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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Taxation without benefits: how our tax system increases inequality

We often hear the progressive income tax used as a proxy for all tax when it actually accounts for just over a quarter of the tax take.

Tax may not be the burning issue on everyone’s minds over the next month, but the Panama Papers leak has proven that the thorny issues of who pays what, and what level of tax is fair, are ones that are never too far away from the public consciousness.

One of the most important annual publications on tax is the Office for National Statistics’ Effects of Taxes and Benefits on Household Income. Published today, it shows, among other things, the proportion of income paid in tax by people at different points on the income spectrum. This may sound like the natural domain of the data nerd, but it actually tells us some rather interesting facts about our system of taxes and benefits.

First, the good news. Our much maligned welfare system is in fact a beacon of progressiveness, drastically reducing the level of income inequality we see in this country. In fact, overall, taxes and benefits are quite substantially redistributive. Without them, the income of the richest 20 per cent of households would be 14 times higher than the poorest 20 per cent. With them, that gap falls to only four times.

The benefit system as a whole decreases the Gini coefficient, the most frequently used measure of inequality, by 14 percentage points. For anyone who sees taxes and benefits as a key component in reducing economic inequality, or boosting the incomes of the poorest, or, frankly, tackling social injustice, this is rather welcome news.

But now for the bad news.

While our welfare system is undoubtedly progressive, the same cannot be said of our tax system when looked at in isolation. The poorest face a disproportionately heavy tax burden compared to the richest, paying 47 per cent of their income in tax, compared to just 34 per cent for the richest. Last year (2013/14) this difference was 45 per cent – 35 per cent, and the year before (2012/13) the gap was 43 per cent – 35 per cent. So while the proportion of income paid in tax has fallen slightly for the richest, it has increased for the poorest.

While some taxes like income tax are substantially progressive, those such as VAT and Council Tax are not. Even after adjusting for rebates and Council Tax Benefit, the poorest 10 per cent pay 7.1 per cent of their income in council tax while the richest 10 per cent pay only 1.5 per cent.

Should this matter, if our system of benefits continues to narrow the gap between rich and poor? Well, yes, not least because that system is under severe pressure from further cuts. But there are other good reasons to focus on the tax system in isolation from the benefit system.

Polling by Ipsos MORI has shown that the public believes that the tax system by itself reduces inequality, and it is often spoken of by politicians as if that is the case. We often hear the progressive income tax used as a proxy for all tax, for example, when it actually accounts for just over a quarter of the tax take.

Understanding why the tax system does not by itself reduce inequality is therefore important for both thinking about how tax revenues could be better raised, and for understanding the importance of the benefit system in narrowing the gap between the richest and the poorest.

John Hood is Acting Director of the Equality Trust