Hutton: one-sided and inconsistent
Here are some topical snow-flakes to add to the media blizzard about Lord Hutton’s report on "the circumstances surrounding the death of Dr David Kelly", to quote Hutton’s notably narrow terms of reference. Unlike most published commentaries, this one has no particular axe to grind, coming from a writer who has no connection with journalism and no particular sense of obligation towards a government that came into office some years after my own retirement from the public service.
The fairly detailed analysis below leads me to the reluctant conclusions, shared with but not influenced by many other commentators, that:
the Hutton report is not even-handed as between the government and the BBC, applying different standards to each, repeatedly giving the government the benefit of the doubt when there are differing possible interpretations of the same facts and evidence, while denying that benefit to the BBC;
the report seems to reflect an attitude to ministers and the government establishment of respect verging on deference, and to journalists of suspicion verging on dislike, an attitude that is far from unknown on the part of even senior and experienced judges. There are too few signs that Lord Hutton has aimed off even slightly to allow for this apparent prejudice;
the report’s credibility and acceptability are damaged by its apparent lack of even-handedness and consistency;
if Lord Hutton realised the inevitable impact that his strictures on the BBC at all levels would have, and the crisis into which the BBC would be plunged as a direct result, there is no indication in the terms of his conclusions that he had attempted to shade or qualify them so as to reduce their negative consequences by any indication of mitigating circumstances or considerations of practicality in the real hectic world of the broadcasting media. He could be forgiven for not foreseeing that his findings would cause the resignations of a distinguished chair of the governors and of a Director-General widely regarded as the best the BBC has ever had, one whose qualities were of immense importance to the BBC in its constant battle to defend its independence from government and commercial pressures. But he ought to have had some regard to the need to minimise the damage to an institution of such enormous importance to our national life and culture, an irreplaceable bulwark (for all its faults) against the commercialisation and dumbing-down of media standards and of national socio-political discourse, and an institution that has hitherto been almost universally envied and admired abroad, a huge asset to Britain’s standing in the world (as any diplomat who has represented Britain overseas will testify);
the report’s adverse comments on the BBC’s role in the dispute with No. 10 over the Gilligan broadcast and the dossier have caused damage to the BBC that is out of all proportion to the relatively trivial issues at stake. Politicians and their henchmen are accused of dissembling and economising with the vérité every other day of the week: they ought to be able to defend themselves without resorting to the sledgehammer of a judicial inquiry and an impassioned campaign against one of the country’s most trusted and admired institutions. If Campbell regarded Gilligan’s implied accusations as so exceptionally heinous as to demand this massive retaliation, there was nothing to stop him suing, as others have done in similar circumstances. In that event either the BBC would have decided that the story could not be defended, in which case they would have apologised and paid damages and expenses: or, perhaps more likely and desirable, the matter would have gone to a jury to balance the public interest in knowing the nature of Kelly’s allegations and concerns, against Campbell’s and the prime minister’s rights to protection from having their integrity unreasonably impugned. A jury might well have struck this balance more fairly than Lord Hutton, who seems not to have seen the issues in these terms at all — perhaps because of the bizarre nature of his terms of reference.
Lord Hutton seems to have interpreted the law on freedom of expression as prohibiting the publication by the BBC or any other media of allegations made by however authoritative and reliable a source unless the organ publishing the allegations can prove that those allegations are themselves true — a huge step further than the requirement to report the source accurately. As a forlorn Greg Dyke said on the Frost programme this morning, if the new Hutton interpretation of the law (challenged by an array of media law specialist barristers) is allowed to stand, any number of important revelations about government and other malpractices will go unreported: reputable and civic-minded whistle-blowers will be deprived of their voice. Convenient for governments, perhaps; deeply damaging to the public interest.
These are serious criticisms of a report by an eminent jurist based on copious evidence which he, almost alone, heard and read in its entirety after an inquiry which by common consent he conducted impeccably and with the utmost shrewdness. But I believe them justified by the analysis that follows.
The damage done by the report can’t be quickly repaired. The task now must be to ensure that the government’s appointment of a new chair of BBC governors respects the need for someone who will be bloody, bold and resolute in standing up for the BBC and its staff against government and commercial pressures, while presiding over a thorough review of BBC procedures to try to reduce to a minimum the risk of any repetition of the errors made in the Gilligan affair. Above all the need is for another Director-General with Greg Dyke’s energy, determination and courage, equally determined to defend not only the BBC’s independence but also the vital underpinning of that independence: funding by the licence fee, and freedom from outside regulation by Ofcom or any other blunt instrument of the control freaks. Because of the exaggeration by the Hutton report of the BBC’s perceived and actual shortcomings as revealed by the Gilligan affair and its aftermath, the BBC’s reputation has been seriously undermined and its future independence from outside control badly prejudiced. All our media and all our political representatives of good will must now be vigilant to see that the BBC is not further damaged, and in the worst case permanently crippled.
