North Korea shows the CIA is willing to lie about another war

The CIA set a precedent with the Tonkin “incident”, sparking off the Vietnam war. Today, we see the lie repeated.

How do wars begin? With a "master illusion", according to Ralph McGehee, one of the CIA's pioneers in "black propaganda", known today as "news management". In 1983, he described to me how the CIA had faked an "incident" that became the "conclusive proof of North Vietnam's aggression". This followed a claim, also fake, that North Vietnamese torpedo boats had attacked an American warship in the Gulf of Tonkin in August 1964.

“The CIA," he said, "loaded up a junk, a North Vietnamese junk, with communist weapons - the agency maintains communist arsenals in the United States and around the world. They floated this junk off the coast of central Vietnam. They shot it up and made it look like a firefight, and they brought in the American press. Based on this evidence, two marine landing teams went into Danang and a week after that the American air force began regular bombing of North Vietnam." An invasion that took three million lives was under way.

The Israelis have played this murderous game since 1948. The massacre of peace activists in international waters on 31 May was "spun" to the Israeli public for the better part of the week, preparing them for yet more murder by their government, with the unarmed flotilla of humanitarians described as terrorists or dupes of terrorists. The BBC was so intimidated that it reported the atrocity primarily as a "potential public relations disaster for Israel", the perspective of the killers, and a disgrace for journalism.

Guilt trip

A similar master illusion now consumes Asian governments. On 20 May, South Korea announced it had "overwhelming evidence" that a torpedo fired by a North Korean submarine sank one of its warships, the Cheonan, in March with the loss of 46 sailors. The US keeps 28,000 troops in South Korea, where the public has long supported détente with Pyongyang.

On 26 May, the US secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, flew to Seoul and demanded that the "international community must respond" to "North Korea's outrage". She flew on to Japan, where the new North Korean "threat" eclipsed the briefly independent foreign policy of the Japanese prime minister, Yukio Hatoyama, elected last year with popular opposition to America's permanent military occupation of Japan. (On 2 June Hatoyama resigned, having failed to move a US military base in Okinawa.) The "overwhelming evidence" is a propeller that "had been corroding at least for several months", reported the Korea Times. In April, the director of South Korea's national intelligence, Won Se-hoon, told a parliamentary committee that there was no evidence linking the sinking of the Cheonan to North Korea. The defence minister agreed. And the head of South Korea's military marine operations said, "No North Korean warships have been detected [in] the waters where the accident took place." The reference to an "accident" suggests the warship struck a reef and broke in two.

To the American media, North Korea's guilt is beyond doubt, just as North Vietnam's guilt was beyond doubt, just as Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction, just as Israel can terrorise with impunity. But, unlike Vietnam and Iraq, North Korea has nuclear weapons, which helps to explain why it has not been attacked, not yet: a salutary lesson to other countries, such as Iran, currently in the cross hairs.

In Britain, we have our own master illusions. Imagine someone on state benefits caught claiming £40,000 of taxpayers' money in a second-home scam. A prison sentence would almost certainly follow. But David Laws, chief secretary to the Treasury, does the same and is described as follows: "I have always admired his intelligence, his sense of public duty and his personal integrity" (Nick Clegg). "You are a good and honourable man" (David Cameron). Laws is "a man of quite exceptional nobility" (Julian Glover, the Guardian), and "a brilliant mind" (BBC).

The Oxbridge club and its associate members in politics and the media have tried to link Laws's "error of judgement" and "naivety" to his "right to privacy" as a gay man, an irrelevance. The "brilliant mind" is a wealthy, Cambridge-groomed investment banker devoted to the noble task of cutting the public services of mostly poor and honest people.

Crushing blow

Now imagine another public official, the force behind one of the great war criminals and liars. This official "spun" the illegal invasion of a defenceless country that resulted in the deaths of at least a million people and the dispossession of many more: in effect, the crushing of a human society. If this was the Balkans or Africa, he would very likely have been indicted by the International Criminal Court.

