Iraq: yet again, they are lying to us

The Foreign Office repeatedly hides the truth from the public: on Cambodia, on East Timor, on arms s

Mark Higson was the Iraq desk officer at the Foreign Office in 1989 when the British government was still giving Saddam Hussein almost anything he wanted, secretly and illegally, a year before Iraq invaded Kuwait. Higson, who resigned in protest, was one of the few British officials commended by the Scott inquiry into the arms-to-Iraq scandal. He described "a culture of lying" at the Foreign Office.

"The draft letters I wrote for various ministers," he later told me, "were saying that nothing had changed, the embargo on the sale of arms to Iraq was the same."

"Was that true?" I asked.

"No, it wasn't true . . ."

"And your superiors knew it wasn't true?"

"Yes. If I was writing a draft reply for a minister, replying to a letter from an MP, I wrote the agreed line. I also wrote replies to go to members of the public. The letters were awfully polite. But we were all quite well aware that nothing had changed: that Jordan was being used [to get arms to Iraq]."

"So how much truth did the public get?"

"The public got as much truth as we could squeeze out, given that we told downright lies . . ."

I went to the Foreign Office that same year, 1989, to interview Lord Brabazon, a junior minister. The subject was Cambodia. The Thatcher government was then supporting the Khmer Rouge-led coalition and the SAS was secretly providing training in mine- laying. Like its part in the arms-to-Iraq scandal, the Foreign Office was lying about it. (Two years later, the Major government owned up.)

I was met by a minder from the news department, Ian Whitehead, who took me aside, as he was no doubt used to doing with journalists, and told me to "go easy" on the minister. With the interview under way, he began shouting that I had departed from the "agreed line of questioning". No "line" had been agreed. These days, the style is less obtuse, but the aim is the same. Senior broadcasters and commentators pop in to the Foreign Office without any material favours expected; for them, the flattery and "access" are enough. Thus, much of the world is represented in terms of its usefulness to western "interests".

Over the years, I have been able to observe how the Foreign Office, the last true citadel of the British imperium, treats the public. From time to time, documentary films that I have made have caused people to write to the government and their MPs, seeking answers to serious questions about the effects of British policies on large numbers of human beings all over the world. East Timor was a prime example. For years, British officials denied any British complicity in the genocide there and sought to devalue the scale of suffering. One official, J L Wilkins of the South East Asia department, was the prolific author of replies to the public. "No one really knows the truth" about the death toll, was his message, because some estimates "are sometimes so dramatically different" from the British government's that they "cannot help but suspect them to be exaggerated." The same devotion to historical accuracy was shown by another official who, when asked about the huge death toll, replied, "Yes, but it didn't happen in one year."

In 1993, a letter sent to the Labour MP Greg Pope, and signed by a senior official in the Indonesia section, claimed: "We are currently pressing the Indonesians to allow resumed [Red Cross] access to Xanana Gusmao." This was entirely bogus. An internal Foreign Office memorandum, which accompanied the letter, read: "Attached for infn/edification. The letter is for stonewalling."

The sale of British Aerospace Hawk aircraft to Indonesia, and their use in East Timor, is a famous case in point. In 1978, when David Owen, the Labour foreign secretary, approved the export of the first Hawks to Indonesia, a young MP called Robin Cook described the sale as "particularly disturbing" because the Jakarta regime was "at war in East Timor".

Sixteen years later, Cook, now a member of Labour's front bench, lambasted the Tories for selling more Hawks to Indonesia. The minister, said Cook, "will be aware that Hawk aircraft have been seen on bombing runs in East Timor in most years since 1984". He was right. Indeed, Mark Higson told me that the Foreign Office had known all along exactly where and how the Hawks were being used in East Timor.

