Journalism – the first draft of history?

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Journalism has been called ‘the first draft of history’, and as a first draft it may be written over, forgotten, ignored. In this podcast, journalist Martin Bright (@martinbright) considers one tiny strand of the story of the Iraq war. It illustrates truth and fake news, things that are very much on our minds at the moment. It is taken from a lecture Martin gave for IF, the free university in London, in its series ‘Thinking Without Borders’ in 2017.

Martin Bright: Let’s begin with the rules of journalism – never befriend a politician, never befriend a PR, never betray a source and never use PowerPoint (though that one I am ignoring….)

I’m going to look at one story that plays its part in the history of the lead up to the Iraq war which you may or may not have heard about. It is a story in which I as a journalist felt I was writing the first draft of history. It’s a story I wrote while working on The Observer [a UK Sunday newspaper] in early 2003. It is a story left out of the reports on the Iraq war (it was not in either the Chilcot or the Hutton reports). It is just a footnote in history, maybe less than a footnote.

It is the story of Katharine Gun, who,in 2003, was working at GCHQ. GCHQ is the third arm of British Intelligence – there is MI6 (foreign intelligence), MI5 (domestic intelligence) and GCHQ (surveillance).

Katharine was born in Taiwan, is a fluent Mandarin speaker, and she spent her days at GCHQ listening to China and deciding what was interesting – Chinese broadcasts, bugged conversations etc. She enjoyed her job, she considered herself a patriot, she didn’t see anything wrong with spying, she felt she was working in the British national interest, for the good of the country.

But she became increasingly concerned about the build up to war in Iraq, she was sceptical, she didn’t think the British intelligence service should be used to further the war aim of the Government.

One day she was working, translating, when she received a memo from the National Security Agency (NSA) in the US. Subsequently, the NSA and GCHQ have become much more high profile institutions since the Edward Snowden leaks (we know a lot more about what they can tap into) but there has always been a close relationship between the two agencies.

In January 2003, we were being told that war was not a forgone conclusion, there were still negotiations going on in the UN and Tony Blair and George Bush were saing that should Saddam Hussein give up his weapons of mass destruction (WMD) there would be no need to go to war. But it was a period of high tension.

There were inspectors in Iraq looking for WMD and having difficulty finding them.

Such was the tension within GCHQ itself that on 24 January 2003, a memo was sent to all GCHQ staff reassuring them that they would not be asked to do anything unlawful (which is interesting in itself since you might expect that to be the case anyway!).

At the same time what is happening in the US is a continuing hardening up of the documents being fed to the US government as to what is going on in Iraq and the weapons Saddam is supposed to have. Then, rather inconveniently, on 27 January 2003, Hans Blix (one of the main weapons inspectors) and his team state that Iraq has no nuclear capacity and has been cooperative. The French Foreign Minister, Dominique de Villepin, states that France won’t go to war while inspections continue. So it is getting tricky for those who want to go to war. We also know that there will be a presentation to the UN by Colin Powell to argue that Iraq is in breach of its international commitments.

And while all this is happening, this memo from Frank Koza arrives in Katharine Gun’s inbox, just after midnight on January 31st:

To: [Recipients withheld]
From: FRANK KOZA, Def Chief of Staff (Regional Targets)
CIV/NSA
Sent on Jan 31 2003 0:16
Subject: Reflections of Iraq Debate/Votes at UN-RT Actions + Potential for Related Contributions
Importance: HIGH
Top Secret//COMINT//X1

All,

As you’ve likely heard by now, the Agency is mounting a surge particularly directed at the UN Security Council [UNSC] members (minus US and GBR of course) for insights as to how to membership is reacting to the on-going debate RE: Iraq, plans to vote on any related resolutions, what related policies/ negotiating positions they may be considering, alliances/ dependencies, etc – the whole gamut of information that could give US policymakers an edge in obtaining results favorable to US goals or to head off surprises.

In RT [Regional Targets], that means a QRC surge effort to revive/ create efforts against UNSC members Angola, Cameroon, Chile, Bulgaria and Guinea, as well as extra focus on Pakistan UN matters.

We’ve also asked ALL RT topi’s [Targets of Particular Interest]to emphasize and make sure they pay attention to existing non-UNSC member UN-related and domestic comms for anything useful related to the UNSC deliberations/ debates/ votes. We have a lot of special UN-related diplomatic coverage (various UN delegations) from countries not sitting on the UNSC right now that could contribute related perspectives/ insights/ whatever. We recognize that we can’t afford to ignore this possible source.

We’d appreciate your support in getting the word to your analysts who might have similar, more in-direct access to valuable information from accesses in your product lines. I suspect that you’ll be hearing more along these lines in formal channels – especially as this effort will probably peak (at least for this specific focus) in the middle of next week, following the SecState Colin Powell’s presentation to the UNSC.

Thanks for your help

It is worth trying to imagine what effect this must have had on Katharine as she read it.

Some of it is quite technical, and there is lots of jargon (eg ‘product lines’ – that’s intelligence). But the meaning is clear – the Agency is mounting a surge particularly directed at the UN Security Council …… the whole gamut of information that could give US policymakers an edge in obtaining results favorable to US goals.

You could argue (as some on the right in the US did) that this is perfectly normal. But my job as a journalist is to ask, if people think something always happens – is it right? who benefits?

What offended Katharine Gun is that our intelligence services were being asked to do this on behalf of America. Particularly to gain an edge for the attainment of US goals – there was no talk of British goals. And what were those goals – Peace? Or the rush to war?

A lot of people within GCHQ received this memo and Katharine assumed they would be outraged, especially since they had earlier been assured they would not have to do anything illegal (and it is illegal to spy on the UN). She told me that when she received the memo, she felt sick and had to immediately leave her desk. She felt she was being asked to help fix the vote in the Security Council.

At the time all the talk was about Tony Blair and George Bush attempting to get a second resolution in the UN Security Council in order to authorise war in Iraq and only then would they go to war. So to Katharine it looked like fixing the vote, undermining the democratic processes in the UN. So she assumed there would be a rush of outrage in GCHQ. In fact no one said anything, there was a normalisation of it, a feeling that ‘this is what we do – we work hand in hand with the Americans, they are our allies, so we do what the NSA tells us to do”.

Katharine was so appalled that she took the memo, printed it off, put it in her pocked and took it home.

At this point, this is the story of the undermining of two institutions – the UN and GCHQ. Indeed, as this story goes on it is increasingly the story of institutional collapse.

At the time we were being told the aim was not to invade Iraq but to disarm Saddam Hussein. What our intelligence services were supposed to be doing was safeguarding British interests. What the government might have argued at the time was that being hand in glove with the Americans was in the British interest. However, we were being told that whatever it cost, however difficult to do, we were trying to verify if Saddam Hussein was really a danger to Britain (not the US).

The problem with Katharine’s argument is that there are signed international agreements that lock GCHQ and NSA into a partnership on these matters, so it may be the case that we are locked into doing this, but the difficulty is that we, the British public, have no way of accessing that – they are secret agreements.

More to follow.

Picture: Iraq Pre-War Protest 2003 by Senor Codo

Music: Suspense#2 by Peritune(Royalty free music)

278 episodes available. A new episode about every 16 days averaging 27 mins duration .