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Home > War On Terror

Listen to Jonathan Powell, not Daniel Pruce or Felicity Hatfield

Once and for all: the reason why it seems fair to suggest that Hutton is a whitewash is not that you disagree with its conclusions, but that you can't see any way that those conclusions follow from the evidence. As an example, it's interesting to compare and contrast Hutton's assertion that Number 10 did not try and influence an intelligence report, specifically by insisting on the inclusion of an unreliable claim that there were WMDs ready to de deployed within 45 minutes of Saddam's thumbs-up.

2 February 2004

The question which became pressing during the Inquiry was the balance between political convenience and intelligence based on fact. It's useful here to imagine two extreme scenarios and work out which we're closer to.

  • One extreme is that dossiers which look like intelligence reports are just that: that tax money is spent on getting the best possible information on any threats to our country, and that this is presented, wherever secure and possible, as plainly as possible.
  • The other is that Number 10 concocts policies for its own, unstated reasons, and asks intelligence for some meat to back it up, regardless of what the security service itself knows - much like you might employ a PR company to make a persuasive campaign for an unpopular policy.

In the course of the hearings, we got hours of evidence about which of these we're closer to - but the Report itself seemed outright uninterested in the question.


Much of the relevant evidence is in Appendix 13 [ PDF ], which seems an odd collection of documents for Hutton to include, since they seem to have had no bearing on the Report's conclusions.

Looking at the Appendix, you notice two separate processes in the writing of the dossier: what was known about Saddam, and what the authors did about it.

(1) What did they know?

We find out the most about this in emails from Downing Street Chief Of Staff Jonathan Powell, who repeatedly offers comments to make the document stronger: his interest seems to be in avoiding leaving banana skins lying about by including dodgy claims.

For example, on September 17th, he pitches in to say "you need to make it clear that Saddam could not attack us at the moment. The thesis is he would be a threat to the UK in the future if we do not check him" [emphasis retained].

So at this point, there's a plan to invade, and this needs backing up. Powell thinks it best to say that this is preventative, and that to justify the invasion on the basis of an imminent threat would be foolish and create a whole peck of trouble further down the line. Someone promote that man. He goes on to say the dossier

does nothing to demonstrate he has the motive to attack his neighbours, let alone the west. We will need to be clear in launching the document that we do not claim that we have evidence that he is an imminent threat. The case we are making is that he has continued to develop WMD since 1998, and is in breach of UN resolutions.


Again, there's an aim here to keep the dossier reasonable, even if it's not as whoa-scary: to let the facts speak for themselves and hope that that justifies the attack - or, in his words, to "set the test for ourselves at a level we can meet."

So Powell reads the draft with an eye to its main purpose - to be persuasive - and presciently spots that it might not be wise to acknowledge that Saddam's chemical and biological plans are part of a defensive strategy if the West attacks, since the document is actually trying to justify just such an attack.

We know then, that a dossier could be put together making a much less alarmist case (and one that might not jive too well with international law). What about some intelligence which would make the case seem stronger?


Some is being bandied around, but Joanna Nadin, a Downing Street "writer/adviser" flags the way that the scarier claims are precisely the less reliable ones. She asks: "When it mentions 'intelligence' - what exactly are they talking about? Do they mean our people in Iraq (if there are any), do they mean defectors?"

This is one of the tensions you encounter when writing a document like this. It's more persuasive to be specific and give sources at every turn1 (a lesson Gilligan learned and taught) - but this is only the case when the facts are solid and frightening. If they're not good enough, you have to be vague. Which is why the term "weapons of mass destruction" is so attractive.

You've got battlefield munitions which can be deployed within 45 minutes. You can make a fair case for programmes for chemical and biological weapons. And you know that even if sanctions were dropped and he procured some fissile material, nuclear weapons would be five years away at the soonest. But conflate that lot into WMDs, and -bingo - the whole case gets a lot scarier.


(2) What did they do about it?

Well, we know what they did about it: they included the 45 minute claim. But nowhere do we see an email saying something to the effect of "Good News! I attach a despatch which proves SH has WMDs which could be deployed in less than an hr! Suggest adding to 3rd para and moving to front. ps: shitsticks we could all die".


What we see instead is a series of suggestions from Alastair Campbell's staff on how to change the flavour of the words so that the scarier claims can seem to have as much weight as the factual ones.

Downing Street Press Officer Daniel Pruce notes, for example, that "much of the evidence which we have is largely circumstantial" and wants the document laid out to give it "a very 'official' flavour", i.e. to make it look like a factual report rather than propaganda. The document as it stands is "intelligence lite" - everyone involved knows this - but it doesn't have to look that way. Not if you want to justify the invasion planned for April.

Danny also suggests whacking in some "quotes" from Saddam which show he's "a bad man" with "general hostility" to the West, "even if they are not specific".

Matthew Rycroft, a Downing Street advisor, also has a bright idea: suggesting that Iraq's WMD "will somehow get into the hands of terrorists" (the next comment is blacked out) and that the more funds Saddam has "the more likely he is to buy fissile material etc" ("etc"?) - so making the threat seem more possible. Again, this doesn't come across as something you'd need to do about a claim in which you had confidence.


Finally, Felicity Hatfield, one of Campbell's PRs, writes: "Re: the 'imminent threat' point, that is why TB's foreword sets out 'the case I am making'." (Flicky reckons that if it comes across as Tony's hunch, then it can't be seen to be an outright lie later on.)

Well, to definitively say that our intelligence services have been reduced to another arm of the state PR machine, you'd need an email saying outright "suggest inserting 45min claim even though flase".

Working out which of the extreme scenarios above we're closer to, though, is not so hard. The compilation of the dossier was the work of public relations wonks and press handlers. The ongoing effort is to try and imply something which you don't feel comfortable about saying outright.


Hutton doesn't seem in the least uncomfortable with this - any more than he does with the idea of the Prime Minister having "subconsciously influenced Mr Scarlett and the other members of the Joint Intelligence Committee to make the wording of the dossier somewhat stronger than it would have been if it had been contained in a normal JIC assessment."

Sorry - but isn't this much scarier than some ad-hoc insertions from Number 10? If the intelligence guys routinely know that their day-to-day job is now making the case that the PM wants rather than reporting the facts as they see them, their entire function has moved from security to PR. The wording changes are not as trivial as Hutton appears to think. There is a substantive as well as a rhetorical difference between a "sought" and a "secured", between a "might plan to" and a "has already" between a "possibly" and a " ".

The facts get lost. The truth gets lost.

Either it's a press release which selectively mentions the truth, or it's a report from those we trust. Appendix 13 is the story of an effort to make the latter come across as the former.

Felicity Hatfield asks a colleague to read over the dossier. Her interest is in whether it's "convincing". This is not the language of someone confident of their claims. But throughout Appendix 13, we see that the purpose of the document is to convince.

And what's most important is this: if you're spending so much time trying to justify a policy, that means that the policy needs defending. If you're flapping between a bunch of ways to justify it, that means that you've already decided to do it and just need to make it seem worthwhile.

So: there was a prior reason, not in the dossier, which is why we invaded Iraq. What is it? Tell us.

It's a question worthy of Inquiry.

1 This is especially relevant given the suspicions of Brian Jones of the Defence Intelligence Staff who suspected that any putative source for the 45 minute claim may have have been "trying to influence rather than inform" -- i.e. that they were anti-Saddam scaremongering and not to be treated seriously.

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