Volume 11, Number 2 (May, 2014)
Author: Dr. Ibrahim Al-Marashi
This article is an autobiographical encounter with Baudrillard and his work, analyzing an episode of hyperreality of 2003 Iraq War in which I was personally implicated – the use of intelligence reports by both the British and American governments to justify an invasion of Iraq. The US and UK governments devised strategies to communicate to domestic and international publics the threat posed by the collusion of Saddam Hussein’s Iraq and Usama bin Ladin’s Al-Qaida, when historically both parties had an antagonistic relationship with one another. As part of this effort, the British government issued intelligence reports on Iraq’s WMD program for public scrutiny, and in the process my doctoral research on Iraq was plagiarized and incorporated into one of these documents.
This study also adopts the technique used by Elizabeth Dauphinee in The Politics of Exile, an academic work that employs storytelling, creating a narrative where the scholar serves as the protagonist while conducting research on the Bosnian civil war that raged between 1992 and 1995 (Dauphinee, 2013). Abandoning the generally depersonalized nature of academic writing, her work centers the individuals caught up in this conflict, taking the reader into their personal lives and domestic spaces. Following Dauphinee’s approach, this study starts from the living room of a teenaged Iraqi-American, to the halls of the British Parliament as a doctoral student, and the impact of the plagiarism on my life as an academic.
Hyperreality according to Baudrillard blurs the distinctions between the real and the unreal. My experience fits in to the realm of hyperreality as the real “Ibrahim Al-Marashi” or the real research I conducted was artificially (re)produced as a real retouched and refurbished in “a hallucinatory resemblance” with itself (Baudrillard,1983, 23). Botz-Bornstein’s definition follows as: “Hyperreality creates its own standards of reality, independently of any outside ‘real’ condition” (2013). After the invasion of Iraq no evidence of Baghdad’s WMD arsenal was found, revealing that the underlining rationale for the invasion of a threat never existed. In the process of creating this illusion, the intelligence reports themselves had served as part of the hyperreal simulation of the Iraqi threat, and as these reports had no basis on a real threat, they had to be manufactured or manipulated, leading to the plagiarism of my own research. A government caught in the act of plagiarism on this scale had been unprecedented, but media establishments and commentators, in their zeal to criticize the British and American governments, often misrepresented the facts of what was plagiarized and how did it occur, often invoking my name as a symbol that exposed government deception. The media’s role in unveiling the plagiarism granted the fifth estate the notion of agency in unraveling a deceptive simulation, yet in the process I became a simulated character representing “truth” in the face of government fakery. While my experience served to unveil the simulation of an Iraqi threat while it was being constructed, it simultaneously contributed to the construction of a concurrent simulation of the mass media unveiling this government simulation. The British government, having invested its reputation in the veracity of the intelligence reports, continued to communicate to the media that the reports were accurate despite minor flaws, while the media obtained newsworthy information by attacking every effort made by the British government in its attempt to validate these reports. I had disappeared into two simulations, yet both simulations needed the other antagonistic simulation to exist.
II. Encountering Iraq from California
The first time I encountered Baghdad as a teenager was with my family as we gathered for dinner in our California home, fixated on the evening news of January 16, 1991. The CNN news coverage of glowing green Iraqi anti-aircraft artillery fire illuminating the night sky served as my first link with my ancestral home. When my parents whispered to each other, while their eyes were fixated on the TV screen, I demanded that they tell me what they were talking about. My mom snapped, “Nothing. It doesn’t concern you,” and buried her face in her hands. Her response aroused my curiosity even more. My mother, a native of Baghdad, had not visited since 1979, and believed in burying her own trauma and shielding her children from the horrors Iraq and her extended family experienced since Saddam Hussein assumed power in that year. We had spent eight years’ worth of family dinners watching the news of the Iran-Iraq War from 1980 to 1988 My mother’s attempt to distance me from the violence that Iraq endured, yet being confronted with it on the TV screen only served to spark my curiosity about the country, eventually propelling me onto a path where I would devote my life to the study of its modern history.
As an undergraduate student at the University of California San Diego I had not declared my major in my first year and walked the shelves of the library hoping to find one book among the humanities and social science stalks that would help in this decision. The first time I noticed the slim spine of Baudrillard’s The Gulf War Did Not Take Place on the library book shelf, I assumed it was the work of a conspiracy theorist on par with deniers of the moon landing. On that same campus a few months later I attended a photo exhibit of the 1991 Gulf War that featured Kenneth Jarecke’s image of an incinerated Iraqi soldier who was killed by a fuel air explosive on what was dubbed “the Highway of Death.” Staring at the charred remains of the Iraqi soldier, with his last expression of pain seared onto his face, I realized that I was an Iraqi who did not witness the destruction of my ancestral home in my California home, courtesy of CNN in January 1991. It was that photo years later that connected me to Iraq as an adult and the horrors visited upon it. Unlike the TV coverage, this photo invoked a feeling somewhere between disgust, revulsion, and sympathy. Looking at that photo reminded me of the book I had seen on the library shelves. As an Iraqi-American, it was not until seeing a photo of an Iraqi’s death for the first time in my life that the 1991 Gulf War did take place. It defined what it meant to be “Iraqi.” This soldier was on the receiving end of state projected violence from the United States. Had he not deployed to the Kuwait front and deserted, he or his family would have been subject to execution, as I knew was the penalty from my relatives who fought on the Iraqi side of the Iran-Iraq War. It was not a book that gave me the epiphany of what I would study but that picture that illustrated the dilemma of average Iraqi navigating violence projected from Saddam Hussein’s state or the US military. From that moment, I decided to study history and devote my life to documenting this dilemma faced by the Iraqi.
