Scarlett must pay for losing the caveats

The PM confused his own certainty with that of the material with which he was working
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The Independent Online

John Scarlett should not take up his post as head of MI6 next month. The Butler report revealed some shocking failures, not so much in the omission of caveats in the late stages of drawing up the famous dossier, but in allowing unreliable material to go into it in the first place.

On the basis of Butler's criticisms - "weaknesses in ... validation procedures" - the current head of MI6, Sir Richard Dearlove, should go. He is in fact retiring at the end of this month, which is as convenient as George Tenet's resignation as director of the CIA for "family reasons". But Scarlett, too, should find pressing reasons for being elsewhere. He got too close to Tony Blair, to his press secretary, Alastair Campbell, and to his chief of staff, Jonathan Powell. Scarlett took full personal responsibility for a document that was to be used for political purposes and therefore ought to take the consequences for the flaws in the way it was drawn up. What sticks in my mind from the Hutton inquiry is Powell's email to Scarlett saying that the bit about Saddam Hussein being prepared to use his chemical and biological weapons "if he believes his regime is under threat" was "a bit of a problem". Scarlett obligingly took it out. Powell's suggestion was based on "my memory of the intelligence". It does not matter who was right about that. Campbell and Powell should not have been involved in drafting the dossier at all, and Scarlett has to take the blame for that.

So Dearlove and Scarlett should go, but Blair should not. His line of accountability is different. He should go if he knowingly misled the House of Commons. That is why Michael Howard's response to the Butler report was so powerful. Despite having had sight of the report since 6am on Wednesday, Howard managed to avoid being over-prepared. He was clear, forensic and short. Why did Blair tell the House that the intelligence was "beyond doubt" when the spies told him "we know little"?

The contrast with Charles Kennedy was painfully unflattering to the Liberal Democrat leader. He made a worthy attempt to question not Blair's credibility but his competence. But it was all paragraph this and paragraph that and by the time he sat down no one had the slightest idea what his point was apart from a silly conspiracy theory about deploying tanks at Heathrow. Never mind, Charles. You won the day on the ground in Leicester South and it is Howard who has the credibility problem, having come third in both by-elections 10 months before a probable general election.

Before then, however, the Commons debates the Butler report on Tuesday. Or, rather, continues the debate, because the Prime Minister did not answer Howard's question on Wednesday, he simply counter-attacked. He quoted - with rather too much levity for my taste - Howard's speech four months ago to Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation, in which he said: "The war against Iraq was necessary. It was just. It was, indeed, arguably overdue."

It was an effective putdown. But more to the point was his assertion, that Howard did not and could not contradict, that the Conservative Party was still, after Butler, of the view that the invasion of Iraq was justified. That was a partial and indirect answer to Howard's question. If Blair did mislead the Commons, he plainly did not do so to the extent that the main opposition party now took a different view of the rights and wrongs of the invasion. Indeed, with the possible exception of Geraldine Smith, no Labour MP either has said they would have voted differently in March 2003 if the dossier had been more cautious and qualified in its language, or the Prime Minister in his.

But Blair still ought to satisfy the Commons that his hardening of the intelligence - what we can now see was the final stage of a long process of successive over-eggings and de-qualifications - was not done with intent to deceive. Difficult that, because it goes to the heart of politics, which is the art of persuasion. As Butler said, he pushed it to the "outer limits". He confused his own certainty with that of the material with which he was working.

However, the fact that there was additional intelligence not put in the famous dossier is surely evidence for Blair's defence, not for the prosecution. He felt more confident that the dossier was right because of what the "untried" source said. That it turned out, after the war, not just untried but untrue is irrelevant to this point. Blair did not rely on it at the time, it simply informed him, off-text. The trouble was that he and the spies believed it because it fitted in with their "collective groupthink" - the resonant phrase used earlier this month by the US Senate Intelligence Committee.

This was not a culpable error. Because Saddam failed to co-operate fully with the UN inspectors, it made sense to err on the side of assuming the worst about his capability. I remember Hans Blix saying pointedly: "We are not watching the destruction of toothpicks", while he oversaw the dismantling of long-range missiles - and Blix was only in Iraq because of the threat of military force. I would thus acquit the Prime Minister of the charge of deliberately misleading.

His reverence for the intelligence services is worrying, however. "I think the intelligence services do a fantastic job for this country - I really do," he told the Commons on Wednesday. "They have been an invaluable support to me as Prime Minister and, I am sure, to many prime ministers before me." Oh yes? As the Joint Intelligence Committee was to Margaret Thatcher, telling her three days before the Argentinians landed in the Falklands that "invasion was not imminent"? Or as it was when it failed to warn of Saddam's invasion of Kuwait in 1990?

This may simply be defensive politics - it is so difficult to tell when Blair is being sincere - in that he is hugging Scarlett to his bosom as a shield. But it is surely in the interests of both the Government and the intelligence services that there should be greater distance between them.

I do not believe the Commons votewould have been different had the intelligence been expressed more cautiously with all its uncertainties painted in full colour. The central argument Blair made in presenting the dossier was not that Saddam was an imminent threat - he said he could not say that Saddam would use unconventional weapons this year or next - but that we should not take the risk of finding out that he had become one. Had he and the dossier been more circumspect, then people might have been less inclined to question his integrity when no weapons were found, and the credibility of the intelligence services might be in better shape.

Scarlett should do the decent thing, but Blair will be held to account in the way a democratic leader should be - by the voters in the general election next year.