Alastair Campbell in the witness box: this time, the truth?

Tony Blair’s former press secretary, Alastair Campbell, gives evidence to the Chilcot Inquiry today. High on the agenda, one hopes, will be his involvement in the famous September 2002 weapons of mass destruction dossier. As an aide-memoire to readers and fellow journalists, I detail below the main, shall we say, inconsistencies about which Mr Campbell should (but probably won’t) be asked.  

Mr Campbell’s claims:

1. In evidence (Q1092) to the Commons’ foreign affairs committee (FAC), he claimed: “The entire document was the product of the pen of the Joint Intelligence Committee chairman [John Scarlett].”  

2. Campbell also claimed: “The allegation… that I, or anyone in Downing Street, exaggerated and distorted intelligence…is totally untrue.” (para 9 of his memo to the FAC.)

3. Campbell or his deputy, Godric Smith, repeatedly claimed that there had been no political interference whatever in the dossier. For instance, at the Downing Street press briefing of 4 June 2003 (on page 6 of this PDF): “The dossier was entirely the work of the intelligence agencies… Suggestions that any pressure was put on the intelligence services by No 10 or anyone else to change the document were entirely false.”

The reality:

1. The foreword of the dossier was written by Campbell, as this memo of 17 September 2002, a week before publication, makes clear. In his own evidence to the Chilcot Inquiry a few weeks ago, Scarlett himself belatedly admitted this too. The foreword was where the dossier’s most incendiary statements appeared, such as the claim that the intelligence on Saddam’s WMD was “beyond doubt.” 

2. The 17 September memo also shows that Campbell suggested 15 changes to the executive summary and main body of the document to Scarlett. Most were accepted and their effect was to harden up the document’s language from possibility to probability, or probability to certainty.

3. Among the most serious: following Campbell’s suggestion in the memo, a false statement, unsupported by intelligence reporting, was inserted in the dossier that Saddam had continued to “make progress” with his illicit weapons programmes.

4. Campbell lied to the FAC about the contents of the September 17 memo, giving them only a bowdlerised version (see here, item eight) which omitted his comments on the famous “45-minute” claim and downplayed his intervention on most of the other issues.  

5. Campbell, in his own words, “bombarded” Scarlett, demanding that he make Iraq’s nuclear programme look more threatening. His suggestions were largely included in the published dossier even though they were not supported by intelligence.

In the September17 memo, Campbell told Scarlett that he and Blair were “worried about the way you have expressed the nuclear issue” – namely, that it was not made to seem alarming enough. (This was in fact the truth. As Chilcot has heard, British intelligence was quite clear before the war that Iraq was many years from a nuclear weapon and in no sense a nuclear threat.)

The following day, Campbell emailed Scarlett, saying that he had showed the draft dossier “cold” to a member of his staff who had been left (correctly) thinking “there’s nothing much to worry about” over the nuclear issue. “Sorry to bombard on this point,” Campbell says, “but I do worry that the nuclear section… as currently drafted, is not in great shape.”

The day after that, Campbell emailed Scarlett again, suggesting the insertion of a totally false claim, that the “the timelines [for Iraq obtaining a nuclear weapon] are considerably shortened however if Iraq manages to obtain fissile material illegally from overseas. In these circumstances, the JIC assessed in early 2002 that they could produce nuclear weapons in between one and two years.”

After some resistance by Scarlett, this fabrication duly appeared in the dossier as: “We therefore judge that if Iraq obtained fissile material and other essential components from foreign sources the timeline for production of a nuclear weapon would be shortened and Iraq could produce a nuclear weapon in between one and two years.” (Dossier para 23, page 27.)

6. Most meetings on the dossier were attended by spin-doctors and some were actually chaired by Campbell, something which even Lord Hutton criticised.

These are far from the only interventions by Campbell – and he was, of course, far from the only Downing Street political appointee to interfere in the dossier process. Significant interventions were also made by other Downing Street and Foreign Office spin-doctors and by the Prime Minister’s chief of staff, Jonathan Powell. Powell is up next Monday – we might have a look at some of his handiwork then.

It is noticeable that most of Campbell’s key lies were told to previous enquiries. Could this be the one where he finally makes his peace with the truth?

One thought on “Alastair Campbell in the witness box: this time, the truth?”

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