Official secrets, lies, and the truth about the assault on Fallujah

So what have they got to hide? Official secrets, lies,
and the truth about the assault on Fallujah 
The trial of two Whitehall workers this week could
reveal Britain's role in one of the Iraq war's darkest
episodes. By Raymond Whitaker and Marie Woolf 
Published: 27 November 2005

Nobody outside the Westminster village would recognise
the names of David Keogh and Leo O'Connor. One is a
former Cabinet Office official, the other a researcher
for an MP who lost his seat at the last election. But
the crime of which they are accused concerns two men
who are firmly in the public eye: Tony Blair and
George Bush. 

On Tuesday, Mr Keogh, 49, the civil servant, and Mr
O'Connor, 42, who worked for the former Labour MP Tony
Clarke, will appear at Bow Street magistrates' court
in London. Mr Keogh is charged, under the Official
Secrets Act, with sending the researcher a transcript
of an April 2004 meeting at the White House between
the Prime Minister and the President. When the
document was shown to Mr Clarke, then MP for
Northampton South, he returned it to Downing Street.

All that occurred well over a year ago. Despite the
eminence of those taking part in the discussion, the
transcript did not carry the highest classification,
and the case might have attracted relatively little
attention were it not for subsequent events. On
Tuesday, the Daily Mirror reported that Mr Bush had
told Mr Blair in April last year that he wanted to
bomb the studios of al-Jazeera, the Arabic-language
satellite channel which has consistently challenged
the White House line on Iraq.

With its Arab cameramen and reporters, al-Jazeera,
based in the Gulf state of Qatar, has been able to go
where embedded Western reporters dare not. At the time
of the White House meeting, it was broadcasting bloody
footage from within Fallujah, then under assault by US
forces. Added to the channel's role as the outlet for
statements by Osama bin Laden and his lieutenants, and
its coverage of on-camera executions of Western
hostages by al-Qa'ida followers, it was not surprising
that Mr Bush might have been angry with al-Jazeera.

According to the Mirror, Mr Blair dissuaded the
President from any attack on the TV station. It
reported conflicting views on whether Mr Bush might
have been joking or not - even if he had been prepared
to disregard the international outrage it would have
caused, Qatar is a key Middle East base for the
Americans - although it is possible that he was
suggesting a clandestine bombing.

Even this trumpeted exclusive might not have resonated
for long. But in a move unprecedented since Labour
came to office in 1997, the Attorney-General, Lord
Goldsmith, warned newspapers that they would be
breaching the Official Secrets Act (OSA) if they
published the contents of the document at the centre
of the prosecution against Keogh and O'Connor. The
Mirror's editor, Richard Wallace, complained: "We made
No 10 fully aware of the intention to publish and were
given 'no comment', officially or unofficially.
Suddenly, 24 hours later, we are threatened under
section 5 [of the OSA]."

Why did the Government choose this moment to crack
down? It had not reacted to many previous leaks, some
extremely embarrassing, in particular the revelation
that Mr Blair and some of his most senior ministers,
aides and military commanders had been discussing
detailed plans for war in Iraq in the summer of 2002,
while insisting in public that no decisions had been
taken. The Mirror's credibility on Iraq also suffered
when it published hoax pictures purporting to show
British soldiers abusing prisoners, leading to the
departure of Piers Morgan as editor.

Al-Jazeera has seized on the report, pointing out that
its bureaux in Kabul and Baghdad had been hit by US
forces, despite the fact that the channel had sent
their co-ordinates to the Pentagon. Another of its
employees is in indefinite detention in Guantanamo
Bay. But the Mirror scoop might not have been taken
half as seriously in other quarters if Lord Goldsmith
had not intervened.

The Attorney-General insisted yesterday that he was
acting independently of Downing Street, mainly on the
narrow legal grounds of avoiding prejudice to a "live"
trial. He was not using the OSA to prevent political
embarrassment. But when BBC Radio 4's Today programme
asked if the issue was one of national security, he
avoided the question.

"Some people will think this is heavy-handed," said a
senior Whitehall source. "What people are bound to say
is that we are being inconsistent in dealing with this
case. They are bound to ask why we are pursuing this
case, and not others."

