Peter Hennessy: Intelligence reforms rely on political will

Ministers must be both more intelligent and sceptical consumers of intelligence
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Early next month, the Prime Minister and the small inner group of ministers on his Cabinet Committee on Security and Intelligence will be presented with what could prove the most important review of British intelligence since the late 1960s.

Early next month, the Prime Minister and the small inner group of ministers on his Cabinet Committee on Security and Intelligence will be presented with what could prove the most important review of British intelligence since the late 1960s.

John Scarlett, the head of MI6, had of course already initiated reforms, but this will go much further. It will recommend substantial changes in the validation and assessment of intelligence which, if Mr Blair and his group accept them, will implement the Butler report in full and affect the way intelligence is processed from the moment it is gathered to its final shaping into assessments for ministers, the chiefs of staff, a range of Whitehall customers, and Britain's closest intelligence allies.

Although the Butler review in July last year did not blame individuals, it identified intelligence and other failures in the run-up to the Iraq war. Over the six months since, a review has been under way, overseen by the Cabinet Office's Butler Implementation Group chaired by the Co-ordinator of Security and Intelligence, Sir David Omand. The run-up to the Iraq War of 2003 is being treated by the intelligence community as "no end of a lesson", to borrow Kipling's phrase about the Boer War. The Omand report has yet to reach its final draft, but four of its key themes are already discernible within Whitehall:

* All Butler's criticisms have been accepted as fair and valid.

* Never again will key pieces of intelligence, and the assumptions shaping the interpretation of them, fall into place without being tested and re-tested in a more rigorous way than on the road to war in 2002-3.

* At every level of the intelligence system, especially the earliest stages of the analytical process deep inside the secret agencies, scepticism will be encouraged.

* Intelligence analysts, whether located within MI6, the Secret Intelligence Service (SIS), the Security Service, the Government Communications Headquarters, the Cabinet Office or the Defence Intelligence Staff, will be integrated more closely into a single analysis community and trained together.

If the Omand report is implemented in full, it will surpass even the 1968 review. That led to the creation of the Cabinet Office Assessments Staff which, ever since, has provided the last stage of all-source analysis for the Joint Intelligence Committee at the apex of the entire British intelligence system - but Omand drives much further down into the process. For example, the SIS has accepted the Butler criticisms of its validation procedures and, ahead of the other working parts of the system under review by the Omand group, it has already implemented its reforms. One of the first acts of John Scarlett when he moved from the chairmanship of the Joint Intelligence Committee to become Chief of the SIS last August was to commission a senior SIS officer to examine every stage of the handling of agents' reports from the field. As a result, SIS has decided to separate assessment from production in a way that has not happened since the early 1990s, when operations and reporting became increasingly fused.

A new "requirements department" has been established within SIS, staffed by both officers with recent operational service in the field and those with long analytical experience. The senior officer who has just taken charge has, in effect, been given a high degree of independence and a licence to "speak truth unto power". And his staff are intended to be a kind of in-house awkward squad.

Similarly, the Omand report is likely to recommend that the scientists and technical analysts in the Defence Intelligence Staff and GCHQ's signals experts be similarly emboldened. The same applies to the military who, post-11 September, are ever more involved with the secret world in the long-term countering of international terrorism. The degree to which the Butler report has impacted on the Queen's secret servants is striking. But even if ministers accept the Omand report undiluted, not everyone is convinced it will work. Success depends on a number of factors.

First, ministers - from the Prime Minister down - will have to be both more intelligent and sceptical consumers of the "product". Second, current and future heads of the secret services and chairs of the Joint Intelligence Committee will have to be fireproof in facing the difficulties that can arise when ministers are confronted by what they need to know, rather than what they wish to hear. The same applies to analysts and technicians down the intelligence production line if their briefs cause turbulence and inconvenience at the higher levels.

Finally, the all-party Parliamentary Committee on Intelligence and Security has the key job of chasing up the post-Butler reforms and increasing the chances of their continuing vitality as the memory of Iraq 2003 fades. I thought at the time of its publication that the Butler report was anything but a whitewash. So far, the response of the British intelligence community reinforces that conclusion.

Peter Hennessy is Attlee Professor of Contemporary British History at Queen Mary College, London. This article first appeared in this week's edition of 'The Tablet'