Five years later, with Labour in office and Cook the Foreign Secretary, Foreign Office officials continued to lie in off-the-record briefings to prominent journalists that Hawks were not being used in East Timor. There was plenty of evidence to the contrary; but it was only last year, when the world's press finally discovered East Timor, and a Hawk swept menacingly over Dili, the capital, that the Foreign Office came clean - with Robin Cook expressing indignation that the Indonesians could do such a thing, his expose from the opposition benches long forgotten,

This brings us to the great suffering in Iraq, where 200 children die every day under the most ruthless embargo in the modern era, enforced principally by the United States and Britain and sustained by arguably the biggest lie of all. "We must nail the absurd claim," said Cook, "that sanctions are responsible for the suffering of the Iraqi people." Again, the evidence to the contrary has been overwhelming. According to Unicef, half a million children have died in eight years, having borne "the brunt of the economic hardship" caused by sanctions.

Because few journalists bother to go to Iraq and the propaganda of an entire society's guilt by association with a tyrant has been seldom questioned, the suffering and its principal cause are not news. Iraqis are media "unpeople". So Cook can say, unchallenged: "Food and medicines have never been covered by sanctions." In fact, while food, medicines and "supplies for essential civilian needs" are technically exempt from sanctions, the truth is very different: Iraq is prevented from obtaining foreign currency and therefore from funding the minimum needs of the population. Shortly before he resigned in protest against sanctions, Hans von Sponeck, the UN humanitarian co-ordinator in Baghdad, explained: "We are allowed just $180 [over six months] for every Iraqi. Everything must come out of that: food, water, health, power. How can people live a proper life on that? It is not possible." Currently, approval for $1.5 billions'-worth of vital humanitarian-delayed shipments is "on hold" at the UN Sanctions Committee in New York, which Washington and London dominate. This includes food and $150 million worth of medical supplies.

Then there is the $10-billion lie. Cook told parliament that Iraq "can now sell over $10 billion of oil per annum to pay for food, medicine and other humanitarian goods." Under the oil-for-food programme, the UN controls all the revenue from sales of Iraqi oil and allocates only 66 per cent for humanitarian supplies.

The balance, more than a third of the revenue, pays compensation to the multi-billionaire Kuwaiti royal family and western oil companies and "expenses" to the UN. The oil-for-food programme, said the Economist, was "a meaningless gesture", because the Iraqi oil industry had been so devastated by allied bombing that it could not pump the quantity of oil permitted by the Security Council. And less oil means less food and medicine, and more dying children.

Last month, the UN executive in charge of the sanctions office in New York attacked the Security Council (that is, the US and Britain) for holding up shipments of oil industry parts, which the Security Council had already approved. This followed an extraordinary attack by Kofi Annan, the UN secretary-general, on the US and by implication on Britain, for "using its muscle to put indefinite 'holds' on more than $500 million in humanitarian goods that Iraq would like to buy". A senior US official told the Washington Post: "The longer we can fool around in the [Security] Council and keep things static, the better."

Then there is the lie that the Baghdad regime is culpably hoarding food and medicine while the population goes without. Peter Hain, the Foreign Office minister, offered this in recent letters to the New Statesman and the Guardian. "The goods that come into this country are distributed to where they belong," said von Sponeck, the senior UN official in charge. "Our most recent stock analysis shows that 88.8 per cent of all humanitarian supplies have been distributed." Unicef and the World Food Programme confirm this. The medicines which, says Hain, "lie in warehouses" are there because, as UN officials tirelessly explain, the World Health Organisation has instructed Iraq to maintain emergency buffer stocks and actually wants these increased. Because of the delays in New York, they say, supplies arrive erratically: for example, IV fluids frequently turn up ahead of equipment, without which they are useless.

Much of the latest Foreign Office propaganda has come almost word-for-word from a US State Department briefing document, Saddam Hussein's Iraq, distributed last September. Denis Halliday, the former UN assistant secretary-general who also resigned in protest rather than continue to administer the oil-for-food programme, has analysed this report, describing it as "garbage from beginning to end". Saddam Hussein's palaces are said to cover "an area greater than Paris". In fact, UN weapons inspectors found his palaces to be nearer the size of Paddington.