But crime pays for the clubbable. In quick step with the Laws affair, this truth was demonstrated by the continuing celebration of Alastair Campbell, whose frequent media appearances provide a vicarious thrill for the liberal intelligentsia. To the Guardian, Campbell is "bullish, sometimes misdirected, but unafraid to press on where others might have faltered". The Guardian's immediate interest is its "exclusive" publication of Campbell's "politically explosive" and "uncut" diaries. Here is a flavour: "Saturday 14 May. I called Peter [Mandelson] and asked why he didn't return my calls yesterday. 'You know why.' 'No, I don't.' He said he was incandescent at my Newsnight interview . . .'"

In a promotional interview with the Guardian, Campbell dispensed more of this dated incest, referring just once to the bloodbath for which he was a principal apologist. "Did Iraq lose us support in 2005?" he asked rhetorically. "Without a doubt . . ." Thus, a criminal tragedy equal in scale to the Rwandan genocide was dismissed as a "loss" for New Labour: a master illusion of notable profanity.

John Pilger, renowned investigative journalist and documentary film-maker, is one of only two to have twice won British journalism's top award; his documentaries have won academy awards in both the UK and the US. In a New Statesman survey of the 50 heroes of our time, Pilger came fourth behind Aung San Suu Kyi and Nelson Mandela. "John Pilger," wrote Harold Pinter, "unearths, with steely attention facts, the filthy truth. I salute him."

This article first appeared in the 07 June 2010 issue of the New Statesman, The myth of Mandela

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When will the government take action to tackle the plight of circus animals?

Britain is lagging behind the rest of the world - and innocent animals are paying the price. 

It has been more than a year since the Prime Minister reiterated his commitment to passing legislation to impose a ban on the suffering of circus animals in England and Wales. How long does it take to get something done in Parliament?

I was an MP for more than two decades, so that’s a rhetorical question. I’m well aware that important issues like this one can drag on, but the continued lack of action to help stop the suffering of animals in circuses is indefensible.

Although the vast majority of the British public doesn’t want wild animals used in circuses (a public consultation on the issue found that more than 94 per cent of the public wanted to see a ban implemented and the Prime Minister promised to prohibit the practice by January 2015, no government bill on this issue was introduced during the last parliament.

A private member’s bill, introduced in 2013, was repeatedly blocked in the House of Commons by three MPs, so it needs a government bill to be laid if we are to have any hope of seeing this practice banned.

This colossal waste of time shames Britain, while all around the world, governments have been taking decisive action to stop the abuse of wild animals in circuses. Just last month, Catalonia’s Parliament overwhelmingly voted to ban it. While our own lawmakers dragged their feet, the Netherlands approved a ban that comes into effect later this year, as did Malta and Mexico. Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, North America’s longest-running circus, has pledged to retire all the elephants it uses by 2018. Even in Iran, a country with precious few animal-welfare laws, 14 states have banned this archaic form of entertainment. Are we really lagging behind Iran?

The writing has long been on the wall. Only two English circuses are still clinging to this antiquated tradition of using wild animals, so implementing a ban would have very little bearing on businesses operating in England and Wales. But it would have a very positive impact on the animals still being exploited.

Every day that this legislation is delayed is another one of misery for the large wild animals, including tigers, being hauled around the country in circus wagons. Existing in cramped cages and denied everything that gives their lives meaning, animals become lethargic and depressed. Their spirits broken, many develop neurotic and abnormal behaviour, such as biting the bars of their cages and constantly pacing. It’s little wonder that such tormented creatures die far short of their natural life spans.

Watching a tiger jump through a fiery hoop may be entertaining to some, but we should all be aware of what it entails for the animal. UK laws require that animals be provided with a good quality of life, but the cruelty inherent in confining big, wild animals, who would roam miles in the wild, to small, cramped spaces and forcing them to engage in unnatural and confusing spectacles makes that impossible in circuses.

Those who agree with me can join PETA’s campaign to urge government to listen to the public and give such animals a chance to live as nature intended.


The Right Honourable Ann Widdecombe was an MP for 23 years and served as Shadow Home Secretary. She is a novelist, documentary maker and newspaper columnist.