Truth: Who needs it?


Wretched liberty. Image by Webdiary artist Martin Davies.

Lateline interview with Robert Baer, a former CIA operative in Iraq, got me thinking about the fallout from the exposure of bad faith by the Anglo alliance in persuading their people to support war on Iraq.

We usually find out that our government misled us on war thirty years later. This time the deception has unravelled almost immediately, raising grave questions about the future of vibrant democracies in the Anglo nations and the strength of the democratic institutions meant to protect and uphold our democratic values.

For if there are no consequences from this scandal for the three leaders concerned, where are we then? We’re already seeing one answer – the need for the Americans to show reporters the bodies of Saddam’s sons before the world will believe the Americans are telling the truth. We’re yet to get an answer to the paramount question – will the leaders suffer the normal, expected consequences of such deceit and resign or be sacked? If they don’t, won’t that mean that the requirement for truth in public office is no more? If so, what does that mean for the relationship between the people and their leaders?

The political response has been to pressure the segment of the media committed to the role of sceptical observer searching for truth behind spin to desist, and either become a part of the government’s propaganda apparatus or shut up about and not investigate sensitive matters. The government doesn’t want its media to search for the truth, it wants it to report what it says the truth is.

Baer discusses the spin within spin of modern politics, the use Bush made of the quality media to prove his case for war, and the quality media’s failure to stop itself being used – either because reporters could not penetrate the spin or simply failed to check claims made by the US administration president and instead presented them as fact.

Critics of Bush’s preemptive strike, unilateral foreign policy are beginning to suggest they got it right. They warned that invading Iraq would make the world less safe. Our regional neighbours were very strongly of this view, and this week’s attempted coup in the Philippines seems to suggest they were right. The quagmire in Iraq is also solidifying the critics’ case, as is the resumption of the WMD arms race by North Korea and Iran.

The Anglo alliance is desperate to silence such views. And what better way than to trash the BBC and the ABC, which for all their faults set the standards on accuracy for the entire media. Without them – and the accountability they face – truth might no longer be grounded in our media, and we, the public, may lose all trust in it.

Tony Jones introduced Baer as a CIA agent for 21 years. “For much of that time he was a field agent in the Middle East and worked with Iraqi dissidents against the Iraqi regime. He’s also the author of several books including ‘See No Evil’ – his personal account of the decline of the CIA.”

Here’s some highlights:

TONY JONES: Do you maintain that the American President actually lied to his people about the reasons for this war, or was he himself misled?

ROBERT BAER: I think what happened was that this group in the White House decided to go to war. They went to the intelligence agencies and asked for talking points for the press. The intelligence agencies, as they well do, will give them everything and put all the caveats they like, but the White House decided, for whatever reason, that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction and needed to make the best possible case.

JONES: So what do you think then, was the biggest flaw in the pre-war intelligence that we were given here in Australia from the United States and also in Britain?

BAER: There was no intelligence. I mean, it’s apparent now that since the UN inspectors left in 1998, that they weren’t collecting information. You look at the national intelligence estimate line by line, it’s all weak and it proved to be wrong.

It came from the Iraqi Opposition. The Iraqi Opposition had a tendency to exaggerate this intelligence, but we knew – when I was in the CIA, we got the information (but) we never disseminated and put no credence in it. Suddenly in 2000 we started taking their information and spreading it as if it were the truth. So did the American press, by the way… Most of the stuff on the nuclear program came from the dissident groups, from public relations groups. The Washington Post and the New York Times picked up the same stuff and ran it. There was this drum beat for war that sucked in all this bad intelligence.

JONES: So what then was the role of the traditional intelligence services like the CIA in all of this because you know from working in the organisation for many years, that is not the way they collect intelligence?

BAER: There was a clandestine revolt. They went to the Inspector-General and complained, but it never made its way out of the CIA. And the CIA does a good job. If the CIA doesn’t know something, is perfectly happy to tell the President we don’t know, we can’t tell you for sure. But when the President says I don’t care whether you’re certain or not, just put it in paper, the CIA does it. It works for the executive branch.

JONES: Are you aware of the specific evidence given by Mr Hadari who claimed to be an engineer who helped build bunkers in which secret chemical and biological weapons facilities were supposed to have been?

BAER: Yes, he was, as I understand it, he was working with Chalabi in the north to create some sort of fake database that there was a nuclear program going on, an active one.

JONES: And how significant was he? Obviously this broadcaster has a particular interest in him since he broadcast the exclusive interview with him late last year?

