When a British government feels its survival is at stake, it plays hard and it plays dirty. Anyone knows that who was around in 1985 during the Westland crisis, when it looked as if Margaret Thatcher might have to go for misleading the public and Parliament. And anyone who now looks at what is going on in the Hutton inquiry knows perfectly well what this piece of theatre is about. All the sound and fury over what David Kelly said to Andrew Gilligan and Susan Watts and what editorial control was exercised over the broadcasts is all very interesting, even revealing. But it has nothing to do with the real questions of what intelligence said about Iraq before the war and how it was used by the politicians. And, worse, the Hutton drama has been deliberately and cynically set up to ensure that it hasn't.
Anyone wishing to put it into proper perspective need only go to the United States, where, after all, the country was led into war by a President using much the same intelligence and proclaiming many of the same justifications as Tony Blair. But there, in contrast, there is no fussing about civil servant contacts or reluctance to delve into the entrails of intelligence advice. The press is full of it and the political pressures and doubts within the intelligence community at the time.
Just look at The Washington Post last Sunday; it had a 3,000-word analysis of the overspinning and dubious use of intelligence, particularly the allegation (now discredited, along with the story of Saddam's attempted purchase of uranium from Niger) of Iraq's purchase of aluminium tubes for nuclear weapons production - an accusation also used here. And if you worry about civil servants being able to speak their minds, go to The Beacon, a local paper in Ohio, where you will find a corruscating article by Karen Kwiatkowski, a retired US Air Force Lieutentant Colonel, who recounts her experiences working with intelligence in the Defence Department up to last February. "If this was as good as it got," she told her line manager, "some folks in the Pentagon may be sitting beside Saddam Hussein in the war crimes tribunal."
Now it may be that the intelligence community and the defence bureaucracy in Britain is infinitely more professional and less subject to political pressure than those of the United States; that the Prime Minister used dodgy information about uranium purchases, aluminium tubes and 45-minute warnings based on separate and superior intelligence; and that the people who brought you a 12-year-old doctoral thesis on Saddam never had a doubt about the information they were providing to their political chiefs. But it is also possible that the Washington experience was pretty closely mirrored here, with the same pressures to overstretch information, the same doubts within the ranks and the same internal jostling for position. Only we won't know because the British system is a closed one in which civil servants are not supposed to open up their feelings to the press, and the media - particularly the BBC - are not supposed to report anything unless it has been confirmed by the official government spokesman.
I'm not arguing for a moment that American openness necessarily leads to better government. Despite all the revelations, and despite being forced to apologise for making misleading claims about Iraq, George Bush is probably under less political pressure than Tony Blair over the issue. But that is largely because he did not make the immediate threat of Iraq's weapons of mass destruction the primary justification of war in the same way as the British Prime Minister did.
The point is that it didn't take a judicial inquiry in America to find out, for example, that the CIA had put in written objections to the National Security Adviser, Condoleezza Rice over the Niger uranium story or that doubts were expressed about the aluminium tubes story. That the press should be devilling into government decisions is taken for granted.
But then that is where the doubts about the Hutton inquiry begin. It is not there to throw light on how we are governed. Just the opposite. Its terms of reference have been deliberately defined to focus on the reasons for Dr Kelly's death and hence throw the weight of the evidence on to the Gilligan question. Which is exactly what it has done, of course. Nor is the choice of a Northern Irish judge entirely accidental. It is no disrespect to Lord Hutton to say that a judge who has lived his life in the circumstances of Ireland is going to be pretty sympathetic to the intelligence and defence establishment and pretty unsympathetic to the conjectural ways of the press in the muddy political waters of London. You could see that in the questioning of Gilligan's BBC bosses yesterday.
No, the Government's aims in all this are clear by now, and you would have to be pretty ignorant not to sense their effectiveness. The object of appointing Lord Hutton, aside from giving Tony Blair time to recover abroad, was to make sure that the fever of speculation was kept well away from the doors of Number 10. All the stuff that has come out, and may yet come out, about Dr Kelly's doubts on the dossier, the objections of other intelligence officers, the weakness of the intelligence itself, even the departmental treatment of Dr Kelly, does not really matter so long as it cannot be ascribed directly to Number 10. We are in the politics of blame, and Number 10 is determined to avoid it.
On the basis of the first three days, Alastair Campbell is in the clear. As for Geoffrey Hoon, he may have to go. But the idea that he will then spill the beans is as unlikely as the expectation that Leon Brittan would have stood and fought in the Westland case. It takes a rare person, as Dr Kelly proved, to stand up to the full weight of the establishment, and Hoon isn't that.
Hutton is one strand of the Government's survival strategy. The other - already begun one can see from various stories in the press in the last week - is a selective leaking of stories to say that interrogations of Iraqi scientists and top officials have revealed that Saddam Hussein did indeed have nuclear ambitions and even a desire to use chemical and/or biological weapons on the battlefield. He didn't use them, of course, and no evidence of actual weapons has been found or may ever be found. But the evidence, unprovable by its high-security nature, shows that he was still flouting UN resolutions in having plans at all. The intention was there, and that in itself is justification for Tony Blair's presentations to the people.
It's a tendentious argument, of course. But in terms of the blame game, it's robust enough. And who is going to argue with it? The BBC won't, not after its mauling in this inquiry. No civil servants will speak up, even off the record, to communicate their doubts. Not after what happened to Dr Kelly. And Parliament will not take up the sword of truth, not if the performance of the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs, and the rush of its Labour members to support the Government, is anything to go by.
And that is the true awfulness of the Hutton inquiry. Not only will it throw no light on the real questions of intelligence and our going to war, but it will make it a great deal more difficult for anyone else to do so.Reuse content