Given that the 1991 Gulf War was a formative and traumatic experience, the subject seemed like the perfect choice for my doctoral thesis at the University of Oxford, where I would rewrite the history of the Gulf War from the perspective of the Iraqi state, soldier and civilian, which was lacking in the literature at that time. The second chapter of the thesis provided a schematic overview of the sprawling network of Iraqi security agencies to suppress internal and external threats to Saddam Hussein’s rule. I converted this chapter, with some updates post-1991, into an article, “Iraq’s Security and Intelligence Network: A Guide and Analysis,” published in the September 2002 issue of the online journal, Middle East Review of International Affairs (Al-Marashi, 2002). Given the renewed public interest in Iraq in 2002 as war loomed on the horizon and the limited knowledge in the public domain on the Iraqi state, I wanted to publish relatively quickly a piece that explained the complicated security structure bureaucracy of the Iraqi state. Realizing that the peer-reviewed, print journal process could take up to a year, I embraced the new online journal format to allow for its dissemination in a timely manner. This online, digital format would facilitate how my research on the 1991 Gulf War, emerged as part of the simulation leading up to the 2003 Iraq War.
III. The First Simulation of an “Intelligence Report”
Alistair Campbell, a former tabloid journalist, served as the British Prime Minister’s Director of Communications and Strategy, a euphemistic title for Blair’s spin doctor, and directed The Coalition Information Centre (CIC), which critics regarded as “a propaganda team for international crises” (Brown and Coman, 2003, 20). The formation of such an office served as the British government’s institutionalized response to sustain a pro-government angle for the media spectacle that was to emerge in the lead-up to the 2003 Iraq War. Creating ad-hoc, institutional bodies within governments to influence the media during war was not a unique phenomenon to the 21st century. During World War One similar organizations were developed in both the UK and the US, drawing upon the talent of private sector communicators such as Edward Bernays, Sherlock Holmes, and Rudyard Kipling. The difference by the 2003 Iraq War was the proliferation of media, including the 24-hour news cycle, in addition to the means of communication, ranging from the internet to satellite television, which served as media for the state to disseminate information, enhancing its ability to communicate to wider audiences. Yet these same media demonstrated that a government did not enjoy the monopoly on the creation of the simulation of an Iraqi WMD threat.
The CIC issued two dossiers dealing with Saddam Hussein’s WMD program (Aldrich, 2009: 229). In September 2002, the British government released on the internet, a 50-page dossier entitled, “Iraq’s Weapons of Mass Destruction: The Assessment of the British Government.” The introduction of the report claimed that its information originated from intelligence provided by the Foreign Office and Mi6. Despite its claim of recent intelligence on Saddam Hussein’s WMD program as of 2002, the details in the report were available in the public domain, reflecting the British government’s attempt to simulate that the sacred knowledge possessed by the state in the form of intelligence, provided to the public in the name of transparency.
Another dossier was issued on January 30, 2003, “Iraq: Its Infrastructure of Concealment, Deception and Intimidation” (White, Macaskill, and Norton-Taylor, 2003: 6). The introduction of the report states: “This report draws upon a number of sources, including intelligence material, and shows organisations whose job it is to keep Saddam and his regime in power, and to prevent the international community from disarming Iraq, how the Iraqi regime is constructed to have, and to keep, WMD, and is now engaged in a campaign of obstruction of the United Nations Weapons Inspectors”. The introduction’s mention of “intelligence material” enhanced the report’s status as a source of divine knowledge based on the work of intelligence agencies who were privy to information that the public did not have access to. On January 31, this dossier was distributed to six British newspaper journalists accompanying Blair during a diplomatic visit to Washington. Granting this dossier to these select journalists further demonstrated how reports which contained the appearance of being up-to-date intelligence were created for the sustenance of the media spectacle, and the British government’s attempt to structure the spectacle in its favor. However, just two of those journalists deemed the dossier newsworthy, claiming it had released new information on Iraqi methods of concealing weapons of mass destruction (Oborne and Walters, 2004: 324).
