Iraq dossier: MI6 concerned about its claims 'from the outset'

As we all obsess with the forthcoming inquiry into the press, the inquiry into something slightly worse than hacked telephones – the deaths of 150,000 people in Iraq – continues to produce startling revelations.

Today it published the redacted testimony of a senior MI6 officer who stated that “there were from the outset concerns” in the intelligence service about “the extent to which the intelligence could support some of the judgments that were being made” in Tony Blair’s famous WMD dossier.

Note those words: from the outset. This directly contradicts the testimony of Sir Richard Dearlove, then head of MI6, and John Scarlett, then chair of the joint intelligence committee, to Hutton.

To my mind, it is even more damning than the quote that’s making news today: the officer describing Alastair Campbell as an “unguided missile” about whom MI6 had “concerns.” (What those concerns exactly were has been helpfully blacked-out from the published testimony.) “We suffered from his propensity to have rushes of blood to the head,” the officer says.

“There was very substantial pressure [from Downing Street] to generate new intelligence,” said the spook. “We were, in all honesty, not well placed to do that…. Some of the newer material was, so to speak, being torn off the teleprinter and rushed across to Number 10 with, shall we say, a little more haste than was probably appropriate…

“The pressure to generate results, I fear, did lead to the cutting of corners…We were probably too eager to please.”

This adds to the disclosure by the great Chris Ames in the Observer two weeks ago of a memo in which John Scarlett, Campbell’s co-conspirator in sexing up the dossier, talked about “obscuring the fact that, in terms of WMD, Iraq is not that exceptional.”

And in May, Michael Laurie, former senior intelligence official, said: “We knew at the time that the purpose of the dossier was precisely to make a case for war rather than setting out the available intelligence.”

It is becoming even clearer than it was before that my story about the sexing up of the dossier was true. And it is becoming ever harder for Chilcot to perform a whitewash. But the fact that all this is only coming out now – nine years, and four official inquiries, after the dossier – demonstrates the failure of official inquries, and the success of journalism, at getting to the truth. Let’s hope the judge in charge of the latest inquiry into the press realises that, shall we?

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Iraq dossier: Tony Blair rewrites history

One of the consistent claims of Tony Blair, and other government witnesses, to Sir John Chilcot has been that the famous Iraq dossier was a non-event – and so cannot have been the great deception that is alleged (by me, among many others).

Today Mr Blair said: “The thing that strikes me most was how the dossier was received… as somewhat dull and cautious at the time [of publication]… It has taken on a far greater significance than it ever did at the time.”

Jonathan Powell, his chief of staff said the dossier was “not such a big deal” and was seen at the time as a “damp squib”. Jack Straw said it was “treated as really rather prosaic and telling people what they knew”. Alastair Campbell, of course, said nobody would ever have remembered it without the allegations I made afterwards.

Worryingly, Chilcot appears to be buying this. He said to Powell that with the exception of the famous “45 Minutes From Attack” splash in that day’s Evening Standard “it was seen as a dull document and had little impact”.

Chilcot must not fall for this rewriting of history. Parliament has only been recalled three times in the last ten years – for 9/11, the death of the Queen Mother, and to launch the dossier. In the seven and a half years since the dossier there has been no further recall of Parliament.

In his evidence Jack Straw claimed to quote my own first reaction to it, about an hour after it was published, on that morning’s Today programme, saying that I said it was “dull”. Alas, Mr Straw’s representation of what I said about the dossier is as faulty as his representation of what the intelligence services said about Iraqi WMD.

Although I did say that the majority of the document was “cautious and measured in tone,” which it was, I said the document included a number of “spicy angles” and “lines designed to make headlines for the tabloids”. And the ones I picked out were the 45-minute claim, and the claim that Saddam had continued to make progress with his WMD – both of which, we now learn, should never have been published.

The dossier was our lead item on the Today programme that morning, and went on to be a huge event which dominated the print and broadcast media for days. A simple Nexis database search shows that the following day’s national newspapers carried more than 100 separate stories mentioning weapons of mass destruction.

