For many years, I regarded "think tanks" as a godsend. As a news reporter chasing deadlines, I'd regularly call their "experts" for quotes. Usually, they could give me a few succinct lines that appeared to lend a story some intellectual heft.
Then I started asking: who do these "experts" really represent? Can outfits financed by major corporations be independent?
Security and Defence Agenda (SDA) presents itself as a "neutral platform" for discussing military matters. Analysts with the Brussels-based think tank appear happy nonetheless to sound a bellicose note that chimes with the interest of those weapons manufacturers funding their activities.
Shada Islam, SDA's "strategic advisor", appeared on Euronews recently, where she argued that "several surgical strikes" should be undertaken against Syria (the interview was conducted before the US-Russia deal on removing Syria's chemical weapons). Referring to Bashar Assad, the Syrian president, Islam said: "We have an international treaty which bans the use of chemical weapons. If this man has really used them, we have a moral treaty obligation to act. If the West, if the international community, does not act, turns a blind eye to the use of poison gas, what message are we sending to other despots and dictators?"
Islam failed to spell out that some members of SDA would benefit directly from the attack that she advocated. Lockheed Martin, for example, produces cruise missiles that would almost certainly be used if America decided to bomb Damascus. When an attack looked imminent, the value of Lockheed's shares began to climb steadily.
Last week I contacted Islam asking her to explain why she did not alert viewers to her Lockheed connections. I also asked her Euronews interviewer, Rudolf Herbert, if he was aware that Islam is to all intents and purposes a lobbyist for the arms industry. Neither replied.
SDA's abhorrence of non-conventional weapons may be of a selective nature. A report that it has published on "cyber-security" relied considerably on the "wisdom" dispensed by Yitzhak Ben-Israel, a former head of research with the Israeli military. The report did not mention that Ben-Israel has himself indicated that he provided advice on how that military could use a hideous weapon called DIME (Dense Inert Metal Explosive).
DIME was originally tested by a US Air Force Base in Florida, where the possibility of adding tungsten or other metal particles to an explosive chemical mixture was studied. Desmond Travers, an Irish colonel, has stated that there was much anecdotal evidence that Israel used DIME during its three-week assault on Gaza in late 2008 and early 2009.
He has expressed particular concern about DIME containing powdered metal, which cannot be removed from any human body that it enters. Travers was part of the UN team headed by Richard Goldstone, a retired South African judge, which investigated the conduct of that offensive.
Why is SDA so perturbed by Syria possessing ghastly weapons, but not Israel? This may have something to do with how Lockheed Martin is the biggest beneficiary of US military aid to Israel. The $3 billion that America gives to Israel each year is conditional on it buying weapons from Lockheed and a few other US firms.
No democratic mandate
The SDA hasn't only been thinking about Syria lately. In June, it hosted a "debate" where Claude-France Arnould, chief executive of the European Defence Agency, was the keynote speaker. The weapons-makers in attendance used the occasion to argue that the EU's new scientific research programme, Horizon 2020, subsidise innovation of a military nature.
Although the Union is already financing a number of drone projects, its officials insist that these are purely civilian. The assurances they have given are less than credible, given that the arms industry is taking part in many of these schemes. But it is significant that the industry wants the EU to go further than it already has and actually bankroll the development of weapons.
The drive towards militarisation lacks any democratic mandate. The deep public opposition to a Western attack on Syria illustrated that taxpayers can think of better things to do with their money than supporting American, French or British imperialism.
Shada Islam and her colleagues are hardly concerned with public opinion, however. Their "neutral platform" caters for a tiny elite whose primary objective is to drum up new business for the merchants of death.
•First published by EUobserver, 17 September 2013.