The truth about WMD emerges - in Australia

All the top people across Whitehall and No 10 deny catching the slightest hint of internal dissent
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The Independent Online

Once again, alas, we have to rely on our Australian cousins to tell it like it is, without hesitation, repetition or deviation. There seems to be something about a landscape that nurtures kangaroos and koalas and eucalyptus trees that fosters straight talking.

Here in Britain, the Hutton inquiry may be only two weeks old, but the verbal fog generated by Sir Kevin Reginald Tebbit and his ilk risks obscuring the basics. We still do not know, for instance, whether the weapons scientist, Dr David Kelly, was subjected to a "proper security-style interview" or not.

Sir Kevin, you may recall, answered that straight enquiry thus: "That's rather an interesting question, it's not a yes or no answer that you can provide." He went on to say that he believed people tended to "co-operate" in "a more relaxed environment". This question and that answer deserve to be engraved over the entrance to every permanent secretary's office in Whitehall, as representing at once the best and worst of the civil servant's art.

It was refreshing, therefore, almost shocking even, to hear the news from Australia. There, a parliamentary committee has just started investigating why Australia sent 2,000 troops to fight alongside the Americans and the British in Iraq. Asked about the Canberra government's pre-war presentation of the threat from Iraq, the witness, Andrew Wilkie, a former senior intelligence official, said this: "The government lied every time. It skewed, misrepresented, used selectively and fabricated the Iraq story." The exaggeration was sometimes so great, he said, that "it was clear dishonesty".

Well, there we have it. Dr Kelly's reported charge that Downing Street "sexed up" its dossier on Iraq's weapons capability seems mealy-mouthed by comparison.

Mr Wilkie is an interesting character. Until last March, he was a senior official in Australia's Office of National Assessments (ONA), the department that evaluates and filters all incoming intelligence and formulates advice to the prime minister. Clearly an all-or-nothing kind of guy, he resigned to protest against the war.

Mr Wilkie was equally direct about where he thought the misrepresentation occurred, and why. "I will go so far as to say the material was going straight from ONA to the prime minister's office and the exaggeration was occurring in there," he said, adding that it was all in aid of staying "in step with the United States".

Mr Wilkie's resignation freed him of the burden of loyalty to a policy he rejected. It has not, however, prevented his government from - in his view - trying to discredit him in terms remarkably similar to those used against Dr Kelly in Britain. In a vehement (fluent Australian) denial, Mr Howard accused Mr Wilkie of "slandering decent people" and suggested that he had not had access to the relevant intelligence.

Switch to London. Among the greater truths to have emerged from the Hutton inquiry is that, while pressing its case for war, the Government did its utmost to prevent dissenting views from reaching the public domain, especially if those views were held by people who were experts in their field. Dr Kelly, one of the country's most eminent experts on biological weapons, told his superiors that he disagreed with the way some of the intelligence data was presented well before he conveyed his misgivings to journalists.

Two senior intelligence officials felt so strongly about the use of their data that they wrote to the head of Defence Intelligence to object. Their - expert - views were either not forwarded to the Ministry of Defence or blocked somewhere else along the route. At least, all the top people across Whitehall and No 10 we have heard from so far deny catching the slightest hint of any internal dissent.

By the time Dr Kelly made his fateful appearance before the Commons Foreign Affairs Committee in July, two months had elapsed since the war and still no Iraqi weapons had been found. Even then, not only was Dr Kelly briefed by the Ministry of Defence not to say a word about his views on Iraq's weapons, but also members of the committee were briefed - and agreed - not to ask him! The reason why he had been called was clearly not because of his unique weapons expertise, but his unique ability to discredit the BBC's controversial claim about "sexing up".

At the time when war with Iraq was approaching, the uniformity of the message emanating from London, Washington and - as we now see - Canberra was remarkable. For some, that uniformity made it all the more persuasive. We must now ask, however, how it was arrived at: was it through informed argument, or was it perhaps by the time-honoured method of suppressing the views of such awkward experts as Dr Kelly and Mr Wilkie, and keeping them out of the information supply chain?

If this is so, the non-discovery so far of Iraq's lethal weapons should prompt a comprehensive review of how information, including top-secret intelligence, is passed to the politicians and how the politicians then use it. Among the most disturbing aspects of the Kelly affair is not only that the top echelons of government may have rejected the views of their best experts, also but that these contrary judgements may never have reached them at all.