In another article in this journal issue, Ryan Artrip and Francois Debrix comment on virtual and online media enhancing the connection between the representation of the war and the public as, “[i]nformational modalities in which contemporary warfare is re-presented and re-produced through a multitude of digital, virtual, and online media vectors, and allegedly for the benefit of the people or demos (Artrip and Debrix, 2014). This process of releasing information for the “benefit of the people” was illustrated when the British government released their January report not only to journalists, but on the internet for public consumption, augmenting the state’s appearance of transparency on the intelligence of an Iraqi threat. This notion of intelligence-made-public for the benefit of the demos is explicitly mentioned when Tony Blair hailed the report during a Parliamentary session on February 3: “We issued further information over the weekend about the infrastructure of concealment. It is obviously difficult when we publish intelligence reports, but I hope people have some sense of integrity of our security services. They are not publishing this, or giving us information and making it up. It is the intelligence that they are receiving, and we are passing on to people” (House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee, 2003: 41). Invoking the term “intelligence reports” and “we are passing on to people” further illustrates Blair’s desire to communicate that intelligence on Iraqi WMDs, although usually the domain of the state, was being granted to the public, and that “They are not…making it up” implied the report was based on an actual Iraqi threat.
On February 4, the day after Blair addressed parliament, I received an email from Glen Rangwala, a scholar at the University of Cambridge. He had inquired as to whether I had collaborated on the recently released British intelligence dossier, informing me that its contents were similar to the article I had written for MERIA in September 2002. At that moment I was unaware of the dossier and requested that he e-mail me a copy. I had spent two years as a doctoral student at the University of Oxford combing through the available source material on Iraq’s security services and was initially enthusiastic that the British government had just publically released a recent report on Iraq, apparently compiled from contemporary intelligence material. However, when I placed my MERIA article side-by-side with the dossier I realized nineteen paragraphs from my work had been copied almost verbatim, with a few modifications. I had to reread the sections over and over to overcome my incredulity that the British government had done this. The thought that recurred in my mind repeatedly was, Did the British government drug me one night when I was in Oxford, and have me write this report for them, then erased my memory with some hi-tech gadget like the Men in Black films? I replied to Glen, interrupting my message on several occasions to look over the plagiarized section to assure myself that I was not imaging this. I wrote that I had not collaborated with the British government in compiling its report, and that I was merely a doctoral student whose thesis dealt with the Iraqi security forces and the 1990-1 Gulf War. I assumed that would be the end of the matter.
When I received the email, I was visiting my family in California, on break from my studies in Oxford. On the day after receiving his email, February 5, I watched US Secretary of State Colin Powell deliver an elaborate, multimedia briefing to the UN that epitomized the first simulation that preceded the 2003 invasion of Iraq. My family and I watched the briefing live in the same living room in which we had witnessed the bombing of Baghdad just a decade earlier during the 1991 Gulf War.
Prior to his address to the UN, Tony Blair had handed Powell what he assumed was a dossier based on original intelligence material. During this briefing, Colin Powell cited the January 2003 UK dossier to augment the American evidence that Iraq was concealing its weapons of mass destruction: “I would call my colleagues’ attention to the fine paper that the United Kingdom distributed yesterday, which describes in exquisite detail Iraqi deception activities” (ABC News, 2003). Citing this paper demonstrated how both Tony Blair and Colin Powell believed in a report that was essentially a simulation in and of itself of an actual intelligence report.
When I heard Powell refer to that document, I had an urge to jump off the velour sectional in my parents’ living room. The US Secretary of State was on television discussing my “homework.” In that moment, I felt like the protagonist from the 1980s movie WarGames who accidentally starts a nuclear showdown between the US and USSR with his computer hacking. I had watched Powell present the UN with a montage of satellite photographs, calls intercepted between Iraqi officers hiding WMDs, and claims that the Iraqis could create an anthrax bomb the size of a vial to cripple a city. The presentation to the UN showed the US was moving closer to an invasion, and I was unwillingly made part of the argument to justify that war.
As we sat and watched the justifications for war by the administration of George Bush in January 1991, we now watched as his son sent Colin Powell to advance a new set of justifications to launch another war against Iraq. In 1991 we viewed a simulation of the bombing of Baghdad. In 2003 my mother had no idea that her son contributed to the simulation that would justify the bombing of Baghdad in 2003. “Mom, do you know what just has happened?” She looked in my direction, and I said, “Never mind.” I could not convey the complex array of emotions I felt then, finally understanding why she had failed to let her child know her feelings about her ancestral Baghdad being bombed in 1991. Whether it was her hometown or my research, something dear to us had been destroyed.
IV. Revelation of the Plagiarism
On February 5, the same day of Powell’s UN briefing, Glen Rangwala exposed the dossier’s plagiarism on his website, juxtaposing parts of my article with those of the dossier, highlighting the areas that had been copied and pasted (Rangwala 2003). The internet not only provided Rangwala with both my article and the British intelligence dossier, but a medium to publish his revelations. A reporter for British ITN Channel 4 News, having read Glen’s web post, published an article on the following day, February 6, demonstrating that this UK intelligence report had been copied from already published sources, with the bulk of the plagiarized material coming from the article I had written. Other media reports, particularly in the UK, picked up the story, making it on the front pages of some of the prominent British dailies. It felt surreal to have achieved my 15 minutes of fame without actively seeking out that fame.
