Scarlett admits disquiet in intelligence circles over 45-minute claim in dossier

Click to follow
Indy Politics

John Scarlett took 49 minutes to admit there was disquiet within the intelligence community over the inclusion of Saddam Hussein's supposed "45-minute" threat in the Iraq arms dossier. Twelve more minutes passed before he acknowledged there had been "requests" from Alastair Campbell over "tightening up" some of the wording of the document, and that he had acquiesced on a number of linguistic points.

Soon afterwards, a memorandum flashed up on the screen at the inquiry showing a last-minute and somewhat desperate plea by Downing Street for more evidence from spy chiefs. Asked whether such pressure was justified, the chairman of the Joint Intelligence Committee said: "I saw and see nothing wrong in that at all." It was, after all, not the first time there had been concern over evidence. The inquiry heard that the dossier had been shelved for three months because of a lack of hard facts.

But Mr Scarlett was keen to stress he had the "ownership, command and control" of the dossier. He reminded the Hutton inquiry several times that he, of all people, was "in the position to know" on matters of intelligence. But Mr Scarlett did not know what part, if any, Dr David Kelly had played in compiling the dossier, or, as he put it, the "assessment".

Mr Scarlett, whom Alastair Campbell, the Prime Minister's chief spin doctor, calls his "mate", had written a draft letter to the Intelligence and Security Committee on Dr Kelly. He was aware of a press statement being issued by the Ministry of Defence saying a civil servant had come forward to admit he had met the reporter Andrew Gilligan.

Mr Gilligan had said in his report on BBC Radio 4's Today programme on 29 May that the Government had "sexed up" the dossier by inserting the allegation that Saddam Hussein could launch chemical and biological weapons within 45 minutes. The claim, said Mr Gilligan, arrived late to British intelligence and was based on just a single source.

Mr Scarlett told the inquiry: "Whether or not he [Dr Kelly] was the source for Andrew Gilligan's knowledge about the 45-minute report coming in late and being based on one report, the conversation which he reported as having had with Andrew Gilligan meant there was a very high chance he was Andrew Gilligan's single source."

James Dingemans QC, counsel for the inquiry, pointed out that even if Mr Gilligan was wrong in his allegation against the Government, he was correct in his claims about the timing and sourcing of the report, facts not known to the public. And Dr Kelly, as the reporter's source, must have been privy to this secret information.

The inquiry had heard that Dr Kelly had reviewed one of the drafts of the dossier, and was present at a meeting of the Defence Intelligence Service five days before its publication on 24 September.

Mr Dingemans asked why did neither Mr Scarlett's draft letter nor the MoD statement tell "anyone that Dr Kelly had an involvement in drafting the dossier". Mr Scarlett replied: "That was because at that stage I, and others involved, did not know that he had any involvement, even of a minimal kind, in the drafting of the intelligence parts of the September dossier."

The inquiry also heard that Tony Blair had chaired a series of meeting about Dr Kelly. Mr Scarlett recalled that at a meeting he chaired on 14 July, Martin Howard, the deputy chief of defence intelligence, had said Dr Kelly was beginning to show signs of pressure. He himself had stated in a document that the Government might be accused of putting Dr Kelly under greater pressure if his name became public.

Lord Hutton asked if it was not surprising no one at the meeting had responded to Mr Scarlett's misgivings. Mr Scarlett said: "No comment was made. It may be because it was understood by everyone at the meeting Dr Kelly had been warned that the public statement would be made and his name was very likely to come out and he accepted that." The JIC chairman was asked about one of the meetings, chaired by the Prime Minister, which discussed whether Dr Kelly would be likely to support the Government's position on Iraq's alleged WMD if he appeared before a parliamentary committee. Mr Dingemans asked Mr Scarlett why this was deemed to be important. Mr Scarlett said: "Whether or not it was important, it was not quite put like that. There was a brief discussion as to whether, if at some point Dr Kelly was questioned in public before a committee, what were his views on the question of Iraq and Iraqi weapons of mass destruction. Were these consistent with what the Government itself had been saying or were they not? It was recognised that this was a point on which the Government should itself be informed, should know what the situation was. It was no more than that."

Mr Scarlett was similarly understanding of the Government's attempts to help him with the dossier. Alastair Campbell's various e-mails to him stating that he and Mr Blair would like things changed in the wording were "comments", rather than, as Lord Hutton suggested, "suggestions". At the end he accepted the term "requests".

The inquiry had also seen a number of e-mails from government press officers and No 10 advisers suggesting alterations. According to Mr Scarlett, these were purely voluntary efforts.

Asked by Mr Dingemans how he felt about the unsolicited advice, Mr Scarlett replied: "As long as I was in charge, I was happy. In fact, I found it quite helpful to have presentational advice." As for Mr Campbell's requests, "I saw this very much as a list of points from him. It was entirely up to me to respond or not as I saw fit."

Mr Scarlett was asked about his reaction to a memo from a member of the Cabinet Office assessment staff that Downing Street wanted the "document to be as hard as possible within the bounds of available intelligence" and "This is therefore a last(!) call for any items of intelligence that agencies think can and should be included. Response needed by 12.00 tomorrow."

Mr Dingemans said: "It appears to betray an attitude that pressure is being brought to bear to dig out anything good by way of intelligence for the dossier." Mr Scarlett said: "These questions are seeking more detail to support statements or areas of the document which are in the draft. This is entirely consistent with the original tasking."

Mr Scarlett said he was not aware of any disquiet within the intelligence community. Under questioning, he saiddefence intelligence staff had presented six pages of concerns about the dossier at a meeting on 17 September. He said: "They queried whether it was right to include it as a judgement. They suggested that it should be qualified in the executive summary with the words 'intelligence suggested' rather than being placed as a judgement ..."