It seems there is something wrong with our spies

The blunt truth is that this country, like America, has been badly let down by its intelligence service
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The Independent Online

Who has accepted this week at the Hutton inquiry that his report was based on "essentially a single source", and defended that reliance on the basis that "much high quality" information "comes from single sources"?

No, it was not Andrew Gilligan defending his story at the Hutton inquiry yesterday, or even Richard Sambrook, the BBC's news chief, or Greg Dyke, its director-general, who also appeared this week. It was Sir Richard Dearlove, head of MI6, defending the intelligence dossier's claims that Saddam Hussein could ready weapons of mass destruction "within 45 minutes".

And what is the difference between Mr Gilligan's use of a single source and MI6's? Well, one is that Mr Gilligan was put under merciless questioning by eminent barristers for several hours yesterday, while Sir Richard was only put under the gentlest questioning on Monday by James Dingemans - and then only at a remote distance through audio link.

The other difference is that Mr Gilligan has been forced to apologise for the loose wording of his original broadcast while, as far as I can determine, not a word of apology has come from the British intelligence community for the loose wording of its dossier. Only an unwilling admission by Sir Richard that some of the criticism made by the parliamentary intelligence committee of the prominence given to the 45-minute warning might be "valid". If the BBC reporter had tried to slough off criticisms that half-heartedly, he would have been torn to pieces.

The parallels are not that far fetched. Much of journalistic intelligence, like military information, comes from human sources - "humint" as we are learning to call it. If you find someone who has access to inside information, as Mr Gilligan did, then you tend to run with the story, just as MI6 did with its source, who wasn't even first hand but a man reporting on what he heard from someone else.

The question then is how this information is checked and put out. On that score, as on Mr Gilligan's handling of notes and e-mails to parliamentary committee members, the BBC is clearly on the defensive. It allowed the story to go out without checking and defended it in too absolute terms after it had gone out. But then, on Sir Richard's own admission, the 45-minute claim was allowed out in the dossier without the caveats it should have had. And both Sir Richard and John Scarlett, the former MI6 man who chairs the Joint Intelligence Committee, have defended their product in terms even more robust than the BBC governors' support for Mr Gilligan.

The difference between the two cases is one of effect. For all the obsession of the Prime Minister and the Cabinet with the primary importance of the accuracy of the Today programme broadcast, the BBC is just one of a number of sources of information for the public. Ministers have other means to get their views, or denials, across. But on the issue of Iraq, Parliament and the public were only given one intelligence view and were persuaded to go to war on its basis.

That view has proved depressingly inaccurate. It is not just a question of the 45-minute warning. All the evidence given for Saddam's WMD programme, from the Niger purchases to the aluminium tubes, has proved flawed, if not just plain wrong. When we did invade, there were no weapons, nor was the resistance anything like picture the military had been led to believe. Nor has the post-war scenario been any better forecast.

The blunt truth is that this country, like America, has been badly let down by its intelligence. However, in America there is open criticism and examination of the role of the intelligence services, and here we still cling to a mantra that they are "the best in the world".

Yet any reading of the Hutton evidence shows we have exactly the same kind of inter-service rivalry and internal doubts suppressed in the interest of pleasing political masters as they have there. And at the centre of it is an MI6 that seems to have been still clinging to the reliance on human sources of the Cold War, obsessed with secrecy and ignoring the views of other agencies. It's a pretty dismal picture and one that had terrible results in the actual conduct of war. Yet the services still cling to the view that they were right to predict what never came to pass at the time, and will now still be proved right.

When Hutton does finally report, it may well be the BBC that will have to respond most publicly, to show that it is tightening up, and replacing, its methods of editorial control and dealing with complaints.

However, the reform is clearly most needed in the intelligence service. John Scarlett should go, in view of the magnitude of the intelligence failure. As for Sir Richard Dearlove, anybody who works in an organisation knows the kind of man who promotes a vote of thanks to his chairman without prompting - and that is not the kind of man who will stand up to the driving imperatives of a Prime Minister already committed to a course of action.

But then John Scarlett and Sir Richard Dearlove have done their duty by taking the burden of responsibility on themselves. So, while politicians worry away about the accuracy of a report on an early radio newscast, the information gathering organisation that really matters to the nation will go unreformed, and unrepentant.

a.hamilton@independent.co.uk

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