War, lies and what democracy?
More than 85 members attended our debate at
the House of Commons on 10 February on how we can stop truth
becoming the first casualty of war. This is the almost-complete
text of the contributions.
Maher Othman, Arab News editor of the London-based
independent newspaper al-Hayat, opened.
He'd just returned from Jordan, where he had to attend
the funeral of a young nephew killed in a car crash:
As you can imagine, that news was a shock - sudden and
painful. On the flight out I was thinking of this debate and of
the imminent war that is going to be waged against Iraq by the
US and by this country and of the many innocent Iraqi civilians
who will die because of that war.
During and after the funeral people were asking me, as
a journalist: 'is war coming or is war not coming?' But I was
more interested in listening to them than in telling them what
I think. A small number of this cross-section of people in
Jordan thought there was a small chance of the US and the UK
pulling back at the last moment.
The majority, though, believe war is coming. They believe
it will be a colonial war. They believe it will be a war to
re-occupy a wealthy Arab country: not to liberate it, not to
introduce democracy, but to exploit it and to exploit
its oil resources.
They also believe this war will encourage Ariel Sharon to
do his worst - if he has any worse to do - toward Palestine.
It will encourage him to continue the occupation, to
extend settlements, and maybe carry out the threat of
so-called 'transfer of population'. He's promised the Israeli
electorate that in the past. It means throw Palestinians out
of Palestine, to Jordan or into the Sinai desert or
even to Iraq.
Nothing will make these people believe other than that
this is a war targeting Arabs and targeting Muslims. They
believe that this will be a war, first, to gain control
of the second largest oil reserves in the world; second,
to weaken the Arab countries; and thirdly to help George
W Bush's chances of being elected for a second term.
Death by accident or by natural disaster is shocking
and painful enough. But death caused by selfish war for greed
would be a crime - that is the feeling in many parts of
the UK and in many parts of the Arab world.
The question before us is: what can be done about
truth becoming the first casualty of war? A lot can be done.
Lies and misinformation can and have to be exposed. That
is the first duty of journalists - and of MPs.
The media in the UK and in the US as well have been
very vigilant - compared to their behaviour [around the
First Gulf War] in 1991. Then the US effectively controlled
and altered the news. Only when the war started did the media
and the world discovered that the story about Iraq having the
fourth largest army in the world, for example, was just a myth.
Take now, for example, this latest dossier exposed as
having been almost lifted out of that PhD thesis by Ibrahim
al-Marashi. What is worse than the plagiarism is that Colin
Powell used the dossier in his report to the UN Security Council.
Our role as journalists is to expose these lies and
to reveal the truth. There are two more lies that must be
rebutted before the war starts. Journalists are working on
them, but more needs to be done.
The first is that the aim of the war is to free Iraq.
In fact, the US will appoint a military governor until a
pro-US government is restored. And after that the US will
restore the oil industry. This will be expensive. First they
destroy the country, then they rebuild - and of course US
companies get priority in the contracts to do that. It
will cost so much that Iraq will have to borrow hugely.
Iraq will end up being an indebted country under
the control of the US through the institutions
it controls, the World Bank and the International Monetary
The second lie that must be exposed is the claim that
US victory in Iraq will make it easier to settle the
Arab-Israeli conflict. We may hear Sharon saying he is
willing to accept the so-called 'road map' to a settlement.
But, as always, he adds conditions. He wants the elected
Palestinian leaders to be replaced. He wants a complete
ceasefire from the Palestinians while he goes on assassinating
the Palestinian leadership. And he wants to return only forty
per cent of the West Bank while he waits to see whether
the Palestinians are 'well-behaved' - waits for perhaps 10 years.
I don't believe George W Bush cares whether there is
a settlement. He has described Ariel Sharon as 'a man of peace'.
What chance does peace have if Ariel Sharon is described as
a man of peace despite all the massacres he has committed?
George W Bush may not be re-elected. But he will have
done a great deal of damage to the world at large
by compounding anger and feelings of injustice.
