The political day begins, in Britain, at six in the morning, when BBC Radio 4’s Today program goes on the air. This is a three-hour news magazine with reportage and political interviews. During the first hour, before the politicians are ready to talk, much of the information tends to be disseminated in the form of “two-ways”—unscripted conversations between the presenters and the correspondents. Later, after the seven and eight o’clock news bulletins, come the key topical political interviews, which successive governments have both craved and feared, for the presenters are mostly first-rate and refuse to let the politicians get away with propaganda.
When relations are bad between the government and the BBC, as during the last years of the last Conservative administration, and as they have been particularly during the last few months, one has to get one’s news through the medium of a quarrel, and this is sometimes tiresome. One therefore values the relative calm and efficiency of the early-morning broadcast, when presenter and reporter, in their professional way, let the listener in on what they expect will be the major developments ahead.
So it was that, on May 29 this year, just after the 6 AM bulletin, I was listening as usual when the following item came up. I reproduce the transcript in full, because the report has cast a long shadow on British politics, leading to warfare between the Blair government and the BBC, the death of an eminent scientist, two parliamentary reports, an official inquiry still sitting, one resignation, and perhaps more to follow. The reporter in this item, Andrew Gilligan, was, on the morning in question, audibly excited, as if he had just come into the studio on receipt of the news (although he had known this new intelligence for some days), and he was having uncharacteristic difficulty in choosing the correct words. It made for startling listening at the time, even if it is hard now to read.
John Humphrys: The government is facing more questions this morning over its claims about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. Our defense correspondent is Andrew Gilligan. This in particular Andy is Tony Blair saying, they’d be ready to go within forty-five minutes.
Andrew Gilligan: That’s right, that was the central claim in his dossier which he published in September, the main er, case if you like against er, against Iraq and the main statement of the British Government’s belief of what it thought Iraq was up to and what we’ve been told by one of the senior officials in charge of drawing up the dossier was that actually the government erm, probably knew that that forty-five-minute figure was wrong, even before it decided to put it in. What this person says, is that a week before the publication date of the dossier, it was actually rather erm, a bland production. It didn’t, the, the draft prepared for Mr. Blair by the intelligence agencies actually didn’t say very much more than was public knowledge already and erm, Downing Street, our source says, ordered a week before publication, ordered it to be sexed up, to be made more exciting, and ordered more facts to be er, to be discovered.
John Humphrys: When you say “more facts to be discovered,” does that suggest that they may not have been facts?
Andrew Gilligan: Well, erm, our source says that the dossier, as it was finally published, made the intelligence services unhappy, erm, because, to quote erm the source he said, there was basically, that there was, there was, there was unhappiness because it didn’t reflect the considered view they were putting forward, that’s a quote from our source and essentially, erm, the forty-five-minute point er, was, was probably the most important thing that was added. Erm, and the reason it hadn’t been in the original draft was that it was, it was only erm, it only came from one source and most of the other claims were from two, and the intelligence agencies say they don’t really believe it was necessarily true because they thought the person making the claim had actually made a mistake, it got, had got mixed up.
John Humphrys: Does any of this matter now, all this, all these months later? The war’s been fought and won.
Andrew Gilligan: Well the forty-five minutes isn’t just a detail, it did go to the heart of the government’s case that Saddam was an imminent threat and it was repeated four times in the dossier, including by the Prime Minister himself, in the foreword; so I think it probably does matter. Clearly, you know, if erm, if it, if it was, if it was wrong, things do, things are, got wrong in good faith but if they knew it was wrong before they actually made the claim, that’s perhaps a bit more serious.
John Humphrys: Andrew, many thanks; more about that later.1
Anyone from the relevant section of the intelligence services listening in to this early report would have been likely to recognize the authenticity of Gilligan’s report on two points: that the information about the forty-five-minute claim was included at a late stage in the government’s publicly distributed report called the “September Dossier,”2 and that it came from an uncorroborated source. Downing Street immediately countered, however, with the assertion that “not one word of the dossier was not entirely the work of the intelligence agencies.”3 Gilligan explained, correctly, later in the program, that the information did indeed come from the agencies but—and this is a point that has been stoutly challenged—that they were unhappy about it, claiming that the source had “misunderstood what was happening.”
