Smoking Guns in the Wild West

Against Expectations

There were high hopes that the proverbial ‘smoking gun’ would be found concealed somewhere in Iraq. This would have provided the fuse for the war that America (more precisely Bush and his cabal) and Britain (more precisely Blair and hardly anyone else) have wanted all along. That remains the hope of those itching for war and the rewards it would bring.

Most people could not have possibly dreamt that several guns would be found spluttering and smouldering in Washington, New York, and London. Others, with longer memories, would have found that highly consistent with past events.

Concealed Truths

Bush, Blair and their respective assistants have been suspected for some time of being somewhat economical with the truth. Conclusive evidence was hard to unearth in the absence of UN truth inspectors and reluctance of the American and British governments to allow their advisors to be interviewed in private without the oppressive presence of official minders.

However, for reasons that are difficult to understand but presumed to be prompted by a mix of arrogance and incompetence, the US and British administrations decided to surrender voluntarily several smoking guns in a manner that was guaranteed to attract full international exposure.

Britain’s War Dossier

Blair promised on several occasions in recent months to provide a convincing dossier on Iraq that would administer the necessary knockout punch for those lily livered people who felt that a regime change in Iraq is not worth the anticipated 500,000 Iraqi casualties  (UN estimates published in December 2002), and as yet unknown American and British casualties from friendly and unfriendly fire.

The dossier was finally published in February 2003 with resounding political fanfare and copious media coverage. The dossier was presented as the product of significant ‘intelligence material’ obtained at great risk to life and limb by successors of James Bond.

And to be fair it attracted admiring glances for a few hours. Then came the smoking gun: an unsporting party pooper from Cambridge University, Glen Rangwala, told a British TV audience on Channel 4 News that the dossier is not kosher. It seems on reading the dossier he experienced an overwhelming sense of déjà vu. He was convinced he had read the same words, with the same typographic errors, before. Unwilling to attribute this to the spirit world, he delved into his archives and found the source was an article by Ibrahim al-Marashi published in the Middle East Review of International Affairs in September 2002. The author was not aware of his contribution to the dossier and the war effort until he was contacted by Glen Rangwala.

It has to be said that only pages 6 to 16 of the 19-page documented were lifted from al-Maraqshi article. Most of the rest was copied (with just some artful increases or rounding up of numbers and changes of words to make the claims sound stronger) from articles written by two authors in Jane’s Intelligence Review; Ken Gause and Sean Boyne. (see

There was widespread condemnation of the dossier once the facts began to emerge; including disparaging remarks attributed to the security services! There were two types of observation. First, it was thought a dossier that was composed mainly of already available material, some going back twelve years, demonstrated an embarrassing lack of credible, and current intelligence information from inside Iraq. Second, serious concerns were expressed at what such practices will do to the political credibility of the British government and the worthiness of anything said by that government in future.

The Observer, 9 February 2003, explained why the sort of deception exemplified by the dossier does more harm than good. Under “The dossier that shamed Britain”, the paper argued that “Deception can only corrode public trust…At worst, a deliberate attempt to hoodwink and mislead the public will undermine trust in anything the Government says about the Iraqi threat at this vital time.”

A poll conducted by the Times, 11 February 2003, reported that Blair’s popularity has been hit hard by his stance on Iraq. It is likely that the British public, not unlike most other people, are hardly concerned about the fate of the Iraqi regime and its leadership. But there is little doubt that they are confused by what is going on, and disenchanted with, and insulted by, the shoddy case being presented by Blair and his entourage about the justification for a war that would kill thousands of innocent people; including no doubt some British and American personnel. The dodgy dossier was the last straw.

But not all comments were negative. When Colin Powell addressed the UN Security Council on 5 February 2003, in a speech that was televised worldwide, he drew his audience attention to the dossier. He described it as “a fine paper… that describes in exquisite detail Iraqi deception activities.”

