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Sunday 31 January 2010

Billion Dollar Brain Revisited

Listening to the testimonies of the succession of witnesses before the Iraq Enquiry, and the poring over of intelligence, it seems a fair bet that there is one classic film missing from the favourites list of those testifying. Billion Dollar Brain, the third of the 1960s Harry Palmer films, has long been out of favour – probably not helped by the “baddie” being from the US – but the plot sounds all the more relevant when put alongside the 2003 Iraq war.

In the film, Harry Palmer, as ever played by Michael Caine, investigates an organisation called the Crusade For Freedom, and discovers that its leader, unhinged Texas oilman “General” Midwinter (played in superb over-the-top style by Ed Begley), is planning to invade the Baltic republic of Latvia (then part of the USSR) on the twin grounds that he believes he is doing God’s will, and that his intelligence indicates that the country has a vast resistance movement crying out for assistance.

The so-called intelligence, however, is mostly pure invention, partly because some of those attached to the Crusade For Freedom are involved in creative embezzlement, and partly because the information they generate is what Midwinter wants to hear. Here is the awful coincidence with Iraq: there was no intelligence source inside the Ba’athist rĂ©gime, so the West was reduced to using conduits and contacts who had fallen foul of Baghdad. Most prominent of these was the Iraqi National Congress, whose leader Ahmed Chalabi was by this time a convicted fraudster.

Chalabi and the INC passed much intelligence to the West, and much of it was either questionable or downright false. In return, the INC garnered 33 million US Dollars between 2000 and 2003. Much of the information on Iraq’s weapons programmes came from the INC, and this too was largely bogus. But the impression is given that it was just what the recipients wanted to hear.

In the film, Midwinter and his “army” are routed with grim brevity by Soviet planes, and the conclusion is as brief as might be expected in a story limited to less than two hours’ running time. Unfortunately, in Iraq, there is no studio budget constraint: the carnage has been long and bloody. And it has not stopped yet.

[More information on Billion Dollar Brain can be found HERE. And the film is available on DVD – the ideal gift for ex-politicians who have a little more leisure time]

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