BAER: Well, my understanding is that his information was also given to the New York Times in Bangkok who ran a front page above the fold article describing the nuclear program, which convinced a lot of Americans that the President was right.


If Baer is right here, the quality media allowed itself to be used by Iraqi dissidents to bolster the case for war. Here’s where it’s vital that sources are checked and not reported as fact until checks have been made. This basic journalistic duty seems to have almost disappeared in some quarters, and at times is not even being fulfilled in the quality media.

The media has been TOO TRUSTING, not too skeptical. In Australia, we now know that we should not have trusted the government’s word on children overboard. We should not have reported the claim as fact, and we should have focused from the very beginning on the lack of supporting evidence for it.

But the government wants us to trust its word and not look around for the truth, particularly now that it’s proven it has no qualms about lying or about suppressing the truth when it discovers it has unintentionally misled.

Today, more from you on the many aspects of spin in play during the Iraq war saga and the implications of its exposure to the light of day. The Webdiary spin conversation keeps getting better – contributors today areStacey FoxDarren Urquhart, Daniel Moye, Terry O’Kane and Colin McKerlie.


Stacey Fox in Perth, Western Australia

I’ve been giving some thought to the question of anger (Spin, anger, ethics: Your say) and concluded that there is a certain sort of productive anger, which pushes you past that feeling of impotent rage, which banishes complacency and gives you a sense of personal responsibility for the issue at hand.

I had been meaning to write to my local MP and WA Senators about my concern regarding the cross media bill and it wasn’t until I read Jack Robertson’s discussion of anger that I actually sat down to do it. Today I got my first response, from West Australian Labour Senator Ruth Webber, who said that “I strongly believe that the fabric of Australia’s social political and civic life will be irreparably torn if ownership – and editorial control – of the media is allowed to concentrate in the hands of a few powerful moguls” and affirmed that she was committed to the ideal of independent and diverse scrutiny of the actions of this country’s political leaders.

This emphasised for me the importance of anger which results in action (non-violent of course) and the necessity of making connections and alliances – particularly with members of parliament. So thanks Jack for spurring me to action, for insisting on being pedantic, and for your willingness to deconstruct Howard’s obscuring drivel.


Darren Urquhart

In his parliamentary speech Laurie Brereton suggests that the attack on Iraq is not a part of the War on Terrorism (Shroud over Guernica). Many have suggested the same, usually then moving to the point that what it is really about is oil control.

But maybe the occupation of Iraq IS part of the War on Terrorism, maybe even a central pillar. Sure there’s oil-control at stake and ridding Saddam of WMD is important, but the major consideration is facing off with the real enemy – radical Islam.

US forces in Iraqi cities will be honey for the bees. Maybe that’s the point.

An Iraqi invasion and occupation is a seizing of the initiative. We will fight you but not on your terms. We will fight you in Baghdad, not New York. Arab civilians will suffer, not Americans. The world’s most fearsome war machine will engage you at close quarters and destroy you. The showdown at noon. The OK Corral.

In today’s Sydney Morning Herald we get this from Wolfowitz:

The United States Deputy Defence Secretary, Paul Wolfowitz, has put new emphasis on the fighting in Iraq, calling it the central battle in the Bush Administration’s war on terrorism. Asked about the increasing casualties among US soldiers in Iraq, Mr Wolfowitz told US television: “It is a sacrifice that is going to make our children and our grandchildren safer because the battle to win the peace in Iraq now is the central battle in the war on terrorism.”

And this:

The commander of US ground forces, Lieutenant-General Ricardo Sanchez, said the sophistication of the raids had increased over the past 30 days. “This is what I would call a terrorist magnet where America, being present here in Iraq, creates a target of opportunity, if you will.” (Iraq put at core of US war on terrorism)

There is little doubt that the strategies the leaders of the US, UK and Australia are publicly selling are not the real strategies they are implementing. Wolfowitz himself said that the WMD issue was chosen as the issue everyone could agree on for a reason to invade Iraq. What are the reasons that were not unanimously agreed upon?

There are radical right-wingers in the US who publicly call for a war with Islam. Just how far right are the likes of Wolfowitz, Rumsfeld and Cheney? And just how far will the Howard Government go in supporting them?

Webdiary contributors pushing the “Anglofacism” line put a compelling case, but it is miles away from the thinking of mainstream Australia – the true holders of power here. To many Howard is a strong father-figure, not some emerging WASP facist. And no amount of rudeness, anger or preaching will turn the minds of these Australians.

