Last week the Guardian, Britain's main liberal newspaper, ran an exclusive report on the belated confessions of an Iraqi exile, Rafeed al-Janabi, codenamed 'Curveball' by the CIA. Eight years ago, Janabi played a key behind-the-scenes role -- if an inadvertent one -- in making possible the US invasion of Iraq. His testimony bolstered claims by the Bush administration that Iraq’s president, Saddam Hussein, had developed an advanced programme producing weapons of mass destruction.
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Curveball’s account included the details of mobile biological weapons trucks presented by Colin Powell, the US Secretary of State, to the United Nations in early 2003. Powell’s apparently compelling case on WMD was used to justify the US attack on Iraq a few weeks later.
Eight years on, Curveball revealed to the Guardian that he had fabricated the story of Saddam’s WMD back in 2000, shortly after his arrival in Germany seeking asylum. He told the paper he had lied to German intelligence in the hope his testimony might help topple Saddam, though it seems more likely he simply wanted to ensure his asylum case was taken more seriously.
For the careful reader -- and I stress the word careful -- several disturbing facts emerged from the report.
One was that the German authorities had quickly proven his account of Iraq’s WMD to be false. Both German and British intelligence had travelled to Dubai to meet Bassil Latif, his former boss at Iraq’s Military Industries Commission. Dr Latif had proven that Curveball’s claims could not be true. The German authorities quickly lost interest in Janabi and he was not interviewed again until late 2002, when it became more pressing for the US to make a convincing case for an attack on Iraq.
Another interesting disclosure was that, despite the vital need to get straight all the facts about Curveball’s testimony -- given the stakes involved in launching a pre-emptive strike against another sovereign state -- the Americans never bothered to interview Curveball themselves.
A third revelation was that the CIA’s head of operations in Europe, Tyler Drumheller, passed on warnings from German intelligence that they considered Curveball’s testimony to be highly dubious. The head of the CIA, George Tenet, simply ignored the advice.
With Curveball’s admission in mind, as well as these other facts from the story, we can draw some obvious conclusions -- conclusions confirmed by subsequent developments.
Lacking both grounds in international law and the backing of major allies, the Bush administration desperately needed Janabi’s story about WMD, however discredited it was, to justify its military plans for Iraq. The White House did not interview Curveball because they knew his account of Saddam’s WMD programme was made up. His story would unravel under scrutiny; better to leave Washington with the option of “plausible deniability”.
Nonetheless, Janabi’s falsified account was vitally useful: for much of the American public, it added a veneer of credibility to the implausible case that Saddam was a danger to the world; it helped fortify wavering allies facing their own doubting publics; and it brought on board Colin Powell, a former general seen as the main voice of reason in the administration.
In other words, Bush’s White House used Curveball to breathe life into its mythological story about Saddam’s threat to world peace.
So how did the Guardian, a bastion of liberal journalism, present its exclusive on the most controversial episode in recent American foreign policy?
Here is its headline: “How US was duped by Iraqi fantasist looking to topple Saddam”.
Did the headline-writer misunderstand the story as written by the paper’s reporters? No, the headline neatly encapsulated its message. In the text, we are told Powell's presentation to the UN “revealed that the Bush administration's hawkish decisionmakers had swallowed” Curveball’s account. At another point, we are told Janabi “pulled off one of the greatest confidence tricks in the history of modern intelligence”. And that: “His critics -- who are many and powerful -- say the cost of his deception is too difficult to estimate.”
In other words, the Guardian assumed, despite all the evidence uncovered in its own research, that Curveball misled the Bush administration into making a disastrous miscalculation. On this view, the White House was the real victim of Curveball’s lies, not the Iraqi people -- more than a million of whom are dead as a result of the invasion, according to the best available figures, and four million of whom have been forced into exile.
There is nothing exceptional about this example. I chose it because it relates to an event of continuing and momentous significance.
Unfortunately, there is something depressingly familiar about this kind of reporting, even in the West’s main liberal publications. Contrary to its avowed aim, mainstream journalism invariably diminishes the impact of new events when they threaten powerful elites.
We will examine why in a minute. But first let us consider what, or who, constitutes “empire” today? Certainly, in its most symbolic form, it can be identified as the US government and its army, comprising the world’s sole superpower.
Traditionally, empires have been defined narrowly, in terms of a strong nation-state that successfully expands its sphere of influence and power to other territories. Empire’s aim is to make those territories dependent, and then either exploit their resources in the case of poorly developed countries, or, with more developed countries, turn them into new markets for its surplus goods. It is in this latter sense that the American empire has often been able to claim that it is a force for global good, helping to spread freedom and the benefits of consumer culture.
Empire achieves its aims in different ways: through force, such as conquest, when dealing with populations resistant to the theft of their resources; and more subtly through political and economic interference, persuasion and mind-control when it wants to create new markets. However it works, the aim is to create a sense in the dependent territories that their interests and fates are bound to those of empire.
In our globalised world, the question of who is at the centre of empire is much less clear than it once was. The US government is today less the heart of empire than its enabler. What were until recently the arms of empire, especially the financial and military industries, have become a transnational imperial elite whose interests are not bound by borders and whose powers largely evade legislative and moral controls.
Israel’s leadership, we should note, as well its elite supporters around the world -- including the Zionist lobbies, the arms manufacturers and Western militaries, and to a degree even the crumbling Arab tyrannies of the Middle East -- are an integral element in that transnational elite.
The imperial elites’ success depends to a large extent on a shared belief among the western public both that “we” need them to secure our livelihoods and security and that at the same time we are really their masters. Some of the necessary illusions perpetuated by the transnational elites include:
-- That we elect governments whose job is to restrain the corporations;
-- That we, in particular, and the global workforce in general are the chief beneficiaries of the corporations’ wealth creation;
-- That the corporations and the ideology that underpins them, global capitalism, are the only hope for freedom;
-- That consumption is not only an expression of our freedom but also a major source of our happiness;
-- That economic growth can be maintained indefinitely and at no long-term cost to the health of the planet;
-- And that there are groups, called terrorists, who want to destroy this benevolent system of wealth creation and personal improvement.