Tag Archives: Glenn Greenwald

Has anything changed since Katharine Gun’s momentous leak against the Iraq War?

Has anything changed since Katharine Gun’s momentous leak against the Iraq War?
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
22 October 2019

Directed by Gavin Hood and starring Keira Knightley, new film Official Secrets tells the story of Katharine Gun’s brave actions to try to stop the illegal US-UK invasion of Iraq in 2003.

Working as a translator at the secretive intelligence organisation Government Communications Headquarters (GHCQ) in Cheltenham, on 31 January 2003 the then 28-year old Gun was copied in to an email from Frank Koza at the US National Security Agency (NSA). With the US and UK facing strong opposition at the United Nations to its aggressive stance on Iraq, Koza explained how the NSA was mounting a ‘dirty tricks‘ operation to spy on members of the UN Security Council, in an attempt to gain support for an invasion, and were looking for support from GCHQ.

Increasingly concerned about the rush to war, Gun leaked the memo to journalist Yvonne Ridley, who passed it onto the Observer‘s Martin Bright. It was published in the paper on 2 March 2003, seventeen days before the invasion. Gun was soon taken into police custody and charged under the Official Secrets Act, though the government mysteriously dropped the case the day before her trial was to start.

US whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg, who leaked the Pentagon Papers about the Vietnam War in 1971, proclaimed Gun’s actions the “most important and courageous leak I have ever seen.”

“It was the first leak that was pre-emptive. Most leaks are after the event“, Gun told me, when I interviewed her for the Morning Star in 2008.

Gun’s whistleblowing likely strengthened the case against the US and UK at the UN – the Security Council did not authorise the invasion. The collapse of her trial also triggered then International Development Secretary Clare Short to publicly note British security services spied on UN Secretary General Kofi Annan’s office in the run up to the Iraq war.

Aswell as telling Gun’s story, the film focuses on how the Observer dealt with receiving the leaked memo – a fascinating story also told by investigative journalist Nick Davies in his 2008 book Flat Earth News. With the newspaper taking a pro-war stance under Editor Roger Alton and Political Editor Kamal Ahmed, Davies shows there was a crucial delay in reporting on the memo.

One reason for this was “the ‘circle of resistance’ to anti-war stories”, he writes. Ahmed, who was very close to Tony Blair and Alistair Campbell and was “an open advocate” for the government’s position on Iraq, was “running round the office going ‘Hitler diaries, Hitler diaries’”, according to one source.

“If we had gone with it two or three weeks earlier, it might have made a difference”, one frustrated Observer journalist told Davies. “There was an ideological resistance to it. It could have stopped the war.”

There are interesting similarities between these tumultuous events and the activities of the intelligence services and the media in the successive 16 years.

The US and UK, it seems, continue to spy on the United Nations and other international organisations. Reporting on documents leaked by NSA contractor Edward Snowden, in December 2013 the New York Times revealed “more than 1,000 targets of American and British surveillance in recent years”, including “multiple United Nations Missions in Geneva” such as UNICEF and the United National Disarmament Research. In his must-read 2014 book about Snowden’s leaks, No Place To Hide, Glenn Greenwald highlights how a document from 2010 shows the US spied on eight members of the Security Council regarding resolutions on Iran. “The espionage gave the US goverment valuable information about those countries’ voting intentions, giving Washington an edge when talking to other members of the Security Council”, Greenwald notes.

Regarding the UK, “in the mainstream, the official view is that the British government provide enduring support to the UN”, historian Mark Curtis notes in his 2004 book Unpeople: Britain’s Secret Human Rights Abuses. “The opposite is true: it is clear from the historical record that the UN has traditionally been seen as a major threat.”

Curtis continues: “For the past 50 years, the essence of British strategy has been to ensure the UN’s failure to prevent or condemn Britain’s, or its allies’, acts of aggression.”

Secret documents published by Wikileaks in 2015 show “Britain conducted secret vote-trading deals with Saudi Arabia to ensure both states were elected to the UN human rights council (UNHRC)”, according to the Guardian. The Independent in 2017 and the Guardian in 2016 also reported the UK had blocked a UN inquiry into Saudi war crimes in Yemen. In March of this year the Guardian reported the UK was set to “oppose motions criticising rights abuses [by Israel] in the West Bank and Gaza that are brought to the UN’s human rights council”.

