Iraq “dodgy dossier” authors strike again

Venezuela Farc files must be read with the same scepticism that WMD claims deserved.

A report launched this week risks repeating the mistake of the dodgy dossier that justified war on Iraq.

Launched by the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) the dossier claims that it "looks in detail" at the Colombian guerrilla group Farc's "relations with Venezuela and Ecuador" by assessing files allegedly found on computers seized by the Colombian government from Farc in 2008. It has already received widespread coverage in the New York Times, the Times, the Guardian, Financial Times, CNN and BBC, to name a few.

Although the Interpol police organisation has explained that the handling of computer data by the Colombian authorities did "not conform to internationally recognised principles" and that its computer forensic examination of the files was not about verifying the "accuracy and source of the user files", this has not prevented all sorts of lurid allegations being made by the IISS.

New détente, new hostilities

If the name IISS rings alarm bells, it may be because you remember the role it played in events that led to publication of the dodgy dossier justifying war on Iraq. Worryingly for the continent, the same people and organisation now appear to have turned their attention to Latin America.

The report was launched against the backdrop of intensified efforts from the Republican right to target Venezuela. The Republicans' electoral victory in the US Senate and Congress elections last year placed some very right-wing figures in charge of influential foreign affairs bodies.

Connie Mack, Republican congressman for Florida, has said that, as the new chairman of the House subcommittee on the western hemisphere, he will seek to get Venezuela placed on the US state department's list of state sponsors of terrorism. His fellow Republican and foreign affairs committee chair, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, backed this agenda.

Many fear the timing of the report is also to torpedo the détente under way between Venezuela and Colombia. Until recently, US military bases were being prepared in Colombia that would surround Venezuela, but this agenda is now on the back burner. The IISS report may well form part of a strategy that achieves in provoking a new round of hostilities between the nations.

The IISS has a record of playing its own part in the rush to war in Iraq.

Whilst it claims to be "independent, owing no allegiance to any governments or any political or other organisations", the institute has ties to many neocons. Trustees and council members include Robert D Blackwill, a former deputy national security adviser to George W Bush; Dr John Hillen, formerly assistant secretary of state for political-military affairs under the Bush administration; Dr Eliot Cohen, Condoleezza Rice's former senior adviser on strategic issues; and Dr Ariel Levite, a former deputy national security adviser.

Figures from Britain who are involved include Sir David Manning, ambassador to the US and a foreign policy adviser to Tony Blair in the lead-up to the Iraq war, as well as Lord Powell of Bayswater, a former foreign policy adviser to Margaret Thatcher.

Dodge that dossier

The IISS role in the creation of the dodgy dossier on Iraq is clear. In September 2002 it launched "Iraq's Weapons of Mass Destruction: a Net Assessment", which made spurious claims about "the threat posed by Iraq's programmes to develop nuclear, biological and chemical weapons as well as ballistic missiles", including that "the retention of WMD capacities by Iraq is self-evidently the core objective of the regime".

Ominously, it warned: "Wait and the threat will grow; strike and the threat may be used. Clearly, governments have a pressing duty to develop early a strategy to deal comprehensively with this unique international problem."

The Daily Mail seized on this dossier as "the most compelling evidence yet that Iraq is . . . building up a lethal arsenal of weapons of mass destruction" and could be "months away" from building a nuclear bomb. Even the BBC ran the headline "UK hails new report".

As Kim Sengupta explained in the Independent:

The IISS dossier on Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, published on 9 September 2002, was edited by Gary Samore, formerly of the US state department, and presented by Dr John Chipman, a former Nato fellow. It was immediately seized on by Bush and Blair administrations as providing "proof" that Saddam was just months away from launching a chemical and biological, or even a nuclear attack. Large parts of the IISS document were subsequently recycled in the now notorious Downing Street dossier, published with a foreword by the Prime Minister, the following week.

Worryingly, John Chipman is now the IISS's director general!

One common thread between the authors of the dodgy dossier on Iraq and its Latin American counterpart is Nigel Inkster, IISS director of transnational threats and political risk. He oversaw its "Farc files" report. Inkster was deputy director of MI6 in the lead-up to war with Iraq. He was "part of the team monitoring chemical and biological weapons proliferation, including Iraqi attempts to procure such material". It was under his deputy directorship that MI6 was instrumental in creating the now-infamous "dodgy dossier" on WMDs to sell the Iraq war to the British public.

Interestingly, Inkster also worked in Latin America during the dark period of the 1970s and 1980s.

Stacked with neocons and former UK and US members of the intelligence services, the IISS certainly can't be easily regarded as independent. Given that the IISS and Inkster have previously been involved in producing dangerously inaccurate dossiers, the so-called "Farc Files" should be treated with a healthy dose of scepticism.