Powel’s Own Smoking Gun

Powell’s admiration for the discredited British dossier is understandable. He has always been a ‘good team player’, especially at time of war. In 1968 during the war against Vietnam, the then major Colin Powell was dispatched to investigate charges of a massacre in My Lai. He concluded that while there might have been a few isolated incidents of killings of civilians there was no massacre. A letter from a soldier involved in the incident contradicted Powell’s conclusion. Later investigations revealed that about 500 civilian men, women and children were murdered by American soldiers. Oddly enough, Powell on a visit to the Middle East in 2002 made similar remarks about a reputed Israeli massacre in Jenin (New Republic 17 April 1995 and Zunes 2003: 31).

Old habits are not easy to discard, as the following quote demonstrates (Simons 1998: 3):

“Washington lied persistently and comprehensively to gain the required international support [for the Gulf war]. For example, the US claimed to have satellite pictures showing a massive Iraqi military build-up on the Saudi/ Iraqi border. When sample photographs were later obtained from Soyuz Karta by an enterprising journalist, no such evidence was discernible.”

Simons was referring to an article by Maggie O’kane, published in the Guardian Weekend, 16 December 1995, and the journalist mentioned above, it was reported, was  Jean Heller of the St Petersburg Times in Florida.

Eventually, the US commander (non other than Colin Powell!) admitted there had been no massing of Iraqi troops, but by then the so-called evidence had served its purpose.

Ronan Bennett, writing in the Guardian, 6 February 2003, made a few cautionary remarks with respect to Colin Powell’s speech to the UN Security Council. Under a headline that read, “Don’t let the facts get in the way”, he suggested that “US intelligence should come with a health warning”. Media comments on Powell’s latest offering gave many examples that would justify the cynicism expressed by Bennett.

One instance, relating to Iraq’s nuclear intentions, is worth mentioning here as it did not receive the exposure it merited. Powell asked why the Iraqi scientists were required to sign declarations that threatened them with the death penalty to prevent them from revealing their secrets to the IAEA inspection teams.

This point was strongly challenged by Imad Khadduri. In the eyes of the war lobby, this Iraqi nuclear scientist has made a nuisance of himself in recent months. The problem is that he has an impeccable Anglo-American educational background, with an MSc in Physics from the University of Michigan and a PhD from the University of Birmingham. Moreover, Khadduri was a leading scientist in the Iraqi Atomic Energy Commission from 1968 to 1998. More to the point, he left Iraq with his family in 1998 and now lives and works in Toronto, Canada. In other words, he is a prime witness who is beyond the reach of the Iraqi authorities: just what the inspectors and their mentors in Washington and London have been looking for in fact.

Imad Khadduri has been interviewed by several media agencies including the Toronto Star and Reuters. There is a problem, however: he has maintained all along that Iraq’s nuclear programme, which reached its zenith in the 1980s, fell apart after the Gulf war. There are no scientists, administrators, or infrastructure and buildings that could support such an elaborate programme; primarily due to war damage and past efforts by IAEA inspection teams.

Powell’s reference to declarations that threatened Iraqi scientists with the death penalty designed to discourage them from revealing secrets to the IAEA inspectors seems to have incensed Khadduri. In a lengthy article, ”The nuclear bomb hoax”, published on 7 February 2003 in, he took Powell to task. His revealing comments on the declarations are reproduced verbatim below:

“Exactly the opposite is true. The four or five, as I recall, such declarations, which I read in detail, held us to the penalty of death in the event that we did not hand in all of the sensitive documents and reports that may still be in our possession! Had Powell’s intelligence services provided him with a copy of these declarations, and not depended on “defector’s” testimonies who are solely motivated by their self-promotion in the eyes of their “beholders,” and availed himself to a good Arabic translation of what these declarations actually said, he would not, had he in any sense been abiding by the truth, mentioned this as ‘evidence.’”

Khadduri, then went on to contradict almost every point make by Powell on the sensitive issue of Iraq’s presumed intention to press ahead with the production of an atomic weapon. His comments seem convincing, but it remains to be seen whether the US government would respond to these observations.

Powell Presses On Regardless

(Events are developing at high speed. This section was added on 12 February 2003, a few days after publication of the original article, to cover further material that emerged only days after Powell’s speech to the Security Council.)

