Paul Vallely: Affair like no other, and wages of spin are still to be paid

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The Independent Online

It is hard to overstate the significance of what has emerged from phase one of the Hutton Inquiry into the death of the government weapons expert Dr David Kelly. The cross-examination of witnesses is yet to come, but already the softly-spoken law lord has uncovered the workings of the machinery of modern government in a way which is quite unprecedented.

While apparently sticking to the narrow remit he was given by Tony Blair - who was anxious to restrict him to investigating the immediate circumstances of Dr Kelly's death - Lord Hutton has revealed far more than the Prime Minister could ever have intended. It has not been an edifying spectacle.

Between them, the verbal accounts, the mounds of confidential documents and the collection of e-mails (which have fossilised what in previous eras would have been evanescent conversations) have painted a portrait of the goings-on in the corridors of power in our time which, without Hutton, we would have had to wait 30 years for the normal public record process to uncover.

What has been disclosed is a febrile atmosphere at the heart of government, presided over not by elected Cabinet ministers but by a first-name coterie of prime ministerial appointees preoccupied with presentation as much as policy. We have learned that Mr Blair is an obsessive headline-watcher. And that his acolytes live in a world of leaks and spin and smears.

In this almost paranoid atmosphere big issues - such as the accusation that the Government was guilty of exaggerating the case for war - are reduced to talk of "playing chicken" with the BBC which had reported the allegation. This was tabloid government with a vengeance, and where vengeance for slurs on the name of Alastair Campbell were seen by the Prime Minister, on his own admission, as more serious than what it perceived as an assault on Mr Blair's integrity. It was the attack on Mr Campbell which had put "booster rockets" on the whole affair. Tabloid talk indeed.

Nor was the picture of the inner workings of the Ministry of Defence more reassuring. There, bureaucrats protected vested interests, covered their backs and passed the buck. Intelligence analysts who objected to spin being put on reports from the field were overruled by senior civil servants anxious to please their political masters.

In effect, there have been two inquiries at the same time. And one of the most striking characteristics of the whole affair is the way that both pro- and anti-government factions have somehow managed to hear within them only the evidence that supports their earlier position or prejudices.

The narrow inquiry has focused on issues such as whether the account of Dr Kelly, in public and to his superiors and friends, was more truthful than that given by Andrew Gilligan on the BBC. The details of how Dr Kelly's name came to be made public has been the subject of other close-focus scrutiny. All of this will have consequences. Geoff Hoon, the Secretary of State for Defence, seems the most likely victim, though Andrew Gilligan may well be held to account for the sloppy phrasing on his original unscripted conversation at seven minutes past six on the morning of his original report. And, more seriously, for his unwise attempt to brief a Lib Dem member of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee on what questions to ask Dr Kelly (revealing the scientist as the source of Susan Watts's report on Newsnight in the process).

And though high-ups at the BBC such as Gavyn Davies and Greg Dyke have in the whole affair scuppered any charges that they are Tony's cronies, there will be fall-out too for the Today programme which stands accused of a culture of reporting which minimises the chances of those it accuses of replying to its accusations in advance.

Lord Hutton might even be critical of print journalists who take two off-the-cuff quotes from someone like Dr Kelly and write it up as though he gave them a full interview. But there has been a second inquiry at work into the wider issue of whether the government took us into war on a false sense of urgency. On this, the charges levelled against the Prime Minister have been proven in all their essentials.

There was, indeed, dissent from some of the most senior and expert analysts on the Defence Intelligence Staff at the war dossier. The scale of the threat was "over-egged" they said. The imminence of the danger - summed up in the claim that Saddam Hussein could have chemical and biological weapons ready for use within 45 minutes - was based on intelligence which the Government knew to be questionable. There was only one source for this claim, and he had got the information second-hand; there were doubts whether the source understood what he was saying. And still it was inserted in the dossier.

That was rewritten and hardened in the final days. Various Downing St officials had input into this process. And though there is no proof that No 10 ordered anything specific to be inserted it is clear that an atmosphere was created in which intelligence chiefs were left in no doubt as to what the PM wanted.

The irony in all this was that Dr Kelly was pro-war. A sad but necessary business he called it. But he thought that nothing was served in the war cause by inaccuracy.

Yet what has emerged in the last few weeks is that inaccuracy, or rather, a necessary vagueness, was part of what conjured the atmosphere which took us into war. What convinced those in the bubble of Westminster of the need to invade Iraq was clearly felt to be insufficient to convince the rest of the nation, which was why the dossier was produced in the first place.

In the course of the Hutton Inquiry, the gap between those two worlds has become more starkly clear. Intelligence chiefs such as John Scarlett may have been very precise in their choice of words, understanding that Saddam's chemical and biological arsenal was limited to small-calibre battlefield weapons, but the rest of the nation assumed that we were been warned of nerve agents which would be loaded into missiles and fired at Cyprus.

Now we hear the MoD's senior expert saying it was not even accurate to describe Saddam's nerve agents as weapons of mass destruction at all, so limited was their capability.

The world to which Mr Scarlett and his ilk were speaking was nowhere better summed up than in the personality of the dead scientist's widow, Janice Kelly, a world of decency, compassion, restraint and privacy. One commentator said it was a world we thought did not exist any more and yet it is the world which the majority of the nation seeks to keep alive.

It is a world which has, these past few weeks, come to feel a sense of collective shame at the system of government which has been created in our name. But it is a world where truth, trust and transparency still have meaning.

In it, Tony Blair's credibility has been damaged, irrecoverably so. Perhaps, it may prove fatally. The wages of spin may yet indeed prove to be political death.