UK War Dossier a Sham, Say Experts
Downing Street [the residence of the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom] was last night plunged into acute international embarrassment after it emerged that large parts of the British government’s latest dossier on Iraq – allegedly based on “intelligence material” – were taken from published academic articles, some of them several years old.
Amid charges of “scandalous” plagiarism on the night when Tony Blair attempted to rally support for the US-led campaign against Saddam Hussein, Whitehall’s dismay was compounded by the knowledge that the disputed document was singled out for praise by the US secretary of state, Colin Powell, in his speech to the UN security council on Wednesday.
Citing the British dossier, entitled Iraq – its infrastructure of concealment, deception and intimidation in front of a worldwide television audience Mr Powell said: “I would call my colleagues’ attention to the fine paper that the United Kingdom distributed… which describes in exquisite detail Iraqi deception activities.”
But on Channel 4 News last night it was revealed that four of the report’s 19 pages had been copied – with only minor editing and a few insertions – from the internet version of an article by Ibrahim al-Marashi which appeared in the Middle East Review of International Affairs last September.
Though that was not the only textual embarrassment No 10 seemed determined to tough it out last night.
Dismissing the gathering controversy as the latest example of media obsession with spin, officials insisted it in no way undermines the underlying truth of the dossier, whose contents had been re-checked with British intelligence sources. “The important thing is that it is accurate,” said one source.
What Whitehall may not grasp is the horror with which unacknowledged borrowing of material – the crime of plagiarism – is regarded in American academic and media circles, even though successive US governments have a poor record of misleading their own citizens on foreign policy issues at least since the Vietnam war.
On a special edition of BBC Newsnight, filmed before a critical audience last night, Mr Blair stressed that he was willing to forgo popularity to warn voters of the dangers of weapons of mass destruction: “I may be wrong, but I do believe it.”
With trust a critical element in the battle to woo a sceptical public the first sentence of the No 10 document merely states, somewhat cryptically, that it “draws upon a number of sources, including intelligence material”.
But Glen Rangwala, a lecturer in politics at Cambridge University, told Channel 4: “I found it quite startling when I realised that I’d read most of it before.”
The content of six more pages relies heavily on articles by Sean Boyne and Ken Gause that appeared in Jane’s Intelligence Review in 1997 and last November. None of these sources is acknowledged.
The document, as posted on Downing Street’s website at the end of January, also accidentally named four Whitehall officials who had worked on it: P Hamill, J Pratt, A Blackshaw and M Khan. It was reposted on February 3 with the first three names deleted.
“Apart from passing this off as the work of its intelligence services,” Dr Rangwala said, “it indicates that the UK really does not have any independent sources of information on Iraq’s internal policies. It just draws upon publicly available data.”
Evidence of an electronic cut-and-paste operation by Whitehall officials can be found in the way the dossier preserves textual quirks from its original sources. One sentence in Dr Marashi’s article includes a misplaced comma in referring to Iraq’s head of military intelligence during the 1991 Gulf war. The same sentence in Downing Street’s report contains the same misplaced comma.
A Downing Street spokesman declined to say why the report’s public sources had not been acknowledged. “We said that it draws on a number of sources, including intelligence. It speaks for itself.”
Dr Marashi, a research associate at the Centre for Nonproliferation Studies in Monterey, California, said no one had contacted him before lifting the material.
But on the regular edition of Newsnight he later gave some comfort to No 10. “In my opinion, the UK document overall is accurate even though there are a few minor cosmetic changes. The only inaccuracies in the UK document were that they maybe inflated some of the numbers of these intelligence agencies,” he said.
Explaining the more journalistic changes inserted into his work by Whitehall he added: “Being an academic paper, I tried to soften the language.
“For example, in one of my documents, I said that they support organisations in what Iraq considers hostile regimes, whereas the UK document refers to it as ‘supporting terrorist organisations in hostile regimes’.
“The primary documents I used for this article are a collection of two sets of documents, one taken from Kurdish rebels in the north of Iraq – around 4m documents – as well as 300,000 documents left by Iraqi security services in Kuwait. After that, I have been following events in the Iraqi security services for the last 10 years.”
Iraq’s decision last night to let weapons inspectors interview one of its scientists for the first time without government “minders” signalled that Baghdad may be bending under international pressure.
But diplomats will be trying to determine over the next few days whether it is a token gesture or a real shift away from what they describe as Iraq’s “catch us if you can” approach to inspections. Hours before the announcement, a Foreign Office source in London signalled that this was the kind of change of heart that Iraq would have to make to avoid war.