Intelligence bodies distance themselves from 45-minute claim

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Indy Politics

The intelligence services in Britain are caught in an internecine struggle to distant themselves from the information that allowed the government to claim Saddam Hussein possessed stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction.

The battle will be fought over the origin, handling and interpretation of the now discredited assertion that Iraq could deploy weapons within 45 minutes. On opposing sides are MI6and the Defence Intelligence Staff (DIS), a separate body which is part of the Ministry of Defence (MoD).

Even before Lord Butler begins considering the terms of his inquiry it is clear that MI6 is in the front line. It was responsible for providing the bulk of the evidence for the September 2002 dossier.

More significantly MI6 officers made contact with the former Iraqi military officer who brought in the intelligence on which the 45-minute claim was made.

At the time, it represented a coup for British intelligence because it had been secured without the help of the US. The first the analysts of the DIS knew about the intelligence was after they were granted access to parts of the September dossier and began to question the reliability of the 45-minute claim.

The principal purpose of the DIS is to analyse covert and publicly available information from different sources so that the MoDhas an accurate view of world. It has a mixed staff of Armed Forces officers and civilian research staff, scientific staff and linguists. It was Brian Jones, head of DIS's scientific analysts, who wrote to his boss Tony Cragg, Deputy Chief of Defence Intelligence, to put on record his dissent over the 45-minute claim.

Yesterday he wrote in The Independent that the disagreement between the experts was "not so much resolved as finessed". He said it was only later that he was told that MI6 had good intelligence that "negated" his caution over the claim but that the intelligence had to be "compartmentalised". Such a defensive reaction from MI6 highlights the mutual suspicion between it and the DIS.

When the Joint Intelligence Committee (JIC), the main intelligence body, came to consider the 45-minute claim during the drafting of the September dossier its chairman, John Scarlett, was not made aware of the scientists' unhappiness about its inclusion.

Mr Cragg told the Hutton inquiry last year that he had received Dr Jones's letter of concern on 19 September but: "I took the view that since all of the issues had either been discussed with the Cabinet Office or were well within the general thrust of known intelligence, it was not necessary to raise the issues."

Confirmation that Mr Jones's objection had been suppressed will inflame suspicions that the JIC has become politicised. Certainly Mr Scarlett is known to be closely connected to Number 10 even described by Alastair Campbell as one of his "mates". But there is also resentment over MI6's influential relationship with JIC. This was a problem that the committee under Lord Franks addressed after the intelligence failure over the Falklands campaign.

Lord Franks concluded that the JIC should not be chaired by a career civil servant or intelligence officer, but should be allowed to act as free from direct political interference as possible. The recommendation was at first followed but later ditched when once again JIC was headed by a serving intelligence officer. There are similar antagonisms within the American intelligence community.

The most significant resentment is over the Bush Administration's creation of the Office of Special Plans (OSP), an intelligence unit created inside the Defence Department. The unit reportedly called itself "The Cabal". It ruffled feathers within the Pentagon, which already had its own intelligence unit, the Defence Intelligence Agency (DIA), and the wider intelligence community, where veteran analysts complained that intelligence gathering was being deliberately politicised.

This is expected to come under scrutiny during America's own inquiry into the intelligence failure over Iraq.

In Britain the situation is further complicated by internal politics within British intelligence services.

John Scarlett is thought to be positioning himself to take over as head of MI6 when Sir Richard Dearlove, its current chief, steps down later this year. But he faces stiff competition from Sir Richard's number two, Nigel Inkster.

His chances may have been damaged by his close association with Downing Street. Senior intelligence officers have vowed not to become embroiled in a similar exercise that risks crossing the line between intelligence gathering and politics. Brian Jones's intervention is bound to further suspicions that all is not well with our security services.

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