Spies, Lies and the War on Terror Book Review

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Ham & High

I spy yet more books about the secret service

Review By David Crozier 15 May 2009

CONSIDERING they're supposed to be secret, there's an awful lot of stuff written about spies. Indeed these four books alone contain about 1,000 pages in total, with everything from the Vatican's sacred secret service to MI5 and MI6 via the war on terror and a few recipes (but we'll come back to those later).

Original Review on Ham & High Website

Peace Researcher

Review Of "Spies, Lies & the War on Terror" London and New York, 2009

Review By Jeremy Agar June 2009

The title of this brisk survey tells you pretty much about what’s inside. That in itself is notable, in as much that the “War on Terror” goes back no further than the very recent, yet distant, George Bush-Tony Blair axis. In the last couple of years we’ve had available several accounts of post-9/11 US policy, so it’s not a criticism to say that this analysis by three British-based writers doesn’t add much to what’s already available. However, it came out before much of the emerging evidence about torture.

Only a few specialists will want to read more than one or two of the books, and which one you pick is largely a matter of taste and style. Choose “Spies, Lies And The War on Terror” if you fancy something that respects the reader’s ability to draw her own conclusions. It’s short on rhetoric and moderate in tone.  When Dubya announced his “terror” campaign he justified it by suggesting that he was only responding to events. Existing restraints on the projection of US power had been “designed for another era”. A White House staffer explained: ‘We are an empire now. And when we act, we create our own reality”. Is this new era thinking? It certainly has a post-modern ring, but po-mo itself often comes off as something Mussolini might have come up with. 

Mainstream neo-conservative US ideology didn’t seem to think that a new era was dawning. The authors quote a typical ideologue, Michael Lebden, who in 2002 suggested that “the radical transformation of several Middle East countries ... is entirely in keeping with the American tradition...  Creative destruction is our middle name”. Benito and the Italian futurists he championed would have liked to adopt these middle names. The Duce would have warmed to Lebden’s irrational exuberance: “We do not want stability .... the real issue is not whether, but how best to destabilise the dependent world” (for a brilliant dissection of this mood - one that, far from being the child of a new era, has dominated elite opinion in the US for at least a century - read “The Shock Doctrine” by Naomi Klein, which I reviewed in Foreign Control Watchdog 117, April 2008, online at http://www.converge.org.nz/watchdog/17/06.htm). Italy creatively destroyed Ethiopia and the US has been creatively destroying Iraq. There, let’s hope, the parallel dissolves, because the Axis - that’s the Axis containing fascist Italy, not Dubya’s latter-day Axis of Evil - went on to creatively destroy much of the planet.

The All-Seeing Eye

In 2002, at the high tide of Bush’s imperial venture, the Pentagon hatched a scheme to watch over everyone and everything. Total Information Awareness (TIA) “sought the open-ended gathering of ‘transactional data’ on every aspect of social activity - with ‘financial, education, travel, medical, veterinary, country entry, place/event entry, transportation, housing, critical resources, government, and communication records’ being declared targets”. TIA aimed to collect DNA, iris scans and the now old-fashioned fingerprints. Phone tapping? One source said that the aim was access to “every call ever made”.

TIA came to light by chance in 2005 in the course of Congressional hearings into giant US telecommunications company AT&T. The resulting furore forced it into retirement, but many aspects of TIA remain under different guises. So the paranoid can still obsess that someone sometime will control the world. Apparently the Central Intelligence Agency’s (CIA) international terrorism watch list has 190,000 names and they keep records on 325,000 people.

Yet, overall, the book gives comparatively more weight to British and European responses than to American. The UK, America’s “pillion passenger”, was along for the ride. The CIA has funded the British in Afghanistan. As one US spook explained the reasoning: “They basically take care of the ‘how to kill people’ department”. The authors emphasise PM Tony Blair’s penchant for saying that the wars were justified by his “belief” in the cause. 

That’s not the way Parliamentary democracies are meant to work. Belief is best left to fanatics - like the Taleban. Blair always gave the impression of being intellectually arrogant. Certainty in the powerful is always dangerous, but when it’s justified by the sort of moral snobbery that marked Blair’s faith, it can be a lethal habit. If you think you’re carrying out God’s will, you won’t let earthly good manners restrain you, and Blair made much of his religion. The Iraq War, he was pleased to think, was “a struggle that will last a generation and more.... It’s an attack on our way of life”. That’s how the mullahs conceive of their jihad against those whom their God - the one Blair says he worships - regards as infidels. Messianic talk is best left to the likes of Mussolini, who prattled on about Destiny, or, it has to be said, of Hitler, with his strutting faith in a “triumph of the will”. 

Lobster Review


Review By Michael Carlson Summer 2009

This book is published as the debate rages in America about whether or not the activities of the Bush regime, specifically the torture of various combat detainees and suspects rendered from various parts of the world, should be subject to some sort of investigation, if not a truth and reconciliation commission. The larger issues, involving the systematic bending of the tasks of the intelligence community to create enough of an excuse for war, but also concerning both the morality and legality of such aggressive war, lie dormant behind the sexier images of torture and Abu Ghraib. But the odd thing is that, in America's...

Read the full Lobster reveiw here

Irresistible Targets


Review By Michael Carlson 11 June 2009

Between the time I wrote that, and its appearance, I attended the book's launch, where a number of speakers elaborated on the issues raised by Spies, Lies. Tony Bunyan of Statewatch, who wrote The Political Police in Britain some thirty years ago, was the most forceful, pointing out that what was an exceptional situation when he wrote that book has become permanent, everday reality, and with chips in automobiles, medical records, and fingerprinted passports, it can only get worse, as the EU is way ahead of Britain in pioneering the...