Over the span of four days the dossier had been released to the public, Rangwala and I communicated instantaneously over e-mails, and the journalist who broke the story did so after reading Rangwala’s revelation on his website. The intelligence dossier, released on the Internet to simulate a WMD threat to shape the hyper-real environment leading up to the 2003 Iraq War, was undermined by the medium itself that the British government sought to leverage to its own advantage.
The British government responded to the plagiarism by issuing a face-saving statement. A spokesman for Number 10 stated in reference to my article: “The fact that we used some of his work does not throw into question the accuracy of the document as a whole, as he himself acknowledged on Newsnight last night, where he said that in his opinion the document overall was accurate” (White, Macaskill, and Norton-Taylor, 2003: 6). This spokesman argued that if the information in my article was correct, than the British dossier was essentially correct.
Blair’s government was concerned with maintaining its illusion, and while the image of “intelligence reports” was tarnished, by vouching for the overall accuracy of a report based on my research, the first simulation would remain intact in their eyes. The British government spokesperson downgraded its intelligence report to a background briefing document for journalists and the public produced by Number 10’s media liaison team. In the eyes of the British government, since my original research was accurate, their intelligence dossier contained the truth. The need to vouch for the truth in this dossier was critical for the British government as the document played a role in justifying the invasion of Iraq among British policymakers. The dossier based on my work was presented in the British Parliament as one of the final documents that convinced this body to support the UK’s involvement in the 2003 Iraq War. Tom Dalyell, the longest serving member in the House of Commons, stated, “To plagiarize an out of date Ph.D. thesis and to present it as an official report of the latest British intelligence information, surely it reveals a lack of awareness of the disastrous consequences of such a deception.” He added, “This is not a trivial leak. It is a document on which is the basis of whether or not this country goes to war and whether or not young servicemen and servicewomen are to put their own lives at risk and indeed thousands, tens of thousands of innocent civilians,” (Johnson 2003). As much I wanted to minimize the significance of my involvement in this whole affair, I felt a sense of guilt that I had indirectly provided the information that justified a war against my native Iraq. Dalyell further stated, “And the basis that has been produced by a PhD student in California who now says that he is against conflict, apparently, is the heart of what purports to be the intelligence briefing of the British government” (ibid.) It seemed my ambivalence in the press interviews I gave after the revelation did not translate well into whether I was pro-war or anti-war. Reuters had quoted me as saying, “As an Iraqi, I support regime change in Iraq” (History Commons, 2003). However, Dalyell quoted me as being against the conflict. Both were right. While I had lost members of my family to the security services after the 1991 Iraqi uprising, I still feared that military action against Iraq could have caused harm to my surviving relatives there. I opposed an Anglo-American war against Iraq that could possibly result in unintended consequences for the Iraqi people, yet I desired that Saddam Hussein rule over Iraq end.
My dilemma of being pro or anti-war is described by Baudrillard as a “forced referendum,” or a binary logic in news and political rhetoric to be for or against the war, without actually questioning its credibility or level of reality (Baudrillard,  2009, 28). At the moment I was receiving the media attention for this incident, I was often asked by journalists if I was for or against the war. I always paused before this question as I never had a convenient answer ready. At that juncture the plagiarism of my research forced me to question the entire reality of the justifications of the 2003 Iraq War. I wondered how could I be “for” a war, since if the evidence for the war was being manufactured, so too would the claim of the war to bring freedom to Iraq or making the world safe from WMDs. Second, to be pro or anti-war seemed futile. Given my detailed study of the weak state of the Iraqi military, I knew that a war in 2003 with the US would be over relatively quickly. I often wanted to answer the journalists’ question with the response, If a football game is fixed what is the point of rooting for a team? The teams may go through the motions of a con
tested match but there would be no doubt as to the winner. Yet, the short sound bites required of an interview for a newspaper or news report rarely allowed the time for such nuance and irony, which explains how I could be both pro-war and anti-war.
V. The Second Simulation
The plagiarism of my article proved to constitute a singular episode within a greater effort directed at the state level to simulate an Iraqi WMD threat in 2003. Commentators in the media opposed to a war with Iraq took the revelation of the plagiarism as the first tangible evidence of the manufacturing of Iraq’s WMD threat. Commentaries on this plagiarism used me to contribute to their own anti-war position or anti-Tony Blair or anti-Labour position, creating their own simulation in the process.
