The BBC lacks the ambition to go the whole way

BBC2's Iraq War reviewed.

The Iraq War (BBC2) is brought to us from Brian Lapping and Norma Percy, who made The Second Russian Revolution (1991), The Death of Yugoslavia (1995), Israel and the Arabs (2005) and numerous other acclaimed documentary series on contemporary history. They are, without doubt, among the jewels in the BBC’s crown.

There was much to admire about Wednesday’s opening episode. It was like going back to a bygone age. A narrator rather than a celebrity presenter. No Paxman, no Marr, no Dan Snow. Just Alex Jennings reading a clear, thoughtful script written and re-written by the production team, just like serious history and current affairs programmes used to be made. Superb archive research by Declan Smith, the doyen of film researchers for over 20 years, including footage from Iraq I for one had never seen before. Interviews with many of the key players: Blair, Straw and Campbell, Colin Powell, Paul Wolfowitz and Dick Cheney, important figures from US intelligence and from Iraq. The narrative line was clear and full of drama.  The sense of pressure on all the decision makers was palpable. You could feel the clock ticking as Blair asked for more time to win over Parliament, at the same time as Powell wanted to double-check his sources, at the same time as the US military told the White House to make a decision before summer came.

A lot of information was packed into just under sixty minutes. None of this comes cheap and the series has been made with ten foreign organizations plus support from the MEDIA programme of the EU. My guess is that this is code for saying that the BBC put in too little but will preen themselves when The Iraq War wins the awards and acclaim it deserves. The devil, as always, is in the detail. In TV programmes it’s usually to be found in the end credits.

Norma Percy and her Executive Producers, Brian Lapping and Paul Mitchell, hit on a winning formula almost twenty-five years ago and like the Burns Brothers in America and Adam Curtis here, they have stuck with it.  In their case, it consists of chasing the key players and intercutting their testimony with great archive film and simple specially-shot footage which is relevant but not distracting. It’s high politics plus. Talk to the decision-makers about who said what and to whom. That’s it.

It’s churlish to be critical but several curious points arose (or should have but didn’t). First, critics of the war will argue that Blair and Cheney, in particular, were given a soft ride. What about "the sexed-up dossier"? Why were the politicians and their advisers (at Westminster, in Congress and at the UN) so easily fooled by the security services and who set their agenda? One strange line stood out in the commentary: "Western intelligence agencies had gathered thousands [sic] of reports, using both human and electronic sources, and most of them pointed to the same conclusion [ie that Saddam had WMD]." "Thousands" of sources is a fascinating phrase. What were they? Could we have an example? Who produced them? Much of the evidence discussed had a Keystone Cops feel. Did these other sources? "Most of them pointed to the same conclusion". How many is "most"? Indeed, how many is ‘thousands’?

The second point is the elephant in the room. Except just once when we got a tantalising mention. But only once. An Iraqi general was interviewed and described an insane speech by Saddam about how the Iraqi army would destroy the American forces and then go on to Palestine and liberate Jerusalem. This was the only time in the whole programme that we got a sense of how mad Saddam was, how completely out of touch with reality. The British and Americans had no illusions about this and where this could lead – had led - with weapons of mass destruction against Iranians and Kurds.  

But the really interesting point is about liberating Jerusalem. It is the only reference to Israel in the whole programme. But surely Israel was crucial to the Iraq War as it is to anything that happens in the area from Egypt to Iran. Israeli intelligence must have had something to say about WMD but no Israeli was interviewed in the programme.  Whether or not Blair (or anyone else) ever thought Saddam’s missiles could hit London, we know from the First Gulf War that they could probably hit Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. How did that influence the discussions about attacking Iraq? Apparently, no one was asked. Once one big thing is missed out you start to wonder what else was never asked.

As always this was a London/Washington view of the world. One French minister, a few Kurds, a few Iraqis. No Israelis. No Russians either. Did they have no say? No threat of a UN veto? Why not? How about Arab politicians? Nothing interesting to say? 

This is hardly nitpicking. But I dare say Lapping and Percy didn’t start out wanting to fit everything into three hours. The BBC should have put their money where their mouth is and paid up. Are they a world-class broadcaster or not? The BBC should be proud of making these programmes, but they should be ashamed of lacking the ambition to go the whole way. A few executives’ expenses would have made up the shortfall. Let’s not even mention the £100m IT disaster.

Photograph: Getty Images
SIPA PRESS/REX
Show Hide image

"By now, there was no way back for me": the strange story of Bogdan Stashinsky

Serhii Plokhy’s The Man with the Poison Gun is a gripping, remarkable Cold War spy story.

On the morning of 12 August 1961, a few hours before the supreme leader of East Germany, Walter Ulbricht, announced the sealing of the border between East and West Berlin, a funeral took place for a four-month-old boy at the Rohrbeck Evangelical Cemetery in Dallgow. Numerous KGB agents and officers of the East German ministry of security were in attendance, but the boy’s parents were missing. Instead, Bogdan Stashinsky and Inge Pohl were preparing their imminent escape from Soviet-occupied territory and into the West. They had intended to flee the following day, but the funeral provided a moment of opportunity when their surveillance was relaxed. If they wanted to go, they had to go now.