And, like in 2003, the liberal media continue to be hugely comprised when it comes to reporting on the actions of the US and UK intelligence services.

As one of the main outlets for Snowden’s leaks, the Guardian – seen as the most anti-establishment national newspaper by many – came under intense pressure from the UK government, Matt Kennard and Curtis set out in their recent Daily Maverick long read.

This coercion has effectively neutralised the paper’s adversarial reporting of the ‘security state’, they argue. Their reporting is based on minutes from the Ministry of Defence-run Defence and Security Media Advisory Committee, AKA the D-Notice Committee, which defines its purpose as preventing “inadvertent public disclosure of information that would compromise UK military and intelligence operations”.

In July 2013, six weeks after the first Snowden leaks were published, GCHQ officials visited the Guardian’s offices in King’s Cross, London to oversee the destruction of laptops containing the Snowden documents. Though the action was completely symbolic (the documents were also stored outside of the UK, presumably in the Guardian’s US office) something changed.

“The Guardian had begun to seek and accept D-Notice advice not to publish certain highly sensitive details and since then the dialogue [with the committee] had been reasonable and improving”, the D-Notice Committee minutes for November 2013 noted. Incredibly the Guardian journalist who had helped to destroy the laptops – Deputy Editor Paul Johnson – took a seat on the D-Notice Committee itself, attending from 2014 to 2018.

Exclusive Guardian interviews with the heads of MI6 and MI5 followed, with veteran, often critical ‘national security’ journalists – David Leigh, Richard Norton-Taylor, Ewen MacAskill and Ian Cobain – replaced by less-experienced and knowledgeable reporters under current editor Katherine Viner. “It seems they’ve got rid of everyone who seemed to cover the security services and military in an adversarial way”, a Guardian journalist told Kennard and Curtis.

And Kamal Ahmad, whose ‘journalism’ in 2002-3 Davies argues “meant Observer readers were slowly soaked in disinformation” about Iraq? Following a stint as the BBC’s Economic Editor, he is now Editorial Director at the corporation, where he is “responsible for shaping the BBC’s future editorial strategy, focusing on storytelling and explanatory journalism”.

One important lesson to come out of Gun’s extraordinary story is the importance of inspiration. Gun, for example, has explained that in the period before she leaked the NSA memo she read two books – War Plan Iraq by Peace News Editor Milan Rai and Target Iraq by Norman Solomon and Reese Erlich – which convinced her there was no case for war. And Snowden himself has said he was inspired to leak the NSA documents after watching The Most Dangerous Man in America, the 2009 documentary about Ellsberg.

So maybe, just maybe, the next important whistleblower will be sitting next to you in the cinema when you go and see Official Secrets.

Official Secrets is in cinemas from 18 October 2019.

Book review. Propaganda Blitz: How the Corporate Media Distort Reality by David Edwards and David Cromwell

Book review. Propaganda Blitz: How the Corporate Media Distort Reality by David Edwards and David Cromwell
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
11 February 2019

Named Collins Dictionary’s Word of the Year in 2017, “Fake News”, along with Russian interference in Western political systems, has become an obsession for the UK and US media and political classes.

David Edwards and David Cromwell – co-editors of media analysis website Media Lens – don’t buy into this convenient, self-serving framing. “That fake news is a systematic feature of BBC coverage, and the rest of Western mainstream media, is virtually an unthinkable thought for corporate journalists”, they noted recently.

The corporate media “fundamentally distort every significant issue they touch”, they argue in their brilliant new book. “Exposing the fraudulence of the ‘free press’ is therefore highly efficient for positive change.”