Calm, well thought analysis is slower and requires much more patience but is more likely to appeal to our sense of social justice. Howard has brought out the worst in us, made us ugly. No one will be thanked for shoving a mirror in front of this nation. Our reflection will be revealed slowly and painfully. Attempts to hurry the process will not help.

The issues to focus on are the strategic options this Government is pursuing. It is not clear-cut. Frankly, a well intentioned intervention in the Solomons does not sit well with the “Howard as the Devil” caricature. Howards critics have been pretty silent on this one.

Of course the problem with understanding his strategy is that he does not publicly discuss it and as Jack Robertson has pointed out he is very good at avoiding the hard questions (see Fisking John). The onus is on the media and the people to try and dissect the governments actions and build a picture of the strategy.

To just assume that Howard is a sort of Dr. Evil character bent on total domination is a cop out. It over-simplifies a complex situation and, worse, just will not fly with his voters. Most people believe Howard is well intentioned and many believe he is the right man for the times. The challenge then is to explain how and why the strategy options being chosen are the wrong ones.


Daniel Moye in Roseville, Sydney

Among all its bile, there is some merit in Jack Robertson’s passionate calling to account of John Howard’s War on Iraq policy (in Countering spin: An attempt). While I do not agree with the tactic of personal abuse nor with most of his conclusions Jack’s article and the response by Liberal MP Alan Cadman do hint at the underlying problems that have led to the foreign policy quagmire Australia now faces.

The central issues facing Australia Foreign Policy are:

1. Spin Doctors

If we take the conservative politicians who have not directly led the debate on the reason for war on Iraq at their word, we find a distinct gap between their views and those that their leaders choose to emphasise in their case for war.

In Spin, anger, ethics: Your say, I described how conservative congressman Christopher Shay placed great emphasis on how a tolerable position had become intolerable,m as did Alan Cadman in his response to Jack.

Readers may ultimately choose not to take Alan Cadman at his word and believe he is ducking the question, but if you look at his long email to Jack it is clear that the failure of the UN to enforce its restrictions on Iraq over a sustained period of time presented a clear and present danger to the region and the world particularly viewed through the prism of 9/11. These are clearly the main reasons these ‘backbenchers’ supported war on Iraq.

But the leaders of the ‘Coalition of the Willing’ instead focussed on more media friendly or popularly understandable arguments of a ticking WMD bomb. The campaign to sell the War on Iraq looks more and more like an election campaign: ‘Let’s just say whatever we need to say to win the argument and deal with the backlash afterwards.’

This tactic is infamous in Western democracies but is more associated with backing down on tax cuts or on hidden problems rising to the surface than with debates about going to war. The hands of spin doctors appear to be guiding the politicians in their presentation of foreign policy and Australians could pay a heavy price for this.

2. Informed Debate

There are significant drawbacks to emphasising the short-term and immediate reasons for any foreign policy decision. By focusing on the minutiae rather than emphasising the big picture arguments for war, the Coalition of the willing’s leaders left the arguments for the War on Terror dangerously dependent on the WMD controversy.

Without clearly outlining the framework for Australian foreign policy in the 21st century, the Howard government has left itself open to charges of political opportunism, outright deception and being an American lackey, however spurious the claims. I understand what John Howard is trying to achieve in Australian foreign policy but am deeply concerned that he is not carrying enough of the nation with him. I suggest he addresses the nation on the following issues:

* the historical ties with the U.S. and why that relationship has such a central place in Australian foreign policy. Is it purely for defensive and strategic reasons, or are we allies of conviction? What are the shared values and what is different?

* What are the principles that guide Australian foreign policy in the Asia/Pacific? How does Australia’s approach to the region differ to the US? What are the principles governing our approach to the UN?

These questions could also be posed to all major Australian political parties. The commonalities could be used as a basis for re-forming some consensus again to Australian foreign policy.

3. The Media

Clearly the Murdoch press are cheerleaders for the Coalition of the willing globally, and my expectations for them are low. Other newsagencies should put a greater effort in contextualising our current foreign policy debate and examine where each side is coming from. It is important to follow the details, but it is equally important that in informing the public a balanced framework for Australian foreign policy is provided.

4. Parliamentary Accountability

The Senate should have the power to fully examine the foreign policy decisions of the government. Rather than view Senate committees as there to apportion blame or score political points, the Howard government should recognise that Senate inquiries help not only to exemplify democratic accountability but also allow mistakes to be openly examined and policy solutions or remedies found. Spin doctors should be required to front the Senate if requested.

Perhaps through these measures conservative policy makers will be able to remove the shackles of urban myths like American Lacky, Deputy Sheriff and big bad suited white boys.