An article in the Columbia Journalism Review, referring to the plagiarism controversy, wrote, “In a run-up to war how do we report on intelligence intelligently?” (Gup, 2003). In fact some media reported on this intelligence controversy unintelligently. The actual events could be summarized as follows: a UK intelligence dossier was copied by staff in the British Prime Minister’s office from an online journal article, written by a PhD student at Oxford who, at the time, was working on a thesis on the activities of Iraq’s intelligence agencies during the 1990 to 1991 Gulf Crisis, in addition to material being lifted from three other articles in Jane’s Intelligence Review.1 However, media covering the plagiarism scandal tended to neglect that copied material from the articles of two other authors. Their plagiarized material did not provide valuable material to construct an anti-war protagonist. An example of this tendency is illustrated by a Press Association article: “An article by Californian student Ibrahim al-Marashi’s work was copied into the document from the Internet but not attributed” (PA News Political Staff, 2003). It was far more incompetent to plagiarize a Californian “student” than published authors in Jane’s Intelligence Review. Such media often neglected to mention that I was a doctoral student at Oxford, but rather by emphasizing the word “student” alone and where I came from, they gave the impression that I was an undergraduate in shorts and sandals whose “homework assignment” was copied by the British government, communicating that the irony that while students often plagiarize and get in trouble with authority figures, the opposite had occurred. The “student” eventually took precedence over the authors from Jane’s, yet I as a student disappeared into a greater symbol, “the Dodgy Dossier,” the euphemistic term that gained currency in the media as this controversy unfolded over several months. On the other hand, some media articles were generous enough to promote me to post-doctoral status. The London Guardian on February 7, 2003 referred to me as “Dr Marashi” (Whitaker and White, 2003: 1), and by June 2003, I still held my doctoral status in the same paper: “Dr Marashi, who is a researcher at the Centre for Nonproliferation Studies in Monterey, California, said Downing Street had perverted his work to imply that Iraq was backing terrorist groups outside Iraq” (Wintour, 2003).
In the hyperreal reporting that become part of the anti-war simulation, the timeline of my research also got lost and re-emerged as another symbol to criticize the British government. My knowledge on the subject of Iraq’s security services was a result of my thesis on the 1991 Gulf War, yet I had updated the MERIA article as of the date of its 2002 publication. Nevertheless, media sources continued to conflate the MERIA article with the PhD thesis that I was completing at the time. Since the subject of my thesis dealt with the 1991 Gulf War, an event that had occurred twelve years prior to the plagiarism of my article, reporters would claim my doctoral thesis was twelve years old and thus the material plagiarized by the British government was outdated. For example, an article in the Washington Post stated: “It used, without credit, excerpts from a 12-year-old paper on the buildup to the 1991 Persian Gulf War written by California graduate student Ibrahim Marashi and published in the Middle East Review of International Affairs” (Frankel, 2003: 15). Confused followers of this controversy, who knew that I was twenty-nine years old at the time, would often e-mail me, asking me how could it be that my PhD thesis was twelve years old, since I would have I finished it when I was only seventeen. Journalists who reported on the twelve-year old thesis demonstrated the lack of research put into their articles, when a simple read of my article would have revealed the footnotes of sources dated from 2002. The “twelve-year old thesis” claim would even cause concern among politicians outside of the US and the UK. The London Observer reported: “This has affected the international stage, too. There are scornful mutterings in French political circles this weekend that they cannot be expected to back a war on Iraq until Britain produces something more compelling than a ‘failed doctoral thesis’.” (Hinsliff et. Al, 2003:16) My thesis had not been completed at that point, never mind having been failed by a panel of Oxford professors. Nevertheless, politicians in France had already assumed the twelve-year old thesis as fact, demonstrating that failure to research a story can resonate internationally.
The outdated thesis was even mentioned in Paulo Coelho’s essay in The Guardian, when he addressed an open letter to Bush writing: “Thank you for making it necessary for Tony Blair to go to the British parliament with a fabricated dossier written by a student ten years ago, and present this as ‘damning evidence collected by the British Secret Service’” (Coelho, 2003). While he erred about the “ten years ago,” I was flattered that Coelho, a widely read author, knew of me, even though he failed to mention me by name. By that point I had grown accustomed to my process of disappearing. Even though I appeared on various media channels to address mistakes, such as the 12 year-old claim, they continued to be reported in various media as the simulation had taken a life of its own, and whatever I said could not undo it.
For the media critical of the war, I emerged as a symbol of truth and opposition to the war in the face of government deception. The revelation of plagiarism led to reactions that were conceived of as a form of resistance to power. In the case of the intelligence dossier, one netizen in particular, Glen Rangwala, sought to challenge the power of the British government. The second simulation of exposing the truth that emerged in the light of the plagiarism incident did not reveal the “truth,” but a myriad of truths that were true in the eye of the beholder. In addition to the news media, I appeared in published books in which the plagiarism incident was invoked to criticize the intelligence leading up to the war, including The Rough Guide to Conspiracy Theories, anti-war critic Michael Moore’s Dude, Where’s My Country, and former Fox News host Alan Colmes’s Red, White & Liberal. The denouncers of the plagiarism in these books and the media used my case as a symbol that reality was being masked and by referring to my case sought to reveal the “truth” by exposing the fake intelligence report. However this critique emerged as an anti-war simulation in its own right as it lost relevance to reality or who I was in actuality. Hyperreality overtook my personal background as an Iraqi-American, my ambivalent and contradictory stance on the Iraq war, as well as the virtual nature of the plagiarism, which proved to be too convoluted. Thus, just as I was enveloped in a larger process of justifying the war, so to I was enveloped in a greater process of criticizing the war, embarrassing Tony Blair, and calling out the American and British government after no weapons of mass destruction were discovered in Iraq after the war.
