The ‘Five Arabs’ Episode

04 January 2003

A Pakistani jeweller, Mohammed Asghar, tracked down in Pakistan by The Associated Press was alleged by US intelligence agencies to have tried to infiltrate the country from the US as part of a group of ‘five Arabs’ (sic). Asghar told reporters there he’d never been to the U.S., though he said he tried once – two months ago – to use false documents to get into Britain to find work. “We have very, very little to support the notion that these five represent any more of a threat than any of the other thousands of people who enter this nation every day,” terrorism expert Ronald Blackstone said. “It’s a fishing expedition.” Reporter John Docherty of WorldNetDaily added that “Intelligence pros say the White House is manufacturing terrorist alerts to keep the issue alive in the minds of voters and to keep President Bush’s approval ratings high”.

07 January 2003

The alert of a ‘terrorist plot’ by ‘five Arabs’ who had entered the US was broadcast by the US police on 29 December 2002. Their names, ages and photographs were posted on the FBI web site. On 7 January 2003 the authorities admitted that all this had been based on hearsay: “U.S. law enforcement authorities are no longer searching for five Middle Eastern men who they feared had entered the United States to commit terrorist acts, in part because of doubts about the veracity of the tipster who told them of the supposed plot from a Canadian jail”.

The Paris Baggage Handler Episode

12 January 2003

On 30 December 2002, the dramatic headlines in the British press were about the uncovering, in the nick of time, of a terrorist plot at Charles De Gaulle airport. An Algerian baggage handler, Abderazak Bessighir, arrested on 28 December, had been charged with ‘associating with terrorists and illegal possession of guns and explosives’. The media reported the discovery of a ‘mini-arsenal of weapons’ in his car – Bessighir even had explosives primed ready for use!

The story has now taken a different turn:an airport security guard and former Foreign Legion soldier of the 8th Parachure Regiment, Marcel Le Hir, who first alerted the police of an ‘an Algerian looking man fiddling with a gun’ in the airport car park, has confessed that this was a set up, allegedly instigated by Bessighir’s estranged in-laws. Interestingly, Le Hir, had conspired with another former soldier, Patrick Pouchoulin in this plot. Bessighir, who spent 10 days in detention, expressed relief that his name had been cleared. He had always claimed innocence, but this was not taken seriously. His solictor Philippe Dehapiot said that Bessigher had been a victim “d’une diabolisation” .,5987,3226–305113-,00.html

Italian alarm bells

03 February 2003

On Friday 24 January, a week prior to Prime Minister Belusconi’s visit to Washington, Italian Police announced the arrest of 28 Pakistanis in Naples under terrorism charges and that an ‘Al-Qaida terror cell’ had been uncovered. Those arrested were also said to be plotting to assassinate Britain’s Defence Chief of Staff Admiral Sir Michael Boyce, due to visit the NATO base at nearby Bagnoli on 13 March. Italian Police claimed to have discovered explosives, an Urdu newspaper in which General Boyce’s photo had been encircled in red, and literature containing the word ‘jehad’. It is unclear why the Italian police decided to disclose the Boyce plot 19 days in advance, rather than monitoring the actions of the suspects and building up further incriminating evidence.

The Government of Pakistan has issued a strong denunciation of the arrests, stating that “the incident had been played up in the Italian media, prematurely and without proper investigation”. The Italian Ambassador was called to the Foreign Affairs ministry to receive the protest, and was told that the detained Pakistanis “did not have any terrorist links. Their only motivation was to earn a livelihood in Italy. Four of them had valid stay permits issued in 1998 and the rest had the required permission to stay in Italy while their applications for work permits were being processed.” Immediate consular access has also been requested.

It should also be noted that in July 2001, Italian Police in Genoa fabricated evidence against the G8 anti-globalisation demonstrators, including a ‘simulated’ stabbing of a police officer and the planting of explosives in a school being used as a dormitory. On 12 February an Italian judge ordered the release of the 28, admitting there was not enough evidence that any of them were involved in an al-Qaida plot. The Pakistani men had spent two weeks in a Naples prison

The Iraq Dossier – the charade and Dr Kelly tragedy

The charade

11 February 2003

The 19-page report ‘Iraq: Its Infrastructure of Concealment, Deception and Intimidation’ issued on 3 February 2003 by a unit within Downing Street, the Coalition Information Centre, has emerged as a source of embarrassment for Mr Blair. Downing Street had claimed that the report was drawn from a number of sources, “including intelligence material”.

Ten of the nineteen pages were written by a US-based doctoral student, Ibrahim al-Marashi in the early 1990s and published in ‘The Middle East Review of International Affairs’. This was taken without the author’s knowledge or permission. The plagiarism was identified by Glen Rangwala, a lecturer in Politics at Cambridge University, who added, “It really does cast doubt on the credibility of the intelligence that has been put to us.”

In addition to Dr Al-Marashi’s work, the dossier included material from the defence journal Jane’s Intelligence Review, written by Ken Gause, an international security analyst, and Sean Boyne.

The Guardian has noted that “Even before the latest row some Whitehall officials were protesting that MI6 and other intelligence material was being used selectively by Downing Street” (8 February).

08 July 2003

Who was responsible for the statement in a dossier on Iraq issued by the Government in September 2002 that “Intelligence indicates that the Iraqi military are able to deploy chemical or biological weapons within 45 minutes of an order to do so”? The eleven-man Foreign Affairs Committee decided by six votes to four to ‘clear’ the Government’s Director of Communications Alistair Campbell for its insertion, leaving the Joint Intelligence Committee, Britain’s senior intelligence inter-departmental body, looking rather foolish for providing patently incorrect information to the political masters.