Many in the media would do well to remember this and the consequences of their unquestioning coverage of the dodgy dossier on Iraq as they consider the IISS study into the "Farc Files". Instead they should encourage and celebrate how Colombia and Venezuela are peacefully and constructively dealing with very complex, long-term issues.

Francisco Domínguez is head of the Centre for Brazilian and Latin American Studies at Middlesex University.

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"We repealed, then forgot": the long shadow of Section 28 homophobia

Why are deeply conservative views about the "promotion" of homosexuality still being reiterated to Scottish school pupils? 

Grim stories of LGBTI children being bullied in school are all too common. But one which emerged over the weekend garnered particular attention - because of the echoes of the infamous Section 28, nearly two decades after it was scrapped.

A 16-year-old pupil of a West Lothian school, who does not wish to be named, told Pink News that staff asked him to remove his small rainbow pride badge because, though they had "no problem" with his sexuality, it was not appropriate to "promote it" in school. It's a blast from the past - the rules against "promoting" homosexuality were repealed in 2000 in Scotland, but the long legacy of Section 28 seems hard to shake off. 

The local authority responsible said in a statement that non-school related badges are not permitted on uniforms, and says it is "committed to equal rights for LGBT people". 

The small badge depicted a rainbow-striped heart, which the pupil said he had brought back from the Edinburgh Pride march the previous weekend. He reportedly "no longer feels comfortable going to school", and said homophobia from staff members felt "much more scar[y] than when I encountered the same from other pupils". 

At a time when four Scottish party leaders are gay, and the new Westminster parliament included a record number of LGBTQ MPs, the political world is making progress in promoting equality. But education, it seems, has not kept up. According to research from LGBT rights campaigners Stonewall, 40 per cent of LGBT pupils across the UK reported being taught nothing about LGBT issues at school. Among trans students, 44 per cent said school staff didn’t know what "trans" even means.

The need for teacher training and curriculum reform is at the top of campaigners' agendas. "We're disappointed but not surprised by this example," says Jordan Daly, the co-founder of Time for Inclusive Education [TIE]. His grassroots campaign focuses on making politicians and wider society aware of the reality LGBTI school students in Scotland face. "We're in schools on a monthly basis, so we know this is by no means an isolated incident." 

Studies have repeatedly shown a startling level of self-harm and mental illness reported by LGBTI school students. Trans students are particularly at risk. In 2015, Daly and colleagues began a tour of schools. Shocking stories included one in which a teacher singled out a trans pupils for ridicule in front of the class. More commonly, though, staff told them the same story: we just don't know what we're allowed to say about gay relationships. 

This is the point, according to Daly - retraining, or rather the lack of it. For some of those teachers trained during the 1980s and 1990s, when Section 28 prevented local authorities from "promoting homosexuality", confusion still reigns about what they can and cannot teach - or even mention in front of their pupils. 

The infamous clause was specific in its homophobia: the "acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship" could not be mentioned in schools. But it's been 17 years since the clause was repealed in Scotland - indeed, it was one of the very first acts of the new Scottish Parliament (the rest of the UK followed suit three years later). Why are we still hearing this archaic language? 

"We repealed, we clapped and cheered, and then we just forgot," Daly says. After the bitter campaign in Scotland, in which an alliance of churches led by millionaire businessman Brian Souter poured money into "Keeping the Clause", the government was pleased with its victory, which seemed to establish Holyrood as a progressive political space early on in the life of the parliament. But without updating the curriculum or retraining teaching staff, Daly argues, it left a "massive vacuum" of uncertainty. 

The Stonewall research suggests a similar confusion is likely across the UK. Daly doesn't believe the situation in Scotland is notably worse than in England, and disputes the oft-cited allegation that the issue is somehow worse in Scotland's denominational schools. Homophobia may be "wrapped up in the language of religious belief" in certain schools, he says, but it's "just as much of a problem elsewhere. The TIE campaign doesn't have different strategies for different schools." 

After initial disappointments - their thousands-strong petition to change the curriculum was thrown out by parliament in 2016 - the campaign has won the support of leaders such as Nicola Sturgeon and Kezia Dugdale, and recently, the backing of a majority of MSPs. The Scottish government has set up a working group, and promised a national strategy. 

But for Daly, who himself struggled at a young age with his sexuality and society's failure to accept it, the matter remains an urgent one.  At just 21, he can reel off countless painful stories of young LGBTI students - some of which end in tragedy. One of the saddest elements of the story from St Kentigern's is that the pupil claimed his school was the safest place he had to express his identity, because he was not out at home. Perhaps for a gay pupil in ten years time, that will be a guarantee. 

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