'Unbelievable' project and the SIS failure

THE SCOTT REPORT: THE SUPERGUN
Click to follow
The Independent Online
In the section covering the ], Sir Richard Scott says that the Iraqi long-range gun project known as Project Babylon was "an almost unbelievable concept". "It is therefore not surprising that the discovery of Project Babylon spawned a number of extravagant stories." In 151 pages of investigation, he concludes that the security services failed and the truth of British involvement was concealed from Parliament.

Under cover of a letter to the inquiry dated 22 April 1993, the Security Service submitted a note dated 5 July 1988 which had apparently been found recently on Security Service files:

Space Research Centre (SRC) Belgium . . . A firm had been approached by the SRC and asked to produce two 605mm (23' 8") steel tubes, one 6 metres (19' 6") and one 12 metres (39') long.

The firm was suspicious, partly because SRC did not explain who the customer was or what the tubes were for, and reported SRC's approach to DIS (Defence Intelligence Staff). From the specifications SRC had provided, [Mr Bill Weir, scientific officer, Ministry of Defence] considered the likely uses of the tubes would be . . . as pressure vessels, or in the nuclear industry (but this was unlikely), or as gun barrels . . . (5 July 1988).

The note, if the information which it records was true, tends to undermine the thrust of the Government's stance. The information about Project Babylon was indeed reported to Ministers on the so-called intelligence channel, but in an abbreviated form which gave no indication of the involvement of British companies.

SIS (Secret Intelligence Service) produces a weekly compilation of important pieces of intelligence information which is then circulated very widely in Whitehall, including Ministers. In the SIS digest dated 5 December 1989, the following entry was made: "Iraq is in the early stages of developing an ultra long-range gun." The digest was copied to among others Mr (later Sir) Charles Powell (No 10 Downing Street) and to Mr Stephen Wall (the Private Secretary to the Foreign Secretary).

In his evidence to the inquiry, Sir Charles has said that the Prime Minister regularly saw intelligence summaries, including the SIS digests, and the JIC (Joint Intelligence Committee) weekly summary of intelligence. It is also known that the then Prime Minister saw the digest . . . Within the MOD the digest was only sent to a number of senior serving officers . . . There is no evidence that it was marked on to MOD Ministers.

From an early stage, Sir Hal Miller (MP for Bromsgrove) was maintaining that, since he had kept the Government informed of Iraq's interest in Walter Somers Forgings and of the company's concerns about their end-use, it would not be fair to prosecute Walter Somers executives.

That intervention occurred during questions following a statement made to the House by Mr [Nicholas] Ridley [Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, in April 1990] on the seizure of the gun parts. Mr Ridley said:

In the summer of 1988, the DTI (Department of Trade and Industry) was approached by two of the companies now known to be connected with the manufacture of those components.

On the information available at that time, it was decided that the export licences were not needed for those goods. Until a few days ago, my Department had no knowledge that the goods were designed to form part of a gun. If my Department had known that purpose, then it would of course have advised that [export] licences were necessary, and they would not have been granted.

The Government recently became aware in general terms of an Iraqi project to develop a long-range gun.

The statement that the Government had "recently" become aware of an Iraqi project to develop a long-range gun was a far more elastic use of the word "recently" than was warranted by the known facts.

The project had been known to the intelligence services since at least September 1989.

The project was also described in the SIS digest of intelligence dated 5 December 1989. In written comments to the Inquiry, Mr Nicholas Bevan (MoD) explained that he had not been involved in the drafting of Mr Ridley's statement in April 1990; nor had he been aware that "recently" had been substituted for "last year" at a late drafting stage. He (Bevan) commented:

The comment I made to the TISC [select committee] needs to be seen in its context. The precise question posed was why I or my colleagues saw it as our duty to allow Ministers to deceive themselves and Parliament and the British people. I had not anticipated the question and therefore had not prepared for it: I had to think quickly.

As a witness appearing on behalf of ministers I could not accept the premise of the question that ministers had deceived Parliament. It seemed to me that the lesser evil was the course which I adopted, i.e., to opine that an event which took place four months previously fell within a reasonable definition of "recently".

The Ridley statement did not mention that Sir Hal Miller had been involved in discussions with the Government in June 1988 and that he and Dr Rex Bayliss (of Walter Somers) had alerted the DTI and the MoD about their concerns . . .

Any attempt to summarise my findings in relation to Government knowledge about the Iraqi long-range gun project runs the risk that the complexities and subtleties of the factors which influenced the contemporaneous actions of Government officials will not be adequately reflected. There were omissions; there were also failures.

Muddle undoubtedly had a part to play. But it went further than mere muddle. No contemporaneous written record was made by the DTI of the information given by Sir Hal Miller and Dr Bayliss. DTI and MoD officials failed to make a sufficient record of the exchanges between them in June/July 1988. Nor did the DTI make any record of the advice given by them to Walter Somers in June/July 1988. As a consequence, officials in the DTI export licensing branch were not in a position to identify the connection between the Forgemasters and Walter Somers orders. MoD, DTI and Security Service officials failed in June/July 1988 to use the system for the exchange of information available to them at the time.

If the MoD did reach the opinion in June 1988 that the likely uses for the Walter Somers tubes included use as artillery gun-barrels, it was a serious omission not to have communicated that opinion to the Restricted Enforcement Unit (REU) and, more specifically, the DTI.

If SIS held information (as Mr C2 insists it did) that, in June 1988, SRC had been involved in an attempt to acquire Walter Somers tubes "probably intended for use as gun-barrels", it was a serious omission not to have acted on that information either by reporting the matter to the REU or by otherwise ensuring that the information was communicated to the right quarters.

In the event, there is clear evidence that, some time before October 1989, Government officials had had information which raised the suspicion that Walter Somers's tubes were probably intended for use as artillery gun-barrels.

There is no evidence that at that point officials suspected that they were for use in the kind of project which was eventually uncovered; but the evidence indicates suspicion that an Iraqi long-range artillery project with unusual features was in contemplation.

Parliament could, and should, have been told this.

The investigation by SIS into the underlying facts was inadequate and its report pursuant to that investigation was apt to mislead, with the result that the senior officials who were directly involved were left unaware of the true facts, and were not in a position to brief Ministers adequately.

Comments