Israel in “stat­ing that fact clearly,” in order to emphas­ize the import­ance of pre­vent­ing Iran from obtain­ing a nuc­le­ar weapon.

Appear­ing yes­ter­day on Fox News Sunday and CBS’s Face the Nation, Net­an­yahu returned to that theme. Put­ting the blame for the ter­ror­ist attack in Bul­garia squarely on Iran (and Hezbol­lah), Net­an­yahu warned of the increased dangers that would accrue if Iran acquired nuc­le­ar weapons. “What would be the con­sequences if the most dan­ger­ous régime in the world got the world’s most dan­ger­ous weapons?”.

Will MI6 chief Saw­ers mod­el his con­duct on that of his pre­de­cessors who “jus­ti­fied” war on Iraq? Will he “fix” intel­li­gence around U.K./U.S./Israeli policy on Iran? Par­lia­ment­ary over­seers should demand a brief­ing from Saw­ers forth­with, before erstwhile bull­dog Bri­tain is again dragged like a poodle into anoth­er unne­ces­sary war.

Annie Machon is a former intel­li­gence officer in the UK’s MI5 Secur­ity Ser­vice and Ray McGov­ern is a fomer U.S Army Intel­li­gence Officer and CIA ana­lyst.

Bleat: Knowledge is power — the MI6 prime directive

Black_sheep?By way of ran­dom link­age, I stumbled across this little gem of an art­icle by that old spook apo­lo­gist extraordin­aire, Con Cough­lin.  He’s writ­ing about the first pub­lic speech by a serving head of (SIS) MI6, which was addressed to the Soci­ety of Edit­ors last autumn.  Dear old Con­’s inter­pret­a­tion of events is slightly dif­fer­ent from mine at the time.….

The para­graph that leapt out at me was this:

Sir John Saw­ers, the cur­rent “C” in charge of MI6, made much the same point yes­ter­day in his ground-break­ing speech to the Soci­ety of Edit­ors. He explained that acquir­ing secret intel­li­gence, and keep­ing it secret, remains his organisation’s fun­da­ment­al object­ive.”

Well, excuse my naiv­ety but I thought that the role of the Brit­ish intel­li­gence agen­cies was to pro­tect “nation­al secur­ity”, whatever that might mean accord­ing to the fla­vour of the day, not merely to acquire and keep secrets.

Well, I obvi­ously remain irre­deem­ably ideal­ist­ic.  Per­haps, as my fath­er hope­fully states on occa­sion, one day I’ll even­tu­ally grow up.….

 

Sir John Sawers, head of MI6, makes historic public appearance

For the first time in 100 years “C”, the head of the UK for­eign intel­li­gence ser­vice SIS (com­monly known as MI6) has gone pub­lic.

Former career dip­lo­mat Sir John Saw­ers (he of Speedo fame) yes­ter­day made a speech to the UK Soci­ety of Edit­ors in what appeared to be a pro­fes­sion­ally dip­lo­mat­ic rear-guard action in response to a num­ber of hot media top­ics at the moment.

Choos­ing both his audi­ence wisely and his words care­fully, he hit on three key areas:

Tor­ture: Leg­al cases are cur­rently going through UK courts on behalf of Brit­ish vic­tims of tor­ture, in which MI5 and MI6 intel­li­gence officers are alleged to have been com­pli­cit.  The Met­ro­pol­it­an Police are cur­rently invest­ig­at­ing a num­ber of cases.  Over the last week, a Brit­ish mil­it­ary train­ing manu­al on “enhanced” inter­rog­a­tion tech­niques has also been made pub­lic. How­ever, Saw­ers unblush­ingly states that MI6 abides by UK and inter­na­tion­al law and would nev­er get involved, even tan­gen­tially, in tor­ture cases.  In fact, he goes on to assert that the UK intel­li­gence agen­cies are train­ing the rest of the world in human rights in this regard.

 

 

Whis­tleblow­ing: In the week fol­low­ing the latest Wikileaks coup — the Iraq War Diar­ies, com­pris­ing nearly 400,000 doc­u­ments detail­ing the every­day hor­ror of life in occu­pied Iraq, includ­ing war crimes such as murder, rape and tor­ture com­mit­ted by both US and UK forces — Saw­ers states that secrecy is not a dirty word: the intel­li­gence agen­cies need to have the con­fid­ence that whis­tleblowers will not emerge to in order to guard agent and staff iden­tit­ies, as well as main­tain­ing the con­fid­ence of their inter­na­tion­al intel­li­gence part­ners that their (dirty?) secrets will remain, um, secret.  One pre­sumes he is advoc­at­ing against the expos­ure of war crimes and justice for the vic­tims.