“The KGB operatives present at the child’s funeral were puzzled by the parents’ absence,” a Soviet intelligence officer later wrote. “By the end of the day on 13 August 1961, it was clear that the Stashinskys had gone to the West. Everyone who knew what tasks the agent had carried out in Munich in 1957 and 1959, and what could happen if Stashinsky were to talk, was in shock.”

Those “tasks” were the state-sponsored assassinations of Lev Rebet and Stepan Bandera, two exiled leaders of the Ukrainian anti-communist movement who had been living in Munich. Stashinsky, one of the KGB’s top hitmen, and the focus of Serhii Plokhy’s gripping book, had been given the task of tracking and killing them with a custom-built gun that sprayed a lethal, yet undetectable poison. It was only after Stashinsky’s defection to the Central Intelligence Agency, and then to the West German security services, that the cause of Rebet and Bandera’s deaths was finally known.

For decades, the KGB denied any involvement in the assassinations, and the CIA has never been entirely sure about Stashinsky’s motives. Was he telling the truth when he confessed to being the assassin, or was he, as some still claim, a loyal agent, sent to spread disinformation and protect the true killer? Plokhy has now put to rest the many theories and speculations. With great clarity and compassion, and drawing from a trove of recently declassified files from CIA, KGB and Polish security archives, as well as interviews conducted with former heads of the South African police force, he chronicles one of the most curious espionage stories of the Cold War.

Stashinsky’s tale is worthy of John le Carré or Ian Fleming. Plokhy even reminds us that The Man With the Golden Gun, in which James Bond tries to assassinate his boss with a cyanide pistol after being brainwashed by the Soviets, was inspired by the Stashinsky story. But if spy novels zero in on a secret world – tradecraft, double agents, defections, and the moral fallout that comes from working in the shadows – Plokhy places this tale in the wider context of the Cold War and the relentless ideological battle between East and West.

The story of Stashinsky’s career as a triggerman for the KGB plays out against the backdrop of the fight for Ukrainian independence after the Second World War. He was a member of the underground resistance against the Soviet occupation, but was forced to become an informer for the secret police after his family was threatened. After he betrayed a resistance cell led by Ivan Laba, which had assassinated the communist author Yaroslav Halan, Stashinsky was ostracised by his family and was offered the choice of continuing his higher education, which he could no longer afford, or joining the secret police.

“It was [only] a proposal,” he said later, “but I had no alternative to accepting it and continuing to work for the NKVD. By now, there was no way back for me.” He received advanced training in Kyiv and Moscow for clandestine work in the West and became one of Moscow’s most prized assets. In 1957, after assassinating Rebet, he was awarded the
Order of the Red Banner, one of the oldest military decorations in the Soviet Union.

Plokhy’s book is about more than the dramas of undercover work; it is also an imaginative approach to the history of Cold War international relations. It is above all an affective tale about the relationship between individual autonomy and state power, and the crushing impact the police state had on populations living behind the Iron Curtain. Stashinsky isn’t someone of whom we should necessarily approve: he betrayed his comrades in the Ukrainian resistance, lied to his family about who he was and killed for a living. Yet we sympathise with him the more he, like so many others, turns into a defenceless pawn of the Communist Party high command, especially after he falls in love with his future wife, Inge.

One of the most insightful sections of Plokhy’s book converges on Stashinsky’s trial in West Germany in 1962 over the killings of Rebet and Bandera, and how he was given a reduced sentence because it was deemed that he had been an instrument of the Soviet state. The decision was influenced by German memories of collective brainwashing under the Third Reich. As one of the judges put it: “The accused was at the time in question a poor devil who acted automatically under pressure of commands and was misled and confused ideologically.”

What makes Plokhy’s book so alarmingly resonant today is how Russia still uses extrajudicial murder as a tool of foreign policy. In 2004 Viktor Yushchenko, the pro-Western future president of Ukraine, was poisoned with dioxin; two years later Aleksandr Litvinenko, the Russian secret service defector, unknowingly drank radioactive polonium at a hotel in London. The Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya survived a poisoning in 2004 after drinking tea given to her by an Aeroflot flight attendant (she was murdered two years later). The collapse of the Soviet Union did not bring the end of the Russian threat (Putin, remember, is ex-KGB). As le Carré noted in a speech in the summer of 1990, “The Russian Bear is sick, the Bear is bankrupt, the Bear is frightened of his past, his present and his future. But the Bear is still armed to the teeth and very, very proud.”

The Man with the Poison Gun: a Cold War Spy Story by Serhii Plokhy is published by Oneworld (365pp, £18.99)

This article first appeared in the 12 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's revenge