Thursday 5 June 2003

Fight the Matrix

Welcome, to the Desert of the Real.

Distorted intelligence on Iraq is part of an Orwellian world of fabricated reality

by Timothy Garton Ash

Perhaps we live in the Matrix after all. Wherever we turn, we find a politics of manufactured reality that recalls the world of that cult film. How can we, the citizens, unplug ourselves and fight it? Take three of the main media stories of the last week. It turns out that we went to war with Saddam Hussein on the basis of Anglo-American intelligence reports that were, at best, politically misrepresented, or, at worst, falsified. The world leaders' summit in Evian produces stage-managed photo-opportunity smiles between President Bush and Chancellor Schröder that reflect the precise opposite of the truth about their relations. The British rightwing press paints a picture of a steamroller European federal superstate that stands to the reality of what is happening in the constitutional convention in Brussels as a Salvador Dali sculpture does to a plain metal saucepan.

This systematic attempt to fool most of the people most of the time is the work of some of the most intelligent, best-informed and highly paid men and women in western societies: spin-doctors, PR consultants, hacks and spooks. Like the Inner Party member, O'Brien, in George Orwell's 1984, they know better. They have seen the photograph, tape or transcript that shows the public claim is wrong, but then, like O'Brien, they have dropped it down the memory hole: " 'Ashes,' he said, 'Not even identifiable ashes. Dust. It does not exist. It never existed.' "

In Orwell's centenary year, the "war against terrorism" takes us to an Orwellian world in a quite unexpected way. We are told that Oceania (America, Britain and Australia) must go to war against Iraq, or, as it might be, Orwell's Eastasia or Eurasia, on the basis of reports from secret intelligence sources. One of the strongest passages in Tony Blair's powerful speech to the House of Commons justifying the war was his rhetorical reiteration "I know ... I know ...", followed by claims about dictatorships being "a short time away from having a serviceable nuclear weapon" that the ordinary citizen has no way of checking.

I do not believe that the British secret services, or their coordinators and interpreters in the joint intelligence committee, knowingly passed false intelligence to the prime minister. Their job was to warn, which, especially in the case of the real threat of dictators or terrorists trying to obtain weapons of mass destruction, means warning of worst-case scenarios even on the basis of a single source.

How well they did that job a special inquiry must now investigate. Nor do I believe that Tony Blair said things he himself thought to be untrue. I can not say the same about the Pentagon's Office of Special Plans and Office of Strategic Influence; nor about the spin doctors who produced the second Downing Street dossier; nor about some of the hacks who peddled this dope.

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