Summer blockbusters you should be reading, Tony

Forget the Jeffrey Archer on holiday and pack the US 9/11 report, Butler and Hutton instead, writes Raymond Whitaker. You still have questions to answer
Click to follow
Indy Politics

Tony Blair is flying off to Barbados this week on his summer holiday, hoping and expecting that by the time he returns, the furore over his justifications for the Iraq war will have died to a whisper. But instead of paperback novels and biographies, the Prime Minister might be well advised to take some heavier reading matter with him.

Tony Blair is flying off to Barbados this week on his summer holiday, hoping and expecting that by the time he returns, the furore over his justifications for the Iraq war will have died to a whisper. But instead of paperback novels and biographies, the Prime Minister might be well advised to take some heavier reading matter with him.

Events in Iraq could return the issue of the war to the top of the agenda. Mr Blair is also hostage to developments in the US: he had to set up the Butler inquiry after the question of dodgy Iraq intelligence belatedly caught fire in Washington, forcing George Bush to agree to an investigation. The report of the 9/11 commission - another inquiry the President was reluctant to establish - has just emphasised once again that Iraq had nothing to do with the September 2001 attacks.

If Mr Blair wants to read a bestseller on the beach, he could emulate the hundreds of thousands of Americans who have been snapping up copies of the 9/11 report at $10 each. He might also be able to obtain an uncensored copy of the Senate Intelligence Committee's highly critical examination of the Iraq intelligence fiasco, in which two pages on Britain's part are almost entirely blacked out. The committee's findings could presage those of the White House-authorised inquiry, which reports early next year - after the presidential election in the US, but inconveniently close to the moment when a general election might be called in Britain.

It is not just abroad that the Prime Minister faces constant reminders of the war. Next weekend John Scarlett takes over as head of the Secret Intelligence Service. Not so long ago the official in charge of MI6 was known only as "C", and even though the name of the outgoing chief, Sir Richard Dearlove, became known, his photograph has not been published. But Mr Scarlett's role as author of the Government's September 2002 dossier on Iraq's alleged weapons of mass destruction, and his public appearance at the Hutton inquiry, ensure that he will take office as the most famous British spymaster outside the pages of Ian Fleming.

The Butler report, which could usefully be added to Mr Blair's holiday reading, criticised MI6's lapses in gathering and evaluating information on Iraq. It also deplored the "strain" put on the intelligence as Mr Scarlett, head of the Joint Intelligence Committee, drafted the WMD dossier with Downing Street looking over his shoulder. To considerable discontent in the intelligence community, however, the Butler committee went out of its way to say that he should not be denied the MI6 job.

"People feel Scarlett is too badly damaged," said one well-informed source. "At a time when somebody needs to go into Vauxhall Cross [MI6 headquarters] and sort out the problems Butler identified, he is seen, fairly or not, as personifying those problems."

Perhaps the Prime Minister should put Lord Hutton's report in his luggage, as well as a copy of the September 2002 weapons dossier. The judge was called in to examine the events which led to the suicide of the weapons expert David Kelly, the source of BBC reports that Downing Street had "sexed up" the dossier. While Lord Hutton exonerated the Government of this charge, many see Lord Butler and his committee as having substantiated it.

The Butler panel also disclosed that intelligence behind key claims in the dossier - most notoriously the statement that some of Iraq's WMD could be deployed in 45 minutes - had been withdrawn a year ago. Spokesmen said Mr Blair and the Secretary of State for Defence, Geoff Hoon, had not been aware of this until the Butler report came out this month, but as recently as Tuesday the Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw, revealed that he had been told last September.

As for Sir Richard and Mr Scarlett, they certainly knew the intelligence was falling apart when they appeared before Lord Hutton, but did not tell him. According to Mr Scarlett, Mr Blair did not ask about the "45 minutes" information. Nor, it seems, did anyone feel it necessary to enlighten the Prime Minister about any of the flaws in the intelligence, although more and more people now appear to have known. The outgoing MI6 chief verbally informed Labour backbenchers on the parliamentary Intelligence and Security Committee (ISC) last July. They were not allowed to mention it in their subsequent report, however.

During Mr Blair's absence his critics will be scouring the Hutton transcripts, as well as the hundreds of official documents and emails put before the judge, to see what they reveal in the fresh light of the Butler report. While he is packing for Barbados, the Prime Minister might also consider including the ISC's two reports, as well as that of another parliamentary group which examined the decision to go to war, the Foreign Affairs Committee (FAC).

Both Commons committees criticised the way intelligence was deployed in the WMD dossier, especially the 45-minute claim, while largely giving the Government the benefit of the doubt. But Hutton exposed the extent to which information had been withheld from the FAC in particular. In the wake of the Butler revelations, both committees are planning to resume their investigations. A fusillade of backbenchers' questions on all the discrepancies await official answers when parliamentary sittings resume in September.

All this is likely to ensure that the Government's insistence that it has been cleared four times over - by Hutton, Butler and the two parliamentary committees - fails to convince, and that the doubts and questions about Iraq continue to resound into the autumn. The Labour Party conference begins on 26 September: by that time the Prime Minister's holiday may seem a long way behind him.

Comments