An article by a former chair of the JIC, Rodric Braithwaite (1992-93) in Prospect Magazine in May 2003 provides some indications of the possible culpability of the JIC in being party to the hyping-up of the Iraqi threat. The 45-minute claim is now known to have rested on a single source, probably an Iraqi informing the CIA, but because the JIC includes a group that is so completely beholden to the US for its intelligence bread and butter it would not question US-supplied data on Iraq for fear of causing offence. Braithwaite observes, “The Secret Intelligence Service (MI6) is relatively independent: it manages spies, and that is a cottage industry not much affected by technological change. The same goes for our Security Services (MI5)…..however in the complex and expensive world of communications intelligence – meaning eavesdropping and codebreaking – we remain heavily dependent on the US. The Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) at Cheltenham….is heavy reliant on US input and would be of little value without it…..In dealing with the Americans we need to follow the basic principle of negotiation: you must always make it clear that you will, if necessary, walk away from the table. That is something that British prime ministers, submariners, and codebreakers have been loath to contemplate”.

Alistair Campbell was implicated by the BBC Today programme’s Defence correspondent Andrew Gilligan on 29 May 2003. Gilligan stated that he had relied on ‘senior intelligence sources’. Many other chummy relationships have come to light in the wake of the Campbell affair, a reminder of how the BBC had succumbed to Foreign Office and Ministry of Defence influences during the Bosnian Crisis.

Apparently the contacts with the intelligence services can be at the highest level. The Observer on 6 July 2003 also revealed that “The head of MI6, Sir Richard Dearlove, secretly briefed senior BBC executives on Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction before the Today programme claimed Number 10 had ‘sexed up’ part of the evidence… One meeting, over lunch, was attended by Dearlove, Kevin Marsh, the editor of the Today programme, and John Humphrys, its leading presenter…..At another meeting with a senior BBC executive, sources said Dearlove made it clear that Iraq was not viewed by the intelligence services as the primary threat. A minute taken of the meeting, on which The Observer has been briefed, Dearlove was asked about the greatest threats to world security. He said that on an analysis of the danger from weapons of mass destruction and terrorism, Iraq was not the priority”. A Governor of the BBC since 1998 is Dame Pauline Neville-Jones, former Head of Defence and Overseas Secretariat of the Joint Intelligence Committee.,2763,993783,00.html,7493,970783,00.html

Dr Kelly tragedy

25 July 2003

Dr David Kelly was the government’s chief chemical and biological warfare expert on Iraq and a member of a “high level working group responsible for processing intelligence on Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction programme and deciding what information about it could be published” (24 July, The Guardian). Kelly’s interests and commitments – and also the shabby treatment he received – are reminiscent of the life of John G Bennett (died 1974), also a leading scientist of his day.

Bennett was an expert on solid fuel technology who served as director of various coal-related industry bodies in the 1930s, and, notwithstanding his pacifist beliefs, was appointed a key advisor in the Ministry of Fuel and Power during World War II. In 1942 he emerged as the chairman of the Conference of Research Associations under the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research, and later provided technical leadership as research director of Powell Duffryn which was engaged in the development of new Carbon materials and projects relating to atomic energy. Bennett found himself in the spotlight in 1950 because of the communist affiliations of one of his staff: “The ice broke unexpectedly, and with unnecessary drama. One night I worked late to finish a report. The next morning I arrived to be told that the laboratories had been sealed and no one was to enter. The newspapers got wind of it and the afternoon papers appeared with front page headlines ‘Research Laboratory working for Atomic Energy a communist spy centre’. I was besieged by reporters…I was fifty-three years old. I was member of several Government and Scientific committees. I still had something to contribute in the field I had worked in for just twenty years. I had expected to retire and keep an advisory position, which would enable me to preserve the balance between spiritual and worldly interests that I believe to be right for men in the modern world. All these expectations vanished overnight. Nor could the disaster have fallen at a worse time for me personally. Less than three weeks before the blow fell, my wife nearly died from a coronary thrombosis…”.

Bennett’s account perhaps conveys the besieged feelings when a shy and intelligent man finds himself fingered by a hostile establishment. Interestingly, Kelly too shared Bennett’s vision of balancing the spiritual and the worldly: he had converted to the Baha’i faith in 1999 and attended its gatherings at his local centre in Abingdon, Oxfordshire. Bennett had adopted an eclectic Sufism, and was a leading interpreter of the Indonesian mystic Muhammad Pak Subuh and other teachers such as Ouspensky and Gurdjieff.

Since May 2003, Kelly had been increasingly vocal in his meetings with journalists – he ridiculed the claims of the US and UK governments that ‘mobile germ warfare laboratories’ had been discovered and had no doubts that these were for the production of hydrogen for artillery balloons (20 July, The Observer). More seriously, he disclosed that the Government had exaggerated “out of all proportions” the claim that Iraq could launch WMDs within 45 minutes (23 July, The Guardian). Such messages were unpalatable to a Government whose case to Parliament on 17 March 2003 for sanctioning war was largely based on scare tactics – not liking the message, it became necessary to ‘shoot the messenger’. Thus Kelly was subjected to a four-fold torment: an intensive four -day interrogation at an MoD ‘safe house’ where he was also threatened with the Official Secrets Act – the questioning by Defence Intelligence officials has been described as “brutal” (20 July, The Independent on Sunday); belittling by being described as a low level ‘individual working in the MoD’ (20 July, The Observer) and ‘some kind of middle-ranking expert, pretty marginal in the general scheme of things’; the disclosure of his identity to the media notwithstanding an assurance of confidentiality; and finally exposure to private and public hearings of the Commons Foreign Affairs Committee. His body was found in a field near to his home 17 July and the circumstances leading to this tragedy, suicide or otherwise, are now the subject of a judicial enquiry under Lord Hutton.

Witness – the autobiography of John Bennet, Turnstone Press, 1975