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Helen Clark’s sob story & persecution of Jafar Panahi

Gordon Campbell on Helen Clark’s sob story, and the persecution of Jafar Panahi

By Gordon Campbell

So former Prime Minister Helen Clark is ‘incensed’ at US diplomatic cables that suggests her real reason for sending New Zealand engineers into Iraq, was to retain Fonterra’s access to the lucrative UN oil-for-food programme. Apparently, the speculation contained in the cable had been passed onto US diplomats in Wellington by top level New Zealand Defence Ministry contacts. As an audibly outraged Clark told RNZ this morning, this is no more than “plain gossip” and “preposterous” and according to her, the oil-for-food deals played no part whatsoever in her decisions about our troop deployment of troops.

How every ironic. When Clark was the Minister in charge of the SIS, she was happy to use such gossip to justify the issuance of a security risk certificate – as she did in the Ahmed Zaoui case. In collusion with Winston Peters, she defended in Parliament the harassment of Zaoui long after the shonky, gossip-laden nature of the information relied upon by the SIS had become obvious. And now she’s whining about being the subject of such speculation herself? Spare me. At least she’s not being locked in solitary confinement and made to run the gauntlet of the New Zealand legal system as a result.

One of the great virtues of the Wikileaks release of thousands of cables has been to de-mystify the entire process of diplomacy and intelligence gathering. Clearly, the so-called ‘art of diplomacy’ is nothing more than blogging, après cocktails. But instinctively, we knew this. And if we didn’t, it had been spelled out for us in the 2004 report by Lord Butler, which had castigated the unreliability of the intelligence information that the Blair government had used to justify the invasion of Iraq. The lengthy extract below from Butler’s report is still relevant – given the intrusive search and surveillance legislation that New Zealand is preparing to adopt. Like Helen Clark, we should be incensed about the reliance on information that is little more than gossip, dressed up for the legislative dance. Six years ago, Butler explained the perils of relying on info from third and fourth hand sources, which is then sanctified by the veil of secrecy :

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Governmental decisions and actions, at home and abroad, are based on many types of information. Most is openly available or compiled, much is published, and some is consciously provided by individuals, organisations or other governments in confidence…..much is at best uninformed, while some is positively intended to mislead.

Human intelligence reports are usually available only at second-hand (for example, when the original informant talks to a case officer who interprets -often literally - his words to construct an intelligence report), and maybe third-or fourth-hand (the original informant talks to a friend, who more or less indirectly talks to a case officer)…. Conventional oral reporting can be difficult enough if all in the chain understand the subject under discussion. When the topic is unfamiliar to one or more of the people involved… in such cases [ there is] a considerable load on the case officer to be familiar with the subject-matter and sufficiently expert in explaining it. It need only be added that often those involved in providing intelligence may for one reason or another have deliberately misrepresented (or at least concealed) their true identities, their country of origin or their employment to their interlocutors to show how great is the need for careful evaluation of the validity of any information which eventually arrives.

The validation of a reporting chain requires both care and time, and can generally only be conducted by the agency responsible for collection. The process is informed by the operational side of the agency, but must include a separate auditing element, which can consider cases objectively and quite apart from their apparent intelligence value. Has the informant been properly quoted, all the way along the chain? Does he have credible access to the facts he claims to know? Does he have the right knowledge to understand what he claims to be reporting? Could he be under opposition control, or be being fed information? Is he fabricating? Can the bona fides, activities, movements or locations attributed to those involved in acquiring or transmitting a report be checked? Do we understand the motivations of those involved, their private agenda, and hence the way in which their reports may be influenced by a desire to please or impress? How powerful is a wish for (in particular) financial reward? What if any, distorting effect might such factors exert? Is there at any stage a deliberate intention to deceive?....

[Much] intelligence is fragmentary or specialised and needs at least a conscious analytic stage. Analysis assembles individual intelligence reports into meaningful strands, whether weapons programmes, military operations or diplomatic policies. Intelligence reports take on meaning as they are put into context
Analysis can be conducted only by people expert in the subject matter…A special danger here can be the failure to recognise just what particular expertise is required.

. Given the imperfections of intelligence, it is vital that every scrap of evidence be examined, from the most secret sources through confidential diplomatic reports to openly published data. Intelligence cannot be checked too often. Corroboration is always important, but seldom simple, particularly in the case of intelligence…The simple fact of having apparently coincident reports form multiple types of intelligence sources is not in itself enough. Intelligence merely provides techniques for improving the basis of knowledge. As with other techniques, it can be a dangerous tool if its limitations are not recognised by those who seek to use it.