Such desperation is evident in the government's response to the ITV documentary on Iraq that I made with Alan Lowery, Paying the Price, which, on 6 March, drew a powerful response from the public. Peter Hain, having metamorphosed in the depressingly time-honoured way from a principled political activist to yet another Foreign Office mouthpiece, wrote in the Guardian that Saddam Hussein "makes sure there are plenty of malnourished children to film". Those of us who, unlike him, have watched Iraqi children dying in front of us, reserve a particular contempt for such an obscenity, and wilful ignorance. Tens of thousands of malnourished children need no setting up; they are everywhere. And they are dying because this government bans vaccines and blocks standard equipment like blood platelet machines, and refuses to allow the restoration of clean drinking-water: a universal child saver. Hain might like to see a cancer patient dying in pain, denied morphine by this government, as I did.

Having brought a born-again zeal to his new career, Hain indulges in smear. "The friends of the Iraqi regime," he told parliament, are "all those who in one way or another lend their weight" to Iraq's opposition to sanctions. Dupes, in other words. As for the parallels that he draws with the sanctions against South Africa, these are absurd. Unlike Iraq, which imported 70 per cent of its essentials, South Africa was largely self-sufficient in food, and the majority of people and the ANC supported the disinvestment and cultural and sporting isolation that hit the white elite. In Iraq, there has been an opposite effect; instead of weakening the regime, the resistance has been weakened, and the majority made more powerless than ever. That is why both Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu have publicly opposed sanctions against Iraq. To Hain, they must be dupes, too.

Both Richard Butler and Scott Ritter, late of Unscom, the weapons inspections agency, have said that Saddam Hussein has been disarmed of his weapons of mass destruction. With all non-military sanctions lifted, Baghdad has indicated that the inspectors can return. What alarms the US and Britain is a section of the original Resolution 687 on Iraq, which they never mention. This calls for the downgrading of weapons of mass destruction throughout the region, meaning the nuclear-armed Israeli invaders of Lebanon and the Turkish invaders of Iraqi Kurdistan. It would also mean the scaling down of the west's arming of countries like Saudi Arabia, upon which much of Britain's weapons trade depends.

The truth is that the policy of sanctions is disintegrating, with US oil companies already making secret peace with Baghdad. In the US State Department, sanctions are dismissed as "Albright's vendetta", and those officials and diplomats with an instinct for career survival are keeping their distance and their silence during the presidential campaign.

At the Foreign Office, there is sub- imperial confusion. Jon Davies, the head of the Iraq desk - who has never been to Iraq - stood up at a conference and blamed the Americans, then told his listeners that his remarks were "off the record". It seems that the FO wants Britain to be a bridge between the US and Europe, and if the government opposed sanctions, the Americans would be displeased and the great strategy would suffer.

That this obsequious bit of realpolitik has nothing to do with Iraq, let alone its dying children, is by the by. Davies has said privately that last December's Security Council Resolution 1284, which Hain promotes as a breakthrough, changes nothing. Publicly, the Foreign Office says the opposite, of course.

It was understandable that no member of the government would be interviewed by me for Paying the Price without Millbank conditions of control. In parliament, Robin Cook entirely misrepresented his refusal to appear, claiming he was denied a "right of reply". For two months, I offered him a major interview, with the bulk of the questions supplied beforehand so he could prepare his responses to longstanding criticisism. Unlike the secretary-general of the UN and the US State Department spokesman, he demanded special "as live" treatment. Our fearless Foreign Secretary, an FO man explained, did not want to be "skewered" nor appear in a film "with dying babies". I asked for Peter Hain, who in last week's NS described me as his old friend. But he too was available only on spin-doctors' terms.

I offer him this old friend's advice: sanctions against the Iraqi people breach a multitude of international laws, including the Nuremberg Charter and the Convenant against Genocide. Even Margaret Thatcher is careful where she travels these days, lest she be indicted. So take care, Peter, that you are not assigned the last watch as others scuttle overboard, leaving a murderous policy that is already regarded, judicially not rhetorically, as an epic crime against humanity. Think of the company you keep, and the words of Denis Halliday: "History will slaughter those responsible."