And this should not happen, in your name or mine.
Our next speaker was Richard Norton-Taylor, Security Affairs
Correspondent of the Guardian - or, to the
security services the week before the meeting, "Who
you gonna call? Spin-buster!" He stressed that he was
speaking as a reporter not as a commentator.
It's difficult to get anyone advising Tony Blair -
including military commanders - to speak on the record.
So the public has to trust journalists when we say
'well-placed sources' say this or that.
And what well-placed sources say is they are being
squashed. I have never heard so much opposition to
government policy from officials.
I never thought there'd be a time when I sympathised with the security services. But they do claim forcefully
that they're very annoyed that intelligence sources are
being distorted for political ends.
Take Ibrahim al-Marashi's PhD thesis. Not only did Downing Street officials plagiarise it, but they distorted
what it said.
That's just part of the way Alistair Campbell
poisons - or influences - the minds of Lobby journalists.
Government lawyers and Treasury Solicitors say
they are under pressure to bend their legal criteria
and professional judgement in order to get 'terrorists'
arrested and charged.
And Cabinet ministers themselves are not being told the truth by the people writing cribsheets for them.
Take, for example, the issue of links between
al-Qaeda and Iraq. The intelligence services tell me
there is no hard evidence. Whenever he speaks about
this, Blair muddies the water; he knows very well
there is no intelligence.
The truth is that the spooks have very little
intelligence on Iraq. Neither does the CIA have
anything solid. And the CIA is fighting its own
battle with a separate 'intelligence' outfit set
up by the hawks in the Pentagon.
You've heard of 'HumInt' - 'human intelligence'
as distinct from SigInt, eveasdropping on 'signals'.
People in the CIA are talking mockingly about the
'KurdInt' hawked around by the spin-spooks. That's
'intelligence' from 'Kurdish sources' - who of
course have their own interests to promote.
And there's the black propaganda: ABC News and,
I think, the Sunday Times put out the
stories that Saddam Hussein has a Greek mistress, is
a Viagra enthusiast, and greets himself in the
mirror in the morning with 'Heil Hitler'. Even the
CIA doesn't believe any of this.
But the New Yorker says the
Pentagon has successfully influenced the CIA to
come up with other 'intelligence' to back the
Even the New York Times has allowed
itself to be used as never before as a mouthpiece
for the Pentagon. In order to apply psychological
pressure to Saddam Hussein, the Pentagon has leaked it
battle plan after battle plan, pictures of people
training for streetfighting and so on.
A recent very long New York Times
article had telling phrases buried in it. It had been
'discussed extensively in recent days with senior
officials'; at their request 'several details' had been
withheld. The point of the leak seemed to be to tell
the Arab world that the US would avoid attacking the
Iraqi people, and to induce fear in the Iraqi military.
(I find most Washington Post and
New York Times articles tremendously
overwritten - they really need subs!)
Newspapers in the rest of
Europe can be just as gullible as those in the UK and US about links between
al-Qaeda and Iraq. You may recall those Moroccans who were nicked near
Venice. The police found a Tube map - that'll be
hard to get hold of!
And there were the 28 Pakistanis arrested near Naples.
It was reported they had a newspaper photo with a red
ring around UK Chief of Defence Staff Admiral Sir Michael Boyce
- that's rubbish too according to (some) Italian police,
and according to the intelligence services here. [And
a judge ordered the 28 to be freed without charge on 11 February.]
Then, of course, there are the traditional British
restrictions on things they don't want us to report. A piece
in the Times today describes journalists trying
to write about how many troops there are in Kuwait. All the
Brits there had been told to say nothing at all and lie low.
It seems Marines have been practising American accents.
Even Admiral Nick Wilkinson - the secretary of the
D-notice Committee, the UK's voluntary self-censorship
arrangement - says, on the record, that the UK government
is going far too far in claiming that things shouldn't be said
in the name of national security.
The next thing to note in the manipulation game
is that there are two 'information' centres in the Gulf.
