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Tuesday, 8 December 2009

A tangled web


The UK media is currently reporting on the findings of the Iraq War Inquiry being held in London. According to the Guardian newspaper, its remit will include a consideration of the “period from the summer of 2001 to the end of July 2009, embracing the run-up to the conflict in Iraq, the military action and the aftermath. The inquiry committee members are Sir John Chilcot (chairman), Sir Lawrence Freedman, Sir Martin Gilbert, Sir Roderic Lyne and Baroness Usha Prashar.”

In the late summer of 2001, a recruitment consultant rang me asking if I would be interested in heading up the Finance function of a human rights organisation, based in Mayfair. She also said the post would require a deputy and immediately I thought of M, who had performed so magnificently in a similar role in one of my previous organisations. However the consultant was not prepared to offer me any further details over the telephone, but wanted me to drop by her office to discuss it in person. Intrigued by such an odd need for secrecy, I agreed to make an appointment to see her.

I had assumed the human rights organisation would be on a par with Amnesty International. I was stunned when she told me it was for the Iraqi Government in exile. They were apparently being bankrolled by America. If I accepted the post, it would have involved travelling to the Pentagon to enable them to scrutinise the accounts. Although I did not see myself as being a subject for Saddam Hussein’s animosity, it seemed reasonable to assume that certain high profile Iraqis within the organisation might well be targeted for assassination. I had no wish to die an unintended martyr for the cause if such an attempt were made in my presence and turned down the opportunity. I did regret not being able to get all expenses paid trips to America and would have loved to have been able to peek inside the Pentagon itself. As I had already been part of the corporate finance team working for an American multi-national, I did not find the prospect of discussing detailed finance with American officials at all daunting.

As I stepped into a black cab to take me back to Waterloo station, the taxi driver asked if I had heard about the planes flying into the Twin Towers in America. I had no idea what or where the Twin Towers were. As we drove along the Strand I witnessed the unsettling sight of scores of people crowded around television sets, produced no doubt hastily from back offices and placed on shop counters so that as many people as possible could watch the haunting images being broadcast from America.

Later, I heard about the attack on the Pentagon. I was shocked, not just by the level of carnage and human suffering, but by the fact that the Pentagon had not been equipped to combat an aerial attack. Up until that point, I had assumed the Pentagon would have been deemed a prime target during the Cold War years and would have protected itself accordingly.

“This will mark the start of World War Three,” a friend gloomily prophesied when we met up for a pre-arranged dinner. It didn’t of course, but it did help generate a climate of fear that made the invasion of Iraq seem plausible on grounds of national security. Now it seems the initial findings of the Iraq War Inquiry in London are suggesting that the invasion was illegal, and that the UK was never under any direct threat of attack by Saddam Hussein to warrant Tony Blair’s decision to commit British troops to such an ill-starred venture.

Had I accepted the post, I would probably not now have been able to mention anything to do with my role under the Official Secrets Act, which I am sure I would have had been obliged to sign. And what murky secrets are now coming to light after all these years!