There is a tight timetable for the forthcoming war on Iraq. Resources are in place and the weather has to be taken into account. The war must start and finish before the hot season in Iraq begins; late Spring at the latest. The war must be completed by the end of March. This timetable imposes its own imperatives, which is one explanation for the sloppy way propaganda is being undertaken.

There is a distinct feeling of panic in the US and British camps: evidence of whatever veracity must be found and brought into the public domain in time for the Blix report on Friday 14 February 2003, and the negotiations that will follow immediately thereafter to force a new resolution at the Security Council that would legitimise war.

It was, therefore, a heaven sent opportunity when Osama bin Laden obliged with a statement that was later broadcast in full on the Arabic News Network, Al-Jazeerah. Let us follow the story through the words of Firas Al-Atraqchi (posted on 12 February 2003 on

“On Tuesday, U.S. Secretary of State dropped a bombshell at a Congressional hearing on Iraq and revealed that he had a transcript of an ‘upcoming’ audio message from Osama bin Laden which betrays the links between bin Laden and Iraqi President Saddam Hussein…

Upon careful scrutiny of the audio message from bin Laden (and broadcast at 3pm EST on the Arabic News Network Al-Jazeerah), it appears the Bush administration may have been so desperate to pin anything on Saddam and bin Laden that they did not wait to actually hear the contents of the message, nor provide adequate and reliable translation.

The bin Laden message expresses solidarity with the Iraqi people, advises them to remain steadfast in the coming invasion of their country and declares that Saddam and his aides are not important. “It is not important if Saddam and his government disappear,” the man thought to be bin Laden says…

U.S. officials were quick to point out that the bin Laden message directly incriminates Iraq and proves the existence of ties between bin Laden’s Al-Qaida and Saddam. U.S. media touted the official line before even hearing the tape, or awaiting a reliable translation. “Undeniably links Iraq with Al-Qaida,” says one CNN anchor…

The audio message goes on to reveal that bin Laden believes Saddam to be a socialist, and declares “socialists and communists are unbelievers,” thereby labelling Saddam an apostate of Islam, an infidel. It is worth mentioning that the government of Iraq is quasi-socialist and secular, and not Islamic…The voice alleged to be bin Laden’s in the audio message also called on the spilling of Saddam’s blood: “His blood is halal.” This wording is used to indicate what is permissive or legally allow for the killing of a usurper or criminal…

If bin Laden is effectively calling on Muslim Iraqis to overthrow Saddam and that Saddam is irrelevant in the coming war and Iraqis should not fight for him, how then can the U.S. administration use this message to prove Saddam and Al-Qaida are linked?

Kenneth Pollack, CNN analyst and anti-terrorism specialist, says that this is not the first time that bin Laden has used the plight of Iraq under sanctions and under Saddam to rally Muslims to his cause. In fact, bin Laden has spoken of the Iraqi issue since 1996, and has not hidden the fact that he is growing distaste for Saddam’s socialist, Baathist regime.

“The October audio message this year was a four minute tape and bin Laden expressed sympathy for the Iraqi people,” says Peter Bergen, CNN consultant on terrorism. “I don’t see today’s audio message as endorsing Saddam,” he concludes…

Nevertheless, U.S. officials maintain that this is all the proof they need. However, the U.S. viewing public must be aware that the they were only allowed to view excerpts of the 16-minute audio message, and contrary to what CNN has been proclaiming, it is not all about Iraq…

The audio message will not go down so easily in Europe and the Middle East and will be seen as a desperate attempt by a U.S. administration that has taken a bashing in Nato and at the U.N. to turn the tables around.

According to the BBC, “BBC’s security correspondent, Frank Gardner, said the figure on the tape voiced support for Iraq, but that in no way did it prove a link between al-Qaeda and the Iraqi leadership.”

While U.S. officials have conceded that the voice on the tape is indeed that of bin Laden, no one has bothered to focus on why the man U.S. President Bush vowed to get “dead or alive” is very much alive and a clear and present danger.”