Whitewashing the government?
First, it ought to be recorded that the Hutton inquiry performed a notable public service by taking a huge volume of evidence from all the dramatis personae, from the prime minister downwards: by hearing almost all of it in public: and by putting almost all of it on the Web. Not only has this given us all an unprecedented insight into the inner workings of Whitehall (especially including No. 10 Downing Street and the Ministry of Defence [MOD]) and of the BBC: it has also enabled us to compare Hutton’s interpretations of the evidence, and his conclusions from it, with the raw material. The powerful attacks on the report by many media and other commentators, including some of the episode’s protagonists and victims, are really the price Hutton has had to pay for his extraordinary openness in laying out the evidence in full, almost as soon as it had been given, to the public gaze. All credit to the judge for this.
Secondly, though, the availability of the raw evidence does make some of Hutton’s judgements, especially on the government and the intelligence agencies, appear distinctly odd, even at times naive. Virtually his only criticism of ministers’ and officials’ behaviour concerns the failure of MOD officials to tell David Kelly in advance about the official statement disclosing that an unnamed official had come forward to say that he had had a conversation with Andrew Gilligan (the BBC reporter whose report in the Today programme had sparked the whole row), and the MOD’s failure to seek Kelly’s agreement to the decision that if the press correctly guessed (or deduced) Kelly’s identity as the official who had "come forward", the MOD would confirm it. There is also criticism of the delay in telling Kelly that his name had indeed been guessed and confirmed, thus putting it in the public domain. But these are no more than gentle slaps on MOD wrists, certainly as compared with Hutton’s magisterial denunciations of BBC failings, some of them of much less significance.
More surprising, though, is Hutton’s apparent acceptance of the government’s justifications for its more questionable actions. The evidence given to the inquiry surely lays the government open to serious criticism on several grounds:
There is a golden rule that the intelligence community, including the JIC and all those who collect, collate and assess intelligence (especially but not exclusively secret intelligence) presents the finished product to ministers and their officials with any necessary explanation of its significance and degree of reliability, but does not draw policy conclusions or make policy recommendations. There is, or used to be, a firewall between the intelligence community and the policy-makers. The purpose of this is obvious: those collecting and assessing intelligence will be tempted to be selective and biased in their assessment and presentation of intelligence if they are also seeking to promote or defend particular policies. The policy-makers should receive objective and impartially assessed intelligence reports: they alone can then decide how much weight to give those reports in formulating policy, which will be the product not only of intelligence but also of a calculation of risks and advantages, of overall national and political interests and objectives, the influence of allies and adversaries, parliamentary and public opinion, capacity and resource constraints and a dozen other factors, many of them highly subjective. Secret intelligence can only rarely be wholly reliable: human sources may doctor information to be palatable to their audience or to encourage more payments and rewards for more of the same, or they may themselves have misconstrued the information they provide; intercepted intelligence, even that from apparently authentic documents, may have been deliberately planted to deceive; genuine information may be overtaken by changed circumstances and policy reversals by the time it is received and assessed. The end product as it reaches policy-makers can thus be of varying, but often considerable, value, especially when it tends to confirm what is known from other sources. The task of the policy-makers is to judge how much weight to give it, to decide which of several conflicting pieces of evidence is likeliest to offer the most reliable clues, to assess all the other factors that go into finished policy, and then to recommend or decide what to do.