The very way that intelligence is presented can contribute to this misperception. The necessary protective security procedures with which intelligence is handled can reinforce a mystique of omniscience. Intelligence is not only like many other sources- incomplete, it can be incomplete in undetectable ways. There is always pressure, at the assessment stage if not before, to create an internally consistent and intellectually satisfying picture. [My emphasis : this was exactly the problem with the SIS case against Zaoui – which selectively concocted a false consistency.] When intelligence becomes the dominant, or even the only, source of government information, it can become very difficult for the assessment process to establish a context and to recognise that there may be gaps in that picture.

A hidden limitation of intelligence is its inability to transform a mystery into a secret. In principle, intelligence can be expected to uncover secrets. But mysteries are essentially unknowable: what a leader truly believes, or what his reaction would be in certain circumstances, cannot be known, but can only be judged. [Political] judgments have to cover both secrets and mysteries. Judgement must still be informed by the best available information, which often means a contribution from intelligence. But it cannot import certainty.

These limitations are best offset by ensuring that the ultimate users of intelligence he decision-makers at all levels, properly understand its strengths and limitations and have the opportunity to acquire experience in handling it. It is not easy to do this while preserving the security of sensitive sources and methods. But unless intelligence is properly handled at this final stage, all preceding effort and expenditure is wasted.

Exactly. And is there any evidence that the SIS has been re-structured to ensure its operational activities operate at a distance from its auditing units, which should then carry out a critical analysis of the information gathered? And to boot, is there now robust oversight in place by, and of, the executive before it makes political use of such information? No, and no. The SIS blunders on, burying its mistakes. While she was PM and SIS Minister, Helen Clark was actively part of the problem. At least now she has an inkling of what its like to be on the receiving end.

The silencing of an artist

At the Cannes film festival earlier this year, Juliette Binoche and others campaigned against the persecution of the great Iranian film-maker Jafar Panahi The worst fears about Panahi’s welfare have now been confirmed. Yesterday, a kangaroo court in Teheran jailed him for six years, and banned him for 20 years from writing scripts, making films, traveling abroad, or talking to local and foreign media.

This is terrible news. It is a reminder that whatever passions were aroused, lies told and craven government actions taken here during the Hobbit saga, no-one’s life and liberty was at stake. It is not as if Panahi was a dissident propagandist against the regime – he was a humanitarian. The issues he raised were universal, and applied not only to the regime run by the mullahs in Teheran. This interview illustrates this quality eloquently.

In films like The Circle, Panahi examined the injustice of social attitudes that can greet the birth of a daughter with something akin to despair. In his most accessible and amusing film Offside, he returned to that same theme – of the fate of women in a patriarchal society – by filming the efforts of a number of young female soccer fans to get into the stadium in Teheran to watch the 2006 World Cup qualifying game between Iran and Bahrain.

Filmed on site on the day of the game, Offside is a small miracle of improvisational film-making – and it is compassionate to both the young women and to the soldiers who have been given the job of blocking them from watching the game. That’s one of the recurring themes of Panahi’s work – that people will connect with each other, despite everything that a regime will do to stamp out the recognition of a common humanity. In its finale, Offside is also a celebration of what it is to be Iranian.

Crimson Gold, a Panahi film that – almost incidentally – exposes the tension between Teheran’s morality police and the youth who belong to the city’s affluent elite – is also well worth checking out. In this 2003 interview at the Toronto film festival, Panahi explained his views to David Walsh:

DW: Yesterday at the public screening, you described yourself as independent filmmaker. That is often a misused term in North America. What do you mean by “independent”?
JP: Independent from any kind of dependency and coercion anywhere in the world. Independent from any belief I think is not right. Refusing self-censorship and believing any movie that I make is, in the end, exactly what I wanted to say. A lot of times, when you say you’re independent, it means economically, that you don’t get paid by other people. But where we are, independent means more like independence from politics. That’s why I don’t make political movies. Because if I were a political filmmaker, then I would have to work for political parties and I would have to go along with their beliefs of what’s wrong and what’s right. But what I say is that art is much higher than politics. Art looks like politics from a higher end. You never say what’s wrong or right. We just show the problems.

And its up to the audience to decide what’s wrong or right. A political movie becomes dated, but an independent artistic film never gets old and is always fresh. Although I’m making my movies in Iran as a geographical area, my voice is an international one. That’s what I mean by “independent.” Whenever I feel pain, I’m going to respond, because I’m not dependent on any party, and I don’t take orders, and I decide independently when I make my movies. I try to struggle with all the difficulties and make my movie. If I weren’t independent, I would say yes to anyone. But when I want to make a movie, I’ll do anything it takes. And that’s not what government officials like. And the pleasure is much greater.

Offside is readily available in any New Zealand video store with an art movie section. Now, it conveys what the loss of his liberty and creativity will mean to Jafar Panahi, his family and the world.


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