In addition to the remarks quoted above, there was widespread scepticism about the significance of the taped message.  For instance, Maureen Dowd ( expressed the opinion that the tape story was more of the same:

“Osama bin Laden came to the rescue of George W. Bush yesterday. The president and his secretary of state had been huffing and puffing to prove a link between Saddam Hussein and Al Qaeda. George Tenet, who presides over a C.I.A. full of skepticism about the tie, did his best for the boss, playing up the link to the Senate. Ignoring all the blatant Qaeda hooks to Saudi Arabia, Syria, Yemen and Pakistan; ignoring the fact that Osama has never had any use for the drinking, smoking, womanizing, secular Saddam; ignoring the fact that Saddam has no proven record of sharing weapons with Al Qaeda, the Bushies have been hell-bent on making the 9/11 connection. The world wasn’t entirely buying that rationale for war.”

The media, certainly in Britain, shared theses views to a large extent. The episode seems to have been yet another ‘own goal’ by Powell.

Should We Worry?

Should we be concerned about the inaccuracies and untruths being put about as reliable information provided by reputable intelligence agencies? After all, we all know that truth is the first casualty of war, and by tradition that includes preparing the ground for such an event. There are numerous examples of official deception perpetrated by democratic leaders against their own populations. President Johnson’s claim, made at the US Senate, of a fictitious clash in the Gulf of Tonkin in 1964 to justify the declaration of war against North Vietnam is an often cited example. The ‘baby incubator’ incident in the Gulf war, that was later shown to be simply a carefully choreographed hoax organised by a well know American public relations agency is another illustration. And the bombing in 1998 of a Sudanese ‘nerve gas factory’ that turned out to be nothing of the sort is yet another example.

The answer to the question posed above has to be an emphatic yes we should be concerned. There is a fragile and imperfect democracy in the West. However, as said so eloquently by Churchill, “Democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.” And it is an asset that has been acquired laboriously over the centuries and after innumerable sacrifices. In short, democracy is not something that could be compromised lightly by reckless leaders with an eye only for short-term, mainly egotistic, gains.

What has truth got to do with democracy? At heart, there has to be a reasonable level of trust between governments and their subjects for democracy to function adequately. Only scepticism and apathy remain when that trust is violated.

The drama of the military presence at Heathrow and other major airports in Britain underlines this point. As the tanks and heavily armed police and army officers moved in the public and media remained undecided at to whether to believe the official line that there was a serious and real threat of a terrorist attack on Britain. People were more suspicious than customary because similar announcements were made in Washington the day before. The danger here is that there might well be a genuine risk of an attack, but few are taking it seriously.

The chasm between Blair’s government and the public became patently obvious when a BBC news correspondent addressed his TV audience from Downing Street on the evening of 12 February 2003. His message was very clear, Downing Street was aware of the threat but the preparations; tanks at Heathrow, etc., came as a surprise to the Blair camp. In short, please do take the threat seriously as it did not come from the government! In a supposed open and transparent democracy this state of affairs should be a cause for concern that transcends the concerns about terrorism and the war on Iraq. A delicate edifice of trust that has taken centuries to erect is crumbling. This will probably be the only legacy that will be remembered about the Blair era once he has gone to greener pastures.

At a less fundamental level, what separates the ‘leading democracies’ from the ‘rogue’ states that they are battling against, if not a genuine belief in democracy and truth? If truth and integrity are discarded, then what is left? And if all states behave in the same dishonest and cavalier manner then what is all the present turmoil about? How could one possibly justify wars and sanctions in the name of ‘freedom’, ‘democracy’ and ‘truth’?

Here lies the danger in exaggeration, embellishment and downright untruths. The process is cumulative. As malpractices multiply, trust gradually erodes until it disappears altogether. The ‘war on terrorism’ and the campaign against Iraq’s suspected possession of weapons of mass destruction have already been costly in the chasm they have opened not only between traditional allies but also between politicians and their constituents. Seen in that light, whatever the outcome of these projects, and the outcomes are far from certain particularly in the longer-term, the cost to the USA and Britain has been substantial.

There used to be lies, damn lies and statistics. Let us hope for the sake of Western civilisation and democracy that a new category is not added by more of these so-called ‘intelligence revelations’.


  • Simons, G. (1998) The Scourging of Iraq London: Macmillan
  • United Nations (10 December 2002) Likely Humanitarian Scenarios
  • Zunes, S. (2003) Tinderbox London: Zed Books