TCS Daily

Weapons of Mass Distortion

By Joe Katzman - May 9, 2003 12:00 AM

Revelations concerning Saddam's network of influence are coming thick and fast in the wake of his regime's collapse. Politicians like George Galloway. Diplomats and business people. Even journalists. Especially journalists.

Saddam's war of influence was actually based on a very common intelligence practice: cultivating "agents of influence." Such an agent is, according to the International Spy Museum, "a person who works within the government or media of a target country to influence national policy." What's especially interesting about Iraq's approach is not so much its predictable existence as the completeness of its infrastructure; a completeness that bought Saddam media success, even in the midst of a losing war.

According to a Reuters report from - ironically enough - April 1 of this year:

"IRAQ IS WINNING the battles in the propaganda war with a modest media strategy, despite a multi-million dollar U.S. campaign featuring painstakingly choreographed briefings and Hollywood-style sets. Undeterred by America's elaborate media plan, Iraq is making its mark on the airwaves with its decidedly basic approach, media pundits say..."

It certainly was basic. Just not modest. Or cheap. Approaches included cash payments, Iraqi export licenses, film financing, scholarships, and even luxury cars for key figures. The resulting network was wide and deep, spanning the Arab world and reaching into Europe and the United States as well.

In a world of Netwars and 4th Generation Warfare, Saddam's paid infrastructure of influence successfully "managed the memes" in the region and beyond, buying his regime crucial time. Had the events of 9/11 not intervened, that infrastructure might have snatched eventual victory from the jaws of his Desert Storm defeat.

As the Weekly Standard's Stephen Hayes noted in "Saddam's Cash":

"One 'top Egyptian editor' told the Wall Street Journal back in 1991 about a conversation he had with Saddam. "I remember his saying, 'Compared to tanks, journalists are cheap - and you get more for your money.'"

True. Arab publics, still reeling from the reality inversions they'd been fed during Gulf War II, should brace themselves for another set of shocks. They probably won't be the only ones. (Just ask CNN.)

Nor is this the end of the matter. Like the Soviet and Nazi states upon which Ba'athist ideology was based, Saddam's bureaucracy kept documents. Lots and lots of documents. Sifting through the haystacks has just begun, and there are sharp needles aplenty to be found, with help of course from Iraqi factions and Western intelligence agencies. They, too, have reasons to cultivate journalists.

Shifting Sands

If Anglosphere intelligence agencies wish to become involved in ameliorating the poisonous climate of the Middle East, this is their big break. It's not something the CIA in particular has been very good at recently, though there are precedents.

European reconstruction after World War II provides an encouraging example. American intelligence programs quietly funded publications, conferences, unions, even orchestras and artists. Direct control was unnecessary, even harmful; indeed, many of those supported were leftist in orientation. Nevertheless, the overall effect is widely considered to have made an important difference at a time when the region's future was up for grabs.

Nor were the cloak-and-dagger types alone in these efforts: American unions and civil organizations, by promoting bilateral ties and offering both funds and expertise to their counterparts, were often at least as effective as any government program.

So if the U.S. is serious about changing the center of gravity in the Middle East, it could do worse than to look to the lessons of post-war Europe, learn from its few mistakes, and apply a similar effort. Given the notorious role of Arab intellectuals and media in nurturing the "Dream Palace" edifice of hatred and displaced blame, this group will be an important center of gravity for successful covert action in the months and years ahead. The CIA's direction and approach over the last several decades had let this capability wither; Saddam's fall and his archive of covert operations gives it a new lease on life.

Arab journalists, businesspeople, and politicians will be first to feel these effects. Guilty parties who prove cooperative may have their secrets protected, while others risk exposure. Some will be exposed regardless, what with so many journalists now running around in a barely-controlled situation brimming with opportunity. A "new guard" of reporters is also likely to arise, fuelled by competition that includes new satellite channels like Al-Jazeera and its emerging competitors across the Arab world. Faced with severe competition, expect some of them to get a bit of help finding useful information, a development all to the good. If these combined shocks and changes begin to reduce or change the river of hatred so amply documented by organizations like MEMRI and blogs like LGF, it will be a major victory in the War on Terror.

The second opportunity presents itself among those media outlets and reporters who were not part of the lavish Mercedes giveaways. In these cases, information upon which scoops and reputations can be built can serve admirably as a substitute for monetary reward. There will be no shortage of information to offer. Britain's Telegraph newspaper, for instance, is either extremely lucky or receiving helpful pointers from official friends as it exposes British MPs, European diplomats and business interests. Are the media's "friends" intelligence agencies? Political factions? Former Ba'ath officials looking to curry favor? Likely they are all of the above. They don't care, as long as the pointers keep coming and the results check out. The Telegraph in particular appears to have prepared for the post-war period with these angles in mind, but it is not alone.

Perspective and Paybacks

Does this mean that all of the revelations you read from Iraq will come through intelligence agencies? Not at all. Some surely will, and a measure of scepticism is warranted. Perspective can be maintained, however, by recalling two key truths.

One is the reality of intelligence organizations. Their true nature is closer to the large, lumbering bureaucracies you know and mock than dashing James Bond types. Their resources in any one area will be limited, and tasked with a number of priorities. At best, intelligence professionals in Iraq these days are one important set of players amidst a welter of claim jumpers, all staking out juicy locations around Saddam's paper mines in the fragile post-war order.

While forgeries are always possible, the extent of Saddam's payoffs and archives should keep even workaholic reporters and agents so busy as to render the effort largely unnecessary. Many revelations will come from regular sources, and should be subject to cross-checking.

British MP George Galloway, long the subject of questions about his income and lifestyle, was simply the first revelation. He made himself a large and obvious target; clearly, some digging has been done to ensure his exposure from multiple sources. He was first, but he will not be the last. Nor should he be.

One war is over. Another, different war has just begun.

Joe Katzman leads the International team at Winds of Change.NET.

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