Ed Harriman 1943-2021

Thomas Jones

Ed Harriman, who has died at the age of 77, wrote half a dozen pieces for the London Review between 2004 and 2007, reporting on the waste and corruption that followed the US-led invasion of Iraq. An award-winning documentary film-maker as well as a print journalist, who had worked for Granada TV’s World in Action during the 1980s and Channel 4’s Dispatches since 1991, he went to the Middle East in 2003 to make Secrets of the Iraq War for ITV. His previous films included investigations of ethnic cleansing in Bosnia, of the mismanagement of nuclear waste by both the US and Russia, the handover of Hong Kong, and new houses in Britain built on contaminated land.

Born in New York, Harriman moved to London in 1965. He studied for a doctorate in sociology at the LSE and also spent a number of months as a construction worker excavating the Victoria Line at Oxford Circus; he was an active protester against the war in Vietnam. His transatlantic perspective helped him see both the US and the UK with a sharper eye. His book Hack: Home Truths About Foreign News, published by Zed Books in 1987, gave a first-person account of his experiences as a journalist on five continents, and was clear-sighted about the short cuts that hacks are often required to take, by circumstance or the demands of the organisations they work for. It was a theme he continued in his first piece for the LRB, in April 2004, a review of A Time of Our Choosing: America’s War in Iraq by Todd Purdom of the New York Times:

Few Western journalists saw much of the war in Iraq. Some were corralled in US central command headquarters in Qatar and dependent on Brigadier-General Vincent Brooks’s daily news briefings, some were stuck in Baghdad hotels under the protective wing of Saddam’s information minister, Muhammad al-Sahhaf, some were embedded with the coalition forces: they were all in different ways in the dark. News organisations did their best to pull together their teams’ reports, but they delude themselves and their readers and viewers if they think they were reporting the full story.

Purdom’s book devoted several chapters to the so-called ‘Thunder Run’, the advance towards Baghdad of the 2nd Brigade of the 3rd Infantry Division on 5 April, but ‘there isn’t a word about what happened at al-Hilla’ a few days earlier, when dozens of Iraqis, including children, were killed by US cluster munitions.

For his subsequent pieces, Harriman went in search of the story not only on the ground in Iraq but also in the financial reports of the US General Accountability Office and other agencies. Everywhere he looked, he found evidence of graft on a grand scale:

An Iraqi hospital administrator told me that, as he was about to sign a contract, the American army officer representing the Coalition Provisional Authority had crossed out the original price and doubled it. The Iraqi protested that the original price was enough. The American officer explained that the increase (more than $1 million) was his retirement package …

Millions of dollars in cash went missing from the Iraqi Central Bank. Between $11 million and $26 million worth of Iraqi property sequestered by the CPA was unaccounted for. The payroll was padded with hundreds of ghost employees. Millions of dollars were paid to contractors for phantom work.

It was a case of rapacious order emerging from the chaos unleashed by the invasion. In 2007, in his last piece in the LRB, Harriman wrote:

The most recent quarterly report to Congress of the US Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction (Sigir), released in late July, found that almost all the American money set aside to rebuild Iraq – more than $21 billion appropriated by Congress four years ago – has been spent. So too has some $20 billion of the Iraqis’ own money handed out by Paul Bremer, Bush’s proconsul in Baghdad during the first year of the occupation. Much of the money was used to pay for American goods and services and never reached Iraq. Much of the rest disappeared and has never been properly accounted for.