A Wilderness of Mirrors

In the wake of the release of the Hutton Report, few seem to have observed that its findings were not a crucial arbiter of the conduct of the Blair government; or of Colin Powell, who relied on British intelligence reports for his UN speech indicting Iraq; or of John Howard, who appears to have picked up whatever came into the mail and read it into the parliamentary record. The Blair government took a range of intelligence reports knowing full well the highly variable quality of such information and sold them as multiply verified and confirmed reports.

It appears to have been forgotten that Blair’s staffers had already been caught playing fast and loose in mounting the case for war prior to the claim that Iraq had WMDs capable of deployment within forty-five minutes — with the famous Master’s thesis found on the internet, whose speculations on Iraq’s military capacity were relabelled as secret intelligence.

Had the Blair government presented the case as it was presented to them — that there was some evidence and testimony that might indicate that Iraq had WMDs and an equally compelling case that it did not — he would never have gained the support necessary from the British public, much less the Labor party. A significant section of the general public would have made the same assessment of intelligence reports as do most astute politicians — that they are no more reliable than is a ‘we do not accept stolen goods’ sign in a pawn shop. It is the professed universal belief in such a claim that makes the necessary universal disregard of it manageable.

In the debate about the culpability or otherwise of Coalition governments, there has been an implicit assumption that elected representatives should feel free to regard the information supplied to them by intelligence agencies as impartial and objective assessments of the world situation. But testing the truthfulness of their information comes down to assessing not the ‘what’ of things said, but the ‘who’.

If a civil service can be said to have its own interests — overwhelmingly in the smooth reproduction of the civil service — then that goes double and more for intelligence services, whose raison d’etre is a world of perpetual conflict and crisis, requiring the constant and ever expanding attentions of more intelligence services. Yet it would be wrong to see these narrow interests as the most important factor in the manufacture of a casus belli. More important is the increas-ingly autonomous character of institutions such as intelligence services in a world dominated by a desire to control challenges.

Prior to the Second World War and the creation of the SOE, Britain’s secret services could fit comfortably into one floor of a building. Even after the defeat of the Axis, the US OSS staff numbered in the double figures. The network of US intelligence services — comprising not only the CIA, NSA, FBI, but also more obscure but extensive organisations such as the DIA (Defence Intelligence Agency) and their sometime allies such as MI5 and MI6 — has expanded so much in size that these agencies have long since changed their character. They are now a territory-less state, with their own private sectors and powers of lethal force.

The CIA has been not only murderous but, like the FBI, dysfunctional for decades — the corruption and uselessness of the enterprise for its stated purpose made obvious by the career of Aldrich Ames, the head of the Agency’s Soviet Counter-Intelligence section and an alcoholic who lived openly in a $2 million house on a $150,000 salary.

The FBI was both negligent of, and complicit in, the development of American and hence global, organised crime. And, of course, the whole complex of agencies has used this porous interconnection of politics, corruption and crime to create a mirror twin — Al Qaeda, a gangster theocratic outfit, partly funded through heroin and deeply intertwined with the extended Saudi royal family. An intelligence service that was genuinely grounded in the public interest would be located wholly within a government department, with some form of ‘intelligence ombudsman’ having authority to investigate breaches of its charter.
Fat chance, of course. The times suit undemocratic, autonomous institutions of power. As global inequality widens, a culture of fear pervades social life, particularly in the US — a barely stated trepidation that ‘people will come and steal our stuff’.

Added to this is the fact that global terror is what one might call a ‘Daily Telegraph truth’, after Orwell’s observation that some things are true even though the Daily Telegraph says they’re true.

Since the era of the European empires, militant Islam has been the religion of the global poor. In recent years, sections of it have fused with fundamentalist Islam, a quite different phenomenon, and the new formation — the legions of the suicide bombers — now square off against the new fundamentalism of significant sections of the United States, manifest destiny read into the Book of Revelation. If the latter are less of a direct threat to us, they outreach Al Qaeda in their capacity to inflict collateral damage. Their growth is a response to the conditions that spawn the intelligence leviathans — a global system in which the local is utterly undermined, and power and life are felt to be elsewhere. In the wilderness of mirrors, the faces of Osama Bin Laden, Donald Rumsfeld, Timothy McVeigh and Mohammad Atta reflect each other, and finding our way out will be no easy task.

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