Based on their Media Alerts – timely critiques of news reporting they have been publishing regularly since starting Media Lens in 2001 – they look at how the media provides state and corporate-friendly coverage of Western foreign policy, climate change, NHS privatisation and the Scottish independence referendum. Compared to their previous books there are fewer illuminating exchanges with journalists – the truthtellers in the newsrooms seem less willing to engage with the authors than they used to. However, their correspondence with Guardian cartoonist Martin Rowson and ITV News’s Bill Neely regarding the definition of terrorism are both surreal and revealing. As ex-Guardian columnist Glenn Greenwald tweeted: “I’ve never encountered any group more driven by group think and rank-closing than British journalism.”

The Guardian plays a key role in this corporate news ecosystem, sharply defining and defending the bounds of acceptable debate. From Jeremy Corbyn’s rise to the Labour leadership to Julian Assange seeking asylum in the Ecuadorian Embassy and Russell Brand’s political awakening, Edwards and Cromwell highlight how the UK’s supposedly most left-wing mainstream newspaper sides with the status quo and assails those trying to create significant progressive change.

Best of all is their Anatomy of a Propaganda Blitz, a six-step model for how the media attack and discredit enemies, preparing the way for (Western) intervention. The 2002-3 media-assisted propaganda onslaught in advance of the invasion of Iraq is a good example of this kind of campaign, as is the 2018 antisemitism controversy and the current Venezuelan crisis. Like Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky’s Propaganda Model and Stanley Cohen’s theory of Moral Panics, this should be required reading on every university journalism and media studies course.

Essentially a £14.99 course in intellectual self-defence against thought control in a democratic society, Propaganda Blitz is an indispensable read for anyone who consumes the news.

Propaganda Blitz is published by Pluto Press, priced £14.99.

John Humphrys’ search for gratitude in Iraq

John Humphrys’ search for gratitude in Iraq
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
October 2012

Writing about the recent US vice-presidential debate, journalist Glenn Greenwald pointed out the moderator’s “pretense of objectivity.” Far from being neutral and objective, Greenwald argues journalists are “awash in countless highly ideological assumptions that are anything but objective.” More importantly “These assumptions are almost always unacknowledged as such and are usually unexamined, which means that often the journalists themselves are not even consciously aware that they have embraced them.”

Greenwald’s perceptive analysis was perfectly illustrated by BBC Radio 4’s Today Programme last week. The setting was the prime 8:10 am slot and John Humphrys was in the chair for a segment on the closure of the UK consulate in Basra. Two people were interviewed: Andrew Alderson, who managed Basra’s finances in the immediate aftermath of the 2003 invasion and Baroness Nicholson, chair of the all-party parliamentary group for Economic Development in Iraq and the Region. The discussion was chockfull of colonial language (“Britain’s military adventures in foreign lands”) and framing. Humphrey’s lamented that “a lot of British lives, 179 British lives, were lost for Basra in effect.” Nicholson agreed: “The loss of British lives… was to make freedom for the Basra people”. Humphrys’ immediate response? “Of course.” However, all this propagandistic bullshit was positively mild compared to Humphrys’ next challenge to the two guests about the UK invasion and occupation: “If a country has sent its young men to another country to die, to restore – create democracy, you’d expect, well you’d expect a bit of gratitude, wouldn’t you?”

It’s worth reading that quote a second time to be clear about what exactly Humphrys is saying. Iraqis, according to Humphrys, should thank the country that illegally invaded and occupied them. Thanks for what, we might ask Humphrys? For the 655,000 Iraqis who had died by 2006 because of the invasion, according to the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health? For the over four million Iraqi made refugees because of the war? For causing the nation’s health to deteriorate to 1950s levels, according to Joseph Chamie, former director of the U.N. Population Division?

Does Humphrys think Algerians should have shown “a bit of gratitude” to their French occupiers? Were thousands of German lives “lost for Paris” in World War Two?

That the UK had benign intentions in Iraq is one of the key ideological assumptions that permeates all BBC reporting on the topic. For example, in 2005 Media Lens challenged the BBC about its claim that US and UK “came to Iraq in the first place to bring democracy and human rights.” Helen Boaden, the BBC’s Director of News, replied, arguing this “analysis of the underlying motivation of the coalition is borne out by many speeches and remarks made by both Mr Bush and Mr Blair.” I.F. Stone’s famous dictum “all governments lie” seems to have passed Boaden by. However, some Iraqis do agree with Boaden. An October 2003 Gallup poll found that fully 1% of Baghdad residents believed that establishing democracy was the main intention of the US invasion. 43% said the invasion’s principal objective was Iraq’s oil reserves.

