The failures of the intelligence community before the Iraq war, the gullibility of much of the western media, as well as the cynical manipulation of both by the political class of the day, provide us with a stark reminder of what can go radically wrong. On 8 September 2002 the New York Times published one of this century’s most consequential news articles. The front-page story, supplied by the Bush administration, claimed that Saddam Hussein had stepped up his quest for weapons of mass destruction by acquiring key components for a nuclear weapon. In the UK, the Blair government’s “dodgy dossier” compounded the error. John Howard did the same in Australia. The problem was that it just wasn’t true. These were over-egged stories designed to soften the public up for what would become a disastrous war.
The invasion of Iraq in March 2003 casts a long shadow. Hundreds of thousands of people were killed, first in the invasion, then the ensuing chaos, then in the rise and fall of Islamic State. It strengthened Iran’s hand in both Iraq and Syria. It contributed to a massive outflow of refugees across the world, a factor in the resurgence of the far right across Europe. And Washington has spent nearly two decades trapped in a Middle Eastern mess of its own making, diverting much of its attention from China’s regional and global rise.
Lies were reported as facts. Credible sceptics were downplayed, ignored or attacked as unpatriotic “appeasers”. The thrill of landing a big “story” overtook the media’s fundamental duty to prevent the public from being deceived. Journalists who believed they were muscling up to a looming security threat turned out to be working instead against their own countries’ long-term interests. And in all this the Murdoch media were leading the pack across the anglosphere as the unrelenting cheerleaders for war – and vilifying those, like me, who opposed it.
This brings us to the Covid-19 pandemic and the public health and economic mayhem it has unleashed across the globe. The sheer magnitude of the damage means that the people of the world have every right to know how this came about. Whether China’s new class of “wolf warrior” diplomats care to recognise it or not, there are fundamental questions we can all legitimately demand answers to. These include the origin of the virus in Wuhan; whether the earliest genetic evidence of the outbreak has been properly preserved for independent research; the danger of wildlife “wet markets” in the transmission of such viruses; what delays occurred in notifying central authorities; why some local medical staff were either silenced or punished; what delay occurred in notifying the World Health Organization of human-to-human transmission, given China’s obligations under the relevant international health regulations. There are also fundamental questions on whether the WHO properly discharged its mandate to provide clear and early warnings to the international community. And whether national governments took all necessary actions to prepare for the virus reaching their own shores, or whether these warnings were effectively ignored – as appears to have been the case in the US.
But amid all these questions, and the parallel debate about the mechanism now needed to conduct an effective international inquiry, we suddenly have a unilateral declaration by the US president and his secretary of state that the body of evidence overwhelmingly points to the virus having leaked from the Wuhan Institute of Virology, where research projects have been under way into various categories of coronavirus borne by bats. They claim a “high degree of confidence” in this theory, citing compelling but as-yet undisclosed evidence – despite the US director of national intelligence issuing a rare public statement disparaging this theory.
Enter the “global exclusive” story of Rupert Murdoch’s Australian Daily Telegraph last weekend, headlined “China’s batty science – bombshell dossier lays out the case against the People’s Republic”. The paper claims to have been leaked a 15-page research dossier prepared by unnamed “western governments” on the Chinese government’s culpability for the outbreak. The clear inference from the Telegraph report is that the document was prepared by the “Five Eyes” intelligence community linking the US, UK, Australian, Canadian and New Zealand intelligence services. Other Murdoch journalists, re-reporting the story, have expressly stated it was a Five Eyes document. While the article itself shies away from stating explicitly the document’s authorship, the newspaper goes on to detail a number of investigatory actions being undertaken by the Five Eyes to nail the Chinese state’s responsibility.
The most critical part of the Telegraph newspaper report deals with apparent divisions among the wider intelligence community on the authenticity of the “Wuhan laboratory leak” thesis. And it’s here that Murdoch’s paper becomes explicit in its assertion that the Five Eyes research dossier helps validate the as-yet-unproven claim by Donald Trump and Mike Pompeo that the virus was “invented” at the Wuhan laboratory. The article and associated stories are laced with colourful reporting about Chinese “bat virus” researchers – “bat men”, “bat women” and other tales from the Wuhan bat cave. Nonetheless, having delivered its political ordinance in support of Trump and Pompeo, the Murdoch story carefully and cleverly seeks to cover its traces by stating repeatedly that nothing is yet proven about the laboratory leak.
The Murdoch journalist in question, Sharri Markson, a few days later pops up as the prime interview on the Murdoch-owned US cable TV network Fox News. The interviewer is none other than Trump’s personal favourite, Tucker Carlson, who together with Sean Hannity are his cheerleaders-in-chief in the American media. Right on cue, Tucker chimes in that the dossier “is the most substantial confirmation of what we’ve suspected that we’ve had so far” and that “because it’s a multinational effort I think it would be hard to dismiss it as a political document”.
The truth is, at this stage, none of us know definitively whether the virus came from the Wuhan laboratory. The best we can do is accept the Australian government’s assertion that this is at best a 5% possibility. Politically, the bottom line is that the leak of this alleged Five Eyes intelligence dossier to the Murdoch media in Australia, before being resold back into the US political audience by the very same Murdoch media, appears designed to back Trump’s and Pompeo’s claim. But this time with the added “authenticity” factor of the dossier being “multinational” and not just a normal drop from the White House to Fox, which have become a dime a dozen.
This is all about US presidential politics. There are three issues in this campaign: Trump’s handling of the virus; how to dig the US out of its virus-induced economic hole; and who can be most hardline on China – the Donald or “Beijing Biden”, as the Republicans now seek to tag his Democratic opponent. There’s little else on the table. Therefore, using an intelligence leak pushing Chinese culpability, laundered through a foreign country, turbocharged with the credibility factor of being an alleged Five Eyes product, helps the partisan political cause. And let’s be clear: Murdoch is campaigning full-bore for Trump.
Here are questions now for the Australian government and potentially its Five Eyes partners. First, was this an “intelligence” product, or was it simply open source material derived from information in the public domain? Second, was it an authorised Five Eyes product, or was just prepared in the US? Third, who leaked it, given that leaking such material is a criminal offence – as the US has made plain in its handling of Chelsea Manning’s and Julian Assange’s cases that included the large-scale unauthorised release of
classified Five Eyes material. Were any ministers of the Australian government complicit in this? Or was the US embassy in Canberra involved? If the Australian government is serious about the protection of classified documents, then why hasn’t a full police investigation been commissioned? Or is the government fearful of what it might discover if, as is likely, the leak has been driven by political and electoral interests within the US.
The extent to which the Australian intelligence community has sought to distance itself from the “dossier” suggests it does not wish to be in any way drawn into domestic politics – either Australian or American. The British intelligence community is reportedly doing the same. This is good. These institutions appear to have learnt from the Iraq war fiasco and the political abuse of intelligence agencies that occurred at that time. But on this question, the bitter lessons of Iraq appear to have been lost on Trump and the Murdoch empire that supports him.
China has much to answer for, including the ultimate origins of the virus. But if Trump’s claim in the Wuhan laboratory saga ultimately ends up being disproven, either by the Five Eyes or by US intelligence itself, then the irony is that the net political winner will be China. Remember the humiliation when no WMD were found in Iraq? Beijing would seek to exonerate itself as a result of egregious presidential overreach – once again aided and abetted by the Murdoch media. This is why the watchword of any sophisticated intelligence agency is caution in endorsing premature conclusions until all the facts are on the table.