VI. The British Inquiry into the WMD Simulation
It was not until the outbreak of the war and the failure to discover any WMDs in Iraq that inquiries were launched into justifications for the conflict. The Foreign Affairs Committee of the British Parliament established an inquiry to determine whether the British public was misled by their government in the lead up to the war. The panel sought to understand how the CIC plagiarized my article and asked me to testify as part of this inquiry on June 19, 2003.
Before testifying in front of Parliament, I took an opportunity to rehearse my testimony in front of a British audience on June 13. I had received a phone call from the London channel C4, asking me to appear on a show that will be hosted by Jon Snow. I agreed since Jon Snow was a prominent journalist who had reported on Iraq in the past.
I entered a cavernous studio more suited for a game show rather than a news interview, with bleachers flanking us, and massive TV screens hanging above them. I was seated at a cluster of chairs in the middle of the stage, with a couple of people also sitting next to me. For the next fifteen minutes, more than 300 people entered, enough for a studio audience. I wondered if I was in the wrong place? Did the studio staff accidentally seat me on the stage for the British “Dating Game?”
A man took up a position in the center of the studio and said, “I am Jonathon Snow and this is “TONY BLAIR ON TRIAL,” followed by a raucous round of applause from the studio audience. When I was first called to appear on the show, I thought “Tony Blair on Trial” was a euphemistic title for a five-minute news segment. The studio was set up like a televised court house. There were two tables for the “prosecutors” and “defendants” of the Tony Blair government. I, among other people seated in the middle of the studio, constituted the witnesses, and the entire audience was the jury. Fortunately, the prosecution and defense made their cases without cross examining the witnesses like in the American reality shows such “People’s Court” or “Judge Judy.” They just threw accusations at each other.
At varying intervals, Jon would question “the witnesses.” First Snow asked a question to an elderly British man about his feelings after having lost his son in the 2003 Iraq war. After giving his heart rendering testimony, the man cried and walked off the stage. Then it was my turn: “I suppose when the government went into the internet and typed ‘Iraq’ and ‘intelligence,’ they found you.”
“Yes,” I replied, and, “The British government then plagiarized my article and also changed key words in my article.”
The audience began to boo. Fortunately they were booing the British government’s actions and not myself.
“Do you think Iraq’s WMDs were a threat?” Snow asked.
“Not like the British government argued. Iraqi WMDs only threatened the Iraqi people, like the Kurdish victims during the Iran-Iraq War.”
At the end of the show the audience entered their votes via a voting pad attached to their seats. The verdict was announced by Snow after a few minutes. Blair was found guilty. In this case, I stood in as a simulated witness, participating in a mock trial, a simulation, itself, that granted Blair a simulated “guilty” verdict. However, this event construed itself as a simulation opposed to the testimony I would take part in a few days later, which was supposed to be part of a “real” political process. Like in the made-for-TV court trial, during the Parliamentary testimony, I repeated my mantra that the intelligence report was a product of Internet-age plagiarism. If one were to do an internet search on any of the web browsers, my article was the first to show up, since it was one of the first articles ever written compiling all the open source information on Iraq’s intelligence agencies.
Greg Pope, a younger parliamentarian with thick blonde hair that was only beginning to grey, and large brimmed glasses, looked more like a college professor than a politician. During the testimony he asked: “I must say the details of this as it unfolds become more and more extraordinary. We have been told that the four junior officials in Number 10 were responsible for downloading this off the internet and then copying and pasting it. You said at the beginning that if you had tapped into a search engine yours was the top piece of research that came up, so they did not even look very far. It must have been a busy day in the office and they just took the first one” (“Minutes of the Evidence,” House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee, 2003).
“It is actually incompetent,” the Chairman of the Committee chuckled. I sighed and for the first time rested back in my chair. His laughter made it clear that if I ever were suspect, I was no longer. Rational or not, I had feared that I would somehow be implicated in the scandal. The chairman grinned in my direction. He seemed amused not by what I said but by the absurdity of the whole affair. The tone of the inquiry was curious rather than accusatory, and I relaxed a little more, reassured that I was not the target of this inquisition – Tony Blair was.
On June 25, 2003 Alistair Campbell, the head of the CIC, also testified in front of this Parliamentary inquiry. I was present during Campbell’s testimony and the same Parliamentary clerk who arranged for my testimony just a week before saved me a chair in the row directly behind Alistair Campbell. As I settled into my seat, she leaned in toward me and whispered, “The Committee can’t acknowledge you are here. Let’s just keep it a surprise for Campbell.” I was not sure if someone told her to do this, or if it was her own idea, but she had positioned me in a seat where I would show up in all the media coverage of Campbell’s testimony. As the sounds of camera clicks rattled off in the background, it felt almost deceptive to be sitting directly behind the man discussing my work without his realizing I was there. I felt as if I were eavesdropping. Every time Campbell mentioned my name, I felt like raising my hand and saying, “I’m over here.” A cameraman angled in front of him to take his picture. Campbell’s back was blocking me, and I instinctively moved to the side to try to make it into the shot. The boy in me contemplated making bunny ears over Campbell’s head.
In the published photos of his briefing, it seemed as my body was superimposed behind Campbell’s. Rather than two antagonists, the press photos of this testimony symbolized the symbiotic relationship we had developed where media attention on one figure, buttressed the other.
