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Politics and law from a British perspective (hence Politics LAW BloG): ''People who like this sort of thing...'' as the Great Man said

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Monday, December 08, 2003

Iraqi WMD: the 45 minute source steps forward - it says here...

When a thing seems too good to be true, it usually is. But not always.

There is a very human, though ultimately circular, procedure for dealing with such matters: to check what the others are doing. Or thinking.

Today's big Telegraph story, How the 45-minute claim got from Baghdad to No 10, looks like red meat for the War Party in the grownup media and blogosphere alike: where are the rants and the we told yous? Where, even, are the straight follow-ups?

(There is always competition between the Not Invented Here impulse to shun and the lure of the press pack: but the latter seems almost always ineluctable.)

So, no help from the mob. Does the story seem to stand on its own merits?

Now, the blogging here on the infamous 45 minute claim has been nothing if not extensive [1]: the overall tentative conclusion was, I suppose, that the claim was flaky in ways surprising to the layman. But, given the scrappiness of the evidence, it was impossible to judge. (When the professionals seemed at odds on so basic a question as the validity of using single-source intelligence, the layman needs must stand perplexed!)

On the face of it, the Telegraph story is much of the same. In the editorial accompanying the piece, under the count the spoons head The truth, at last, the paper is pleased to refer to its author as
the Telegraph's intrepid Con Coughlin

(Notably, the leader spells the name of the supposed source of the 45 minute claim differently to the Coughlin piece - not a good omen for editorial standards! [2])

Get a flavour from the opening couple of grafs:
Lieutenant-Colonel al-Dabbagh is not a man who is easily frightened. Having spied on Saddam's regime for British and American intelligence for more than seven years, the 40-year-old former Iraqi air defence commander lived with the constant fear that he might be caught, tortured and executed.

So when last week, shortly after I had interviewed him in Baghdad about his involvement in the infamous 45-minute claim, he received two death threats from Saddam's loyalists, his determination to describe his involvement in revealing details of the former Iraqi dictator's deployment of weapons of mass destruction remained undiminished.

The threats - one verbal and one written - warned him not to divulge any secrets about Saddam's regime, on pain of death...

The week before our meeting, members of Saddam's Fedayeen had sprayed his house with machinegun fire.

John Le Carré meets Lawrence of Arabia, as the Hollywood pitch might go.

Dabbagh, the piece says,
asked that we only publish his family name and that we did not photograph his face. In Arab culture, men are better known by their first name and patronym. "I have to protect my family somehow," said Lt Col al-Dabbagh, who is married and has several children.

Yet they already know where he lives. And
He now works as an adviser to Iraq's Governing Council.
So he's vulnerable at the office, too [3].

Coughlin's problem, it seems, is not making Dabbagh talk, but shutting him up. He has no need to goose up the story. The guy's motivations?
I admire Mr Blair because he made Iraq secure from Saddam. If Saddam's people kill me for saying this, I do not mind. I have done my duty to my country and we have got rid of Saddam.

And if the British Government wants me to come to London to tell the truth about Saddam's secret weapons programme, I am ready to help in any way I can.

Is he speaking in English or Arabic here? What's the Iraqi Arabic for dial it back, I wonder?

Puzzle: wasn't the guy checked out before he started work for the Council? Wouldn't that have been the time for him to spill his guts? Even if his story is right, there's a serious issue on timing.

On the 45 minutes, he is the stereotypical Arab carpet salesman [4]; and Coughlin isn't holding him back:
Despite the threats, Lt Col al-Dabbagh reacted without hesitation when I showed him the controversial section of the British Government's intelligence document that claimed that Saddam's WMD could "be ready within 45 minutes of an order to use them".

When I asked him whether the information in the document relating to the 45-minute issue was 100 per cent accurate, he responded with characteristic Iraqi enthusiasm: "It is 200 per cent accurate!" he exclaimed. "And forget 45 minutes. We could have fired them within half an hour."

Read apart from the rest of the piece, I'd say that explained was an authorial health warning. In context, Coughlin's got the party spirit.

Dabbagh says he's the source. And Coughlin's corroboration?
Lt Col al-Dabbagh's claim to be the source of the 45-minute claim, however, is backed up by General A.J.M. Muhie, his brother-in-law...

Muhie, he says, helped pass on Dabbagh's stuff to the Iraqi National Accord people in England. Dr Ayad Allawi, head of the INA, and a member of the Governing Council is similarly effusive, saying that
he personally made sure al-Dabbagh's reports were received by British and American intelligence..."It was part of a constant stream of intelligence we passed on to both intelligence agencies."

The stream of intelligence from Iraqi opposition groups was, I seem to recall, not viewed as always from the pure crystal fountain. Office of Special Plans, and so forth [5].