This, one also pre­sumes, is the jus­ti­fic­a­tion for US politi­cians who pro­pose cyber-attacks against Wikileaks and the declar­a­tion by some US polit­ic­al insiders that Juli­an Assange, spokes­man of the organ­isa­tion, should be treated as an unlaw­fully des­ig­nated “unlaw­ful com­batant”, sub­ject to the full rigour of extra-judi­cial US power, up to and includ­ing assas­sin­a­tion. 

Spuri­ous media claims of unveri­fied “dam­age” are the hoary old chest­nuts always dragged out in whis­tleblower cases.  After Wikileaks released its Afghan War Blog in July, gov­ern­ment and intel­li­gence com­ment­at­ors made apo­ca­lyptic pre­dic­tions that the leak had put mil­it­ary and agent lives at risk.  US Defense Sec­ret­ary Robert Gates has since gone on the record to admit that this was simply not true. 

Dur­ing the Shayler whis­tleblow­ing case a dec­ade ago, the gov­ern­ment repeatedly tried to assert that agent lives had been put at risk, and yet the form­al judge­ment at the end of his tri­al stated that this was abso­lutely not the case.  And again, with the recent Wikileaks Iraq War Blog, gov­ern­ment sources are using the same old man­tra.  When will they real­ise that they can only cry wolf so many times and get away with it?  And when will the journ­al­ists regur­git­at­ing this spin wake up to the fact they are being played?

Account­ab­il­ity:  Saw­ers goes on to describe the mech­an­isms of account­ab­il­ity, such as they are.  He accur­ately states, as I have pre­vi­ously described ad nauseam, that under the 1994 Intel­li­gence Ser­vices Act, he is notion­ally respons­ible to his polit­ic­al “mas­ter”, the For­eign Sec­ret­ary, who has to clear in advance any leg­ally dubi­ous for­eign oper­a­tions (up to and includ­ing murder – the fabled “licence to kill” is not fic­tion, as you can see here).

The 1994 ISA also estab­lished the Prime Min­ister­’s Intel­li­gence and Secur­ity Com­mit­tee (ISC) in Par­lia­ment, which many com­ment­at­ors seem to believe offers mean­ing­ful over­sight of the spies.  How­ever, as I have detailed before, this is a mere fig leaf to real account­ab­il­ity: the ISC can only invest­ig­ate issues of policy, fin­ance and admin­is­tra­tion of the spy agen­cies.  Dis­clos­ures relat­ing to crime, oper­a­tion­al incom­pet­ence or involve­ment in tor­ture fall out­side its remit.

But what hap­pens if intel­li­gence officers decide to oper­ate bey­ond this frame­work? How would min­is­ters or the ISC ever know?  Oth­er spy mas­ters have suc­cess­fully lied to their polit­ic­al mas­ters in the past, after all.

Sir John has the gall to say that, if an oper­a­tion is not cleared by the For­eign Sec­ret­ary, it does not pro­ceed.  But what about the Gadaf­fi Plot way back in 1996, when MI6 was spon­sor­ing a group of Islam­ic extrem­ist ter­ror­ists in Libya to try to assas­sin­ate Col­on­el Gadaf­fi without, it has been asser­ted, the pri­or writ­ten approv­al of the then-For­eign sec­ret­ary, Tory politi­cian Mal­com Rif­kind?  This was repor­ted extens­ively, includ­ing in this art­icle by Mark Thomas in the New States­man. What hap­pens if rogue MI6 officers blithely side-step this notion­al account­ab­il­ity — because they can, because they know they will get away with it — because they have in the past?

MoS_August_97_QPlot_CredibleIn the interests of justice, UK and inter­na­tion­al law, and account­ab­il­ity, per­haps a new Conservative/Coalition gov­ern­ment should now reas­sess its approach to intel­li­gence whis­tleblowers gen­er­ally, and re-exam­ine this spe­cif­ic dis­clos­ure about Libya, which has been backed up by inter­na­tion­al intel­li­gence sources, both US and French, in order to achieve some sort of clos­ure for the inno­cent vic­tims in Libya of this MI6-fun­ded ter­ror­ist attack? And it is finally time to hold the per­pet­rat­ors to account — PT16, Richard Bart­lett, and PT16B, Dav­id Wat­son, who were the seni­or officers in MI6 respons­ible for the murder plot.

As civ­il­ised coun­tries, we need to rethink our approach to the issue of whis­tleblow­ing. Lies, spin,  pro­sec­u­tions and thug­gish threats of assas­sin­a­tion are beneath us as soci­et­ies that notion­ally adhere to the prin­ciples of demo­cracy.  If we can only real­ist­ic­ally hope that the actions of our gov­ern­ments, mil­it­ary forces, and intel­li­gence agen­cies are trans­par­ent and account­able via whis­tleblowers, then we need to ensure that these people are leg­ally pro­tec­ted and that their voices are heard clearly.