Iraq – United States Relations

Safe secrets

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 19 May, 1999, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 19 May, 1999, 12:00am

Call me a cynic, but it is hard to believe that the new series, Top Secret (World, 10pm), is actually going to reveal anything secret at all.

Admittedly, the American secret services have been exposed recently as remarkably inept. The bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade, combined with those controversial blastings in Afghanistan and Sudan last year, have added to the impression that the United States intelligence community is rather lacking in common sense.

However, even the dimmest spy should be able to spot when a herd of television cameramen, sound engineers and producers come sweeping into the building.

The first programme starts in the American NSA, an acronym that stands for National Security Agency, although many alternatives spring to mind. Most of the cases the agency spokespeople talk about are lessons in history: code-breaking success stories from World War II and the Vietnam War.

There is something counter-intuitive about the structure of the programme: what is the point in pretending to reveal something, when simultaneously praising the way the NSA has protected its operations from scrutiny over the years? How'd They Do That? (Pearl, 10.45pm) also fails to convince this evening. The show's hosts, Pat and Wendy, are so smooth that usually we believe anything they say, be it an account of breath-taking new surgical techniques or synchronised sky-diving.

Tonight, the most convincing report is the one about a mock Star Trek set-up in the Nevada desert.

Unfortunately, they also have to talk us straight-faced through an admiring piece on the US Air Force.

On a good day, no doubt, the USAF is about as good as air forces get, but it does not seem to have been having any recently. What probably began as a carefully placed piece of propaganda, originally broadcast in the US in 1998, feels uncomfortably naive in the light of all that has happened in the past 12 months.

The claim is that despite all of Saddam Hussein's efforts to fortify Baghdad during the Gulf War, using more arms than the Russians do for Moscow, Pat and Wendy gushingly inform us, the American pilots blew the city away anyway. Fantastic! And best of all, not one of those servicemen got a scratch doing it, just zoomed in, blew up all 15 missile sites, and the odd Iraqi, and home in time for burgers and apple pie.

Only someone who has been on Mars since the end of the Gulf War can possibly believe it was that simple. Somehow, Saddam and his city survived and carried on building secret weapons so successfully last year that another lot of American pilots had to go in.