Alastair Campbell’s evidence session at the Chilcot Inquiry this afternoon told us far more about the members of the inquiry than about their star witness.
Campbell, inevitably, ran a classic “no surrender” defence. Nothing was admitted; no ground conceded. Incredibly, he even said that he “defend[ed] every single word of the dossier” and “every single part of the process” which created it. Virtually every single word of the dossier has, of course, turned out to be wrong.
Every word of the dossier, said Campbell, was the work of the intelligence agencies and John Scarlett, the head of the Joint Intelligence Committee. There was no pressure on Scarlett and Campbell and his fellow political appointees had no role whatever in “beefing [sexing] it up.” As I detailed in my previous blogpost, these claims are demonstrably and documentably false.
It was never at all likely that an old pro like Campbell would collapse on the witness table, tearfully confessing his crimes and lies. But the behaviour of Chilcot’s committee, the people on the other side of the table, was much more interesting and unexpected.
They asked often exactly the right questions. For the first time, they referred, in detail, to the mountains of documentary evidence that they had, evidence that directly contradicted many of Campbell’s claims both today and previously. They met the former Chief Persuader’s evidence with noticeably more scepticism than they’d employed with any previous witness.
I was particularly pleased that they did seem to get the detail of Campbell’s key alteration to the dossier, when the nuclear threat posed by Iraq was hyped up on his direct request. As other witnesses to Chilcot have said, the actual intelligence was quite clear: Iraq was not a nuclear threat. But after documented interventions by Campbell, the dossier ended up claiming that Saddam, under certain circumstances, could have the Bomb within one to two years.
Campbell claimed that his interventions were simply clarifying the dossier’s nuclear wording because he “couldn’t understand” it. It wasn’t, in fact, a matter of expression, but of meaning – the meaning was changed – but the committee didn’t press.
Still, they at a couple of points expressed the mandarin equivalents of “This is wrong” and “I don’t believe it.” It remains to be seen whether this is more than token independent-mindedness – but if it is more, it augurs well for the final report.