Here’s a recent interview I did about the recent Iran nuclear deal, adding some context and history and trying to cut through some of today’s media myths:
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.
As I’ve mentioned before, the former heads of UK intelligence agencies have a charming habit of speaking out in support of the rule of law, civil liberties, proportionality and plain common sense — but usually only after they have retired.
Perhaps at their leaving parties their consciences are extracted from the security safe, dusted off and given back — along with the gold watch?
Even then, post-retirement, they might try to thrice-deny potentially world-changing information, as Sir Richard Dearlove did when questioned by the fearless and fearsomely bright Silkie Carlo about the leaked Downing Street Memo at his recent speech at the Cambridge Union. (The links are in two parts, as the film had to be mirrored on Youtube — Dearlove claimed copyright on the orginal Love Police film and had it taken down.)
And “out of context”, my left foot — he could potentially have saved millions of lives in the Middle East if he’d gone public with his considered professional opinion about the intelligence facts being fitted around a preconceived war policy in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq.
Wouldn’t it be lovely if these esteemed servants of the state, replete with respect, status and honours, could actually take a stand while they are still in a position to influence world events?
My former boss, Baroness Eliza Manningham-Buller, has been unusually vociferous since her retirement in 2007 and elevation to the peerage. She used her maiden speech to the House of Lords to object to the proposed plans to increase police detention of terrorist suspects without charge from 28 to 42 days; she recently suggested that the “war on terror” is unwinnable and that we should, if possible, negotiate with “Al Qaeda” (well, it worked with the Provisional IRA); and that the “war on drugs” had been lost and the UK should treat recreational drug use as a health rather than a criminal issue. She steals all my best lines.…
But credit where credit is due. Despite the fact that she used the full power of the British state to pursue terrorist suspects up until 2007 and investigate drug barons in the 1990s, she did apparently try to make a stand while en poste in the run-up to the Iraq War. Last year she gave evidence to the Chilcot Enquiry, stating that she had officially briefed the government that an invasion of Iraq would increase the terrorist threat to the UK.
So it’s obvious that once a UK Prime Minister has come over all Churchillian he tends to ignore the counsel of his chief spooks, as we’ve seen with both the Downing Street Memo the Chilcot Enquiry.
With that in mind, I’ve read with interest the recent press reports that the UK authorities apparently knew about Colonel Gaddafi retaining stockpiles of mustard gas and sarin (despite the fact that the world was assured in 2004 that it was his renunciation of WMDs that allowed him back into the international diplomatic fold) .
So the key question is surely: is this another erroneous “45 minutes from attack” moment, with Gaddafi’s alleged stockpiles of WMD a perfect scaremongering pretext to push for a full-on régime change in Libya; or is this genuine, and we were all lied to about Gaddafi’s destruction of his WMD stockpiles for economic advantage and fat, juicy oil contracts?
The Wall Street Journal recently ran an article quoting the concern of “government insiders” about Gaddafi’s potential future terrorism threat against the West, up to and including WMDs, should he cling on to power. Well, yes, it would hardly be surprising if he were now to be as mad as a wasp with his ex-new best buddies. Despite the sordid rapprochement in the last decade, he has been for much of his life an inveterate enemy of the West and sponsor of worldwide terrorism.
Rather than waiting for his “K” and his retirement, would it not be wonderful if the current head of MI5, Jonathan Evans, could extract his conscience from that dusty security safe and make a useful and informed statement to shed some light on the mess that the Libyan war is rapidly becoming? He could potentially change the course of world history and save untold lives.
The UK Intelligence Community: Ineffective, Unethical and Unaccountable
The USA and the UK are enmeshed in an apparently unending war of attrition – sorry peacekeeping — in Iraq. Why? Well, we may remember that the UK was assured by former Prime Minister Tony Blair, in sincere terms, that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction which could be deployed again British interests within 45 minutes. Indeed the press was awash with “45 minutes from Armageddon” headlines on 18th March 2003, the day of the crucial war debate in the British parliament. The implication was that Britain was directly at threat from the evil Iraqis.
The US varied the diet. George Bush, in his State of the Union address before the war, assured his nation that Iraq had been attempting to buy material to make nuclear weapons from Niger. The American media and public fell for this claim, hook, line and sinker.
What do these two erroneous claims have in common? Well, both were “sexed up” for public consumption.
We all know now that there never were any WMDs to be found in Iraq. After 10 years of punitive sanctions, the country simply didn’t have the capability, even if it had the will, to develop them. The Niger claim is even more tenuous. This was based on an intelligence report emanating from the British Secret Intelligence Service (commonly know as SIS or MI6), which was based on forgeries.
We have had headline after screaming headline stating that yet another terrorist cell has been rounded up in Britain. The Ricin plot? The beheading of a British Muslim serviceman? The liquid bombs on airplanes? Yet, if one reads the newspapers carefully, one finds that charges are dropped quietly after a few months.
So, why is this happening? I can hazard a few guesses. In the 1990s I worked for 6 years as an intelligence officer for MI5, investigating political “subversives”, Irish terrorists, and Middle Eastern terrorism. In late 1996 I, with my then partner and colleague David Shayler, left the service in disgust at the incompetent and corrupt culture to blow the whistle on the UK intelligence establishment. This was not a case of sour grapes – we were both competent officers who regularly received performance related bonuses.
However, we had grown increasingly concerned about breaches of the law; ineptitude (which led to bombs going off that could and should have been prevented); files on politicians; the jailing of innocent people; illegal phone taps; and the illegal sponsoring of terrorism abroad, funded by UK tax-payers.
The key reason that we left and went public is probably one of the most heinous crimes – SIS funded an Islamic extremist group in Libya to try to assassinate Colonel Gaddafi in 1996. The attack failed, but killed innocent people. The attack was also illegal under British law. The 1994 intelligence Services Act, which put SIS on a legal footing for the first time in its 80 year history, stated that its officers were immune from prosecution in the UK for illegal acts committed abroad, if they had the prior written permission of its political master – ie the Foreign Secretary. In this case they did not.
So, the assassination attempt was not only immoral, unethical and highly reckless in a volatile area of the world, but also illegal under British law.
In August 1997 we went public in a national British newspaper about our concerns. We hoped that the newly-elected Labour government would take our evidence and begin an investigation of the intelligence agencies. After all, many Labour MPs had been on the receiving end of spook investigations in their radical youth. Many had also opposed the draconian UK law, the Official Secrets Act (OSA 1989), which deprived an intelligence whistleblower of a public interest defence.
However, it was not to be. I have no proof, but I can speculate that the Labour government did the spies’ bidding for fear of what might be on their MI5 files. They issued an injunction against David and the national press. They failed to extradite him from France in 1998 but, when he returned voluntarily to face trail in the UK in 2000, they lynched him in the media. They also ensured that, through a series of pre-trial legal hearings, he was not allowed to say anything in his own defence and was not able to freely question his accusers. Indeed the judge ordered the jury to convict.
The whole sorry saga of the Shayler affair shows in detail how the British establishment will always shoot the messenger to protect its own interests. If the British government had taken Shayler’s evidence, investigated his disclosures, and reformed the services so that they were subject to effective oversight and had to obey the law, they may well be working more efficiently to protect us from threats to our national’s security. After all, the focus of their work is now counter-terrorism, and they use the same resources and techniques as the police. Why should they not be subject to the same checks and balances?
Instead, MI5 and SIS continue to operate outside meaningful democratic control. Their cultures are self-perpetuating oligarchies, where mistakes are glossed over and repeated, and where questions and independent thought are discouraged. We deserve better.