Andreas Whittam Smith: The parallels between Bush's predicament and Blair's are close and uncomfortable

If Libby is found guilty, it would suggest a culture of deceit in the White House as in Downing Street
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The Independent Online

If this were the only similarity between the political situations in the US and Britain, it could be classified as just a coincidence. But the parallels are numerous and alarming and highlighted by the the prosecution of a senior White House official, Lewis Libby, announced on Friday.

The Republican Party and the Labour Party have had similar achievements since the late 1990s. They have come near to establishing themselves in permanent power by winning successive elections. Of course, all political parties in the Western democracies wish to do this. But exceptional brilliance is required to achieve it. And both the Republican and Labour parties have political strategists of genius at their helms. They are Karl Rove, President Bush's senior adviser, and Mr Blair himself.

To keep power, both political parties have been substantially remade. The radical religious right has conquered the Republican Party. God is publicly brought into almost every issue. This has enlarged the Republican base. Mr Blair's insight has been equally effective. Accept the revolution wrought by Mrs Thatcher in bringing the disciplines of the markets into the heart of the state and present it in more palatable terms.

Then along comes Iraq, which has corrupted both systems of government and may well end up destroying the hegemonies of the Republicans and of Labour. By the way, why did the US and the UK invade Iraq? A high official in the US government, a Bush appointee, was recently quoted as saying: "I can go through all the things we listed, from weapons of mass destruction to human rights to terrorism, but I really can't sit here and tell you why we went to war in Iraq." This uncertainty endures because on both sides of the Atlantic there has been so much secrecy, so much dishonesty and, when Messrs Bush and Blair have publicly addressed the matter, so many different explanations.

The prosecution of Mr Libby, chief-of-staff to Vice-President Dick Cheney, will in part cover similar ground to that examined by British inquires into the handling of intelligence conducted by the noble lords Hutton and Butler. The underlying question is the same. Did government pervert the collection and analysis of intelligence to fabricate justification for going to war?

But this isn't the only reason why the trial of Mr Libby will be followed closely in London. For at issue is an American examination of whether the British intelligence-finding that Saddam Hussein had been seeking to buy nuclear materials in Niger was accurate. What comes out could easily be embarrassing for Mr Blair. In everything concerning the disastrous Iraq adventure, Mr Bush and Mr Blair are joined at the hip.

There is a further parallel between Mr Libby's ordeal and the Hutton report. For in both examples journalists find themselves as the major protagonists. In the British instance it was essentially the word of a BBC reporter, Andrew Gilligan, against the Government. In Mr Libby's case, his account of what happened has been contradicted by three journalists. A jury will have to determine who is right.

Yet the handling, or mishandling of intelligence in the US and Britain is part of a wider departure from the norms of good government. Look again at the specific charges against Mr Libby - obstruction of justice, false statements and perjury. If he is found guilty it would suggest that a culture of deceit pervades the White House just as one does in Downing Street.

There are further ill consequences of the rush to war in Iraq. The job of speaking truth to power, which falls to high permanent officials of government departments, has been undermined. Col Lawrence Wilkerson, who was chief-of-staff to the former secretary of state Colin Powell, spoke out last week. He was not sure, he said, that "the State Department even exists any more except in the minds of the Foreign Service". You might wonder the same of the Foreign Office.

He went on to recount more of his experiences by Mr Powell's side. "What I saw was a cabal between ... [Mr] Cheney and the Secretary of Defence, Donald Rumsfeld, on critical issues that made decisions that the bureaucracy did not know were being made ... and on behalf of a President not versed in international relations and not too much interested ... [with a National Security Adviser, Condoleezza Rice,] who would side with the President to build her intimacy with [him]."

This is very similar to what Lord Butler saw. Mr Blair works in his den in Downing Street with a small number of trusted advisers and treats his ministers as, at best, the chief operating officers of their departments. This is a perversion of Cabinet government to which pious references are made although the reality has been very different. Some newspapers carried a picture last week of the Secretary of State for Education, Ruth Kelly, addressing the Cabinet. She wasn't asking colleagues for their approval of her new schools legislation, she was explaining what had already been decided.

However, the worst perversion of good government in the US and in Britain - and I can hardly believe I am writing this - is the new attitude to torture. At this very minute, Mr Bush and Mr Cheney are trying to persuade Congress to allow the CIA to mistreat and torture prisoners as long as that behaviour is part of "counter-terrorism operations conducted abroad" and the victims are not American citizens. This would mean that outsourcing torture to states which routinely practise it - "extraordinary rendition" - would be made legitimate.

Cross the Atlantic to the Houses of Parliament, Westminster, where the law lords have been asked to rule if Britain can use evidence against terror suspects that may have been obtained by torture in other countries. The Court of Appeal stated last year that such evidence was usable if UK authorities had no involvement. Now 10 terror suspects being held without charge, backed by human rights groups, are challenging that decision. The hearing is going on now. They were detained under the 2001 Anti-Terrorism and Security Act and it is thought that much of the secret evidence against them came from intelligence services in countries such as Algeria, Morocco and Jordan.

Bush and Blair, repeat after me: torture is always immoral and often useless, and condoning it makes it more likely that American and British military and intelligence personnel will suffer the same fate when operating overseas. Even lame-duck politicians should be able to understand that.