Alastair Campbell, Jonathan Powell and the 45-Minute Warning

By Professor Geoffrey Warner
(formerly Fellow in Modern History, Brasenose College, Oxford)

One of the most intriguing documents to emerge from the Hutton inquiry into the circumstances surrounding the death of David Kelly was an e-mail, dated 19 September 2002, from the Prime Minister’s chief of staff, Jonathan Powell, to Alastair Campbell, his director of communications and strategy and John Scarlett, chairman of the JIC, with a copy to Sir David Manning, the prime minister’s foreign policy adviser. Referring to the soon-to-be-published government dossier on Iraq, Powell asked: ‘Alastair – what will be the headline in the [Evening] Standard on day of publication? What do we want it to be?’ (Hutton Enquiry, Appendix 13(20).)

When it appeared, that headline was: ’45 Minutes from Attack’ and it was printed over an article by the paper’s political editor, Charles Reiss, which began:

‘Saddam Hussein’s armoury of chemical weapons is on standby for use within 45 minutes, Tony Blair’s dossier revealed today. The Iraqi leader has 20 missiles which could reach British military bases in Cyprus, as well as Israel and Nato members Greece and Turkey.’

Some people – including both Jonathan Powell and Alastair Campbell – regard (or portray) this as pure coincidence. Others may feel that, far from being coincidental, it was part of a deliberate strategy designed to emphasise the immediacy of the threat from Iraq and so justify military action if and when the latter was deemed necessary. Let us, therefore, examine the matter in more detail.

On 1 September 2002 Alastair Campbell noted the following conversation with the prime minister in his diary:

‘TB was becoming more and more belligerent [with regard to Iraq], saying he knew it was the right thing to do…He was developing the line that the UN route was fine if it was clearly a means to resolve the issue, but not if it’s a means to duck the issue. Equally, it was clear that public opinion had moved against us during August’ (Alastair Campbell, The Blair Years: Extracts from the Alastair Campbell Diaries, London, Hutchinson, 2007, pp. 632-33.)

Two days later, Campbell noted that

‘We [he and Blair] went through some of the hard questions on Iraq. The hardest was “Why now? What was it that we knew now that we didn’t before that made us believe we had to do it now?” It was not going to be at all easy to sell the policy in the next few months…The toughest question was what new evidence was there? He said the debate had got ahead of us, so we were going to do the dossier earlier, in the next few weeks…Today was about beginning to turn the tide of public opinion and it was going to be very tough indeed.’ (Ibid., p. 633.)

To sum up: Blair was determined to take a tough line on Iraq, but he was worried about securing public backing for his stance. Both he and Campbell agreed that ‘new evidence’ would be needed if it was to be instrumental in convincing the public, and the publication of a dossier – which had been considered earlier – was now a matter of urgency. Despite subsequent attempts to downgrade the importance of the September dossier, it is clear that it was regarded at the time by both the prime minister and one of his closest advisers as a very important document, which it was hoped would begin ‘to turn the tide of public opinion’ in favour of strong action against Iraq.

This interpretation is confirmed by the effort which was put into the production of the dossier as well as Campbell’s minute to Scarlett on 9 September 2002, which contained the following passage:

The media/political judgement [of the dossier] will immediately focus on “What’s new?” and I was pleased to hear from you and your SIS colleagues that contrary to media reports today, the intelligence community are taking such a helpful approach to this in going through all the material they have’ (Hutton para. 173) .

As it happened, some important ‘new evidence’ had just been received. Reported at the end of August 2002, it was incorporated into a draft JIC report of 5 September 2002 in the following words:

‘Intelligence…indicates that from forward and deployed storage sites, chemical and biological munitions could be with [Iraqi] military units and ready for firing within 45 minutes’ (Hutton, para. 178)

This ‘intelligence’ was not all that it seemed, but there is no evidence to suggest that it was not believed at the time. And it was certainly important enough to be included in three places in the dossier: in the prime minister’s Foreward, in the Executive Summary and in the body of the text. When the dossier was published on 24 September 2002, Andrew Gilligan was asked on the BBC’s Today programme to say what he thought was ‘the most dramatic’ paragraph in the dossier. Gilligan replied that ‘it’s not that kind of document’ and that it ‘is actually rather sensibly cautious and measured in tone’. But he added:

‘There are…a couple of sexy lines designed to make headlines for the tabloids like the fact that he [Saddam] can deploy within 45 minutes if the weapons were ready and that he could reach the British bases in Cyprus’ (Butler Report, para. 510).

