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They try to keep us frightened

This article is over 20 years, 3 months old
The intelligence agencies have summoned another monster to justify their existence, says writer Phillip Knightley
Issue 1886

Your book about the intelligence services has just been reprinted. Why did you write the book?

I was concerned with the role that intelligence services play in our society. They form centres of power, clubs of elite people, who demand the right to define reality for us. I also wanted to correct the notion created by spy writers that spying is glamorous. I wanted to show what it is really like.

When I originally wrote the book the Cold War was still going on. It described the spies’ failures. We could put up with intelligence agencies if they actually did their job, warning us of monsters abroad and so on. But the list of failures of the intelligence services is endless.

They failed to predict the Czech Revolution, the Soviet invasion of Hungary, the end of the Cold War. But they also have lots of systems to cover up their failures. When they fail to predict something they say, “We did warn you but you failed to take notice.”

How have the intelligence services changed?

All the intelligence services need a monster of some sort. When the Cold War ended it looked like the monster had gone.

Just when it looked like we had rumbled them, they perpetrated on us probably the greatest political confidence trick of the century-they were saved by this new monster of terrorism.

Now they have fresh government support. Their job seems to be to keep us frightened.

You’ve been outspoken about the so called “war on terrorism”. What has been the role of the intelligence services in it?

The new chapter in my book is about intelligence leading up to the attack on Iraq. One of the reasons the intelligence service failed here was that, instead of allowing them to be objective, the neo-conservatives in the US decided that the way that intelligence was received politically would have to change.

Usually intelligence splits into two parts. There is the intelligence gathering by spies or by signals intelligence. And there is the analysis side.

The Bush administration decided the analysis should be done not by intelligence professionals but by outsiders, preferably politicians. This gave the politicians in the US the chance to use intelligence to their own ends.

Do you think that is what happened in the UK?

That is exactly what occurred here. Weak intelligence officers and intelligence leaders allowed the government to lean on them to allow the information gathered on Iraq-the ability or otherwise of Saddam Hussein to use unusual weapons-to make the case for war.

How has the movement against war impacted upon the media?

For the first time I have noticed among colleagues in the media a desire to look back at what occurred and evaluate their performance.

I’ve attended several meetings of journalists, including people who have been in the field, the middle managers who send them there, and even the editors of the papers.

They would sit around and ask where they went wrong, saying that they must not allow themselves to be used and abused in any future war.

What do you think about the wider impact?

It was right to protest. If you felt that the war was unjust, it was the only way to express that.

The media was a little bit more sympathetic than in previous wars, but you still felt that the size and vigour of the anti-war movement was not adequately reflected.

Although the democratic process failed to the extent that anti-war protests did not stop the war, they did radicalise a lot of people who felt they should be doing something about it and it did make the government pause.

What do you think will come out of the occupation of Iraq?

I think that the future is grim in the intermediate term. But for Iraqis who want to be independent, the historical pointers all show that no broadly based nationalist movement has ever in the long run failed to throw out the invaders.

  • The Second Oldest Profession, by Phillip Knightley, is available with a new chapter on the war in Iraq, priced £9.99. To order copies contact Bookmarks, the socialist bookshop-go to or phone 020 7637 1848.
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