Thus decisions should flow upwards from intelligence and a myriad other factors, not downwards from policy decisions to a search for supporting intelligence. What seems to have happened in the case of the Iraq dossiers and other intelligence is that the government decided, probably soon after 9/11, to support the Americans in any war that they decided to fight against Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, and only then to cast around for secret intelligence that could be used to support that decision, drawing the heads of the JIC and the intelligence services into that process. That in itself was bad enough — a serious abuse of proper intelligence procedure. Even worse was the (probably unprecedented) decision to publish summaries of the selected supporting intelligence, openly identifying it as derived from secret intelligence sources, in the attempt to persuade public opinion, already sceptical about the reliability of ministers’ arguments for war, that there was a solid basis in the intelligence for going to war with Iraq. It was this fundamental abuse of intelligence and intelligence procedures, and the distortions of intelligence assessments probably involved in it, that disturbed David Kelly and some others involved in the preparation of the dossier, and which drove Kelly to try to blow the whistle by taking his concerns to Gilligan, Susan Watts and Gavin Hewitt, not expecting to be exposed as their source, and cornered by his managers and the select committees into lying to them about what he had done. When it then became clear to him, with the discovery that his conversation with Watts had been taped, that not only his identity as the whistle-blower but also the fact of his having lied to parliament was about to become public knowledge, he took what must have seemed to him the only way out. Thus the government’s abuses of intelligence and intelligence procedures, and its indefensible use of senior intelligence figures to assume the main responsibility for drawing up a paper which was essentially a public relations policy document and not an intelligence assessment (so as to lend it an authority that ministerial authorship could not command), were directly and intimately connected to Dr Kelly’s death, the circumstances of which it was Hutton’s job to investigate. Yet his report contains no condemnation, not even a whiff of criticism (so far as I have been able to detect), of these grave departures by government from the proper use of intelligence and of members of the intelligence community, its breach of the firewall between intelligence assessment and policy making, or its improper embellishment of such intelligence as suited its political purpose, if only for presentational or propaganda purposes. Even in the narrow context of Dr Kelly’s death, never mind the wider and far more significant political context of the basis on which the government took our country to war in breach of international law, this seems to be an incomprehensible, perhaps reprehensible, omission on Lord Hutton’s part. It certainly seems to lend weight to the charge that in his findings he treated the government with excessive leniency and the BBC with excessive and disproportionate severity.
No-one denied that No. 10 (mainly but not exclusively in the persons of Alastair Campbell and Jonathan Powell) did persuade the JIC chairman, John Scarlett, and his colleagues to change the original wording of their drafts of the Iraq dossier so as to make it firmer, stronger, more definite: changing "may be able to" to "can", etc. On 17 September 2003, for example, Campbell sent a minute to Scarlett with a list of suggestions for drafting changes to the dossier, some of them purely cosmetic, but also including the following:
"9. On page 16, bottom line, "might" reads very weakly.
10. On page 17, 2 lines from the bottom, "may" is weaker than in the summary.
11. On page 19, top line, again "could" is weak "capable of being used" is better.
12. Re FMD vaccine plant. It doesn’t need the last sentence re "probable" renovation." [Report, para 212]
In his reply on the following day, Scarlett’s reply includes the following:
"9. we cannot improve on the use of ‘might’ on the old page 16.
10. the language you queried on the old page 17 has been tightened.
11. your proposal to replace could by capable of being used has been incorporated.
12. we have deleted the sentence referring to the probable renovation of the FMD plant."
As a result, in the words of the report (para 214),
‘in the draft dated 16 September the executive summary stated that recent intelligence indicates that Iraq "could deploy [WMD] within 45 minutes of the order being given for their use", whereas the main text of the draft stated that the Iraqi military "may be able to deploy chemical or biological weapons within forty five minutes of an order to do so." However in the drafts of 19 and 20 September and in the dossier published on 24 September the executive summary stated that some chemical and biological weapons "are deployable within 45 minutes of an order to use them" and the main text stated that the Iraqi military "are able to deploy chemical or biological weapons within 45 minutes of an order to do so".’
It is true that Scarlett rejected some of Campbell’s other "suggestions" as not being supported by the available intelligence, and some of Campbell’s comments merely point out internal discrepancies in the text. Hutton acquits the government of having "sexed up" the intelligence, the principal allegation made by David Kelly and reported by Gilligan, on the grounds that the only suggestions put forward by No. 10 that were accepted and incorporated in the published dossier were those that the JIC regarded as consistent with the intelligence. Yet Hutton himself admits, in a much quoted passage, that —
‘I consider that the possibility cannot be completely ruled out that the desire of the Prime Minister to have a dossier which, whilst consistent with the available intelligence, was as strong as possible in relation to the threat posed by Saddam Hussein’s WMD, may have subconsciously inï¬‚uenced Mr Scarlett and the other members of the JIC to make the wording of the dossier somewhat stronger than it would have been if it had been contained in a normal JIC assessment. Although this possibility cannot be completely ruled out, I am satisï¬?ed that Mr Scarlett, the other members of the JIC, and the members of the assessment staff engaged in the drafting of the dossier were concerned to ensure that the contents of the dossier were consistent with the intelligence available to the JIC’ (para 228 (7), p. 152).
