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Thursday, October 27, 2016

This weekend, The Weekend Reader brings you Rhodri Jeffreys-Jones’ recently released title In Spies We Trust: The Story Of Western Intelligence. There is no shortage of criticism for the intelligence community following whistleblower/traitor Edward Snowden’s revelations of the NSA’s PRISM program. In Spies We Trust adds another critical, yet powerful voice to this debate between perceived privacy violations and security. Jeffreys-Jones, Emeritus Professor of American History at the University of Edinburgh and expert on intelligence history, skillfully outlines the history of the U.S.-U.K. intelligence relationship and where this relationship has taken us today. 

You can purchase the book here.

Valerie Plame had already operated under diplomatic cover in Athens. When she arrived in Belgium, she exchanged that relatively comfortable arrangement for more adventurous types of cover — as a student and later as a business executive in Brussels she had fewer restrictions, and got to know a wider variety of useful people with more interesting information to divulge. But should her cover ever be blown, she was also open to retaliation from America’s adversaries.

The retaliation, however, would not come from her country’s enemies. We now cut to the time when Plame had re-located to Washington. From 2002, she worked there for the CIA’s Weapons Intelligence, Non-Proliferation, and Arms Control Center. It was in connection with this work that she found herself at the centre of a shameful Anglo-American intelligence scandal.

Her story became an illustration of a failure in efficacy, and of the wresting of intelligence away from the professionals to the politicians, making the value of intelligence zero.

When the Bush administration opted for military means to achieve regime change in Iraq, it decided that the best way of drumming up support for the policy was to convince the American public that Iraq’s dictator, Saddam Hussein, was producing weapons of mass destruction (WMDs). Plame recalls that in early 2002 Vice President Dick Cheney made frequent and unprecedented visits to the CIA to try to persuade the agency to produce persuasive evidence of Saddam’s intentions.

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By this time, Plame had married a career diplomat, Joseph Wilson, who in common with her had expertise in non-proliferation investigations and had spent some time in the African country, Niger. When rumors came through that Saddam was buying from Niger a supply of uranium ‘yellowcake’ that might help him produce nuclear weapons, Plame suggested that Wilson be sent to Niger to find out. Perhaps there is evidence to suggest that she had by this time already shown signs of wobbling, having ‘gone native’ in Europe and become disillusioned with her CIA career, but there is nothing to suggest that Wilson’s evidence was in any way skewed when on the basis of his Niger investigation he reported that the yellowcake story was in all probability an unfounded rumor.

Both British and American intelligence officials concluded by September 2002 that other rumors were also untrue, for example the one that Iraq would be able to assemble WMDs within 45 minutes. Britain’s Joint Intelligence Committee chairman John Scarlett specifically rejected the charge that Iraq had purchased aluminum tubes for uranium enrichment purposes. But all this was sub rosa and, anxious to please the Americans, the Tony Blair government proceeded to ‘sex up’ the evidence to suggest that Saddam was plotting WMDs. News of the deception leaked to the BBC, but not in a conclusive manner.

In his State of the Union address in January 2003, President Bush cited British sources for his statement that yellowcake was going to Iraq, and made the WMD allegation the basis of his case for war. Blair issued supportive statements. The Anglo-American attack on Iraq started in March.

In July, Joe Wilson published an op-ed in the New York Times saying, ‘we went to war on false pretences’.  A furious Bush administration immediately exacted revenge on him by outing Valerie Plame as a CIA official via a leak to the Washington Post, thus destroying her career and potentially placing her life in danger. A few days after that, the body of Dr David Kelly was found in English woodland. A Ministry of Defence adviser on biological weapons, he had been fingered as the source of the BBC WMD-deception story, and had fallen into a depression.

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  • sigrid28

    Who to believe, THE question of the twenty-first century, is further complicated by Jeffreys-Jones’s terrific book. It covers espionage in the twentieth century, a messy human-to-human enterprise, which resulted in amazingly accurate assessments that were then distorted and sometimes even ignored by the bureaucracies they were handed off to.

    This would be an inexhaustible topic of interest in its own right, but it is especially relevant now in the heat of the controversy over the use of weapons of mass destruction in the Syrian civil war. In some respects, the subjective human component of espionage has been replaced by supposedly more objective computerized means of surveillance–but we’re not having very much luck in replacing the subjectivity of the bureaucracies that have to make use of this information. The sheer volume of our highly specialized surveillance is a problem in its own right. Nevertheless, the human component of espionage still plays a major role. The judgment of the world waits for the test results of specimens collect by U.N. inspectors in their blue helmets.