As the Hutton inquiry rumbles to its conclusion this week, most of the attention has focused on what the final report will say about the role played by the key political figures involved in the drama. But more important than the fate of Geoff Hoon is what the Kelly affair says about our style of government. Today's cross-examination of John Scarlett, chairman of the Joint Intelligence Committee (JIC) and the man Alastair Campbell yesterday claimed had full control of the dossier, will fill in some important gaps about the process that led Britain to war.
Whether or not one feels comfortable with the phrase "sexed-up" ("over-interpreted" was Hans Blix's more sober judgement), it is no longer possible to deny that the intelligence on Iraq was grossly distorted in the months leading up to the war and that the process of distortion involved sins of both commission and omission.
Work on the September dossier began after the existing assessment on Iraq failed to establish a clear enough threat and Alastair Campbell asked the JIC to come up with something "new" and "revelatory". The effect of his intervention was to turn the proper decision-making process on its head. From that point on intelligence followed the policy and not the other way round. The language describing the Iraqi threat was progressively hardened and the notorious 45-minute claim made its first appearance.
Every bit as serious was what the dossier neglected to tell us. The Government presented it as an accurate account of the intelligence on which it was in the process of making life or death decisions, but in its tone of certainty it bore little resemblance to the work of the JIC as it is presented for consumption within Whitehall. JIC assessments are carefully hedged, sometimes maddeningly so. While it may be true that the JIC believed the 45-minute claim to be a valid piece of intelligence, I am certain that its internal communications would have made it clear that it referred to battlefield munitions only and that it was based on the hearsay testimony of a single source. Neither fact was shared with the public.
Perhaps the most damning evidence to emerge from the Hutton inquiry is the fact that the Government knew exactly how flimsy its case was, but chose to keep its doubts to itself. Tony Blair's own chief of staff, Jonathan Powell, was blunt in his assessment that "the document does nothing to demonstrate a threat, let alone an imminent threat from Saddam", and that this would need to be made clear in the dossier. Yet Mr Blair did the opposite, claiming in his foreword that the threat from Saddam was "serious and current".
In taking the country to war, the Government had a duty to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. The September dossier failed on all three counts.
The Government's last line of defence in the face of these revelations has been to pass the buck. Everything was subject to the agreement of the JIC, whose chairman, Mr Scarlett, had "ownership" of the dossier. This may be true, but it begs its own question: who had ownership of Mr Scarlett?
The evidence presented to Hutton reveals an alarming departure in British constitutional practice in which Britain's most senior intelligence official was in effect co-opted into the Prime Minister's kitchen cabinet. Mr Scarlett should have had no business dealing with a political appointee like Mr Campbell, let alone becoming his "mate". Indeed, the JIC should never have been put in the position of negotiating the terms of its assessment with anyone outside the intelligence community.
It is simply risible of Mr Campbell to claim, as he did yesterday, that his role in drawing up the dossier was purely "presentational". As every New Labour functionary knows, presentation and policy are indivisible. They know this because Alastair Campbell beat it into their heads.
The strength of the British intelligence system has always rested on the objectivity of its analytical output and its ability to present its work without regard to political considerations. The JIC was specifically set up to provide a single source of intelligence advice, thereby avoiding the catastrophic intelligence failures that occur when different agencies are allowed to jockey for advantage by telling politicians what they want to hear.
John Scarlett's descent into cronyism subverted this process and resulted in precisely the sort of intelligence failure it was designed to prevent. His interventions reveal a man more interested in pleasing his political masters than protecting the integrity of a system on which the security of our country depends. He even passed on a last-minute plea from Downing Street for the intelligence services to provide any additional information that might help to make the dossier "as strong as possible".
By inflating the language used to describe Iraq's capabilities against the stated opinions of its own experts and systematically filtering out any intelligence that conflicted with the Government's stated view that Saddam represented a major threat, the JIC crossed the line dividing legitimate intelligence analysis from propaganda. Our confidence in it will not be restored unless its chairman takes responsibility for this debacle by resigning his post.
The writer was political adviser at the Foreign Office, 1997-2001.Reuse content