Read the full article on Michael Carlson's Irresistible Targets

Brought to book on the War on Terror

Spies, Lies and the War on Terror. By Paul Todd, Jonathan Bloch, Patrick Fitzgerald. Zed Books.

Camden New Journal, Published: 5 November 2009

HE doesn’t much look like a ruthless war crimes prosecutor.

Erudite and cheery, Paul Todd seems more a good-natured bloodhound than vicious attack-dog. Yet the evidence he’s helped amass in this book is exactly the kind that might put the men behind the War on Terror into the dock.

Despite its billing as our very fight for survival, the War’s in fact been a dirty affair in which our governments have often been as thick as thieves with the terrorists, lavishing cash and even weapons on them, this book proves. Meanwhile our governments have also been busy building secret prisons, writing torture manuals, spinning propaganda and a web of laws and eavesdropping networks that have extended their reach into our lives.

The roots of all this go much further back than September 11th, 2001. A lot of today’s terrorism is what the experts euphemistically call ‘blowback’ from the squalid wars of recent history, like Afghanistan in the aftermath of the 1979 Soviet invasion when America and Saudi Arabia pumped $10bn and more than 60,000 tonnes of weapons a-year to their proxy Cold War warriors, fanatics who became the Taliban.
The CIA sub-contracted training the terrorists to Pakistan’s ISI intelligence agency and Britain’s cash-strapped MI6, using techniques honed in Northern Ireland. (It’s worth recalling water-boarding and other torture methods were routinely used in Northern Ireland in the 1970s). CIA regional chief Gust Avarakotos ordered them to “teach the Mujahadin how to kill: pipe bombs, car bombs.

But just don’t ever tell me how you’re doing it in writing. Just do it … The Brits were eventually able to buy things that we couldn’t because it infringed on murder, assassinations and indiscriminate bombings … They basically took care of the ‘How to Kill People’ department’.

Things were supposed to change after the Iran-Contra scandal in the late 1980s when the CIA was caught secretly selling weapons to Iran – then at war with Iraq, which was also supplied by America – and using the profits to covertly fund death-squads in Nicaragua. But the emergence of Al-Qaeda and Islamism has proved the lie.

Since the 1950s Western governments have been using Islamist groups to subvert socialist and national liberation movements in the Middle East and Indian sub-continent. Since the 1990s these networks have come in very handy in wars against Yugoslavia, Iraq and Lebanon.

Some of the Islamic charities despatching aid to Muslims caught in the Yugoslavia wars of the 1990s were well funded by the Saudi government and enjoyed top-level links in Washington and London.

Yet among the aid convoys were young men travelling to military training camps, including many young Britons. Some had been whipped up by firebrand preachers like Omar Bakri Mohammed, Abu Qatada, Abu Hamza – each, it emerged, had ties to Special Branch or MI5, and became recruiting sergeants for terrorist attacks here.

A veteran of the camps with links to Pakistani, British and American intelligence was former London School of Economics student Omar Saeed. Arrested in India for kidnapping British and American tourists, he was freed in a prisoner exchange after an ISI-linked airliner hijacking. He was allowed into Britain despite protests from families of the kidnap victims, operated openly in America where he was pivotal in a Pakistani scheme to fund the 9/11 bombers, and had known links to Osama bin Laden and the Taliban.

After leading an attack on American offices in India and helping mastermind the beheading of American reporter Daniel Pearl, he was eventually tried secretly in Pakistan. Top-level links mean he’s never faced the death sentence the judge handed down.

Another who almost had his collar felt was Saudi security chief Prince Bandar. At the heart of Middle East scheming, a former Taliban pay-master, fixer in the Iran-Contra deal and close friend of the Bush family, he was accused of trousering $1bn in an investigation into a British Aerospace arms deal three years ago.

Faced with awkward questions Tony Blair stepped in to shelve the case.

Yet for the rest of us the War on Terror has been less forgiving. In America sweeping phone-tap and internet surveillance has been used, even against Quaker religious meetings. Here more than 200 terror laws have been passed, undermining the Magna Carta, Habeas Corpus and European Human Rights laws. British agents have been involved in more than 2000 interrogations in countries using torture. Thousands of civilians have been pulled up by police under stop-and-search laws last used on such a scale during the Northern Ireland Troubles, though with virtually no actual arrests to show for it. A similarly disheartening roll-call of high-profile flops include Operation Crevice, dogged by interventions from America and Pakistani intelligence, and outlandish claims of deadly threats that turned out to be just that – plots to blow-up Heathrow Airport and Old Trafford football stadium, ricin poison factories in Wood Green (where co-author Jonathan Bloch is a councillor) and terrorist networks in Forest Gate.

Blair may be hauled in front of an Iraq war inquiry but co-author Paul Todd is sceptical he’ll get much more than a rap over the knuckles. “I just don’t think anything new will come out. Most of the information is somewhere out there in the public domain already. I suppose Gordon Brown will have to answer questions about short-changing soldiers, perhaps so will [former defence secretary] Geoff Hoon because he was in charge when abuses took place.” Blair’s spin-doctor-in-chief, Kentish Town resident Alistair Campbell, may also be hauled over the coals but Todd reckons there’s little chance these men he dubs “desk-killers” will ever face a real tribunal for the War on Terror – unless perhaps this book stirs up an unexpected hue and cry.


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