At the time of this broadcast, the Today program was still regularly asking questions about the whereabouts of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, and gave no sign of losing interest in the topic. This is because in Britain a great public emphasis was placed on the danger posed by Saddam’s possession of, or development of, these weapons. “Regime change,” for us, was not an avowed war aim.
In private, Blair’s calculations were rather different. Sir Peter Stothard, the former editor of the Times of London, was allowed to spend four weeks at Ten Downing Street. In his behind-the-scenes account of the war, he tells us with what seems like the best authority that, in September last year, Blair’s “analysis of the relations between Washington, London and Baghdad was clear and cold,” and rested on “six essential points to which he and his aides would regularly return”:
o Saddam Hussein’s past aggression, present support for terrorism and future ambitions made him a clear threat to his enemies. He was not the only threat, but he was a threat nonetheless.
o The United States and Britain were among his enemies.
o The people of the United States, still angered by the 11 September attacks, still sensing unfinished business from the first Gulf War twelve years before, would support a war on Iraq.
o Gulf War 2—President George W. Bush vs. Saddam Hussein—would happen whatever anyone else said or did.
o The people of Britain, continental Europe and most of the rest of the world would not even begin to support a war unless they had a say in it through the United Nations.
o It would be more damaging to long-term world peace and security if the Americans alone defeated Saddam Hussein than if they had international support to do so.
Exactly whose wording this is, Stothard does not make clear. He says:
These six points—when scribbled on the back on an envelope or set out on the printed page—are not exceptional. What is exceptional is the certainty required to follow their logic. It is Tony Blair’s certainty that has been a surprise for many Labour MPs.
But of course in September last year, or at any time since, it would have come as a surprise to most Britons to be told that the reason for our participation in the coming Iraq war rested on points four and six: Bush was going to war anyway, and the United States victory would be “more damaging to long-term world peace and security if the Americans alone defeated Saddam Hussein.” We thought America was supposed to be the ally, and Iraq the threat.4 Yet here an American victory is presented as a problem.
It was also in September last year that the government published its dossier on Iraq, with a foreword by Blair, in which the prime minister argued that
Saddam has used chemical weapons, not only against an enemy state, but against his own people. Intelligence reports make clear that he sees the building up of his WMD capability, and the belief overseas that he would use these weapons, as vital to his strategic interests, and in particular his goal of regional domination. And the document discloses that his military planning allows for some of the WMD to be ready within 45 minutes of an order to use them.
Less than a week into the war itself, on March 25, Stothard describes the prime minister preparing himself for a press conference. “Right,” he says to his advisers, “Throw some questions at me.”
“We’re taking a lot of desert but no towns,” says [Jonathan] Powell. “What’s going wrong?”
“We’re not an army of occupation,” responds the man at the imaginary podium….
“Why haven’t we found any chemical weapons?” asks [Sir David] Manning, as though he would really like an answer to that.
“We’re concentrating first on the campaign,” says Tony Blair.
The fact that Manning, then Blair’s foreign policy adviser and since the beginning of September UK ambassador to Washington, should see this failure to find WMD as a problem, so early in the war, is striking. On the next page, at the press conference itself, Blair makes a point that Stothard tells us he did not rehearse:
He is asked whether he might have won more pre-war support in the Middle East and elsewhere if he had made his target “dictators of mass destruction, not weapons.” The Prime Minister now admits what has been clear for many days, that he has been “uncomfortable, frankly” within the context and confines of international law and United Nations resolutions. “If Saddam had disarmed and remained in place,” Tony Blair would not have been “comfortable” at all.
“To remove that regime will send a huge signal not only to Iraq but right across the world,” he says….
But this does not mean, by the way, that the threat from WMD is no more than a fig leaf for regime change, at least according to Stothard’s evidence. Blair and his advisers, during the war, were anxious to find those weapons, in order to answer the carping of other Security Council members. They were clearly concerned to find them as soon as possible, and Stothard has said in an interview since that everything he knew about Blair and his entourage during the war was consistent with the publicly expressed view that Iraq’s WMD existed.
Once these two main points have been recognized (that Blair went to war in order to counter a perceived threat from triumphalist America, but that he nevertheless did sincerely believe in Iraqi WMD), Stothard’s book has nothing further of interest. It was written too fast, and the author, though granted his “unprecedented access,” never really saw anything happen. Any honest journalist will sympathize with his plight: you get to talk to the head of state in intimate moments during momentous events, and what he tells you is all cliché; you get to see Blair and Chirac conversing in the corridors of power, but you can’t hear what they’re saying. You have access of a sort, but your access turns out to be useless.