The idea that the pressures from Messrs Blair and Campbell for the strongest possible text "may have subconsciously influenced Mr Scarlett" — "may have"! "subconsciously"! — does seem to reveal a certain rather engaging simplicity of mind on Lord Hutton’s part. It seems pretty obvious that "sexing up" is a permissible, if inelegant, description of what took place, and that accordingly at least the main thrust of David Kelly’s allegations and Gilligan’s reports of them were broadly right. Hutton’s acquittal of the government on this charge is unconvincing: he has to bend over backwards to sustain it.
Gilligan consistently acknowledged in his evidence to Hutton, and publicly thereafter, that he had been mistaken in his first report at 6.07 a.m. on the Today programme in attributing to his source, David Kelly, ‘the claim that “actually the Government probably knew that that the forty ï¬?ve minute ï¬?gure was wrong, even before it decided to put it in” and the claim that “the reason it [the 45-minute ï¬?gure] hadn’t been in the original draft was that…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” (Hutton, para 244). In fact this was purely Gilligan’s own inference from what Kelly had told him, and it turned out to be factually wrong: the 45-minute claim had been inserted later purely because the intelligence on which it was based had only come to light later. As Gilligan admitted, he also went too far in asserting that the government "probably knew that [the 45-minute claim] was wrong even before it decided to put it in". But it has emerged that both Kelly and others in the intelligence community were unhappy with the 45-minute claim, (i) because of what they thought was the undue prominence and weight given to it in the dossier, (ii) because the dossier wrongly implied that it was long-range WMD that could be deployed in 45 minutes whereas the intelligence referred only to short-range battlefield weapons, which could not be a threat to the UK or even to the British bases in Cyprus, and (iii) because the 45-minute claim was expressed as certain fact whereas the intelligence supporting it was based on only a single source, itself deemed reliable but based on information obtained from a third party. There seems to be no proof that Blair or Campbell knew, when they approved the wording of the dossier, of these doubts and the reasons for them, but it would be a little surprising if they did not, given the emphasis placed on the claim: it was, after all, virtually the only justification for the prime minister’s warning that Iraq posed a present and imminent threat to the UK. If they did know of the basis for doubts about the 45-minute claim, the charge that they included it even though they "probably knew [it] was wrong" doesn’t any longer seem quite such an outrageous exaggeration.
In his many subsequent reports, Gilligan omitted this passage, presumably realising that he had gone too far in attributing it to his source when actually it was his own gloss on what his source had told him, and that he lacked proper corroboration of it. Both he and the BBC management were clearly at fault in not having expressly withdrawn this part of the 6.07 a.m. report and apologised for it. But was this failure any more culpable than the strikingly similar failure of the government to correct the misleading implication in the dossier that the 45-minute claim applied to long-range WMD — a misleading impression seized on in banner headlines by the tabloids and far more damaging in its effect on public perceptions of government policy than any misleading impressions given by Gilligan? Yet Hutton refrains from any criticism, however mild, of the government’s failure to correct the wrong impression it had given in the dossier, while trouncing the BBC for its similar failure, despite the relatively trivial character of Gilligan’s error.
Geoff Hoon, the Defence Secretary, made an embarrassingly unimpressive impression in his evidence to Hutton, claiming not to have been involved in almost any aspect of the Gilligan/Kelly affair and the way it had been handled in No. 10 and the MOD, despite the importance of the issues it had raised and the fact that Kelly had been working for (although technically not employed by) his own Department. He had not attended any of the key meetings, he had not been consulted about the decision of the No. 10 meeting to issue a statement that an unnamed MOD official had come forward with the information that he had talked to Gilligan, he had not been consulted by his own officials about their decision that if the press correctly guessed Kelly’s identity, the MOD would confirm it — indeed, he was not even certain that he had been informed of this. He had had no part in decisions on the disciplining or other handling of Kelly, regarding this as a personnel matter which was for officials, not himself. If matters had been less than perfectly handled, it would seem that the Secretary of State for the relevant department of state, himself a fairly senior Cabinet Minister, ought to have accepted at least a part of the responsibility, if only for his apparent negligence in failing to ensure that he was kept properly consulted and informed. Yet Hutton makes no comment on any of this. The contrast with his excoriation of BBC managers for similar failures of involvement and responsibility is once again very striking, especially as negligence of this kind at Cabinet ministerial level in the Whitehall corridors of power must be far likelier to have catastrophic consequences than equivalent negligence in Broadcasting House, however much national importance the BBC might like to accord to itself.