Coughlin says that
The INA...was highly regarded at both the SIS's London headquarters in Vauxhall and the CIA in Langley, Virginia, and in the 1990s had been involved in a failed CIA attempt to overthrow Saddam. The INA's intelligence depended on a number of serving and retired Iraqi military officers and Ba'athists prepared to risk their lives to rid the country of Saddam. As Lt Col al-Dabbagh told me last week: "At any moment I could have been caught and hanged."

That, one can believe. But bravery in the face of grave risk of death does not necessarily equate to competence or authority in an intelligence operative [6].

Then Coughlin gives us a little narrative, Nick Broomfield-style, of how he got to interview the retired General Muhie, and how, after initial reluctance on the part of the General, he was put in touch with Dabbagh.

This was back in late May, when the mission had been accomplished for some time. He could just have been given Dabbagh's phone number. The suspicion must be that, to some extent, all this cloak and dagger stuff is, as Gilbert would have it,
corroborative detail, intended to give artistic verisimilitude to an otherwise bald and unconvincing narrative.

At one point, Coughlin says, Dabbagh
was commanding one of four air-defence units based in the western desert, and managed to smuggle a detailed map of Saddam's troop deployments along Iraq's border with Syria, Jordan and Saudi Arabia back to the INA's south London headquarters.

That must have been some map! And I thought Saddam was a stickler for need to know!

And the WMD?
The weapons themselves were finally deployed at his own unit towards the end of last year. "They arrived in boxes marked 'Made in Iraq' and looked like something you fired with a rocket-propelled grenade," Lt Col al-Dabbagh explained.

"They were either chemical or biological weapons; I don't know which, because only the Fedayeen and the Special Republican Guard were allowed to use them. All I know is that we were told that when we used these weapons we had to wear gas masks."

The Made in Iraq (in English, presumably) is, perhaps, overdoing it with the verisimilitude...

So, is the story kosher? Or too good to be true? My main complaint is that of excess: so much corroboration looks like snow. So much enthusiasm looks like misdirection.

I don't think we have hard external evidence either way - the first thing would be to check out the names that Coughlin namechecks: there is no AJL Muhie online - except for the Coughlin piece; or any General Muhie. Transliteration blues, complex Arab names, aversion to publicity - there may be all sorts of reasons.

One can ask questions like cui bono? And why now? But, in themselves, questions aren't evidence.

The Frank Koza memo turned out to be genuine (insofar as the GCHQ girl, Katherine Gun, is facing trial for leaking it - November 29) - and so may Dabbagh. We'll see...

  1. Main entries: August 27, September 2, September 9, September 11, September 15, September 24, and September 30.

  2. Transliteration of Arabic is a bitch - in the sense of there usually being several alternatives for the full name of every person. It's a major Google hole that these alternatives are not picked up. (How? I'm a software genius now?)

  3. Ran the name past Mr Google, natch: iraq dabbagh council produces 163 of 252, most of which are either the Coughlin story regurgitated or apparently refer to someone else. But, then, he's trying to obfuscate. Why give his real name unless as an offer of good faith, for the purpose of corroboration with other sources? Dabbagh doesn't seem that common a name - 12,000 Google items.

    What name does he use round at the Governing Council?

  4. To Whom It Concerns: not all Semitic caricatures are Jewish!

  5. The opposition alphabet soup has misted over somewhat in the brain: the Iraqi National Accord, according to this David Frum piece, was the State Department's dog in the fight with the DOD's INC under Ahmed Chalabi. The INA are mostly renegade Ba'athists, according to the BBC. They got rolled over in 1996 by Saddam's intelligence outfit. The association of Dabbagh with the INA does not inspire confidence, as at present advised.

  6. The case of the sweet but fatal Noor Inayat Khan in SOE in Occupied France springs to mind.


The Guardian today, in the person of spook specialist Richard Norton-Taylor, is pouring a modicum of cold water on the story:
Whitehall sources distanced themselves from Lt Col Al-Dabbagh's claims, which do not chime with evidence that was presented to the Hutton inquiry...

It is thought that he will not be the last officer to claim to be the source of the 45-minute claim.

The piece gives a flavour of the confusion on the 45 minute claim that reigned between intelligence professionals giving evidence before Lord Hutton [1]:
Sir Richard Dearlove, head of MI6, told the Hutton inquiry that the information contained in the dossier relating to the 45-minute claim came from a single "established and reliable" source serving as a senior officer in the Iraqi army.

But Brian Jones, a former senior member of the Defence Intelligence Staff, said MI6's informant on the 45-minute claim was a secondary source.

How vigorously will the Telegraph defend their story, I wonder?

  1. Which spoils his chiming point, of course - there was no particular chord for anything to chime with; pure Stockhausen!

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