And this particular journalist, now knighted after his days at Rupert Murdoch’s London Times and put out to pasture in the TLS, was doubly unlucky. Instead of watching him watch Downing Street advisers and spies at work, we can now see them interrogated on our own behalf, thanks to the inquiry led by Lord Hutton, who was appointed by Blair to examine the facts surrounding the suicide of David Kelly on July 18. The records of the inquiry, with its hundreds of confidential documents and its shadowy characters and their interrogations, are all available on the Internet. We are now living in a different political era from that in which this book, still fresh off the presses, was written.
David Kelly was the source of Gilligan’s story that the September Dossier had been “sexed up” at the behest of Downing Street. His suicide changed everything. Kelly was employed by an agency called Defence Scientific and Technical Laboratories, which is in turn part of the Ministry of Defence. He had worked with British and American intelligence and had the highest level of security clearance. He was Britain’s leading expert on chemical and biological warfare and had played a leading part in UNSCOM in Iraq.
Before he committed suicide, Kelly had done his best to cover his tracks when questioned about his conversations with Gilligan and other journalists. He was not a principled whistle-blower who was prepared to take the consequences for his professional indiscretions (in the manner of someone who commits an act of civil disobedience, accepting that he will be arrested). Knowing that he could at any moment be identified by colleagues as Gilligan’s source, he volunteered a minimum of information, but hoped to shelter behind protestations either that he was not the only source for the story about the sexing up of the dossier, or that he had been misrepresented.
For a while this suited the Ministry of Defence, who promised him that his anonymity would be protected. However, a decision was made by Downing Street that Kelly’s name would be confirmed to any journalist who guessed it correctly. A document was drawn up, indicating what the appropriate responses to press questions would be. And in a very short time, reporters did indeed guess correctly that Kelly was the official who had come forward.
Still, the government was not yet certain that Kelly was Gilligan’s only source, and so they put pressure on the BBC to name him. This the Corporation refused to do. But in a move that has lost him such sympathy as he enjoyed among his colleagues, Gilligan himself damaged Kelly by his actions just before Kelly appeared before a parliamentary committee. He quietly informed MPs on the committee that Kelly was the source for a story on WMD by his BBC colleague Susan Watts (a science correspondent on another program). Gilligan protected Kelly as his own source, but he betrayed him as Watts’s source.
The acrimony of the battle that unfolded between Downing Street and the BBC was astonishing, and went quite beyond the original offense (if that is what it was). For even if the accusation in its original maximalist version (the government took us into war on grounds it knew to be false) turns out to be false, it is no worse than the accusations against Blair from other sources. Recently resigned members of the Cabinet—Clare Short, Michael Meacher, Robin Cook—regularly say things about Blair’s deceptions that are just as bad, and are dealt with by formulaic denials by Blair’s defenders. And we have already seen that Sir Peter Stothard has attributed to Blair a conscious reason for going to war that bears no relation at all to the official version, and he has done so without creating the slightest whiff of controversy.
Kelly told more than one journalist that intelligence officers were unhappy with the forty-five-minute claim, and felt it should not have been included in the dossier, and that its inclusion was at the behest of Downing Street, who needed to beef up their case. But Kelly was in favor of the dossier as a whole, and in favor of war with Iraq (although he wanted the case for it to be made more honestly, and wanted the UN to be involved). He believed that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction. He was hardly the government’s most radical critic, and Gilligan never painted him as such.
After Kelly’s suicide, Blair, on tour in Tokyo, paid him a tribute on Sky News:
This is an absolutely terrible tragedy. I’m profoundly saddened for David Kelly and for his family. He was a fine public servant who did an immense amount of good for his country in the past and I’m sure would have done so again in the future.
