Conspiracy theories are age-old, but the form they now take in democratic states owes much to the Watergate scandal, which led to President Richard Nixon’s resignation in 1974. Its extraordinary potency as a modern myth was recently re-emphasised when the confirmation that Mark Felt of the FBI was the “deep throat” who steered reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein to the senior levels of the administration received front page attention round the world.
Out of Watergate came the ready belief that governments will compound any crime by attempting to cover it up. Linked to this was the assumption that the secrets governments seek most to protect are about the conduct of wars. The Watergate saga began with the Nixon administration’s paranoia about leaks; that paranoia led to the formation of the notorious “plumber’s unit”, which sought to staunch them. In 1971, Daniel Ellsberg, one of the authors of the Defense Department’s secret history of the Vietnam war which came to be known as the Pentagon papers, passed a copy to The New York Times. The plumbers tried to find damaging files on Ellsberg by breaking into his psychiatrist’s office. The revelations in the Pentagon papers had already encouraged scepticism about official rationales for wars: it was shocking to realise, out of the jumble of memos and the dry prose of official historians, how much the policy-makers had lost their moral compass. They had not only talked themselves and their country into war but also persisted with it long after they had realised its calamitous character. Vietnam and Watergate together eroded trust in politicians and encouraged the assumption that things were never quite what they seemed. Behind the extravagant claims with which controversial policies were wrapped, the expectation had to be of a hidden truth that was harsh and unpleasant.
The attraction and stubborn existence of conspiracy theories came to my mind when I was writing the official history of the Falklands war. The first question I was always asked was about the “real story” behind the sinking of the Argentine cruiser General Belgrano on May 2 1982. A reminder of the range of the conspiracy theories that grew up around this incident came in May when Andrew George of Shrewsbury was jailed for the 1984 murder of 78-year-old Hilda Murrell. George, who was 16 at the time, had sexually assaulted and stabbed Murrell repeatedly, leaving her to die in woods. It was apparent to police at the time that this was a particularly obnoxious case of local crime; yet a strident body of campaigners became convinced that Murrell was really the victim of the secret state.
She had been a vigorous anti-nuclear activist - and thus one theory linked her death with inquiries over the Sizewell B nuclear reactor. By far the most popular theory, however - given wings by the then Labour MP, Tam Dalyell - was that the murder was linked to her nephew, a naval officer named Robert Green, who had played a minor role during the Falklands campaign. Dalyell made connections with his grand theme of the time - Margaret Thatcher had ordered that the Belgrano be sunk to prevent peace breaking out in the Falklands. “I am informed,” he told the Commons, “that the intruders were not after money, not after nuclear information, but were checking to see if there were any Belgrano-related documents of Commander Green in the home of his aunt.” Such allegations had no foundations, but coming from a senior MP, they had to be investigated, thus wasting weeks of police time and leading to television documentaries, books, stage plays, parliamentary debates and endless columns of newsprint.
This was the nastiest, but not the only, conspiracy theory that gained currency during the Belgrano controversy. The government’s reluctance to enter into any detailed discussions of the events of May 2 helped feed them, which meant that the information gap was filled with speculation and rumour. Because the log book of HMS Conqueror, the submarine that sank the Belgrano, could not be found, it was assumed that it had been deliberately withheld because it contained embarrassing information. In one episode, wholly implausible and alcohol-encouraged boasts about shredding this log made by a lowly MoD official led to tabloid articles and parliamentary questions. Claims of a cover-up gained force when the civil servant Clive Ponting - infuriated by ministers’ stonewalling - leaked material (which did not actually support the conspiracy theory) to Dalyell. He ended up facing a charge under the Official Secrets Act, of which he was acquitted.
The Belgrano offered a model for conspiracy theorists. The model requires the belief that the official line is a cover story, that evidence to disprove it exists but is being deliberately withheld, that what happens is always what is intended, and what is known now was known then. Dalyell appeared to have worked backwards from the perceived effect of the attack - which was the collapse of a peace initiative - and alleged that this is what Thatcher sought to achieve. By claiming that British intelligence was so professional that it could intercept, decode and distribute the relevant Argentine signals virtually immediately, it could be alleged that the government must have known that the Belgrano had been ordered to sail away from the task force and so did not pose an urgent threat, even though (as is now confirmed) the admirals in command believed that it did.
