My work was used in Blair's 'dodgy dossier' to make a case for Iraq war
Published 09/07/2016 | 02:30
Back in 1991, just after the first Gulf war, I walked across the Turkish border into the green hills of northern Iraq to witness scenes of great human distress.
After a failed rebellion, the Kurdish people fled in their tens of thousands to the borders of Turkey and Iran to escape the vengeance of Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein.
Many died on the bleak hillsides before international aid began to arrive. I was a journalist with the 'Sunday World', and I was glad to report that among the aid workers on the front line were Irish volunteers from the aid agency Concern.
Among them was a fine humanitarian, the late Dr Raymond McClean from Derry, who had tended the wounded on Bloody Sunday.
That trip to the Kurdish region of northern Iraq helped to give me a lasting fascination with this troubled country and the Middle East in general. But as I will explain, there was also another reason why I was interested in the Chilcot report on the Iraq War released this week.
In the years following my trip to northern Iraq, I decided to write a study of the Iraqi intelligence services. I am interested in military history and, like moths to a flame, I am one of those journalists fascinated by uncovering the secrets of the intelligence world.
With the aid of some well-informed Iraqi sources, and using material in the public domain, I completed the study of Saddam's secret services. It appeared in 1997 in a specialist magazine published by a venerable and highly respected English concern, Jane's Information Group.
One of the firm's best-known publications is the reference work 'Jane's Fighting Ships', a copy of which is said to be carried by every naval ship in the world.
Fast forward to February 2003, as war loomed once again in the Middle East. I received a phone call from Jane's with the rather unsettling news that my name was all over the media.
In the lead-up to the invasion of Iraq, Prime Minister Tony Blair had released a dossier on Iraq, now known irreverently as the 'dodgy dossier'. A Cambridge academic had discovered that some passages had been 'lifted' verbatim without attribution from various published sources - one of which was my Jane's study.
Other material had been taken from a thesis by a postgraduate Californian student, and from work carried out by an American journalist. No doubt, the officials who compiled the dossier also relied on 'genuine' intelligence sources.
US Secretary of State Colin Powell had even recommended the Blair dossier to the world in a keynote presentation to the United Nations, calling the report a "fine paper".
But when it emerged that some of the material used to pad out the dossier had been 'lifted' from open sources, Downing Street began to take the flak.
I found myself besieged by other journalists. Sky News even sent an outside broadcast unit from Belfast to interview me 'live' at my home in Terenure. I had calls from radio stations as far away as Australia and America. (I was later interviewed by Raidió na Gaeltachta, which helped to revive my flagging Irish language skills.)
Instead of writing the news, as I normally did, I had the weird and rather unsettling experience of actually making it. I was having my '15 minutes' of unsought fame.
I was asked if I felt angry about my material being 'lifted' without permission. The answer was, 'not really'. I had no desire to be a prima donna in these matters. There are more important things in this sad world to be angry about.
However, I was concerned that anything I wrote might be used to make a case for war. I fully recognised that Saddam Hussein was an appalling dictator, who had used chemical weapons against the Kurds in the 1980s, and who started a war with Iran that cost more than a million lives. But I thought it most unwise for the Americans and the British to invade.
I drew some comfort from the fact that the Cambridge academic said on TV that there was nothing wrong with the material that had been 'lifted'.
Some of my journalistic colleagues jokingly suggested that I send an invoice to Tony Blair. I decided that Tony had enough on his plate.
Sadly, as the Chilcot report points out, the invasion of Iraq went badly wrong. There was no "imminent threat" from Saddam, and the intelligence case that he had weapons of mass destruction (WMD) was "not justified".
I'm sure that Blair meant well, and that invading seemed like a good idea at the time. I'm sure he wanted to establish peace and democracy in Iraq, just as he helped to bring peace to Northern Ireland.
Instead, dark forces were unleashed. After Saddam was overthrown, the coalition unwisely disbanded the Iraqi army. Many men lost their jobs. It has been reported that some of the demobbed officers are now directing the brutal jihadi campaign of Isil.
With terrorist bombers killing big numbers in Baghdad, some locals are regretting that Saddam is gone - at least he maintained security.
While against the invasion, I was unimpressed by some so-called 'anti-war' protesters. They seemed selective in their outrage, and appeared essentially motivated by an anti-West agenda.
Sometimes I think back to my short visit to northern Iraq all those years ago.
I remember the sad sight of a children's burial ground on a bleak hillside - full of freshly-dug graves.
That, too, is part of Saddam's legacy.
Sean Boyne is the author of 'Emmet Dalton: Somme Soldier, Irish General, Film Pioneer', published by Merrion and now re-issued in paperback