[I wish a happy Christmas to all readers of this blog.
What follows is an article by Dr Ludwig de Braeckeleer published by OhmyNews on Christmas Day 2007:]
British journalists -- and British journals -- are being manipulated by the secret intelligence agencies, and I think we ought to try and put a stop to it. --David Leigh
Intelligence agencies can manipulate journalists and their newspapers in various ways. Firstly, spies may recruit journalists or even impersonate them. It goes without saying that these long and broadly practiced activities are unhealthy as they put the life of every single journalist in danger, and particularly those who work as foreign correspondents.
Secondly, intelligence agencies can plant disinformation in mainstream media under false identity. In the months preceding the 1953 overthrow of Iranian Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh, intelligence agencies used this technique abundantly and without any difficulty, according to a copy of the CIA's secret history of the coup, which surfaced in 2000.
"The Iran desk of the [US] State Department was able to place a CIA study in Newsweek, using the normal channel of desk officer to journalist. The article was one of several planted press reports that, when reprinted in Tehran, fed the war of nerves against Iran's prime minister, Mohammed Mossadegh," the document said.
The third way for the spook to gain access to the media is rather subtle and particularly insidious. It consists of exploiting the vanity of journalists to impress on them to hide or lie about the real identity of their sources. Spies are said to have used this technique -- known as "I/Ops" for Information Operation -- heavily in the British press. Yet, it can rarely be documented. But once in a while, an I/Op gets out of control, giving the public a rare opportunity to take a peek inside the world of disinformation.
In November 1995, The Sunday Telegraph published a sensational story about one of our then favorite villains: Libya.
The paper accused Col Muammar Qaddafi's son, Saif al-Islam Qaddafi, of running a major money laundering operation in Europe intended to fund weapons of mass destruction: Saif al-Islam is a "thoroughly dishonest, unscrupulous and untrustworthy maverick against whom the international banking community has been warned to be on its guard."
The article had been written by then-senior correspondent Con Coughlin. Coughlin's source was described as a "British banking official."
When The Sunday Telegraph was served with a libel writ by Qaddafi's son, the paper was unable to back up its allegation. The paper lodged three defenses. First, the lawyers argued that the newspaper had not injured Gaddafi's reputation. Second, they argued that the article about him was true.
Finally, claiming the defense of qualified privilege, the lawyers argued that it was in the public interest to publish the articles even if they turned out to be untrue.
For those who follow the Lockerbie farce -- the Megrahi second appeal over the Lockerbie judgment -- it is hard not to notice the irony of the last argument. Indeed, it seems that in the UK it is good for the public to be told lies while at the same time it is good for the same public not to be shown secret documents believed to be vital to unearthing the truth about the largest crime ever committed on UK soil.
"Is it in truth a classic muddle? A story of security service incompetence, a story of black propaganda, a story The Sunday Telegraph did not take that much care with because it never thought the matter would come to court?" asked James Price, QC, for Saif al-Islam.
During the trial in April 2002, bits of the true story began to emerge. On Oct 19, 1995, the Conservative foreign secretary Malcom Rifkind had arranged a lunch that Coughlin attended. During that meeting, Coughlin was told by Rifkind that Iran was trying to get hold of hard currency to fund its WMD program in spite of UN sanctions. Rifkind encouraged Coughlin to follow this story.
The dispute was settled in less than two days of trial. "There was no truth in the allegation that Gaddafi participated in any currency sting," said Geoffrey Robertson, QC, representing Telegraph Group Ltd.
"The Sunday Telegraph has accepted not only that there is no truth in these allegations, but that there is no evidence to suggest that there is any truth in them, and they have agreed to apologize to the claimant [Saif al-Islam] in this court and in the newspaper," Price told journalists.
One had to wait for the publication of David Hooper's book Reputations Under Fire to learn that the source of the article was not a "British banking official." Actually, they were intelligence officers working for MI6. It is now understood what really occurred.
On Oct 25 and 31, 1995, Coughlin was briefed by a MI6 man (source A) who appeared to be his regular contact with the agency. Source A gave Coughlin an overview of the plan. Through an Austrian Company, Iran was selling oil on the black market to fund its secret military nuclear program.
Moreover, on Nov 21, 1995, source A introduced Coughlin to a second MI6 person (source B) who described the involvement of Saif al-Islam in the counterfeiting scam. Source B requested strict confidentiality.
The next day, the two MI6 officers described the money laundering deal in great detail during a four-hour meeting. Eight billion dollars would be transferred out of banks in Egypt and replaced by Libyans dinars, minus a substantial commission. The Libyans would hide their involvement through a Swiss branch of an international finance company. Meanwhile, an Iranian middleman would provide a large amount of fake currency.
On Nov 23, Coughlin met once more the two intelligence officers who showed him copies of the banking records.
There is just one problem with the story. The intelligence officers made it up. It was pure fabrication and Coughlin bought it while hiding the true identity of his source.
"I believe he [Coughlin] made a serious mistake in falsely attributing his story to a British banking official. His readers ought to know where his material is coming from. When The Sunday Telegraphgot into trouble with the libel case, it seems, after all, to have suddenly found it possible to become a lot more specific about its sources," wrote David Leigh. "Our first task as practitioners is to document what goes on in this very furtive field. Our second task ought to be to hold an open debate on what the proper relations between the intelligence agencies and the media ought to be. And our final task must then be to find ways of actually behaving more sensibly."
Has Coughlin learned anything from the affair? It seems that the answer to this question is definitely no. He went on writing about the false link between Saddam and al-Qaida and the false allegations concerning the Iraqi WMDs. He wrote that the Iraqis could access their WMDs within 45 minutes.
Coughlin has written numerous articles about the alleged Iranian military program such as "Meanwhile, Iran Gets On With Its Bomb," "Israeli Crisis Is a Smoke Screen for Iran's Nuclear Ambitions," "Iran Accused of Hiding Secret Nuclear Weapons Site," "Iran Has Missiles to Carry Nuclear Warheads," "UN Officials Find Evidence of Secret Uranium Enrichment Plant," "Iran Plant Has Restarted Its Nuclear Bomb-Making Equipment," and "Iran Could Go Nuclear Within Three Years." Not a single one of these articles quotes a named source.
1. "Britain's Security Services and Journalists: The Secret Story," British Journalism Review, Vol 11, No 2, 2000, pages 21-26. David Leigh is assistant editor of The Guardian. He is former editor of The Guardian's comment page and former assistant editor at The Observer. He is a distinguished investigative reporter and formerly a producer for Granada Television's World in Action program. In 2007, he was awarded the Paul Foot prize, with his colleague Rob Evans, for the BAE bribery exposures.
2. Prince Bandar bin Sultan bin Abdulaziz, the Saudi Arabian ambassador in Washington, D.C., and a nephew of King Fahd, is understood to have brokered the settlement at the request of The Sunday Telegraph.
3. The reader should keep in mind that in late November 1995, MI6 was approached by Libyan dissidents concerning their plan to assassinate Colonel Gaddafi in February 1996. MI6 met with one member of the group, code name Tunworth, in late November 1995.