The intelligence services should not take the blame for political failures

It is easy to criticise the work of sigint and humint in Iraq: it is much harder to see how they could have done better
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The Independent Online

A week ago, in this column, I accused Mr Blair of lying over the naming of Dr Kelly and prevaricating over weapons of mass destruction. Nothing in Hutton makes me revise either judgement. The PM may not have given Dr Kelly's name to a journalist. But he helped to devise a strategy which led directly to the name being published. It is a clear untruth for Tony Blair to deny his role. As for WMD, the claim that Iraq possessed weapons that could be deployed in 45 minutes had by no means been verified. Moreover, it referred to battlefield weapons. The PM knew this. Yet when he used the 45-minute figure in the Commons, he gave the impression that there was a threat to the UK. That was a deliberate attempt to mislead the British people.

It could also have serious long-term consequences. Suppose there were an emergency in some part of the world, and Mr Blair got up in the Commons to say that on the basis of intelligence material, he was despatching British troops. He would be more likely to be greeted with laughter than with belief. A Prime Minister who has forfeited his credibility on intelligence and security matters can no longer do his job.

The validity of the intelligence material was not part of Lord Hutton's remit. But his Lordship's failure to satisfy almost everyone outside No 10 has now brought the supposed intelligence failures into sharp focus. So has David Kay's resignation as head of the Iraq Survey Group and Mr Bush's apparent willingness to abandon the WMD argument for the removal of Saddam. This is easier for the President, who never based the case for war solely on WMD. Tony Blair did. For him, the latest American developments are embarrassing, and the public reception of the Hutton report has heightened that.

Equally, the Tory party is in much better heart than seemed possible early last Wednesday afternoon, when Tony Blair scored his first debating success over Michael Howard. As this was in the immediate aftermath of the report, Mr Howard should not be blamed, for he faced an impossible task. But that was only the first round. As so few people believe that Lord Hutton said the last word, Mr Blair will still be forced to justify his position.

So might the intelligence services. Mr Howard has now called for an inquiry into the use and quality of the intelligence material on Iraq, and many parliamentarians agree, on all sides. Yet this could have its dangers. Though there ought to be an inquiry, it should be conducted in secret, by the intelligence services themselves.

It is easy to criticise their work in Iraq; much harder to see how they could have done better. Most intelligence sources fall into two categories. There is sigint, the fruits of electronic monitoring, and humint, human sources. Saddam knew that anything said electronically by him or his agents would be monitored, so he would have tried to maintain radio silence. As for humint, an Iraqi translation might read as follows: "A foolhardily brave man now dying slowly under unspeakable torture.''

When a brutal psychopathic dictator was taking such trouble to defy the international community, it was reasonable to conclude that he had something to hide. It may even be that Saddam thought he did; there have been suggestions that he was lied to by some of his scientists. Given the character of the man and the regime, this is plausible. You would not have to be Tony Blair to find an excuse for lying in Saddam's Iraq. On the fate of any scientist who might have told Saddam that more time was needed to overcome technical problems, see above under "humint''.

Saddam had been trying to acquire WMD. In response, it was reasonable for the intelligence services to make a worst-case analysis. Better to strike early, when he might have such weapons, than to wait until he had removed any doubt, by using them. There were many good reasons why it was right to remove Saddam. There is no good reason for MI6 to apologise.

It is in the nature of the intelligence services that their alleged failings are relentlessly publicised while their successes remain secret. I cannot prove anything, but on the basis of little hints that I have received - which not even Andrew Gilligan would regard as sources - I believe that our intelligence services have made an invaluable contribution to the battle against terrorism since 11 September 2001. If they had not been so vigilant, a lot of people who are enjoying life today would now be maimed or dead. The intelligence service also played a role in persuading Gaddafi to come to terms with the West. We should all be grateful for their existence.

A few marginal points could be addressed. John Scarlett is one of the most honourable men I have met; the sort of public servant who is one of the glories of British public life. It is open to question, however, whether he should have allowed himself to become so close to the Downing Street machine. Alastair Campbell described him as a "mate''. It is not a hanging offence to be a mate of Mr Campbell's, but should the chairman of the Joint Intelligence Committee be quite so matey? Perhaps it would be better if the JIC were run by a more remote, curmudgeonly figure, so that no government would ever think of sexing up his material.

There is a further point. Mr Scarlett is 55. He could still be a candidate for a knighthood and for a further promotion, to replace Sir Richard Dearlove as the head of MI6. Such considerations would never have influenced him, even "subconsciously'', as Lord Hutton might have put it. But it would be better if further JIC chairmen were slightly older, so that they would already have received a plenitude of patronage and promotion. "Wanted: a 60-year-old knighted curmudgeon'' - not the sort of job specification Blairites enjoy drafting.

They will now have to draft one for the BBC chairmanship. Here, there is an easy answer: a septuagenarian curmudgeon, Gerald Kaufman. He has a lifelong commitment to high culture. Unlike Greg Dyke, who seemed to think that his entire output should be instantly accessible to a glue-sniffing, 17-year-old on a sink estate, Mr Kaufman would insist that the BBC should produce high-quality programmes. He is aware that within a few years the TV-watching public will revolt against the licence fee. He would insist that the BBC prepare for this by concentrating on what it does best. Finally - the strongest argument for his appointment - everyone in the BBC would be afraid of him.

Chairman Kaufman ought to be re-inforced by a tough director general such as Andrew Neil, although the acting DG, Mark Byford, did his cause no harm yesterday on the Frost programme. Asked whether Andrew Gilligan's allegations were mostly true, Mr Byford gave a steely reply: "Mostly true is not good enough for the BBC.''

They could do with some of that spirit in Downing Street, but it will not happen under this Prime Minister. By prevaricating in the use of intelligence material, Mr Blair proved he was unfit to be PM.