The Dodgy Sex Dossier
A closer look at a doctoral dissertation that became the basis for a notorious British policy paper justifying involvement in the Iraq war.
The source: “The ‘Dodgy Dossier’: The Academic Implications of the British Government’s Plagiarism Incident” by Ibrahim Al-Marashi, in Middle East Studies Association Bulletin, June 2006.
Four years ago, to bolster support for an invasion of Iraq, British prime minister Tony Blair released a dossier titled “Iraq—Its Infrastructure of Concealment, Deception, and Intimidation.” Nineteen paragraphs had been copied almost verbatim from the work of an Iraqi-American Ph.D. candidate at Oxford University. And that was only the beginning.
Ibrahim Al-Marashi’s thesis was based on 300,000 declassified Iraqi documents abandoned in Kuwait when American-led forces drove the Iraqis out in the first gulf war of 1990–91. In 2003, when the dossier was being written by Blair’s “spin doctor,” Alastair Campbell, Al-Marashi was on leave from pursuit of his doctorate to work at the Center for Nonproliferation Studies in Monterey, California. Four days after the dossier was slipped to journalists in the final buildup to the war, the doctoral candidate got an e-mail from a British academic: Had he collaborated with the government on the dossier? Al-Marashi hadn’t heard of the dossier, but when he placed it side by side with an article he had adapted from the second chapter of his thesis, he found long sections of his own words in the 19-page document. It wasn’t just outrage that he felt. As a young scholar hoping to teach in the Middle East, he feared that the use of his research to justify a war against his native Iraq would blackball him forever. But while the British government’s plagiarism caused considerable concern, to say the least, writes Al-Marashi, “I found the media’s coverage of the incident even more disturbing.”
In the press frenzy surrounding the incident, the Blair government’s plagiarism of two other authors was largely forgotten. “It was far more incompetent to plagiarize a California ‘student’ than a published author,” Al-Marashi explains. The media played the story as if he were “an undergraduate in shorts and sandals whose ‘homework assignment’ was copied by the British government.”
Alexander Cockburn, in an article for The Nation, accused Al-Marashi of writing a “politically inspired document” for an “Israeli think tank hot for war.” Within a week, The Guardian had promoted him to postdoctoral status. The Washington Post wrote that the plagiarized material was 12 years old, though it later issued a retraction. The London Observer relayed “mutterings” that the French could not be expected to back a war on Iraq justified only by a “failed doctoral thesis.”
Even worse, Al-Marashi had written that one of the responsibilities of the Iraqi intelligence service was “aiding opposition groups in hostile regimes.” That was juiced up in the dossier into an assertion that the Iraqi intelligence services were “supporting terrorist organizations in hostile regimes.” Al-Marashi’s work had opened the door to the charge that Saddam Hussein supported Al Qaeda.
The Al-Marashi dossier was not the only one produced by Blair’s press chief. In an earlier document, Campbell claimed that Iraq could deploy chemical munitions in 45 minutes, inserting the short time frame into the separate study in order to “sex up” the document, Al-Marashi writes. This became known as the “sexed-up dossier,” while the “Al-Marashi” paper was called the “dodgy dossier.” Many people lost the distinction, and Al-Marashi repeatedly had to decline responsibility for the “dodgy sex dossier.” Then he was enshrined for posterity as a grammatical lout when a misplaced comma in his original thesis was reprinted in a best-selling punctuation book, Eats, Shoots and Leaves.
Saddam Hussein, in the end, did not—as Al-Marashi had feared—retaliate against his relatives remaining in Iraq, although his family has since fled the country following a kidnapping attempt. Al-Marashi got his Ph.D. on schedule in 2004, and he is now an international policy fellow at Central European University’s Center for Policy Studies. He is often asked why he didn’t sue the British government. He responds: “The ramifications of two governments making an argument to invade a sovereign nation based on evidence that was essentially taken from a journal article, in my opinion, makes the thought of money meaningless.”