Most of the interrogation of Campbell, however, focused on the other UK government report, issued in September 2002, which caused even more controversy. This report claimed that Iraq could deploy chemical munitions in 45 minutes, reiterating the figure four separate times in its body and was highlighted in Blair’s foreword to the dossier. A government insider in the British Ministry of Defence, Dr. David Kelly who worked on the dossier, revealed to a BBC journalist, Andrew Gilligan, that the 45 minute figure was an exaggeration and asserted that Alistair Campbell inserted that inflated figure to “sex up” the document or in other words present the Iraqi WMD threat as more menacing. The September 2002 dossier was thereafter referred to as the “Sexed-up Dossier” and the February 2003 dossier that featured my plagiarized article was known as the “Dodgy Dossier.” During the media frenzy that ensued after Campbell’s testimony, David Kelly committed suicide near Oxford. While the reasons for his suicide remain unknown, it was most likely due to the pressure he faced once his identity became public. The dossiers became interchangeable in the media reporting, which could have been collectively labeled as the “Dodgy Sex Dossier” since those who did not follow the affair closely would associate me with the 45 minute claim. On numerous occasions after this testimony, I had been asked how did I come up with the 45 minute claim and still have to disavow myself of the flawed intelligence in the September report.
Botz-Bornstein writes, “Hyperreality occurs when the media coverage of an event becomes more important than the event itself, a phenomenon with which we have become acquainted in the coverage of some court cases” (2013). This statement epitomizes the “court cases” surrounding the British government. Neither Blair, nor Alistair Campbell, suffered any sanctions as a result of the Parliamentary inquiry. Both the Parliamentary testimony, the “real” inquiry, like the reality TV show, a pseudo-inquiry, gave the impression of public agency and a process where it could hold the British government accountable, while both generated entertaining news coverage.
VII. The Third Simulation
A third simulation emerged as I was no longer the symbol of truth in the face of government duplicity, but the mastermind behind the Iraq war. In another variation of using the plagiarism to reveal the “truth,” I emerged as a pro-war mastermind who intentionally wrote the document to overthrow Saddam Hussein. An article in The Nation by Alexander Cockburn, entitled “The Great ‘Intelligence’ Fraud,” gave the impression that I was a student who wrote a “politically inspired document” for an “Israeli think tank hot for war” (2003). Cockburn had not contacted me before publishing his article and had gleaned his information from an interview I conducted with a Boston Globe journalist. Both articles suggested that since I was a Shi’a, belonging to the sect “oppressed” in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, I would have been eager to have my article support a war against Iraq, providing another example of how my deep ambivalence over the issue failed to translate into media that serve as a forced referendum. The article I wrote for MERIA did not make any argument that advocated military action against Iraq, and thus was of no use to any party advocating a war. My article sought to provide an outline of the complicated network that formed the Iraqi security apparatus and I had no control over how the UK government would misrepresent it for its own goals, yet for the third simulation, the reality of my motivations were irrelevant.
Other examples portraying me as a symbol of the mastermind of the war can be found in a July 2003 internet post entitled, “Chain of Cause and Effect” on the Indymedia website: “Don’t hold on this pubescent monkey business because we know the person who has caused these incidents. It is this crazy former U.S. student with this suspect name Ibrahim al-Marashi who wrote this awful and sneaking dossier so this poor folks Bush and Blair had to raid iraq and kill over 15.000 evil crimes. He collaborate with Al Kaida and Bin Ladin for this diabolic plan to lure this great nations into a trap. He is responsible for averaged daily 10-25 attacks against the glory U.S. troops and maybe he also had planned the attack on 9.11. The glory secret services are now hot on his trail. He is the personification of Satan and the worlds biggest terrorist.God bless us!” (Broadband Noise, 2003).
The use of syntax and grammatical mistakes suggest that the author of this post was not a native English speaker, perhaps someone writing outside the US or UK. However, his or her line of reasoning resonated with the mainstream media in Turkey, where I moved to after completing my doctorate in 2004. On a Sunday morning in that year, I sat in a Starbucks, and noticed a young man a few tables away from me reading the Sunday edition of a major Turkish daily, Sabah. I squinted my eyes, focusing on the person on the front page of the paper, and noticed his resemblance to me. In fact he was me. I was on the front page of one of Turkey’s leading daily newspapers. From the distance I could read the Turkish headline, “THE MAN WHO FINISHED SADDAM IS IN ISTANBUL”.
I purchased my own copy and quickly turned to page 24 to read the rest of my story. I noticed the text under the headline dealing with my story described me as writing a report that started a war. Starting a war? Out of all the times my story was covered in the British or international press, they never described me as “starting a war.”
“How could you have started a war?” A taxi driver later day driving me home recognized me from the newspaper and asked me that question over and over again. In a grocery store, the cashier recognized me and asked, “Why would you write such a report?” The owner of a video store recognized me and said, “I know you. So you’re the one who started the war.”
