Licensed to steal
The sun that set so long ago on the British empire left those once-vaunted British intelligence services in the dark as well. That would explain why the secret civil servants who created an "Iraq deception" report -- cited by Colin Powell at the U.N. -- plagiarized several pages from magazine articles and a California academic's research papers.
Channel 4 News, the independent British channel, broke the plagiarism story Thursday night, reporting that "the bulk of the nineteen page document was copied from three different articles -- one written by a graduate student." The Blair government released the British intelligence paper on Monday as a prelude to Powell's U.N. address the following morning. With the title "Iraq -- Its Infrastructure of Concealment Deception and Intimidation," the document outlines the structure and activities of Baghdad's intelligence agencies.
"I would call my colleagues' attention to the fine paper the United Kingdom distributed yesterday, which describes in exquisite detail Iraqi deception activities," said Powell, citing the document to bolster American accusations of Iraqi intelligence operations against the UNMOVIC inspectors.
Peace activist and Cambridge academic Glen Rangwala, who has written briefs against the war for Labor Party dissidents, noticed that the government paper closely resembled an article he had read last September in the Middle East Review of International Affairs, a small academic journal. The author of the original article is postgraduate student Ibrahim al-Marashi. Although al-Marashi told the Guardian that the government copy of his paper is "accurate," the British intelligence report is purportedly a product of original intelligence, not a pirated, secondary academic paper. The Channel 4 Web site includes pages from both papers for comparison. Its analysis shows that the same typos and grammatical mistakes appear in both versions. The chief contribution of the British intelligence analysts appears to have been the addition of such terms as "terrorist."
Today's Guardian reports that several more pages in the British intelligence document appear to be copied from articles in Jane's Intelligence Review -- one of which dates back to 1997. "Apart from passing this off as the work of its intelligence services," Rangwala told the Guardian, "it indicates that the U.K. really does not have any independent sources of information on Iraq's internal policies. It just draws upon publicly available data."
The Times of London also highlights this embarrassing story today, noting that the British government report "lifted several paragraphs" that al-Marashi had "carefully attributed to a book published in 1999 by Scott Ritter" -- the former chief U.N. weapons inspector turned antiwar campaigner.
A senior fellow at the Royal United Services Institute denounced the document as "obsolete academic analysis dressed up and presented as the best MI6 and our international partners can produce on Saddam." Replying on behalf of 10 Downing Street, an unnamed government spokesman said, "As the report itself made clear, it was drawn from a number of sources, including intelligence material. It does not identify or credit any sources but neither does it claim exclusivity of authorship. We consider a text, as published, as accurate."
Blair's embarrassment doesn't undermine the rest of Powell's presentation, which relied on data from American sources. But it does once more reveal the highly variable and often questionable quality of "secret" intelligence, including our own. Although his family left Iraq years ago and he supports the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, al-Marashi said, "I'll be more skeptical of any British intelligence I read in the future."
What any American reading these stories must wonder is why our own news organizations have ignored this remarkable story so far.
[11:08 a.m. PST, Feb. 7, 2003]