This is hardly the language most prime ministers would use about a recently exposed mole. The author Richard Webster, in an interesting article published on his Web site, links the generosity of the tribute to a reported fear Blair had, after the discovery of Kelly’s body, that his political career was hanging by a thread: if Janice Kelly, the widow, accused Blair of having blood on his hands, his future could not be assured.5
Blair is widely remembered as having denied authorizing the leaking of Kelly’s name to the press, but, as Webster points out, what Blair actually said on his flight from Japan to Hong Kong (reported in the July 23 newspapers) fell into two parts. He said, when asked if he had authorized the passing on of Kelly’s name to the press: “That is completely untrue. Emphatically not. I did not authorize the leaking of the name of David Kelly.” Then he was asked why the government had confirmed Kelly’s identity. He said: “That’s a completely different matter once the name is out there. The inquiry can look into these things.” This is a thoroughly Clintonian moment for Blair, for the inquiry did indeed look into these things and has the text of a “defensive briefing” which was issued to the Ministry of Defence (MOD) press officers at the time. It anticipates the possible inquiries, beginning as follows:
Who is the official? The official works in MOD.
What is his name and current post? We wouldn’t normally volunteer a name. If the correct name is given, we can confirm it and say that he is a senior advisor to the Proliferation and Arms Control Secretariat.
How long has he been in MOD? He has been in his current position for 3 to 4 years. Before that he was a member of UNSCOM.
Is he a senior figure? He is not a member of the SCS [Senior Civil Service]—he is a middle-ranking official.
Is he still working for MOD? Yes.
Is he in Iraq? No, though he recently visited Iraq for a week.6
And so on for over three pages. This catechism proved effective: journalists were given plenty of clues and found the answer by means of a simple Google search.
Blair’s credibility, and by extension that of his government, was for a long time linked to the stout defense of the existence of weapons of mass destruction, and the expectation that they would be discovered. In Britain there was no equivalent of the insouciance with which American officials, such as Paul Wolfowitz, were able to refer to arguments based on the presence of WMD as useful for administrative reasons. Only gradually was the word “programs” added by Blair’s defenders to the term WMD. And even when the Hutton inquiry began sitting on August 11 there was utter insistence by Blair’s spokesmen that Kelly’s assertion that the intelligence services were unhappy with claims about WMD was without foundation.
At the inquiry, Lord Hutton hardly spoke, except to clarify the occasional point. The leading counsel, Mr. Dingemans, made it clear from the outset that “questioning of all witnesses will be courteous, fair and designed to elicit the truth.”7 And yet, before a single voice had been raised, before even the cross-questioning had begun, the government’s credibility on major points had suffered.
Here is a sample of this immensely polite and corrosive process at work. The witness is John Scarlett, head of the government’s Joint Intelligence Committee (which produced the September Dossier circulated by Blair’s office) and head of the Intelligence and Securities Secretariat in the Cabinet Office. He was, that is, responsible for coordinating the assessment of intelligence information in the UK and advising Blair and his fellow ministers on intelligence matters. Hutton and Scarlett are discussing a document which refers to the “standard view” Kelly had expressed to other officials and to Gilligan about the forty-five-minute claim: he did not know the intelligence upon which it was based, and he was not familiar with an Iraqi weapons system that matched that sort of timescale (that is, it could be loaded with chemical or biological weapons and made ready for firing in forty-five minutes).
Lord Hutton: …Now, I think that Dr. Kelly had suggested to someone else that the source for the forty-five-minutes reference might have confused it with some multiple barreled Iraqi weapon. Are you able to make any comment—and if, for security reasons, you cannot, please just say so; but are you able to comment on that comment by Dr. Kelly: he is not familiar with an Iraqi weapons system that matches that sort of timescale?
Scarlett: I can only make a limited comment, my Lord.
Lord Hutton: Yes.
Scarlett: Which, I think, may not be relevant; but certainly Andrew Gilligan, when quoting his source, said that the source believed that the report was relating to warheads for missiles.
Lord Hutton: Yes.
Scarlett: Which, in fact, it was not; it related to munitions, which we had interpreted to mean battlefield mortar shells or small-calibre weaponry, quite different from missiles.
Lord Hutton: Yes.
Scarlett: So it is possible that Dr. Kelly, who, as I still understand it, never did see or probably did not see the original report, was in a state of genuine confusion about what the report actually said.
