How was I, a PhD student at Oxford University in 2003, linked to Tony Blair, the case for the Iraq War, and Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton’s email affair?
For the first time, Blair has apologised for his role in the Iraq War, just a week after the UK Daily Mail reported on a recently released memo by Colin Powell, dated a year before the Iraq war of 2003. That memo reveals how I would become connected to a political controversy that continues to this day in the UK. The timing of this released memo in the US and Blair’s apology on Fareed Zakaria’s CNN programme coincides with the anticipated release of the Chilcot Inquiry report, an investigation that has been going for several years into the circumstances that led the UK into the Iraq war.
Due to the Clinton email controversy, the contents on her private server while she was US secretary of state have been released on the state department’s website. Some documents belong to her predecessor, Colin Powell, secretary of state under George W. Bush.
A March 2002 memo from Powell briefs Bush on an upcoming visit by then-British Prime Minister Tony Blair to the president’s Crawford Ranch in Texas.
Prior to the meeting, Powell stressed Blair’s support for the invasion of Iraq, connecting the UK to the war effort and thus abandoning all pretences for a diplomatic solution.
What the memo reveals is the formation of policy that fabricated the WMD threat and ultimately led to the plagiarism of my article.
Prior to the Iraq War of March 2003, the Blair government released a series of “intelligence dossiers” to sway public opinion and the parliament’s vote for war. One of these intelligence dossiers was given by Blair to Powell in January 2003, who referred to it during his February presentation on Iraq’s alleged WMD programme in front of the United Nations.
The Powell memo reveals how this episode could have occurred. In the memo, Powell writes: “Blair continues to stand by you and the US as we move forward on the war on terrorism and on Iraq. He will present to you the strategic, tactical and public affairs lines that he believes will strengthen global support for our common cause.”
Blair and Bush had to convince a global village ... of the case to open up a new front in this global war.
By invoking “public affairs lines” and “global support”, Powell indirectly acknowledges that both the US and UK not only deliberated military action, but prepared for the battlefield over global public opinion. The leaders of two nation-states, the UK and the US, contemplated war against another nation-state: Iraq.
In the memo, Powell reveals that war-making between states in the 21st century entailed justifying the military action to both domestic and global constituencies.
The US and UK sought to portray the invasion of Iraq as a continuation of the “Global War on Terror”. To use media theorist McLuhan’s term, in 2003 Blair and Bush had to convince a global village, connected by the internet and 24-hour news channels such as Al Jazeera, of the case to open up a new front in this global war.
The Bush and Blair administrations realised that their case would be a “hard sell”.
Powell writes, “… the British public are unconvinced that military action is warranted now. Blair may suggest ideas on how to (1) make a credible public case on current Iraqi threats to international peace …”
Saddam as global pariah
In developing a “credible public case”, Blair’s government issued a series of “intelligence” dossiers about Iraq’s WMD threat. “Intelligence” communicated that the UK government had access to credible information that it was willing to bestow on a sceptical public that was not privy to such knowledge.
When news of the plagiarism broke, it was assumed that UK intelligence services like MI6 had produced the dossier. The dossier was in fact produced under the aegis of Blair’s Director of Communication and Strategy, Alistair Campbell, who had previously handled communication crises such as the death Princess of Diana. What Blair had agreed to in the memo would put Campbell’s skill set in motion. Campbell went from playing a role in crafting Diana as the “people’s princess” to creating Saddam Hussein as a global pariah.
My research in Oxford documented the myriad of secret police and spy agencies that maintained Saddam Hussein’s rule. The institutional history of these agencies were a testament to the Stalinesque structures that emerged in Iraq, even though I never referred to “Stalin” explicitly in my research.
By copying my material into their dossier, Blair’s office contributed to the demonisation of the dictator in the public’s mind. The authors of the dossier changed key words from my article to suggest that Iraq had supported al-Qaeda and then padded that material with their own pages that argued for military action against Iraq.
The result was an “intelligence dossier”, entitled Iraq: Its Infrastructure of Concealment, Deception, and Intimidation, which was released to the public on the prime minister’s website. Today, it is referred to as the “Dodgy Dossier“, and is often invoked as an infamous case to discourage plagiarism.
The case for war
The revelation of the plagiarism in February 2003, before the military attack in March 2003, provided early evidence of the disconnect between the leadership in the US and the UK and the actual intelligence on Iraq’s WMDs produced by the CIA or MI6. The case for war was not based on unaltered information provided by career intelligence analysts and officers, but by a media unit with the prime minister’s office who lifted information from a PhD student who was not even sure of the argument for his thesis at the time.
It was a Cambridge academic, Glen Rangwala, who noticed the similarity between my online article and the online intelligence dossier, and alerted the news media via an email about the plagiarism. Had that “intelligence dossier” simply been given to the British members of Parliament, the plagiarism would have most likely gone undiscovered.
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However, as publics began to consume their news media via the internet as of 2003, the British government calculated that it had to convince sceptical publics with the same medium. The “Dodgy Dossier” demonstrated the interconnectedness between media-making and policy-making – a relationship that, despite the embarrassment for the Blair government and his most recent apology, will likely only continue on both sides of the Atlantic.
The question I am most often asked to this day is: “Did Blair ever apologise to you?”
He did not, although I received an apology from Alistair Campbell in writing, and Jack Straw, foreign minister at the time, apologised publicly. During the interview with Zakaria, Blair said: “I apologise for the fact that the intelligence we received was wrong.”
However, he did not just receive intelligence. His office crafted and moulded the “intelligence”, partly from my research, which perhaps one day he will apologise for.
Ibrahim al-Marashi is an assistant professor at the Department of History, California State University, San Marcos. He is the co-author of “Iraq’s Armed Forces: An Analytical History”.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.