Thursday, December 13, 2007

Nick Davies's "Flat Earth News"

Thanks to an anonymous commenter for the link to Nick Davies' talk to "Media Workers Against the War" on the subject of his coming book (it's the one that goes into the links between the Observer, MI6 spooks and the general bullshit industry). It certainly looks like an interesting book.

Item of interest to us is that he claims that the Iraq National Congress was an astroturf organisation set up by PR firms in the USA. Not sure about this; I have no reason to doubt Nick's analysis of how the organisation was set up, but the implication is that there's something bogus about the status of Kanan Makiya and Ahmed Chalabi[1] as Iraqi political figures and I don't think this is right. Both Makiya and Chalabi were proper opposition activists in Iraq, and both of them fled Iraq because they were about to be murdered by Saddam Hussein (Update: this has been challenged in the comments at least in the case of Chalabi). It is true that Chalabi is a chancer with some very murky business interests, but people like that will always be there in political movements so I don't think that's per se a reason to suspect the bona fides of INC.

Providing logistical and administrative support to groups like INC is a lot of what the CIA do, and there is a really interesting question about whether they should do it or not - in less bloodthirsty moments, something like this (usually illustrated with examples from Ukraine or Lebanon or Belarus) is thrown up by some of the more thoughtful Decents as a way of turning "solidarity with democrats" into a practical policy proposal. What do readers think about this sort of soft-imperialism?

The big advantage is of course that it isn't war. The disadvantages as I see them are 1) the local democracy movement may end up being compromised by the agenda of the Western intelligence services backing it, 2) the Western intelligence services may end up being compromised by the agenda of the local democracy movement - both of these seem to have happened at least a bit with respect to the INC and 3) it looks like the sort of policy that would be counterproductive if carried out openly, and there are surely a lot of general principles against making systematic use of policies that have to be carried out in secret, because they're deceitful.

So any way, without defending the actual activities of the INC (which I regard as wildly destructive), I don't think they can really be called a 100% artificial organisation. More to come on this, hopefully in the context of a discussion of Nick Davies' book when it gets published.

[1] Aaronovitch Watch, alone among media organisations with the possible and infrequent exception of Christopher Hitchens, refuses to take part in the airbrushing of Ahmed Chalabi out of the history of the INC. This was of course most scandalously done in "What's Left?" by Nick Cohen, which repeatedly mentions Kanan Makiya as if the INC was entirely his show, despite the fact that, before the war, several citations from Cohen's journalism demonstrate that his main contact was with Chalabi. I'd further note that Hitchens is right when he points out that the charges of being an Iranian intelligence assset have never been substantiated at all (he is wrong about the Jordanian bank fraud charges though). Chalabi has been dropped by the Decent Left simply because of political embarrassment and I think that's rather bad - unlike Makiya (who remains at Brandeis University), Chalabi has actually walked the talk and gone back to serve in the Iraqi government - he remains a popular figure there. I really need to do the Chalabi post don't I?


Anonymous Anonymous said...

A pedant notes: It doesn't make a great impression to start out by alluding to Galileo and Copernicus as possibly having something to do with the discovery that the earth isn't flat. Or to speak of "everyone knowing" something false.

12/13/2007 11:04:00 AM  
Blogger The Rioja Kid said...

I know, irritating isn't it? There is something about the "flat earth" concept that spontaneously generates errors and mixed metaphors (cf: T Friedman).

12/13/2007 11:08:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

didnt Chalabi's family leave Iraq in 1958 after the overthrow of the hashemites? the only way he could have been in danger of murder by Saddam at the time is if he'd shagged Saddam's girlfriend.

also isnt soft imperialism bad because the attempted outcome is the same as hard imperialism? to create compliant friendly governments that'll be subservient to western interests? the fact that its not as bad as war is neither here nor there, after all those arent the only options.

i don't think the INC can really be blamed for railroading the US into the war in Iraq. the Americans wanted a war and grabbed any justification they could. if any of the neocons were duped by Chalabi, it was wilful.

12/13/2007 11:13:00 AM  
Blogger ejh said...

I think if the question is solely "do we prefer the way George Soros does it or to the way George Bush does it?" then the answer scarcely needs to be made, let alone explained.

12/13/2007 11:19:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I introduced this Red Herring but infortunately don't have time for the next 24 years to follow up the interesting points that have been raised. Quickly: I'm more convinced by what Nick Davies said about the Observer than about the INC: the Observer did at times read as if it had been produced by A Campbell.

12/13/2007 12:05:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Everyone knew" something false is something you hear a lot -- I even have an old colleague who argues that it's literally true. But it really does no good to talk about everyone knowing something that no-one believed at the time. I guess "Geocentrism news" isn't as catchy.

(I know, this was already implicit in the first two comments.)

12/13/2007 01:49:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The argument about journalists publishing PR pieces is close to Glenn Greenwald's comments about 'stenographers' in the UD media.

12/13/2007 03:23:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Ooops, US media

12/13/2007 03:24:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Chalabi was on the Today programme this morning, as the head of reconstruction in Baghdad, or something similar. He got a very easy ride, without having anything to say about what has been or would be reconstructed.

Also, wasn't he rather close to those billions that went AWOL at the start of the occupation?

12/13/2007 04:22:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I don't think he specifically links to the "lost" money from the invasion, but the INC did end up being cut off by the CIA because of their seeming inability to account for the sums of money they'd received.

12/13/2007 04:39:00 PM  
Blogger Chardonnay Chap said...

Hitchens has not only re-remembered the link between Chalabi and the INC - he's using it as a stick to beat the CIA here. "This hostility [by the CIA to regime-change] extended all the way from a frenzied attempt to discredit Ahmad Chalabi and the Iraqi National Congress ..." Of course, I rather suspect that the CIA were right to express doubts about Chalabi.

12/13/2007 05:40:00 PM  
Blogger Roger Gathmann said...

Really, Chalabi is a "popular" figure in Iraq with only one group. They live in the Green Zone. Starts with A, ends with n-s. Otherwise he was so vastly and entirely unpopular that the party he formed, the National Congress Coalition, didn't even receive enough votes in the last election, even counting Iraqi emigrants, to make it into Parliament. It isn't as if Chalabi's "problem" in Iraq - a problem that transforms chancers into financial frauds, and in Chalabi's case led to the collapse of the biggest bank in Jordan - were of special interest to a people who had just got rid of one of the bigger thiefs in history, Saddam Hussein. When Chalabi was put on the IGC in 2003, he scored the biggest unpopularity percentage, according to a State Department poll at that time. In an ABC poll of Iraqis conducted in 2004, he ranked higher, on the untrustworthy scale, than Saddam Hussein did. That's pretty unpopular. So, it is hard to see why the story of Chalabi's "popularity" keeps cropping up.

It is funny that his buds, like Christopher Hitchens, who are on the trail of Galloway's numerous financial swindles like Sherlock Holmes' own bloodhounds find a man who has been sentenced to 22 years in prison in abstentia for fraud to be innocent until proven guilty, and a general 'comrade' to be proud of.

12/13/2007 08:12:00 PM  
Blogger Alex said...

Oh, and the millenium bug wasn't a "flat earth story".

12/14/2007 11:54:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think the INC was pretty much invented by the mega PR bloke John Rendon on the orders of the CIA:

] Under contract to the CIA, Rendon was charged with helping to create a dissident force with the avowed purpose of violently overthrowing the entire Iraqi government. It is an undertaking that Rendon still considers too classified to discuss. "That's where we're wandering into places I'm not going to talk about," he says. "If you take an oath, it should mean something."

]Thomas Twetten, the CIA's former deputy of operations, credits Rendon with virtually creating the INC. "The INC was clueless," he once observed. "They needed a lot of help and didn't know where to start. That is why Rendon was brought in." Acting as the group's senior adviser and aided by truckloads of CIA dollars, Rendon pulled together a wide spectrum of Iraqi dissidents and sponsored a conference in Vienna to organize them into an umbrella organization, which he dubbed the Iraqi National Congress.

See the same article for the CIA losing faith in
Chalabi following th failed coup in 1996, at which point Chalabi and Rendon switched sides to the neo-cons.

12/14/2007 08:05:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Have you guys seen this?

Nick blatantly admitting he gets his ideas from corporate PRs ringing him up... extraordinary.

12/14/2007 11:19:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

That's interesting. Which Nick columns do we think might have been prompted by a call from a PR firm?

12/15/2007 10:17:00 AM  

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