This, from Scarlett, was entirely new. After three months of daily public wrangling on this point, and nearly a year after the original dossier’s publication, the Cabinet’s head of intelligence finally vouchsafed the fact that the weapons of mass destruction Blair had thought merited a war were such as might be fired from mortars or small-caliber weapons—devilishly tiny weapons of mass destruction. They were not installed in missiles that could reach Tel Aviv, Kuwait City, Cyprus, and other parts of the region. No wonder they have proved so elusive.8
We learned something else about Scarlett only the other day. In the report of the Intelligence and Security Committee, the parliamentary group appointed by the prime minister to scrutinize the work of the intelligence agencies, we are told of another report by the Joint Intelligence Committee, dated February 10, 2003. In the secret assessment of this committee, the same one that produced the September Dossier for public consumption,
…there was no intelligence that Iraq had provided CB [chemical and biological] materials to al-Qaida or of Iraqi intentions to conduct CB terrorist attacks using Iraqi intelligence officials or their agents. However, it judged that in the event of imminent regime collapse there would be a risk of transfer of such material, whether or not as a deliberate Iraqi regime policy. The JIC assessed that al-Qaida and associated groups continued to represent by far the greatest threat to Western interests, and that threat would be heightened by military action against Iraq.
Scarlett’s committee, which includes the heads of the three intelligence and security agencies, concluded that “any collapse of the Iraqi regime would increase the risk of chemical and biological warfare technology or agents finding their way into the hands of terrorists, not necessarily al-Qaeda.” In August the members of the Intelligence and Security Committee, our parliamentary scrutineers, discussed this risk with the prime minister, who said:
One of the most difficult aspects of this is that there was obviously a danger that in attacking Iraq you ended up provoking the very thing you were trying to avoid. On the other hand I think you had to ask the question, “Could you really, as a result of that fear, leave the possibility that in time this developed into a nexus between terrorism and WMD in any event?” This is where you’ve just got to make your judgement about this. But this is my judgement and it remains my judgement and I suppose time will tell whether it’s true or it’s not true.9
This appeal to the judgment of time, to the verdict of history, is a recurrent theme with Blair—he used it most resoundingly in his address to the joint session of Congress a few days before the suicide of David Kelly. But we have already had a judgment of time on the great issue over which Blair asked the electorate to wait and see: the mobile laboratories, about which Kelly was an early and vocal skeptic, have proved a red herring, and the Iraq Survey Group, upon whose word we were asked to attend, has reportedly decided not to report, or to delay its report indefinitely, on the grounds that there is nothing new to say.
Meanwhile the Labour Party has lost its first by-election in fifteen years, with a 29 percent swing from Labour in favor of the Liberal Democrats, the nearest thing we have to an antiwar party. The Lib Dems “played dirty,” so some Labour supporters said. The Lib Dems “delivered pictures of Blair and Bush” to the Muslim areas of the Brent East constituency, and they “claimed the Labour candidate had supported the war.” On the great scale of things, these were hardly dirty tricks. They only go down well because we are under the impression that we were somehow tricked. But we still have to find out exactly who was tricking us and why.
—September 24, 2003
October 23, 2003
Radio 4 Today Programme, May 29, 2003. The full transcript of this program can be found at www.the-hutton-inquiry.org.uk/content/evidence-lists/evidence-bbc.htm. ↩
Two UK government dossiers on Iraq have proved notorious in the last year: the September Dossier of 2002 and the so-called “Dodgy Dossier,” produced in February of this year. The September Dossier was called Iraq’s Weapons of Mass Destruction—The Assessment of the British Govern-ment. This was described as “based, in large part, on the work of the Joint Intelligence Committee.” The “Dodgy Dossier,” which posed as intelligence-derived material, was called Iraq—Its Infrastructure of Concealment, Deception and Intimidation. This proved to contain unattributed, out-of-date information downloaded from the Internet and plagiarized from an academic source. ↩
Radio 4 Today Programme, May 29, 2003. ↩
The significance of this passage was underlined by Martin Kettle in “America Wanted War,” The Guardian, July 16, 2003. ↩
“The Death of a Scientist,” www.richardwebster.net. The article Webster quotes was by Kamal Ahmed in The Observer, July 27, 2003. ↩
MOD Defensive Briefing, available at www.the-hutton-inquiry.org.uk/content/evidence-lists/evidence-mod.htm. ↩
Hutton Inquiry Transcript, August 11, 2003, paragraph 2. ↩
Hutton Inquiry Transcript, August 26, 2003, paragraphs 144–145. ↩
Intelligence and Security Committee report, Iraqi Weapons of Mass Destruction—Intelligence and Assessments, September 2003, p. 35, available at www.the-hutton-inquiry.org.uk/content/evidence-lists/evidence-isc.htm. ↩