Terry O’Kane

Why spin the information when all you need do is simply leave out the details? Here’s The Age online report on Monday about the raid on a house in Baghdad which Saddam was suspected to be in:

“Reuters correspondent Miral Fahmy said a road in the Mansur district had been sealed off and the area was swarming with troops. Soldiers on the scene refused to comment and military spokesmen said they had no immediate information on the raid. Officials at a city hospital said five bodies had been brought from the scene of the raid.”

Here’s Robert Fisk’s on the spot report in The Independent on 28th July:

“Obsessed with capturing Saddam Hussein, American soldiers turned a botched raid on a house in the Mansur district of Baghdad yesterday into a bloodbath, opening fire on scores of Iraqi civilians in a crowded street and killing up to 11, including two children, their mother and crippled father. At least one civilian car caught fire, cremating its occupants.

The vehicle carrying the two children and their mother and father was riddled by bullets as it approached a razor-wired checkpoint outside the house.

Amid the fury generated among the largely middle-class residents of Mansur – by ghastly coincidence, the killings were scarcely 40 metres from the houses in which 16 civilians died when the Americans tried to kill Saddam towards the end of the war in April – whatever political advantages were gained by the killing of Saddam’s sons have been squandered.”

At the scene of the killings, there was pandemonium. While US troops were loading the bullet-shattered cars on trucks – and trying to stop cameramen filming the carnage – crowds screamed abuse at them. One American soldier a few feet from me climbed into the seat of his Humvee, threw his helmet on the floor of the vehicle and shouted: ‘Shit! Shit!’

Fisk is a well known and renowned journalist who captures not only the facts but the emotion of the incident and gives us some perspective on why the Americans are having such a difficult time in Iraq. The Age report not only tells us nothing it goes further in that it reduces human life to numbers devoid of even basic information about whether the dead are civilian, children etc and allows us the fantasy that because they live in an area were Saddam was believed to be that perhaps they were his supporters, were probably men of fighting age and were perhaps armed etc. Lack of information can allow us to create convenient fictions of the type that John Howard has so successfully promoted by restricting information on a range of issues from Iraq, David Hicks to refugees and the detention centres.


Colin McKerlie in Perth, Western Australia

Dear Jack Robertson,

I share your interest in finding ways to expose the lies we have been told by our government (Countering spin: An attempt).

I tend to think it would be a relatively simple job for an intelligent, competent journalist who wasn’t scared to lose his or her job to get the truth, but it is very difficult to get any journalists to accept that possibility. It makes it hard to debate methods when the people who are the problem control the debate.

But that is another issue. I am writing to suggest there is a much more simple way of exposing the lies told by the Americans and dutifully repeated by Howard about links between Saddam Hussein and Al Qaeda. Typically, I have yet to see a single mainstream commentator or journalist point out this really obvious flaw in the argument. It is a deceptively simple observation, so take a minute to consider it.

In September, 2001 the American Congress passed a War Powers Act that empowered Bush to wage war on anyone who had been involved in the 9/11 attacks, or any country which helped or harboured anyone who was involved in those attacks. Bush and the Congress made it very clear that they would act absolutely without consideration of anyone else’s opinion in attacking the perpetrators of 9/11.

While the United Nations supported the invasion of Afghanistan, it has to be remembered that if every country on Earth had threatened to declare war on America if it invaded Afghanistan, the Americans would not have hesitated for a second. We can be sure that if they had any evidence at all of any other country harbouring or helping Al Qaeda, either before or after 9/11, they would have attacked at will.

It is a slightly circular argument, but the reason we know America has no evidence at all of links between Saddam and Al Qaeda is because if they had any evidence they would have invaded Iraq without any concern for what the rest of the world thought. The fact that they floated the allegation of links between Saddam and Al Qaeda in fact proves that they had no such evidence. Do you get my point?

It is a measure of how desperate the Americans were to persuade other countries to support the invasion of Iraq that it apparently never occurred to them that by claiming they had evidence of a link between Al Qaeda and Saddam and not taking action on that evidence, they were demonstrating that they themselves did not believe there was any link. If they believed it, what else did they need?

Of course, they eventually did invade Iraq, but if the Bush administration actually believed they could prove a link between Al Qaeda and Iraq, they have to explain why they did nothing about it for nearly 18 months. I first heard the allegations about Mohammed Atta meeting Iraqi intelligence in Prague in October, 2001. If Bush believed he had evidence, he would have attacked Iraq a year before he did.

