Inquiries, intelligence and secrecy

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The Independent Online

In the wake of the 11 September attacks, followed by a war in Iraq fought over elusive weapons of mass destruction and erroneous links to Saddam Hussein, there has been a desire on both sides of the Atlantic to demand that someone be held responsible. In the politically charged atmosphere in which inquiries are conducted, however, there has been an equal desire by the establishment not to blame individuals, particularly political ones.

In the wake of the 11 September attacks, followed by a war in Iraq fought over elusive weapons of mass destruction and erroneous links to Saddam Hussein, there has been a desire on both sides of the Atlantic to demand that someone be held responsible. In the politically charged atmosphere in which inquiries are conducted, however, there has been an equal desire by the establishment not to blame individuals, particularly political ones.

The Butler inquiry which reported in London last week was headed by an establishment civil servant and two political nominees. The 9-11 commission, which reported in Washington yesterday, was made up of an balanced number of Republican and Democratic nominees. To no one's surprise, they have both come up with a consensual view that no one is to blame but that intelligence procedures need drastic reform.

On the latter point, the reports of both Butler and the 9-11 commission make some strong points. In view of the warning signs that should have been listened to before 11 September and the caution that should have been applied to the intelligence on the threat posed by Saddam Hussein, no one can say that the performance of the intelligence services was anything other than unsatisfactory. There were problems in the way that information was gathered and, more importantly, collated and presented to politicians. Changed procedures, greater investment and better co-ordination are obvious but necessary conclusions.

There is also the more delicate question of public overview and control. The resignation of the head of the CIA, George Tenet, has allowed America to be much more open in its criticisms and recommendations about the intelligence service. Here, the failure of John Scarlett or any other member of the intelligence community to accept responsibility for the intelligence failures has left the public with a whiff of whitewash - and MI6 with a chief lacking public credibility. Tony Blair has said that he accepts Butler's recommendations. The fear is that in Britain, unlike America, the lesson learned will not be greater openness and accountability but, instead, a retreat behind walls of official secrecy.

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