Don't always trust what they tell you in the war on terror

Downing Street said al-Qa'ida was using chemical weapons: it was wrong. The Pentagon said Saddam Hussein was to blame for the anthrax attacks on the US: 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 even harder.

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.

Downing Street 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 here.

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case studies show, however, the Pentagon has also been responsible for stories appearing in the media which have later been retracted, disputed or disproved.


Case 1

Claim: 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 weapons.

Fallout: The 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."

Verdict: A cock-up, at the very least.


Case 2

Claim: In 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 their lives.

Fallout: The 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 in Afghanistan.

Verdict: Pentagon was far too quick on the trigger.


Case 3

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."

Verdict: Not proven.


Case 4

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 Star).

Fallout: The 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".

Verdict: Too good a story to admit to a huge mistake.


Case 5

Claim: During 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."

Fallout: Scott 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 within US 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 establish proof.


Case 6

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.

Fallout: Last 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 questions.