CNN will be fed with Bombvision from Qatar. But the
UK Foreign Office, the US State Department and, probably,
spooky types have set up an operation in Amman. Probably,
that'll feed stuff about what's (supposed to be) happening
Malcolm Bruce worked as a journalist on the Liverpool
Daily Post. There he trained alongside John Sergeant
and the late Tony Bevins. Now, as LibDem Member for Gordon, he's trying
to "bridge the gap between journalists and politicians."
In one sense, once this war starts we'll all be coming
under intensive pressure to 'back our boys'. And all responsible
journalists will feel some pressure not to undermine them. So
the dilemma is: how do you do that and also tell the truth?
It's that much harder when this is potentially a watershed war,
quite different from others such as Suez or the Falklands.
I have always been very reluctant to support war. I have
been persuaded on occasions that is was a justified resort and
at least persuaded myself not to speak out.
But this is a complete change from anything that's happened
since the Cold War started, let alone since it finished. The US
and UK governments are planning a pre-emptive strike when the
majority of the population - and, one suspects, the majority
of the defence staffs - are not persuaded that the threat merits
massive civilian casualties.
Even if this war were in military terms a relatively quick
and low-casualty affair, we'd be left with a military occupation
of Iraq, a fragile and unhappy Turkey, and a desperate situation
in Israel and Palestine.
The public cannot and do not see a connection between
the Weapons of Mass Destruction that Saddam Hussein may have,
and al-Qaeda and terror. They can and do see a connection
between a war and a huge ripple of unpredictable disaffection
in the Middle East - that is likely to increase the
pressure toward international terrorist retaliation,
especially against the US and especially against this country.
And at home? Last month the Prime Minister said that
if there's a major terrorist attack on this country later,
people might regret not backing his tough line now.
'But, Prime Minister,' I want to say: 'it may be that
you provoked it.'
But he does get evangelical under pressure.
Others get vituperative. Last week Nicholas Soames MP
accused LibDem leader Charles Kennedy of being an 'appeaser'.
That's not a valid historical jibe. It was the previous Gulf
War that was the equivalent of the invasion of Czechoslovakia
in 1938 - and the allies responded then. Now, there isn't a
Perhaps for a comparison you could go back to Lloyd George's
opposition to the Boer war. The treatment he got up and down
the country was rough - and 14 years later he went on to
be a great wartime Prime Minister.
This time, too, the pressure on journalists and politicians
from the Establishment to stay quiet for the sake of
patriotism and Supporting Our Boys will be intense.
And in the face of that we have to stand up for
Close to home, if there is a significant body of public
opposing the war, their views need to be reflected honestly.
You and we need to keep asking what the war is for, what are
its objectives - and what is the escape strategy.
Further afield, it is impossible to contemplate any kind of
war that will not put millions at risk from starvation, thirst
So war is a disproportionate response to a strategic
situation that is in containment. The brutal truth already
is that Saddam Hussein know that if tries anything, he
will only try it once, and he will be finished in 24 hours.
People know that. I do not believe the Prime Minister will
be able to take this country into war - without a second UN
resolution - without entirely dividing it.
And any abrupt cessation of the UN inspection process will
give strength to the view that US - and, sadly, the UK - are
determined to have a war. Already, the closer the UN
inspectors come to reporting that there are not weapons
of mass destruction, the more bellicose the noises out
of the White House and, sadly, Downing Street.
Our final speaker was Jeremy Corbyn, pre-eminent back-bench
MP and Labour member for Islington North. In November he was
one of 32 Labour MPs who defied three-line whip to vote against
the government on Iraq.
This is a very peculiar time to be in Parliament
and in politics.
For the first time in my life I'm in the
mainstream of public opinion. It's never happened
before. It may never happen again.
This week whenever I walk down the street people
stop me to say 'see you Saturday' [on the 15 February
Stop the War demonstration]. If only half of those
people in Islington who've promised to be there
turn out with their friends and families, it's already
going to be quite something.
