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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Lord Geoffrey Howe dies, age 88

Howe was Margaret Thatcher's longest serving Cabinet minister – and the man credited with precipitating her downfall.

The former Conservative chancellor Lord Howe, a key figure in the Thatcher government, has died of a suspected heart attack, his family has said. He was 88.

Geoffrey Howe was the longest-serving member of Margaret Thatcher's Cabinet, playing a key role in both her government and her downfall. Born in Port Talbot in 1926, he began his career as a lawyer, and was first elected to parliament in 1964, but lost his seat just 18 months later.

Returning as MP for Reigate in the Conservative election victory of 1970, he served in the government of Edward Heath, first as Solicitor General for England & Wales, then as a Minister of State for Trade. When Margaret Thatcher became opposition leader in 1975, she named Howe as her shadow chancellor.

He retained this brief when the party returned to government in 1979. In the controversial budget of 1981, he outlined a radical monetarist programme, abandoning then-mainstream economic thinking by attempting to rapidly tackle the deficit at a time of recession and unemployment. Following the 1983 election, he was appointed as foreign secretary, in which post he negotiated the return of Hong Kong to China.

In 1989, Thatcher demoted Howe to the position of leader of the house and deputy prime minister. And on 1 November 1990, following disagreements over Britain's relationship with Europe, he resigned from the Cabinet altogether. 

Twelve days later, in a powerful speech explaining his resignation, he attacked the prime minister's attitude to Brussels, and called on his former colleagues to "consider their own response to the tragic conflict of loyalties with which I have myself wrestled for perhaps too long".

Labour Chancellor Denis Healey once described an attack from Howe as "like being savaged by a dead sheep" - but his resignation speech is widely credited for triggering the process that led to Thatcher's downfall. Nine days later, her premiership was over.

Howe retired from the Commons in 1992, and was made a life peer as Baron Howe of Aberavon. He later said that his resignation speech "was not intended as a challenge, it was intended as a way of summarising the importance of Europe". 

Nonetheless, he added: "I am sure that, without [Thatcher's] resignation, we would not have won the 1992 election... If there had been a Labour government from 1992 onwards, New Labour would never have been born."

Jonn Elledge is the editor of the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric. He is on Twitter, far too much, as @JonnElledge.