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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The 11 things we know after the Brexit plan debate

Labour may just have fallen into a trap. 

On Wednesday, both Labour and Tory MPs filed out of the Commons together to back a motion calling on the Prime Minister to commit to publish the government’s Brexit plan before Article 50 is triggered in March 2017. 

The motion was proposed by Labour, but the government agreed to back it after inserting its own amendment calling on MPs to “respect the wishes of the United Kingdom” and adhere to the original timetable. 

With questions on everything from the customs union to the Northern Irish border, it is clear that the Brexit minister David Davis will have a busy Christmas. Meanwhile, his declared intention to stay schtum about the meat of Brexit negotiations for now means the nation has been hanging off every titbit of news, including a snapped memo reading “have cake and eat it”. 

So, with confusion abounding, here is what we know from the Brexit plan debate: 

1. The government will set out a Brexit plan before triggering Article 50

The Brexit minister David Davis said that Parliament will get to hear the government’s “strategic plans” ahead of triggering Article 50, but that this will not include anything that will “jeopardise our negotiating position”. 

While this is something of a victory for the Remain MPs and the Opposition, the devil is in the detail. For example, this could still mean anything from a white paper to a brief description released days before the March deadline.

2. Parliament will get a say on converting EU law into UK law

Davis repeated that the Great Repeal Bill, which scraps the European Communities Act 1972, will be presented to the Commons during the two-year period following Article 50.

He said: “After that there will be a series of consequential legislative measures, some primary, some secondary, and on every measure the House will have a vote and say.”

In other words, MPs will get to debate how existing EU law is converted to UK law. But, crucially, that isn’t the same as getting to debate the trade negotiations. And the crucial trade-off between access to the single market versus freedom of movement is likely to be decided there. 

3. Parliament is almost sure to get a final vote on the Brexit deal

The European Parliament is expected to vote on the final Brexit deal, which means the government accepts it also needs parliamentary approval. Davis said: “It is inconceivable to me that if the European Parliament has a vote, this House does not.”

Davis also pledged to keep MPs as well-informed as MEPs will be.

However, as shadow Brexit secretary Keir Starmer pointed out to The New Statesman, this could still leave MPs facing the choice of passing a Brexit deal they disagree with or plunging into a post-EU abyss. 

4. The government still plans to trigger Article 50 in March

With German and French elections planned for 2017, Labour MP Geraint Davies asked if there was any point triggering Article 50 before the autumn. 

But Davis said there were 15 elections scheduled during the negotiation process, so such kind of delay was “simply not possible”. 

5. Themed debates are a clue to Brexit priorities

One way to get a measure of the government’s priorities is the themed debates it is holding on various areas covered by EU law, including two already held on workers’ rights and transport.  

Davis mentioned themed debates as a key way his department would be held to account. 

It's not exactly disclosure, but it is one step better than relying on a camera man papping advisers as they walk into No.10 with their notes on show. 

6. The immigration policy is likely to focus on unskilled migrants

At the Tory party conference, Theresa May hinted at a draconian immigration policy that had little time for “citizens of the world”, while Davis said the “clear message” from the Brexit vote was “control immigration”.

He struck a softer tone in the debate, saying: “Free movement of people cannot continue as it is now, but this will not mean pulling up the drawbridge.”

The government would try to win “the global battle for talent”, he added. If the government intends to stick to its migration target and, as this suggests, will keep the criteria for skilled immigrants flexible, the main target for a clampdown is clearly unskilled labour.  

7. The government is still trying to stay in the customs union

Pressed about the customs union by Anna Soubry, the outspoken Tory backbencher, Davis said the government is looking at “several options”. This includes Norway, which is in the single market but not the customs union, and Switzerland, which is in neither but has a customs agreement. 

(For what it's worth, the EU describes this as "a series of bilateral agreements where Switzerland has agreed to take on certain aspects of EU legislation in exchange for accessing the EU's single market". It also notes that Swiss exports to the EU are focused on a few sectors, like chemicals, machinery and, yes, watches.)

8. The government wants the status quo on security

Davis said that on security and law enforcement “our aim is to preserve the current relationship as best we can”. 

He said there is a “clear mutual interest in continued co-operation” and signalled a willingness for the UK to pitch in to ensure Europe is secure across borders. 

One of the big tests for this commitment will be if the government opts into Europol legislation which comes into force next year.

9. The Chancellor is wooing industries

Robin Walker, the under-secretary for Brexit, said Philip Hammond and Brexit ministers were meeting organisations in the City, and had also met representatives from the aerospace, energy, farming, chemicals, car manufacturing and tourism industries. 

However, Labour has already attacked the government for playing favourites with its secretive Nissan deal. Brexit ministers have a fine line to walk between diplomacy and what looks like a bribe. 

10. Devolved administrations are causing trouble

A meeting with leaders of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland ended badly, with the First Minister of Scotland Nicola Sturgeon publicly declaring it “deeply frustrating”. The Scottish government has since ramped up its attempts to block Brexit in the courts. 

Walker took a more conciliatory tone, saying that the PM was “committed to full engagement with the devolved administrations” and said he undertook the task of “listening to the concerns” of their representatives. 

11. Remain MPs may have just voted for a trap

Those MPs backing Remain were divided on whether to back the debate with the government’s amendment, with the Green co-leader Caroline Lucas calling it “the Tories’ trap”.

She argued that it meant signing up to invoking Article 50 by March, and imposing a “tight timetable” and “arbitrary deadline”, all for a vaguely-worded Brexit plan. In the end, Lucas was one of the Remainers who voted against the motion, along with the SNP. 

George agrees – you can read his analysis of the Brexit trap here

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.