It was too good to be true. We were told we would be getting evidence of Osama bin Laden's guilt. Instead, close analysis of the 21-page document put out by the Government on Thursday reveals a report of conjecture, supposition and unsubstantiated assertions of fact. It uses every trick in the Whitehall drafter's arsenal to make the reader believe they are reading something they are not: a damning indictment of Mr bin Laden for the events of 11 September.
No wonder Tony Blair and his officials are delighted with the reaction to publication of the dossier. One Whitehall source told the Independent on Sunday they were "chuffed with two newspapers for hailing it as 'proof' of bin Laden's involvement and delighted it got such a good reaction overall". Ministers believe the document has sealed the propaganda war, convincing the country of the need to move against Mr bin Laden and al-Qa'ida and to accept limited British and civilian casualties. To their relief they are not being subjected to rigorous questioning on the report, either from their own supporters, the Opposition, or much of the media. Officials are also pleased: the document successfully papers over the cracks in their own intelligence operations.
The report was put together by a committee which included senior members of MI5 and MI6, working round the clock, with drafts going backwards and forwards to Washington. Within Whitehall, the dossier was seen as vital to gaining the approval of a naturally cautious and sceptical British public. As a paper produced by mandarins anxious to brook no argument it is a classic of its kind, straight from the script of Yes Minister: short on checkable detail; long on bold assertion; highly selective with the choice of facts.
Officials when they prepare such reports operate to a set of principles. They know that unlike the US, and thanks to their efforts in suppressing freedom of information down the years, Britain is a secret society. We are not used to having anything presented to us about intelligence matters and threats to national security. That, plus the British characteristic of not defying authority, especially in times of crisis, means that if the Government says loudly enough that something is "evidence", even if it is not, we will accept it as such.
That is why the very first sentence in the paper, in the introduction, states: "The clear conclusions reached by the government are: Osama bin Laden and Al Qaida, the terrorist network which he heads, planned and carried out the atrocities on 11 September 2001." This is the introduction, not the conclusion or an executive summary. Introductions, as the authors knew too well, normally set up a document, relating the background as to why the book or, in this instance, a government document, has been written. Here, that convention was rejected: from the word go, the Government wanted to ensure the point of the document was conveyed.
The document carries a health warning that intelligence material has been withheld to protect the safety of sources. But, lawyers point out, this is not good enough. Assuming one aim of the military build-up is to try to capture Mr bin Laden and put him on trial, that so-far-unseen evidence would have to be displayed – because on the basis of what has been released there is no chance of his being prosecuted, let alone convicted. "The Prime Minister told Parliament that this evidence was of an even more direct nature indicating guilt," said Richard Gordon QC. "The document makes it clear that the additional evidence is 'too sensitive to release'. That may be so, but in any criminal prosecution against bin Laden the necessary evidence would have to be adduced for the case to be proved."
For page after page, the paper spews out facts about Mr bin Laden. In 1996, he issued a declaration of jihad, or holy war. In February 1998 he issued and signed a fatwa which included a decree to all Muslims that "the killing of Americans and their civilian and military allies is a religious duty for each and every Muslim to be carried out..." In the same year he also said that acquiring chemical or nuclear weapons for the defence of Muslims was a "religious duty". It might look like evidence of something, but it is not proof he organised the 11 September attacks. "All this shows, in the language of the lawyers, propensity, but it proves little," said Mr Gordon.
More pertinent to 11 September were two TV interviews he gave, in 1997 and 1998, in which he referred to the terrorists who carried out the earlier attack on the World Trade Centre in 1993 as "role models". In December 1999, a terrorist cell linked to al-Qa'ida was discovered trying to carry out attacks in the US. Other attacks on US targets by al-Qa'ida or terrorists trained at bin Laden camps were made in January and October 2000.
Again, said Mr Gordon, it is not enough. "This material shows that bin Laden may well have been responsible for the 11 September massacre but it does not, of itself, prove that he was." The document goes into great detail about the bombings of the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998. But there is not one single fact presented that was not already known. While the operation was similar to 11 September – well planned, two attacks on the same day, suicide attackers indiscriminate killing of civilians, including Muslims – it does not prove anything.