Tony Blair seems to be living in a parallel
universe. Maybe he has a focus group hidden way
somewhere that actually backs what he's doing.
He clearly has a hotline to god in the
Malcolm's right, when he's pressed he gets this
messianic zeal - 'but I am right'. But in
this universe, ever since Bush's Axis of Evil
speech opposition to the war has grown stronger and
And in between that universe and this we have Parliament.
One in three of our entire armed forces are ready to go
to war - and at no stage has the government sought a vote.
Can the government and the Prime Minister think about
why such a vast number of people are for the first time in
their lives going on a political demonstration? Or
about why the largest demonstration in the UK for many
years happened on 28 September 2002 - against a Labour
It's because, I say, people recognise this planned invasion
for what it is. Iraq isn't a credible threat. No
neighbouring countries are clamouring for military action.
I am not a supporter of Iraq. I opposed arms sales
to Iraq in the 1980s. Then I was told that I was being
deeply unpatriotic for doing so, because to cancel the
contracts Margaret Thatcher's government had with Saddam
Hussein's would cost British jobs.
That, of course, was before the last Gulf War, in 1991.
And we're still dealing with the fallout from that.
I have here a letter from the Ministry of Defence responding
to the Parliamentary adjournment debate on 19 December, about
the effects of depleted uranium munitions on US and UK soldiers
and on the Iraqi population. It's evasive.
Since then I've been in the US discussing this with veterans
of that war. They were in favour of that war. But 150,000
of them are now suing them over Gulf War Syndrome. They're seriously
ill and many are dying prematurely. Was this a result of the
bombing of chemical or biological facilities, or of the
depleted uranium in Allied shells? We don't know.
And of course three senior UN officials have resigned in the
past decade over the policy of sanctions against Iraq and
the suffering of ordinary Iraqis.
I have here another letter, marked 'confidential'. So of
course I'll publish it as soon as possible. It sets out
scenarios of destruction in Iraq.
And there are the effects beyond Iraq to consider.
Will Israel use a war as excuse to reoccupy the whole
of Palestine? Either way, the running sore of the treatment
of the Palestinian people will be unresolved.
What will happen to the Kurdish people in the North of Iraq?
They've already suffered attack by chemical weapons. I
suspect the Turkish army will go on to invade that area,
to forestall the possibility of an independent Kurdish
state on its borders.
If there's a fudged UN position that justifies war, people
will see that as bought and paid for by the US.
The countries that opposed war in 1991 - like Yemen - paid
dearly for doing so.
George W Bush was deeply dishonest when he first addressed
the UK on the matter. We knew this as soon as he said said
he was pleased to be there.
He's not interested in international law and he's not interested
in the UN. He seeks merely to use the UN to bolster his position.
We've lived in interesting times since 9/11.
If we want to avoid more attacks by al-Qaeda and the like, is
the bombing of a people already battered by sanctions and war
really the best way? Would justice for Palestinians and in
the region in general not be a better way?
But when war does happen, journalists are always taken under the
wing of the armed forces and the Ministry of Defence. They are
given access if their reporting is supportive. On the other hand,
the spread of satellite phones, the internet and video links
makes it harder for the military to hide things - and the
growth of satellite channels means it has more than just a
few broadcasters to control.
We have a more informed populace than ever. We have the biggest
anti-war movement there's ever been - and yet that's being ignored
by a government that used to pride itself on being in touch.
A member asked Maher: if "transfer"
goes ahead, what will be the response of the Arab nations - and
of Jordan in particular?
Jordan, he replied, is vulnerable. "It cannot accept more
refugees. In 1948 and again in 1967 it accepted huge numbers. It
would not be able to cope economically and could not survive politically
if there were more. There would be anger throughout
the Arab world. But if Israel is treated by the West
generally as a country above the law they may well get
away with it."
