Another example of propaganda running straight through a quality UK newspaper has surfaced since I wrote my book Flat Earth News, published this month. It occurred in the mid 1990s, but it is a foretaste of what happened in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq in March 2003 and of what has continued to happen in relation to the Iranian nuclear programme.
Solomon Hughes, a freelance writer and author of War on Terror Inc, drew my attention to the story which was run by the Sunday Times on April 2 1995, in which they reported on the alleged mysterious disappearance of "a defecting Iraqi nuclear scientist... trying to reveal details of the secret nuclear weapons programme that President Saddam Hussein has been hiding from United Nations inspectors".
The story was the first of a sequence of three which were run by the Sunday Times that April, all carrying the by-line of Jon Swain, claiming that the scientist, Khidir Hamza, had been abducted and murdered by Saddam's security agents and that just before this happened, he had sent them documents which "indicate that Iraq is secretly developing its nuclear weapons programme in breach of UN resolutions and has been concealing its activities from UN and International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors."
There were at least three significant factual problems with this series of stories.
The first was that, despite the detailed and colourful description provided to the Sunday Times, Khidir Hamza had not been abducted and murdered. Indeed, he survived to write a book called 'Saddam's Bomb Maker', published in 2000, and to become a common source of expert evidence for global media and for politicians up to and including a series of high-profile interventions in the build-up to the invasion of Iraq.
The second was that Hamza was not a significant figure in Iraq's nuclear programme and, indeed, was not, as his book later suggested, 'Saddam's bomb maker'. The reality was that he had worked at the Iraqi Atomic Energy Commission in a rather lowly position for Saddam's son-in-law, General Hussein Kamal, who himself defected in 1995 and told the CIA than Hamza was "useless" and "a professional liar".
The third and most important point was that the documents about which the Sunday Times wrote with such confidence were rejected as forgeries by the International Atomic Energy Authority. Three months after the Sunday Times stories, the IAEA produced a formal report on the documents in which they explained that the documents contained errors in technical language, names, titles and organisational structures all of which led them to conclude that "on the basis of all the evidence available, these documents are not authentic." The Sunday Times never reported this at all.
Hamza himself later disowned the entire Sunday Times story as 'erroneous'. In an article in the Bulletin of American Scientists in September 1998, he suggested that the story and the forged documents had been supplied to the newspaper by other Iraqi exiles who wanted to force him out into the open. It is not clear why Hamza waited for three years to make this claim. Whatever the truth of this, the Sunday Times again did not bring it to their readers' attention.
The fact that the Sunday Times ran this deeply misleading series of stories only a couple of months after the embarrassing fiasco of their false story alleging that the former leader of the Labour party, Michael Foot, had been a KGB agent (Flat Earth News, page 323) may have been a factor in their complete failure to correct it.
As it is, the stories had a powerful propaganda impact, since they were published - and recycled by other news media - at a time when the international community was under pressure to lift the sanctions that were then being imposed on the Iraqi regime. Those sanctions remained in place.
Khidir Hamza went on to become a familiar public figure, appearing at US congressional hearings and on US television networks in the build-up to the invasion of Iraq as a reliable source on the supposed nuclear threat from Saddam Hussein and reappearing in the Sunday Times in August 2002 predicting that Iraq would have a nuclear weapon by 2005. This - together with the core of all Hamza's evidence - was subsequently directly contradicted by the finding of the post-war Iraq Survey Group that Iraq had not tried to revive its nuclear weapons programme after the first Gulf war in 1991.
If the Sunday Times had corrected their story; if the media generally had drawn attention to the fact that there was a history of forged documents about Iraqi weapons of mass destruction; if the global media were not structurally inclined to run falsehood, distortion and propaganda, perhaps things would have worked out a little differently in March 2003. And you can bet there's more where that came from.
* Flat Earth News is published by Chatto & Windus, priced £17.99.