Officials deny that the minute description of the previous bombings was designed to cover up cracks in their own intelligence about 11 September. Nevertheless, it is noticeable that in a 21-page document the overwhelming bulk of it is devoted to rehashing old information. It is not until page 18 and paragraph 61 that the reader is told something new about 11 September.
This is that three of the 19 hijackers have been "positively identified as associates of Al Qaida" and that one of them "has been identified as playing key roles in both the East African embassy attacks and the USS Cole attack". The word "associates" suggests the authorities lack intelligence on al-Qa'ida: they think they know who may be involved but they are not sure, and they are not certain where they come in the pecking order – hence the catch-all, "associates". The three are understood to be: Khalid Almihdhar and Nawaf Alhazmi, both filmed secretly in Kuala Lumpur meeting other al-Qa'ida members involved in the USS Cole bombing in Aden; and Mohamed Atta. Suspected of being the ringleader, Atta is believed to have been a member of Islamic Jihad, a major grouping within al-Qa'ida, and the authorities are convinced he received training at a bin Laden camp in Afghanistan. The hijacker who played a key role in the embassy, USS Cole and 11 September attacks, is thought to refer to Almihdhar. If there is a hijacker linking all three, that is a crucial piece of evidence since there is no doubt al-Qa'ida committed the earlier bombings.
The next paragraph, 62, promises much and delivers little. Prefaced with another rider about names remaining anonymous to protect sources, it begins by saying how, prior to 11 September, Mr bin Laden "mounted a concerted propaganda campaign ... justifying attacks on Jewish and American targets". It was well known in the Middle East that, earlier this year, a bin Laden recruitment video was in circulation, exhorting Muslims to lay down their lives for the jihad. The video makes no mention of any coming big assault nor does it refer to 11 September or possible targets in the US.
Last week it emerged that Mr bin Laden called his adoptive mother in Syria on 10 September to tell her there would be "big news", subsequent to which he might be out of touch for some time. It is hard to believe that someone as cautious as him would risk such a call. However, this is understood to be what is being referred to when the document says, in paragraph 62: "We have learned, subsequent to 11 September, that bin Laden himself asserted shortly before 11 September that he was preparing a major attack on America." The document goes on, saying that in August and early September, close bin Laden associates were warned to return to Afghanistan by 10 September.
This is new, and odd. Since the attacks, known al-Qa'ida associates have been picked up or they are being watched. If there was advice to go to Afghanistan presumably they ignored it or did not receive it. The names of the "close associates" are not specified, neither is any more detail made available – which is a mystery. It is hard to see why giving a bit more detail would compromise anybody or a foreign intelligence service that may be monitoring their calls.
Again, this tantalising paragraph – by far the most intriguing in the document – says that just before the attacks "some known associates of bin Laden were naming the date for action as on or around 11 September". What associates? How? When? Again, no detail is supplied.
Then, the paragraph continues, "one of bin Laden's closest and most senior associates was responsible for the detailed planning of the attacks". This is thought to be a reference to either Mohamed Atef, al-Qa'ida's operations chief, or Ayman al Zawahiri, Mr bin Laden's deputy. Another senior al-Qa'ida member being mentioned by those close to the investigation is Abu Zubeidah.
After all this, the most vital paragraph in the paper ends with this curious sentence: "There is evidence of a very specific nature relating to the guilt of bin Laden and his associates that is too sensitive to release."
What this document is not is a detailed exposition of the investigation to date. To be fair, that is still ongoing, but providing that amount of information would distract from the paper's main purpose, to blame Mr bin Laden. This is summarised in the final narrative paragraph, 69: "No other organisation has both the motivation and the capability to carry out attacks like those of the 11 September – only the Al Qaida network under Osama bin Laden." This smacks of exasperation. To ram that point home, paragraph 70, "conclusion", repeats the message of the introduction. This, in the end, is what the paper is for, a Government plea for trust: it was Mr bin Laden. To which the response must be: we believe you – but prove it.Reuse content