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 Prevent strategy needs a rethink, not a rebrand

A bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy.

Yesterday the Home Affairs Select Committee published its report on radicalization in the UK. While the focus of the coverage has been on its claim that social media companies like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are “consciously failing” to combat the promotion of terrorism and extremism, it also reported on Prevent. The report rightly engages with criticism of Prevent, acknowledging how it has affected the Muslim community and calling for it to become more transparent:

“The concerns about Prevent amongst the communities most affected by it must be addressed. Otherwise it will continue to be viewed with suspicion by many, and by some as “toxic”… The government must be more transparent about what it is doing on the Prevent strategy, including by publicising its engagement activities, and providing updates on outcomes, through an easily accessible online portal.”

While this acknowledgement is good news, it is hard to see how real change will occur. As I have written previously, as Prevent has become more entrenched in British society, it has also become more secretive. For example, in August 2013, I lodged FOI requests to designated Prevent priority areas, asking for the most up-to-date Prevent funding information, including what projects received funding and details of any project engaging specifically with far-right extremism. I lodged almost identical requests between 2008 and 2009, all of which were successful. All but one of the 2013 requests were denied.

This denial is significant. Before the 2011 review, the Prevent strategy distributed money to help local authorities fight violent extremism and in doing so identified priority areas based solely on demographics. Any local authority with a Muslim population of at least five per cent was automatically given Prevent funding. The 2011 review pledged to end this. It further promised to expand Prevent to include far-right extremism and stop its use in community cohesion projects. Through these FOI requests I was trying to find out whether or not the 2011 pledges had been met. But with the blanket denial of information, I was left in the dark.

It is telling that the report’s concerns with Prevent are not new and have in fact been highlighted in several reports by the same Home Affairs Select Committee, as well as numerous reports by NGOs. But nothing has changed. In fact, the only change proposed by the report is to give Prevent a new name: Engage. But the problem was never the name. Prevent relies on the premise that terrorism and extremism are inherently connected with Islam, and until this is changed, it will continue to be at best counter-productive, and at worst, deeply discriminatory.

In his evidence to the committee, David Anderson, the independent ombudsman of terrorism legislation, has called for an independent review of the Prevent strategy. This would be a start. However, more is required. What is needed is a radical new approach to counter-terrorism and counter-extremism, one that targets all forms of extremism and that does not stigmatise or stereotype those affected.

Such an approach has been pioneered in the Danish town of Aarhus. Faced with increased numbers of youngsters leaving Aarhus for Syria, police officers made it clear that those who had travelled to Syria were welcome to come home, where they would receive help with going back to school, finding a place to live and whatever else was necessary for them to find their way back to Danish society.  Known as the ‘Aarhus model’, this approach focuses on inclusion, mentorship and non-criminalisation. It is the opposite of Prevent, which has from its very start framed British Muslims as a particularly deviant suspect community.

We need to change the narrative of counter-terrorism in the UK, but a narrative is not changed by a new title. Just as a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, a bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy. While the Home Affairs Select Committee concern about Prevent is welcomed, real action is needed. This will involve actually engaging with the Muslim community, listening to their concerns and not dismissing them as misunderstandings. It will require serious investigation of the damages caused by new Prevent statutory duty, something which the report does acknowledge as a concern.  Finally, real action on Prevent in particular, but extremism in general, will require developing a wide-ranging counter-extremism strategy that directly engages with far-right extremism. This has been notably absent from today’s report, even though far-right extremism is on the rise. After all, far-right extremists make up half of all counter-radicalization referrals in Yorkshire, and 30 per cent of the caseload in the east Midlands.

It will also require changing the way we think about those who are radicalized. The Aarhus model proves that such a change is possible. Radicalization is indeed a real problem, one imagines it will be even more so considering the country’s flagship counter-radicalization strategy remains problematic and ineffective. In the end, Prevent may be renamed a thousand times, but unless real effort is put in actually changing the strategy, it will remain toxic. 

Dr Maria Norris works at London School of Economics and Political Science. She tweets as @MariaWNorris.