This point seems absolutely beyond argument to me. Maybe you could think about it and let me know if you can see a flaw in the reasoning. Maybe you have seen someone in the mainstream media make the same point. If you don’t and you can’t, then maybe you could make the point in the Webdiary and ask the mainstream media why they have missed such an obvious flaw in the justification of this invasion.


Jack Robertson recommends this Guardian piece “on the futility of committed, deathless prose!!”

Pointless prose

by DJ Taylor

July 29, first published in The Guardian

Given the current international situation, the densely printed circular that fell on to the doormat a week or two ago was half-expected. Headed ‘Authors Take Sides on Iraq’, dispatched by the publishing firm of Cecil Woolf and presumably copied to a couple of hundred phantom colleagues, it invited a response to two questions:

1. Were you for, or against, the American-led military action against Saddam Hussein’s regime in March and April 2003?

2. Do you believe that the intervention will bring about lasting peace and stability in the region?

For a fortnight now this catechism has been sitting quietly on the study desk – mute, unanswerable but at the same time stirring all kinds of reflections on that eternal stand-off between, on the one hand, the mystical figure of “the writer” and on the other, what used to be called, and perhaps still is, “commitment”.

The ‘Authors Take Sides’ booklets have a long and distinguished history. The first, sent out in 1937 by Auden, Spender, Louis Aragon and Nancy Cunard and asking: “Are you for, or against, the legal Government and People of Republican Spain?” had Orwell, in an unpublished response, demanding would they stop sending him this “bloody rubbish” and Evelyn Waugh apparently coming out for Franco.

Thirty years later a similar volume canvassed literary opinion – no less intense or divergent in its views – on the war in Vietnam. A decade-and-a-half after that followed ‘Authors Take Sides’ on the Falklands. Now, a further 20 years down the road – a 1991 Gulf war symposium perished in a fire at the publishers, alas – comes a chance for us all to say what we think about weapons of mass destruction, road maps and shock and awe.

No disrespect to the editorial sponsors, Cecil Woolf and his partner Jean Moorcroft Wilson, who are doubtless animated by the best of motives, or to the dozens of poets, novelists and dramatists currently shaking their heads over the respective merits of Dubya and Saddam, to say that among the various futile exercises that could be proposed for a writer at the present time, this is quite possibly the most futile of all.

When I first set out on my journey through what the Victorian novelist George Gissing called the Valley of the Shadow of Books – contributing novel reviews to the London Magazine at 30 a time – I took the proper attitude, common to practically every British writer since the 1930s, that in however marginal a way I was “committed”.

At the heart of the business of being a writer, I assumed – apart from the necessity to earn a living – was an urge to right wrongs, to expose injustice. To this end one preferred to write for the New Statesman rather than the Spectator, and for this newspaper rather than the Daily Telegraph (even though the rightwing papers offered better money) because in the last resorts, and without waxing too pretentious about it, sides had to be taken.

From all sides came cheering evidence of how literary interventions of this sort could produce practical results. Hadn’t Upton Sinclair’s expose of the Chicago slaughterhouses (The Jungle, 1906) actually forced a change in American law? And hadn’t Alan Sillitoe claimed that Robert Tressell’s novel The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropist helped to win the 1945 election for Labour? That was the kind of thing one wanted to write, even when it became clear that the world was changing and the old political certainties no longer held.

The moment at which I first dimly divined that the age of the writer as activist was passing came when I read the famous multi-signature letter to the broadsheet newspapers protesting at the short-lived Russian coup of 1991. Never, it seemed, had literary presumption and literary futility been so unhappily combined. Who gave a damn what novelist X and playwright Y, Harold Pinter and his inky battalions, thought about it all? What could they do? And who among their public cared?

And so here I am a dozen years later trying to establish – an exercise that seems to demand a great many thousands of words – what I, who know nothing but what I read in the newspapers and see on television, think about Iraqi corpses and slaughtered British military policemen. There is, it hardly needs saying, no point, just as there is no point – to descend a little further down the activist scale – in writing a letter to your MP. All you will get back in answer to your reasonable request for information – a recent missive to Charles Clarke bore this out in excelsis – is a sheet of platitudes.

In an environment where art has lost all formal influence, all the writer can do is to keep on writing, in the hope that somehow he or she can make an impact at bedrock, on the series of individual moral sensibilities that read books.

Meanwhile, this particular writer has reached a state that his 20-year-old self would have regarded with astonishment and horror. For the first time in my life, awful to relate, despite Bush, Blair and the terrors of “liberation”, I feel thoroughly degage.

DJ Taylor is a novelist and critic.

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