Thirty-nine stories mentioned the dossier’s most notorious element, the 45-minute claim. Most newspapers mentioned it in their front-page splashes and many in their headlines.

Those headlines included:

“Mad Saddam Set To Attack – 45 Minutes From A Chemical War” (Star)

“Why Saddam Must Be Stopped… Dossier Reveals Iraq Can Attack in 45 Minutes” (Telegraph)

“Missiles Fire In 45 Minutes” (Times)

“Brits 45 Minutes From Doom” (Sun)

“‘Saddam Has Plans For Chemical And Biological Weapons That Could Be Activated In 45 Minutes'” (Times, headline on edited transcript of Blair speech)

“Straw Tells MPs that Weapons Could Be Activated In 45 Minutes” (Times)

“Saddam ‘Could Have Nuclear Bomb In Year'” (Times)

“He’s Got ‘Em – Let’s Get Him” (Sun)

Not all that dull, cautious, and lacking in impact, then!

Iraq inquiry: Campbell fails to clarify the clarification

It’s just not how a leading professional communicator should be treated, is it? Alastair Campbell tonight faces a demand from the former Lib Dem leader, Sir Menzies Campbell, that he be recalled to the Chilcot inquiry after I spotted that the former Spin King had written to Chilcot, “clarifying” his evidence.

Campbell decided he needed a second go at saying what he really meant over an issue which is emerging as a key area of interest for the enquiry. It is the claim, written by him in the WMD dossier, and repeated by Tony Blair, that the “assessed intelligence” had established continued Iraqi WMD production “beyond doubt.” But the intelligence, of course, established nothing of the sort, as both Blair and Campbell must have known. 

Campbell is right to be edgy about this. The inquiry members have already expressed open scepticism about the phrase. But as Sir Menzies points out, the former Chief Persuader’s tortuously-worded clarification actually makes the picture less clear, not more. 

Various impertinent commentators have said that Campbell is trying to “muddy the waters” over something he knows he screwed up. But today, on his blog, we have a further contribution to the debate from Alastair himself. Third time lucky? Not quite. 

“I accept I could have tried to make the first sentence shorter,” he concedes, but then does no more than repeat the inquiry’s original question, his original fervent defence, and his convoluted clarification. What does it mean? It can’t mean nothing, otherwise Campbell wouldn’t have done it. So I’m appealing to readers, especially any experts in Saussurean linguistics out there – any suggestions more than welcome…

Iraq WMD: Taxi for Scarlett

In a speech I sometimes give I say, half-jokingly, that the British government’s legendary “45 minutes till doom” claim over Iraqi WMD was “the equivalent of a journalist doing a front-page story on the basis of something their minicab driver heard down the pub. Except, of course, that no news story ever led to the deaths of 200,000 people.” 

It was, as I say, a joke. But now, quite incredibly, it turns out that it might have been true. According to the Tory MP Adam Holloway, the information “originated from an emigre taxi driver on the Iraqi-Jordanian border, who had remembered an overheard conversation in the back of his cab a full two years earlier.” 

Mr Holloway stated that an intelligence analyst had at the time flagged up – via a footnote – that the claims were “demonstrably untrue”. 

“Despite this glaring factual inaccuracy… the report was characterised as reliable,” he said. Mr Holloway’s claim has not been denied by the Government.

 Every time we think we have reached the “outer limits” (to use Lord Butler’s phrase) of the Government’s behaviour on Iraq, they come up with something new to surprise us.

 As it happens, Sir John Scarlett, the man in charge of the dodgy dossier fiasco, was up before the Chilcot enquiry today. You might expect at least a note of shame, if not of abject humiliation. But Chilcot, with all the investigative ferocity we’ve come to expect from him, said that the taxi-driver claim was not a matter for Scarlett to answer on. And Scarlett was allowed to deploy his usual line that he had acted in “good faith” all along. So that’s all right, then!