In a footnote Butler explained that he had written to ‘some 60 editors of national and regional print and broadcast media’ to ask them whether they had been briefed by the government, either before or after the publication of the dossier, about the 45-minute story. ‘All who replied’, the footnote continued, said that they had not been briefed beforehand, but there was

‘some evidence…that some journalists had had their attention drawn after its publication to passages in the Prime Minister’s Forward. Some Editors noted that the “45-minute story” attracted attention because it was of itself an eye-catching item in a document containing much that was either not new or rather technical in nature.’ (Butler Report, fn. 5 to para. 510)

A few comments are in order at this point. 1) We are not told how many editors did or did not reply, let alone who they were. 2) What does ‘before publication’ mean in this context? Government documents are usually issued to the media under a time and date embargo before they are made available to the general public. Thus, editors and reporters could easily have seen and read the dossier before it was officially published, although it had in effect already been published for them. 3) It is clear that some papers did focus on the 45-minute story, including The Sun, the most widely read and perhaps the most influential tabloid, to which we know Tony Blair and his spin doctors attached much importance. 4) The statement that ‘some editors’ found the 45-minute story ‘eye-catching’ shows that if the government did indeed seek to highlight its importance as part of a campaign to win public opinion over to a tough stance against Iraq, it succeeded.

One of the members of the current Chilcot inquiry, Professor Sir Lawrence Freedman, clearly believes that this issue is an important one, for he questioned both Alastair Campbell and Jonathan Powell on the latter’s e-mail of 19 September 2002. Freedman had, in fact, already caught the former out in a material misstatement over the 45-minutes story, when Campbell had stated in the course of his testimony on 10 January 2010 that

‘I noted in the Butler Report that…the Butler Committee wrote to 60 editors and senior journalists to ask whether the government had been seeking to promote this 45 minutes point as a major part of the September dossier and uniformly they said, “No, we had not.”’

Freedman subsequently asked Campbell what headline he had wanted to see in the Evening Standard. ‘ ‘Look,’ replied Campbell,

‘by then – and you can – I know that we have a – and maybe I have a reputation for sort of worrying and obsessing about headlines. The truth is I don’t and I never did for a very, very large period that I was in Downing Street because I reached the point of understanding…[that] it is not really about one headline…it is whether you are communicating over time your objectives clearly, your strategic thinking clearly, and whether you are getting your message through to the public. So Jonathan enquiring like that, fine. As to whether I replied or what I replied, I haven’t got a clue.’

Freedman returned to the charge.

‘So when you saw, Evening Standard: “45 minutes from attack…There are some Brits 45 minutes from doom” [the latter quote was from The Sun]…Express: Saddam can strike in 45 minutes”. Were you surprised by those headlines?’ ‘I’m not surprised by anything that most of the British newspapers write on a daily basis.’

Campbell glibly replied before descending into an unchacteristic incoherence:

‘but all I can say to you is it was – when we were preparing that – and it is really why it is so unfortunate that the debate developed as it did subsequently, when the BBC broadcast the broadcast that they did – actually I think it was a very, very important development in government communications, and I think – I think there is a risk arising out of this that in future very difficult international crisis situations that develop, because of the controversies that have subsequently flowed, the politicians and – they take – they don’t take the decisions that maybe they should.’

Getting a grip on himself, Campbell then launched into his much quoted defence of the September dossier, saying that he defended ‘every single word’ of it. (Chilcot inquiry, Cambell testimony, pp. 111, 117-18 [emphasis added],

At this point, Freedman, perhaps believing that he would not receive a proper answer, failed to press home his original question. He should have done so, and he might also have asked Campbell whether he was pleased with the headlines and, if so, why.

Campbell had been much more defensive when asked about the same point at the Hutton inquiry in August 2003. He then said,

‘Whether I discussed it [Powell’s e-mail] with Jonathan I do not know, but I did not reply to the e-mail. When asked whether he had had any hand in the Evening Standard’s headline, he replied, ‘I did not. I do not write headlines for the Evening Standard.’

He continued:

‘There was not a great briefing to draw attention to one particular part [of the dossier]’, which, as the Butler inquiry subsequently showed, was not entirely true. Campbell went on to say that it was his recollection that there were ‘maybe two or three newspapers that had as their main story the point about 45 minutes’, a statement which was also misleading. (Campbell testimony, pp. 62-64 ).

Eight days later Freedman asked the same question of Jonathan Powell: ‘What did you want its [the Evening Standard’s ] headline to be?’ ‘I had no idea’, Powell replied:

‘I was asking Alastair what it would be, which relates back to an in-joke from opposition time, when he once came to us and told us that he had dealt with a particular problem to do with Ken Livingstone and there would be no coverage of it at all, and 20 minutes later, somebody brought in a copy of the Evening Standard with Ken Livingstone splashed right across it. It was a reference back to his skills at seeing what the Evening Standard might say. So it was a bit of a sort of a dig, I am afraid, rather than a serious point.’

Unfortunately, Freedman once again dropped the ball, merely commenting that ‘Historians might find that detail very helpful’ (Chilcot inquiry, Powell testimony, pp. 63-64,

No one would argue that the Powell e-mail of 19 September 2002 and the subsequent press treatment of the September dossier was a ‘smoking gun’ proving that Tony Blair had already at that stage decided upon war with Iraq. However, the use made of the 45-minute story and the obfuscation in which his advisers have engaged in order to obscure their actions and motives do suggest that the prime minister and his immediate entourage were doing nothing to discourage the impression that there was cogent justification for a resort to armed force. Quite the reverse, in fact.

26 January 2010