In other words: what do they have to hide? The answer
to that appears to reflect the degree to which Tony
Blair is still haunted by the Iraq war. The attack on
Fallujah, which was at its height when he met George
Bush, epitomises many of the most serious concerns
about that war.

In response to the lynching of four American security
contractors, US forces were ordered to "clean out"
Fallujah, over the protests of the Marine commander on
the ground, who argued that months of painstaking
efforts to win hearts and minds would be destroyed.

"The decision was political, not military," said Toby
Dodge of Queen Mary College, London University, who
went to Downing Street with other Iraq experts before
the war to warn Mr Blair of the perils of an invasion.
"It was taken in the Oval Office."

But after three weeks of heavy fighting, and
correspondingly high casualties, the White House lost
its nerve. The Marines, who lost 600 men, believed
they were on the point of seizing the town when they
were ordered to hand over to an "Iraqi brigade"
commanded by a general from the Saddam era, which
promptly yielded control back to the insurgents.

In the midst of this disaster, the Prime Minister was
at the White House. That Britain was concerned about
the conduct of the fighting was revealed in a leaked
Foreign Office memo the following month. This said:
"Heavy-handed US military tactics in Fallujah and
Najaf, some weeks ago, have fuelled both Sunni and
Shia opposition to the coalition, and lost us much
public support inside Iraq."

Possible options for the deployment of British troops
were also discussed in the memo, including the
possibility that they might take over the troubled
areas of Najaf and Qadisiyah, where Spanish troops had
been pulled out by the new Socialist government. That
did not materialise, but at this time last year, the
Black Watch was sent north to back up US forces being
readied for a fresh assault on Fallujah. In 30 days,
the 850-strong British force lost five men.

US forces surrounded Fallujah, and the civilian
population was ordered out amid warnings that anyone
remaining would be treated as an insurgent. Much of
the town was flattened, and many of its former
inhabitants have never returned. To this day, we have
little idea how many people, whether "foreign
fighters" or unfortunate civilians, were killed in
Fallujah. But disturbing details continue to trickle

Only this month, we learned that US troops used white
phosphorus, intended to provide smokescreens, as an
illegal chemical weapon against fighters in buildings
or foxholes. On contact with skin or clothing, it can
burn down to the bone. And many of the same tactics
are being employed during Operation Steel Curtain,
which for the past few weeks has sought to drive
insurgents out of towns and villages near Iraq's
borders with Syria and Jordan.

Some have argued that if the text of the memo at the
heart of the present row were published, it would show
that Mr Blair, contrary to the claims of Sir
Christopher Meyer, Britain's former ambassador to
Washington, had used his influence to restrain
American behaviour in Iraq. But events in Fallujah and
beyond do not give much sign that the US ever heeded
any British expression of concern about its methods of
dealing with the insurgency.

Not only is the Prime Minister's authority in
Washington in question, but Iraq has also eroded his
ability to push through his policies at home. It is in
this context that the Government's crackdown on leaks
is being viewed. With open disagreements growing
inside the Government on a host of issues - just in
the past week, these have included pensions, nuclear
power, education policy and flu jabs - a firmer
approach is needed to stop the flow of confidential
documents, some believe. "Having these documents is a
breach of the OSA, and this is a serious offence,"
said one official. "It's illegal."

But the strategy is seen as risky, even within the
Government, and its execution was less than clinical.
Days after the news of Lord Goldsmith's warning, some
media organisations were still seeking official
notification. It remains to be seen whether the
Government seeks to prevent the five-page document
becoming public during the OSA trial, but it could not
have focused more interest on the case unless it
published the whole transcript, as Peter Kilfoyle, a
former defence minister, and others are demanding in a
parliamentary motion.

The Independent on Sunday has not seen the document,
nor discussed its contents with anyone who has, and
the Prime Minister can argue that his private
discussions with other leaders should remain
confidential. But it is clear that the two, previously
anonymous, men due in court this week are overshadowed
by the legacy of the conflict jointly launched by the
PM and the President. 


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