In a sharp about-turn, US intelligence agencies are now accusing the United Arab Emirates for hacking into Qatar’s official news agency, thereby sparking the Gulf crisis between Washington’s Arab allies. The latest twist amounts to an admission that the US is guilty of previously broadcasting fake news blaming Russia.
This week, the Washington Post cites US intelligence officials when it reported Monday: «The United Arab Emirates orchestrated the hacking of Qatari government news and social media sites in order to post incendiary false quotes attributed to Qatar’s emir, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al Thani, in late May that sparked the ongoing upheaval between Qatar and its neighbors».
However, last month, on June 7, the American news outlet CNN had a completely different take on the Gulf crisis, when it blamed Russia for trying to sow division between US allies in the Persian Gulf. It reported in an «exclusive» article with the headline: «US suspects Russian hackers planted fake news behind Qatar crisis».
That CNN report went on to claim: «US officials say the Russian goal appears to be to cause rifts among the US and its allies. In recent months, suspected Russian cyber activities, including the use of fake news stories, have turned up amid elections in France, Germany and other countries».
While CNN hinted that the alleged Russian hackers in the Gulf could have been criminal privateers, the thrust of its report last month very much pointed the finger of blame at the Russian government for hacking into the Qatar news agency. Using assertion, speculation and anonymous sources, the alleged Russian cyber-attack on Qatar was linked to alleged meddling by the Kremlin in the US presidential election last year.
«US intelligence has long been concerned with what they say is the Russian government's ability to plant fake news in otherwise credible streams, according to US officials», reported CNN.
But now this week, US intelligence officials have changed their tune on who they think is whipping up the Gulf crisis. It is not Russia, it is the United Arab Emirates (UAE).
«[US] Officials became aware last week that newly analyzed information gathered by US intelligence agencies confirmed that on May 23, senior members of the UAE government discussed the plan and its implementation,» reports the Washington Post this week.
For over a month now, the UAE has aligned with Saudi Arabia and Bahrain to blockade Qatar, another member of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). The crisis has become deadlocked with neither side willing to back down, much to the strategic concern of Washington. All of the monarchial energy-rich states are longtime allies of the US and together as a unit are a linchpin in maintaining the global petrodollar system. The other GCC members, Kuwait and Oman, have taken a neutral stance in the diplomatic crisis and have acted as brokers to resolve the dispute. Egypt, has joined with the Saudi-led bloc, to impose sanctions against Qatar.
The row blew up dramatically days after US President Donald Trump made an official state visit to Saudi Arabia on May 20-22. In exchange for a record $110-billion arms deals with the Saudi rulers, it seems clear that Trump gave the green light for the Saudis to instigate a blockade on Qatar. Ostensibly, the Saudis and the others are accusing Qatar of sponsoring terrorism and, they say, that is why they acted to isolate the neighboring gas-rich state. The absurd hypocrisy behind the accusation belies the real motive of petty rivalry among the Gulf monarchs. In particular, the Qatari-based Al Jazeera news network has been a bane for the Saudi and Egyptian rulers owing to its relatively independent and critical reporting on repression in those countries. Qatar’s support for the Muslim Brotherhood has also rankled the Saudis and Egyptians.
Two days after Trump flew out of Saudi on May 22, the official Qatari News Agency was hit with a fake news attack. Its news reports attributed statements to the Qatari emir, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al Thani, in which he praised Iran – the Shia arch-enemy of the US-backed Sunni monarchies – as well as making critical comments about Trump.
The whole debacle was an obvious set-up. Despite urgent notices from Qatar that its new agency had been hacked with fake news, the Saudi, Bahraini and Emirati media continued to prominently report the statements as if they were genuine, with the evident intention of smearing Qatar and provoking a stand-off.
The stage was then set for Saudi Arabia, UAE, Bahrain and Egypt to announce on June 5 a total embargo of commercial, media and transport links with Qatar «because of its support for terrorism and friendly relations with Iran».
US President Trump initially voiced support for the blockade on Qatar, claiming it as a success from his trip to Saudi Arabia.
«So good to see the Saudi Arabia visit with the King [Saudi King Salman] and 50 countries already paying off», Trump smugly declared through his Twitter feed. «They said they would take a hard line on funding extremism, and all reference was pointing to Qatar. Perhaps this will be the beginning of the end to the horror of terrorism!»
But ever since Trump set off the worst crisis in the Gulf among US allies, his top diplomat Rex Tillerson has been busy trying to calm the row.
Qatar serves as the base for US Central Command in the Middle East with an airbase housing 10,000 troops. American warplanes flying out of Qatar are the main strike force for operations in Iraq, Syria and Yemen. Strategic planners in Washington realize that the US cannot afford to alienate Qatar.
Tillerson has diverged noticeably from Trump’s simplistic broadside supporting Saudi Arabia, and has instead sought to bring Qatar back into the GCC fold. The US Secretary of State has hinted that the Saudi-led blockade is draconian and unrealistic. On June 23, Saudi Arabia and its partners demanded that Qatar shut down the Al Jazeera network along with a dozen other ultimatums. Qatar refused.
Last week, Tillerson had a frenetic week of shuttle diplomacy flying between Qatar and Saudi Arabia to get both sides to compromise. On Friday, July 14, the former Exxon CEO returned to the US deflated, unable to break the deadlock.
While traveling back to the US, Tillerson alluded to the strategic importance at stake for Washington in maintaining Gulf Arab unity. He said it is «really important to us from a national security standpoint. We need this part of the world to be stable, and this particular conflict between these parties is obviously not helpful».
This would explain why the US has now moved to expose the Saudi-led camp as being behind the fake news hack incident against the Qatari news agency.
That disclosure undermines the Saudi-led position. It confirms what the Qataris have been saying from the outset; namely, that they have been set up for a faux crisis by Gulf rivals, whose objective is to subjugate Qatari sovereignty under Saudi tutelage. Shutting down the «offensive» Al Jazeera news station being one of the desired outcomes.
By undermining the Saudis and UAE in this way, the US is waging that it can lever the Saudis and the others GCC members into softening their demands on Qatar.
So keen are the US military and geopolitical planners to defuse the prolonged Gulf crisis – a crisis that threatens the petrodollar system – that they were obliged to come clean about the real identify of the perpetrators of the cyber attack on Qatar. That means dishing the dirt on the Saudis and UAE as the source of the hack, and abandoning the earlier claim that Russia was to blame.
CNN is once again caught out faking news about Russian hackers. At the time of its «exclusive» last month accusing Russia of destabilizing US allies in the Gulf, the news channel at least had the decency to quote Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov on the claim.
Peskov said in the June 7 report: «It is another lie.. CNN again and again publish references to unnamed sources in unnamed agencies, etc, etc. These streams of information have no connection with the reality. It is so far away from the reality. Fake is a fake».
What the whole episode shows is not just how irresponsible US intelligence officials and major media are in publishing false claims defaming Russia. It also shows them as unscrupulous and expedient.
Just because the lingering Gulf crisis is spiraling to threaten US strategic interests, only then is there a sudden switch to a version of events that more accurately reflects reality. If it weren’t for US strategic concerns in the Gulf, the fake news put out about Russian hackers would no doubt continue. Which begs the question: if Russian hackers in the Gulf is fake news, then what does that say about similar claims of Russian hacking in the US?