It’s important to remember that, along with Jeremy Paxman, Humphrys is seen as the BBC’s “Rottweiler” (Daily Mail), an “impertinent and aggressive if not downright rude” interviewer (Guardian). Humphrys himself described his presenting style as “persistent… some will say aggressive”, in an interview last year.

In contrast to Humphrys’ self-serving self-image, David Miller, Professor of Sociology at University of Bath, recently explained in the Guardian that “the research evidence that we have does not suggest a liberal bias” at the BBC. “On the contrary, it suggests a routine tendency for BBC news programmes to give more time and context to, and less interrogation of, establishment and elitist views.”

The timing of Humphrys’ tax-funded stenography is additionally embarrassing for him and the Today Programme. The weekend before the Independent reported on a new study that found a “staggering rise” in birth defects among Iraqi children since 2003. Published in the Bulletin of Environmental Contamination and Toxicology, the Independent noted the study discovered “high rates of miscarriages, toxic levels of lead and mercury poisoning contamination and spiralling numbers of birth defects ranging from congenital heart defects to brain dysfunctions and malformed limbs”. According to Mozhgan Savabieasfahani, one of the lead authors of the report and an environmental toxicologist at the University of Michigan, there is “compelling evidence” linking the increase in birth defects and miscarriages to US/UK military assaults.

The Independent goes on to report “Similar defects were found among children born in Basra.” Whether Humphrys believes the parents of these children should also show “a bit of gratitude” to the UK, is not clear.

“Baa! Reluctant warrior! Baa!”: Professional journalists fall in with the flock

“Baa! Reluctant warrior! Baa!”: Professional journalists fall in with the herd
by Ian Sinclair
1 October 2014

Journalists are “awash in countless highly ideological assumptions that are anything but objective”, noted Glenn Greenwald in 2012. “These assumptions are almost always unacknowledged as such and are usually unexamined, which means that often the journalists themselves are not even consciously aware that they have embraced them.”

Like Andrew Marr, corporate journalists who see themselves and their colleagues as latter day Woodwards and Bernsteins will find this description of their profession hard to swallow.

However, Greenwald’s perceptive comments are particularly relevant to the ongoing media coverage of the US bombing of Iraq and now Syria. Take the following examples of the common description of President Obama’s stance on Iraq and Syria:

  • Cathy Newman, Channel 4 News Snowmail, 10 August 2014: “The US president, a notoriously reluctant warrior, has been forced to reconsider his hands-off, softly-softly approach to foreign policy.”
  • Jonathan Freedland, The Guardian, 3 September 2014: “Barack Obama is the reluctant interventionist.”
  • Title of editorial, Independent, 11 September 2014: “The reluctant warrior: Barack Obama came to power after opposing the Iraq War. To salvage his second term, he has to write its postscript’.
  • Peter Foster, The Telegraph blog, 23 September 2014: “Barack Obama has justifiably been tagged the reluctant warrior during his six years in office.”
  • John Sopel, BBC News, 24 September 2014: “Perhaps the most significant thing this reluctant warrior has done is assemble a broad-based coalition.”

Compare these herd-like statements with the simple fact Obama has now bombed seven countries – Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Libya, Yemen, Somalia and Syria. (The Brooking Institution says Obama has also bombed The Philippines, though this has been denied).

On what planet, then, can all of these supposedly free-thinking, often highly educated journalists describe Obama as a “reluctant warrior?” Perhaps the journalists are comparing him to other world leaders? If so, which leader has bombed more countries than Obama? Or perhaps the journalists are comparing him to other US presidents? If so, which ones do they have in mind?

More likely (and more frightening) is that the journalists in question are, as Greenwald points out, blindly repeating “highly ideological assumptions… not even consciously aware that they have embraced them.” Less All The President’s Men then, and more Manufacturing Consent.