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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A swimming pool and a bleeding toe put my medical competency in doubt

Doctors are used to contending with Google. Sometimes the search engine wins. 

The brutal heatwave affecting southern Europe this summer has become known among locals as “Lucifer”. Having just returned from Italy, I fully understand the nickname. An early excursion caused the beginnings of sunstroke, so we abandoned plans to explore the cultural heritage of the Amalfi region and strayed no further than five metres from the hotel pool for the rest of the week.

The children were delighted, particularly my 12-year-old stepdaughter, Gracie, who proceeded to spend hours at a time playing in the water. Towelling herself after one long session, she noticed something odd.

“What’s happened there?” she asked, holding her foot aloft in front of my face.

I inspected the proffered appendage: on the underside of her big toe was an oblong area of glistening red flesh that looked like a chunk of raw steak.

“Did you injure it?”

She shook her head. “It doesn’t hurt at all.”

I shrugged and said she must have grazed it. She wasn’t convinced, pointing out that she would remember if she had done that. She has great faith in plasters, though, and once it was dressed she forgot all about it. I dismissed it, too, assuming it was one of those things.

By the end of the next day, the pulp on the underside of all of her toes looked the same. As the doctor in the family, I felt under some pressure to come up with an explanation. I made up something about burns from the hot paving slabs around the pool. Gracie didn’t say as much, but her look suggested a dawning scepticism over my claims to hold a medical degree.

The next day, Gracie and her new-found holiday playmate, Eve, abruptly terminated a marathon piggy-in-the-middle session in the pool with Eve’s dad. “Our feet are bleeding,” they announced, somewhat incredulously. Sure enough, bright-red blood was flowing, apparently painlessly, from the bottoms of their big toes.

Doctors are used to contending with Google. Often, what patients discover on the internet causes them undue alarm, and our role is to provide context and reassurance. But not infrequently, people come across information that outstrips our knowledge. On my return from our room with fresh supplies of plasters, my wife looked up from her sun lounger with an air of quiet amusement.

“It’s called ‘pool toe’,” she said, handing me her iPhone. The page she had tracked down described the girls’ situation exactly: friction burns, most commonly seen in children, caused by repetitive hopping about on the abrasive floors of swimming pools. Doctors practising in hot countries must see it all the time. I doubt it presents often to British GPs.

I remained puzzled about the lack of pain. The injuries looked bad, but neither Gracie nor Eve was particularly bothered. Here the internet drew a blank, but I suspect it has to do with the “pruning” of our skin that we’re all familiar with after a soak in the bath. This only occurs over the pulps of our fingers and toes. It was once thought to be caused by water diffusing into skin cells, making them swell, but the truth is far more fascinating.

The wrinkling is an active process, triggered by immersion, in which the blood supply to the pulp regions is switched off, causing the skin there to shrink and pucker. This creates the biological equivalent of tyre treads on our fingers and toes and markedly improves our grip – of great evolutionary advantage when grasping slippery fish in a river, or if trying to maintain balance on slick wet rocks.

The flip side of this is much greater friction, leading to abrasion of the skin through repeated micro-trauma. And the lack of blood flow causes nerves to shut down, depriving us of the pain that would otherwise alert us to the ongoing tissue damage. An adaptation that helped our ancestors hunt in rivers proves considerably less use on a modern summer holiday.

I may not have seen much of the local heritage, but the trip to Italy taught me something new all the same. 

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear