Secrets from the Iraqi Archives: Russian Aid, British Response

News reporting should itself only rarely become news.  This, however, appears to be one of the cases of a story deserving further comment.

 The Sunday Telegraph, London's Tory-friendly weekend broadsheet, on April 13 gave its headline space to a story from Baghdad: according to the Telegraph's David Harrison, reporting from the scene, documents uncovered at the headquarters of the Iraqi intelligence service show that Russia, in the run up to conflict, gave secret information to Saddam Hussein. (1) 

From November 2000 through at least mid-2002, according to Harrison, Russian intelligence shared the fruits of its operations. Specific matters shared included information on Osama bin Laden, notes from surveillance of a private meeting on February 15, 2002 in Rome between Tony Blair and Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, and a list of assassins, presumably professionals on a Kremlin list of overseas specialists in political murder. A document dated March 12, 2002 seemed to suggest that Saddam Hussein had--or was in the process of getting--nuclear weapons. 

The trove in the partly-looted Iraqi intelligence headquarters also included such curiosities as a Christmas card from Taher Jalil Habosh, chief of Iraqi intelligence, to his Russian Federation counterpart, and evidence that Russia's former foreign minister, Yevgeny Primakov, on his now-acknowledged last-minute March shuttle mission to Baghdad, canvassed the Iraqi leader about a bizarre proposal under which Hussein and sons would stay in Baghdad, confined to a palace under international protection and their ill-begotten fortune secured by international guarantee.  

News reporting should itself only rarely become news.  This, however, appears to be one of the cases of a story deserving further comment. Several observations should be made.    

First, each of the four main London broadsheets openly appeals to a particular ideological predilection. The pro-Labour Guardian, the reflexively anti-American Independent, the center-right Times, and the often unabashedly Conservative Telegraph know their audiences quite well, and, unlike in the United States, where a broader public seems only recently to have come to grips with the existence of an ideological mission on the editorial boards of some major papers, Britons for some time have accepted--even expected--that their newspapers have an ideological, and even a party-political, flavor. Mark Steyn, also writing in the same issue, observed, "Bush is a modest man with no particular desire to be on television all day long, which is why he is happy to let Tony Blair take as much of the limelight as he wants." In a culture where making oneself conspicuous is considered embarrassing at best, this is an anti-Blair barb. Harrison, in the lead article, also hinted at his own critical agenda with regard to the Prime Minister.  "In spite of warnings by the British intelligence and security services of increasing Russian espionage in the West," Harrison writes, "Mr. Blair fostered closer relations with Mr. Putin, visiting his family dacha near Moscow, supporting the Russians in their war in Chechnya, and arranging for the Russian president to have tea with the Queen."  

Second, the story seemed, as of Tuesday, to have lost momentum. The Monday edition of the Telegraph picked up Vladimir Putin's denials but relegated the story from the front page to inside the edition. The other major dailies did not make much of the allegations at all.  

Finally, the facts and the politics of this story interact in a regrettable way. The Telegraph report from Baghdad seems plausible enough. American sources report that Russia has sold Iraq devices to jam the satellite guidance that makes American munitions so accurate--not to mention, so much less likely than in any war in the past to hit innocents.(2)  Harrison's report from Baghdad that Russia sells all manner of weapons to Iraq's neighbors has independent confirmation. Telegraph evidence that Primakov spirited away to Moscow Iraq's secret state archives is new and should concern the coalition, especially as we seek to track down terrorist leads and links in an ongoing global fight. Yet all this evidence of Russian support for the Ba'ath party dictatorship seems to have little prospect of impelling public opinion. The Conservative Party faces an uphill struggle against a popular and firmly-entrenched Labour Prime Minister who, moreover, enjoys even higher approval ratings in America; and the Telegraph scarcely hides its hope that, against the odds, Iain Duncan Smith and his party might overcome the prevailing political force. Because the story from Iraqi intelligence headquarters might tarnish Tony Blair's burgeoning reputation as a statesman, it comes as little surprise that the Telegraph is the paper to have attempted to give the story legs. The regret is that so many readers are likely to discount the story because of its very source. 

(1)  David Harrison, "Revealed: Russia spied on Blair for Saddam. Files seized in Baghdad expose Putin's treachery," Sunday Telegraph, April 13, 2003, 1.

 

(2) See "Jamming Russian-American Relations" from In the National Interest, March 26, 2003. http://www.inthenationalinterest.com/Articles/Vol2Issue12/vol2issue12saunders.html 

 

Dr. Tom Grant is a Research Fellow at Wolfson College (Cambridge).