Jake Ecclestone asked the panel: It is clear that people who sit in
this building are grotesquely out of touch with the feeling of people
in this country - I've experienced a dozen wars starting and it's
never been this stark. If the men and women who sit in this building
don't speak out against it then what happens to the idea
that we live in a democracy?
Malcolm Bruce responded that a small minority are speaking
out. They find themselves in a situation where the Prime Minister
is denying them the right to a vote. For example a Liberal Democrat
debate day due next week has been withheld. But you're right to say
there aren't enough dissidents.
Jeremy Corbyn added that it really is the ludicrous structure of the
British Parliamentary system that's at fault. The PM can take us
to war, draft UN resolutions or use Uranium munitions, and at no
stage does he need any Parliamentary approval at all. It's all done
under the Royal Prerogative. Times like these show the weakness of
of the Parliamentary system. It's under the control of the Executive.
Richard Norton-Taylor noted that Defence Minister Geoff Hoon had
said there "couldn't be a vote on the war because British troops
were about to be at war"!
Steve Wilkinson noted that it's significant that the Mirror
has campaigned against this war - whereas previous wars in the name
of Democracy and Freedom have usually seen the press united in
support of the official line.
Most people, he said, are beginning to realise that the US is
"essentially an expansionist and hegemonic power - ask any Latin
American and they'll sat that's the policy of the US there for 200 years
and it's now extending across the globe."
Phil Sutcliffe declared that we must devise effective means to support
our members in telling the truth and resolve to explore ways to do that
within the union now.
Carmel Bedford asked Richard Norton-Taylor: will Germany and France be
He replied that he'd been in Munich for German Foreign Minister
Fische's robust exchange with US Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld.
But he could nor believe that France will not join military
action at the end of the day. Privately, French officials were
saying that if the US and UK go in, they will go in to - they
want their slice of the oil cake.
Trevor Goodchild said that he assumes there will be a war and that
Parliament will get a vote late in the day - but is it, he asked,
unprecedented that the country goes to war when so many are against
it? And though they say Tony Blair is messianic and religious but
honest, "I believe he is a liar - as an honest politician
what do you believe - Malcolm?"
Over the past few years Tony Blair has told
a number of small lies over the state of public services - and
"once you've done that it's easier to go on to big lies,
especially when you passionately believe you're right. He
is messianic, you can see it in his eyes.
Blair honestly believes is a man of destiny leading his
country into something which may be a little difficult for them
to follow, but which they'll thank him for in the end.
All political careers, particularly the big ones, tend to
end in tears. This is a big test for the PM. And what is most
depressing is that he's beyond the reach of debate.
A member asked Maher why he said "when war started in
1991" and not "when Saddam Hussein attacked a neighbouring
country" - isn't omission misinformation too?
He replied that we all know what Hussein did in 1990, and that
Iraqi invasion of Kuwait was not accepted by the Arab world or by
anyone else in the world.
Jeremy Corbyn concluded that we're in for a period of history
very different to what's gone before.
What I always find
hard to comprehend is that the media go where the war is - and
tend to ignore other conflicts. The massacres in Afghanistan,
for example, were not reported.
And now, for example, we read that George W Bush has ordered
military specialists into Colombia to protect the Oxy pipeline.
The FARC revolutionaries have declared them a 'legitimate
target'. Meanwhile the media are concentrating on Iraq,
when enormous things could be brewing elsewhere - what happens
when FARC kill an American soldier?
We could see a scenario of wars for resources going on throughout
the world. I hope someone in media keeps an eye on the overall
But we've never had a worldwide peace movement of the kind we
now see before, either. We're moving into uncharted territory.
The Branch passed the following motion with
one vote against:
London Freelance Branch of the NUJ Condemns the plans of Tony Blair
and George Bush to go to war against Iraq.
This branch agrees:
- To support the Stop the War march on February 15th, by encouraging all members to attend the march;
- To support a day of national anti-war protests on the day war against Iraq breaks out; and
- To approach the General Secretary to see how LFB can support journalists who seek to report the war in Iraq against pressure form the Government, media proprietors or editors.