Phillip Knightley: The spooks are untouchable

The Intelligence Services
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The Independent Online

The Hutton inquiry has confirmed what we all should have guessed - Britain's secret intelligence services are untouchable. It does not matter how badly wrong they were on Iraq or how often they have got things wrong in the past. They will continue to go from strength to strength because, as Lord Hutton realised, they are a major power in the land.

Lord Hutton's narrow terms of reference did not allow him to examine the intelligence services' role in making the case for war and the accuracy of the dodgy dossier. This was, he said, "beyond my remit". So let us do it for him and look at what was happening in the intelligence services at the time and what their relationship was with the Prime Minister.

Intelligence officers, particularly those on the security side, are by nature anti-Labour. But Tony Blair won them over just as he won over big business. He increased their budgets, spoke up for them in public and convinced them that New Labour could be as ardent a defender of the realm as any Tory government.

In return, they helped him to achieve his political ends. John Scarlett, the chairman of the Joint Intelligence Committee and probably the next director general of MI6, was a "mate" of spin doctor Alastair Campbell. And even Lord Hutton thought Blair's desire to make a strong case for war might have influenced Scarlett's JIC dossier "sub-consciously".

Not much can be done about this relationship. Intelligence has fascinated world leaders, from Winston Churchill through John F Kennedy to Tony Blair. And the many works of spy fiction, from James Bond to George Smiley, have made the intelligence officer one of the most potent images of our age.

There was a fleeting hope that the collapse of Communism and the loss of their major enemy might have weakened the power of the intelligence services. But then terrorism gave them a new lease on life with new names, new faces, new acronyms, almost limitless funding and the power to direct our lives and define reality for us. And they are brilliant bureaucrats.

The last time I looked at the reporting procedures, it went like this: SIS reported to the Joint Intelligence Committee (JIC), the Overseas Economic Intelligence Committee (OEIC) and the Co-ordinator of Intelligence and Security (CIS) in the Cabinet Office. MI5 reported to the OEIC, CIS and the Official Committee on Security (OCS). GCHQ reported to the JIC, OEIC, CIS and the London Signal Intelligence Board (LSIB), and OCS reported to the Permanent Under-Secretaries Committee on Intelligence Services (PSIS). OEIC reported to the PSIS and the Prime Minister (PM). CIS reported to the PSIS and PM. LSIB reported to the PSIS and PM, as did the OCS. What politician in his right mind would want to tangle with that lot?

They are not only skilled at bureaucratic in-fighting but flexible. They can sense new political trends and adapt to meet them. So British intelligence officers were aware for some time before the Iraq war that leading figures in the Bush administration had been trying to impose on the CIA a major change in the way the agency operates.

The Defense Secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, and some of his team wanted a doctrinal shift in the CIA. They felt the analysing of intelligence and the use made of it should be decided not by CIA officers but by politicians.

The traditionalists in British intelligence thought this was a bad idea and could lead to trouble - as it did. But the Young Turks here saw in it a way of expanding their services' influence. They could say to a government, "Look, knowledge is power, information a weapon. We have the skills to use information we accumulate to manipulate people and achieve the political result you want. Let us get the best mileage out of the material we gather."

So, instead of secret reports for ministers' eyes only, the intelligence services began producing "dossiers" calculated, in this instance, to help the Government's case for war in Iraq. One of the traditionalists appalled by this war was the former chairman of the JIC, Sir Rodric Braithwaite.

"We were bombarded with warnings that British cities might at any moment face a massive terrorist attack," he wrote in a letter to the Financial Times. "Housewives were officially advised to lay in stock of food and water. Tanks were sent to Heathrow." In this atmosphere of near hysteria, Sir Rodric said, people began to believe that we should strike first. "So the Prime Minister managed - just - to swing Parliament behind him."

It does not matter to the security services that the information on which the Government based its warnings and its decision to send tanks to the airport turned out to be wrong. They have stock replies. The first is that the terrorists realised that we were on to them so they aborted their plans. The second is that it is better to be safe than sorry. Neither can be challenged.

But frightening us is not the only use that the intelligence services make of their material. A former American intelligence officer said that a member of the UN inspection team who supported the British position on Iraq arranged for "inactionable" (read "dodgy") intelligence reports to be quietly passed to British intelligence which would feed them to the newspapers.

The New Yorker magazine quoted the intelligence officer saying, "It was intelligence that was crap, and that we couldn't move on, but the Brits wanted to plant stories in England and around the world."

And former UN weapons inspector Scott Ritter claimed that MI6 ran a campaign, Operation Mass Appeal, designed to exaggerate the threat posed by Iraq and its weapons of mass destruction. Why would British intelligence have done this? Because some senior officers were convinced that Iraq was a threat to Britain and Saddam Hussein should be toppled.

To this end they were prepared to go beyond their traditional role of reporting their findings in an objective way and instead help the Government make a case for war. In short, they played a political role. This caused other intelligence officers deep unease and split the services.

The new, politicised intelligence services are here to stay. In the interests of their own survival and the maintenance of their own power, they have adapted to fit the new political suit tailored by the Prime Minister. This is not to say that either Blair or those officers who helped him did it cynically. As Sir Rodric put it, "Fishmongers sell fish; warmongers sell war. Both may sincerely believe in their product."