Certainly, the government’s initial account of the episode contained material inaccuracies (on when the cruiser had first been detected and the direction in which it was travelling at the time) and no corrections were volunteered. There was a general problem after the Falklands war that no attempt was made to correct a number of inaccurate impressions until new information obliged the government to do so. This included not only the details of the Belgrano incident, but also such matters as the performance of air defence missiles and the loss of British personnel to friendly fire. Thus, as contrary evidence seeped out on the Belgrano, credence was given to assertions that a deeper and rather sinister truth was being hidden: “conspiracy” flourished on confusion.
It is one of the ironies of the 2003 Iraq war that Tony Blair’s attempt to guard against the presumption of conspiracy, by sharing the assessments upon which he based decisions, backfired because the information was so flawed. The failure to find stocks of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) led to the charge that the US and UK governments went to war on false pretences, exaggerating flimsy intelligence to scare people into believing that Iraq was a threat to national security when their real interests lay elsewhere, in oil or perhaps just George W. Bush’s personal grudges. Attempts to prove this charge have dominated national debate on Iraq.
For the critics the aim is indictment rather than explanation. They focus on discrepancies between official statements and later disclosures, paying scant attention to context and chronology. The focus now is on a series of leaked papers from the first months of 2002, known collectively as “the Downing Street memos”, which are starting to acquire an almost Pentagon papers status among US Democrats. The first to be leaked, just before the general election, was the most damning. It reported the definite view that President Bush “wanted to remove Saddam, through military action”, that “intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy” and that Britain had to prepare to follow.
A succession of further memos, however, starts to give a different picture. While conveying a sense of British unease with Bush’s single-mindedness, and the awareness of even greater unease among MPs and the public, they report that the decision has yet to be taken in the US. They confirm the determination to stay close to Bush but also to influence his policy to attract the broadest possible coalition. “Regime change” in Iraq was clearly the objective, although the documents make clear that this did not necessarily require direct military intervention, but could mean support for opposition groups attempting to organise an insurrection.
The intelligence supposedly being fiddled concerned the attempts to link Saddam Hussein to al-Qaeda (rather than WMD), about which the British were very dubious. Yet reports of a conversation with a leading Pentagon hawk, Paul Wolfowitz, make it clear how much he believed in these links. For the government, the key to the dilemma lay in the old dispute over Iraqi WMD and Hussein’s reluctance to let the UN weapons inspectors do their job. Here the intelligence was acknowledged to be poor, and by no means pointing to a hyper-threat, but it was taken for granted that Hussein was still in the WMD business and was in violation of UN resolutions.
In short, the documents demonstrate that the arguments being used by senior British and US policy-makers in private were not significantly different from those being used in public or relayed through press briefings. In the first half of 2002, Britain was seeking to move the US to a more UN-focused strategy based on Iraq’s non-compliance with UN resolutions on WMD; it was even possible this would lead to a peaceful outcome. It is also clear from material that has long been in the public domain that in August this strategy succeeded, against the opposition of Bush’s more hawkish advisers. Bush’s support for attempts to get a new UN resolution led to Resolution 1441 in November 2002. Up to this point Blair’s strategy could be said to be a brilliant success; only later did it fall apart as the Iraqis, UN inspectors, Americans and French all failed to follow the parts set for them in the British script.
When the aim is indictment rather than explanation, the flow of policy-making gets lost in preference to a fixation with some core allegation. The errors in the September 2002 dossier appeared more disgraceful in retrospect when linked with the later war rather than the effort then under way in the UN. This focus has left insufficient media interest for other critical questions - such as why there was not a review of intelligence in February 2003, when it was already clear that the UN inspectors were not finding very much; or why preparations for the aftermath of war were so inadequate (even though the Downing Street memos show awareness of the special challenges of nation-building in Iraq).
If governments want to avoid unwarranted accusations of cover-ups and conspiracies then they should come clean immediately in those areas where the public has good reason to be suspicious. When governments go to war they should expect to be called to account, especially when events have not turned out as expected. But there is a lesson in this for critics as well. The processes of decision-making are always fascinating and often illuminating. But attempts to prove that policies were shaped by hidden agendas tend to be futile and distracting, interfering with the development of credible critiques and neglecting the wealth of material that is readily accessible. Reading the record usually gets you closer to the truth than digging for scandal.
Sir Lawrence Freedman is professor of war studies at King’s College, London. His “Official History of the Falklands Campaign” is published by Routledge.