My Turkish was not sophisticated enough to respond to tell them that the British government also used Microsoft Word to write the dossier, but did that mean Bill Gates started the war?
However, my image of the Iraq war mastermind continued in Turkey for three year, until one day one of my students showed me a flyer posted on campus I taught at in Istanbul. My photo appeared above the words, “We Don’t Want This Agent of Imperialism at Our School!” The flyer was written by a youth group attached to the Turkish Communist Party, which had earlier published an article about my father being in the Iraqi opposition, which he never was. The flyer wrote that: “Al-Marashi has the blood of a million Iraqis on his hands. We do not want a professor with an imperialist mentality at our school.” This flyer foreshadows my depiction in the 2009 film In the Loop, a black comedy on the lead up to the Iraq war, featuring a fictionalized protagonist, Malcolm Tucker, a satirical depiction of Alistair Campbell. I was portrayed as the character Liza Weld (played by the actress Anna Chlumsky), the assistant to the US Secretary of State, who authors a report that is copied by the British spin doctor’s office. While this film makes no pretence of being a realistic depiction of actual events, this film serves as a fitting ending to cap off the narrative I began with as a teenager.
In the age of the easy edit, the fliers on campus were supplemented by Facebook, where similar claims were uploaded on to their page simple entitled, “Al-Marashi Leave Our Campus!” which outlined my fictitious meetings with George W. Bush and Powell to orchestrate the Iraq War. I scanned the pictures of the students’ faces on the Facebook Group. It depressed me to see 60 students, most of them were males, growing thin Che Guerva like moustaches, who all shared in common an antipathy if not hatred towards me.
In 1991 I watched the destruction of Iraq, unable to understand the events that led up to the war, nor the ramifications of how the media portrayed the conflict then. These events I lived through brings us back to Baudrillard’s claim that the world exists in a condition of hyperreality, with “the generation by models of a real without origin or reality” (Baudrillard,  1994: 1). My quest to research Iraq brought me to the silver screen in 2009, where I had disappeared, assumed a feminine persona and worked for the US government, with the latter aspect in the film mirroring the charges levelled at me by the Turkish student activists. The simulacrum of Ibrahim Al-Marashi proved powerful enough to motivate these groups of students posting the flyers to protest on campus, demanding the resignation of the “Agent of Imperialism,” while another group of students, who actually enrolled in my courses, formed a counter-protest so that I would stay. Rather than educating students in Turkey, I had a polarizing effect on the student body, compelling me to leave both the university and the country. After three years of living in Istanbul, I sat on a plane, a one-way journey from Istanbul to New York, feeling both embittered and resigned to my fate that I failed to defeat the simulacrum that had consumed my life there.
This article may read as a hagiographical litany of the trials I suffered as a result of the plagiarism incident, or someone who actively sought out the media during this period and enjoyed the attention. Both are true. It may appear that this article glorifies the article I wrote for MERIA in 2002. As a historian the article I wrote did not represent an original contribution to the literature based on primary sources, but did require a lot of work to bring every secondary source on the Iraqi security services into chapter two of my thesis, which saved the staff in the British government from doing this work. The work was primarily a static, schematic chapter, without an overarching argument. Perhaps that is what made it so easy to be plagiarized.
Commentary in the media, books, and Internet constructed a simulation of these events opposed to representation. The various simulations following the revelation marked the breakdown of any distinction from the original and the fake. The cases I illustrated in the first and third simulation elided the article I wrote and the dossier produced by the British government. The British government argued that since the report I wrote is accurate, their dossier was accurate and the plagiarism should be ignored, whereas in the third simulation, the plagiarism of my article was irrelevant since I had always intended it to be used in an intelligence report to overthrow Saddam Hussein. In the second simulation, the actual article I wrote in an online journal was irrelevant. It soon became a student thesis that was twelve years old to discredit the British and thus American case to go to war against Iraq. With all three the distinction between the one text that was original and the other as a fake was no longer upheld. If, according to Baudrillard, the Gulf War did not take place, the case of the Dodgy Dossier serves as one example that demonstrated that the 2003 Iraq War also did not take place.
About the Author
Ibrahim Al-Marashi is Assistant Professor of History at California State University San Marcos. His research deals with the history of Iraq, and violent conflict in the Middle East. His current book project is a history of the Iran-Iraq War from the perspective of the Iraqi military and the security forces, focusing on the projection of violence against Iranian forces and Iraq’s Kurds. He is the co-author of Iraq’s Armed Forces: An Analytical History (Routledge, 2008). He obtained his D.Phil. in 2004 in Modern History at University of Oxford, completing a thesis on the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait.
The author would like to thank Elizabeth Duaphinee at York University, whose work served as an inspiration for the revision of this article, and for providing valuable suggestions.
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1 -The other articles that were plagiarized included Ken Gause (2002). “Can the Iraqi Security Apparatus save Saddam.” Jane’s Intelligence Review. November; Sean Boyne (1997), “Inside Iraq’s Security Network, Part One.” Jane’s Intelligence Review. July; Sean Boyne (1997), “Inside Iraq’s Security Network, Part Two.” Jane’s Intelligence Review. August.