Don't always trust what they tell you in the war
said al-Qa'ida was using chemical weapons: it was
wrong. The Pentagon said Saddam Hussein was to blame for the anthrax attacks on
it was wrong.
Raymond Whitaker and James Palmer unravel the
West's war of lies and propaganda
31 March 2002
Truth is already
a casualty in the war against terror, but as the campaign against Iraq hots up, distinguishing facts from propaganda may become
According to a
flurry of reports on both sides of the Atlantic,
Tony Blair and George Bush will be drawing up a dossier of evidence on Iraqi efforts
to develop weapons of mass destruction when the two get together on the
President's Texan ranch next weekend. But the attempt to build a case against
Saddam Hussein went seriously wrong a week ago.
claimed that American troops had found a biological warfare laboratory in Afghanistan, and that Baghdad was supplying al-Qa'ida
with weapons of mass destruction, only for the Pentagon and British military
sources to rubbish both suggestions. The Prime Minister's spokesman, Alastair Campbell, is said to be working closely with the
White House on information policy, but there was little sign of co-ordination
As the following
case studies show, however, the Pentagon has also been responsible for stories
appearing in the media which have later been retracted, disputed or disproved.
On 22 March Downing Street briefs news organisations
that US forces have found an al-Qa'ida biological
warfare laboratory in eastern Afghanistan,
just as Britain
deploys 1,700 Royal Marines to fight in the country. In another briefing, Iraq is said to
be supplying al-Qa'ida with chemical and biological
Pentagon vehemently denies the laboratory story the following day – but too
late for British papers, which carry headlines such as "Marines called in
after discovery of germ war plant". The alleged link between Iraq and al-Qa'ida not only contradicts No 10's previous position, but
is denied by a senior military source, who tells The Independent: "We are
not aware of evidence, intelligence or otherwise, that the Iraqi government or
its agencies are passing on weapons of mass destruction to al-Qa'ida. Nor have we seen any credible evidence linking the
Iraqi government to the 11 September attacks."
cock-up, at the very least.
mid-March, Pentagon officials say a satellite positioning device found in a
cave in Afghanistan belonged to a US commando killed in the "Black Hawk
Down" incident in Somalia in 1993. This is considered a "smoking
gun" linking al-Qa'ida to the Somalia fighting, in which 18 US troops lost
manufacturer of the device points out that that model was not made before 1997, and the serial number shows it was sold to the US military in
1998. Officials were misled by the name G Gordon, which matched that of a
master sergeant killed in Somalia
– but it was also the nickname of the real owner, a helicopter pilot operating
Pentagon was far too quick on the trigger.
Claim: On 11
March, when Vice President Dick Cheney is visiting Downing Street, the
Washington Times reports that British intelligence has provided evidence that a
US pilot, Navy Lieutenant Commander Michael Speicher,
who was shot down in the Gulf War, is still alive and in captivity in Iraq. Speicher, declared killed in action in 1991, was
reclassified as "missing in action" by the Pentagon last year, after
information from an Iraqi defector.
Fallout: Iraq – which says Speicher
is dead – invites a US
delegation, including American journalists, to investigate the case. Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld
retorts: "I don't believe very much what the regime of Saddam Hussein puts
out. They're masters at propaganda."
Claim: The week
before Christmas, the Special Boat Service intercepts the sugar freighter Nisha off Beachy Head in East Sussex, after a tip-off from a foreign intelligence
agency that it could be concealing materials for a bomb or anthrax attack.
Press speculation runs riot, with headlines such as "Bin Laden plot to put
anthrax into our sugar" (People), and "Armada of terror" (Daily
vessel is searched for a week and found to be carrying nothing more than sugar
from Mauritius to an east London refinery. Weeks
later, however, it was still being alleged that the seizure of the ship by
security services had "foiled a plot".
good a story to admit to a huge mistake.
last October's anthrax attacks in the US,
Mr Rumsfeld threatened
direct action against Baghdad
if there was any evidence of Iraqi involvement. A spate of reports sourced to
US intelligence officials said the airborne form of anthrax used was difficult
and expensive to produce, requiring state sponsorship. Even though there was no
"credible evidence" to tie the anthrax attacks to al-Qa'ida, said the director of homeland security, Tom Ridge,
"we ought to operate under the presumption that it is."
Ritter, a former UN weapons inspector, said accusations that Iraq was the
source of the anthrax were unsubstantiated and irresponsible. It emerged that
the spores had been treated with an additive designed to allow them to stay in
the air longer, suggesting it was unlikely they originated from Iraq or the former Soviet
Union. They appear to have been launched by a scientist from
biological warfare laboratories, making use of a strain from the US Army's
medical research institute.
Verdict: It is
easy to blame Iraq
or al-Qa'ida for any incident of terror, but hard to
Claim: A US special forces raid
at Hazar Qadam in central Afghanistan on
23 January, in which 16 men were killed and 27 taken prisoner, was first
described by the Pentagon as a successful strike on two al-Qa'ida
compounds. Later it was suggested the men were Taliban fighters.
month the prisoners were released. Far from fighting for the Taliban, they were
local men who had fought against the regime. The freed men said they had been
punched, kicked and clubbed by US special forces while
in detention. Two of the dead men were found with their hands bound behind
their backs, fuelling suspicions that they were executed. One man told the Los
Angeles Times he had seen his cousin being bound with white plastic handcuffs
by American soldiers. He later found his cousin dead, still handcuffed, with
bullet holes in the neck, chest and stomach.
Relatives of the
dead said they had been handed up to $2,000 per family, which some called
"hush money". American officials conceded that CIA officers distributed
money, but said it was compensation. Mr Rumsfeld ordered an inquiry into the raid, but on Friday
General Tommy Franks, commander of US forces in Afghanistan, released a report that
said there was no evidence the detainees had been mistreated by US forces.
Their injuries "were not serious or life-threatening" and were
consistent with the reasonable use of force to secure them, the report found.
The other claims were not addressed.
Verdict: One of
several incidents in the war where Pentagon responses have left unanswered