The evidence to Hutton revealed multiple failures in No. 10, and to a lesser extent in the MOD, to keep proper records — or any records at all — of key meetings, conversations and telephone calls. Such records are absolutely essential if ministerial (especially prime ministerial) decisions and directions are to be accurately understood and carried out, and if ministers are later to be held to account for their actions. One of the prime duties of any minister’s private secretary is to make sure that proper records of this kind are invariably kept. Failure by the Blair government to observe this elementary requirement has caused much trouble in other contexts, long before anyone had heard of David Kelly or the 45-minute claim. Hutton repeatedly found it difficult, if not impossible, to establish with any certainty who had attended which meetings and what had been decided at them. Previous inquiries have commented with acerbity on this sad and damaging deterioration in proper procedures, yet it seems that nothing has been done to remedy it. Given Hutton’s willingness to denounce parallel failings in BBC managerial procedures, it does seem curious that he had absolutely nothing to say about such blatant shortcomings at the heart of government, shortcomings which have the serious consequence of reducing ministerial accountability.
It takes some chutzpah to defend the tactics devised by MOD press office and other officials for dealing with press questions about the as yet unpublished identity of the official who had come forward with the admission that he had talked to Gilligan — the so-called Q&A brief, under which MOD press officers and others were seemingly licensed to dispense clues to Kelly’s identity to the media, to say No to any wrong guesses about the name of the official, and (most controversially of all) to confirm that it was David Kelly as soon as anyone asked if that was the name. This was surely a shabby and disreputable device for ensuring that the name became public knowledge without anyone being able to accuse the MOD of disclosing it. It is clear that no-one at No. 10 — not the prime minister, not Alastair Campbell — had any part in or knowledge of this device, and apparently Mr Hoon was not consulted about it either by his own officials. But when it is set alongside the extract from Alastair Campbell’s diary in which he clearly expressed the desire to see the source "outed"(1), and Mr Hoon’s assertion(2) that he "made great efforts to preserve Dr Kelly’s anonymity", the tactics used, resulting in the disclosure of Kelly’s name, give off an unmistakeably nasty smell. Yet Lord Hutton acquits all concerned of dishonourable or underhand behaviour or of employing a deliberate strategy designed to get Kelly’s name into the public domain without actually naming him, on the grounds that the name was bound to come out sooner or later anyway and that to have refused to confirm the name when it was put to the MOD by the media would have exposed the government to the charge of covering it up. To which one can only echo and adapt the words of the long-forgotten Tory Radio Doctor in scorning the charges of Labour’s J B Priestley: "Chuck it, Hutton!"
* * * * *
Unduly severe to the BBC?
The examples quoted above of Lord Hutton’s inconsistency of approach as between government and BBC seem to add up to a plain indictment of his lack of even-handedness, repeatedly condoning in the government shortcomings which he harshly denounces in the BBC. In their evidence to the inquiry, the BBC, from Gilligan to the Director-General, made no attempt to deny the serious (and less serious) mistakes that they had made: Gilligan’s false attribution to his source, Kelly, of his own factually incorrect inference about the reasons for the late insertion of the 45-minute claim; his explicit but ultimately unsustainable charge that the government had included in the dossier information which it knew beforehand to be wrong; the inexplicable(3) failure of the entire BBC management, from Gilligan’s line manager in the Today programme through a whole hierarchy of directors of news right up to the Director-General and the Governors, to check Gilligan’s stories against his notes of the conversation with Kelly. Gilligan’s broadcasts should have been scripted (as even the unrepentant Rod Liddle concedes) and the scripts checked for reliability before he went on air with them, but they were not. These were serious departures from the rules of responsible journalism and the monitoring of stories for accuracy and sound sourcing. Such errors ought not to be excused — and Lord Hutton certainly didn’t seek to excuse them. Yet he seems to have made no allowance at all for the several mitigating factors which help to explain what happened, and why, and why the errors made ought not to be given disproportionate significance:
The erroneous passage in Gilligan’s report occurred only once, at 6.07 a.m. in the Today programme. It was not repeated in any of Gilligan’s subsequent reports, that day or later.
If, as Gilligan’s source had told him, the 45-minute claim was single-sourced and derived from a third party, and if it referred only to battlefield weapons and not long-range WMD as the dossier clearly implied, it was a reasonable assumption that ministers were aware of the dubious reliability of the claim and the misleading nature of its quotation in the dossier, in which case it was not a wild exaggeration to say that ministers knew it was "wrong" when they included it in the document. But that did undoubtedly depend on too many unverifiable assumptions.
What Kelly almost certainly told Gilligan (and definitely told Watts and Hewitt) certainly constituted a legitimate story whose publication was manifestly in the public interest. Thus the thrust and greater part of Gilligan’s first report, and effectively all his subsequent reports, were genuine, important and irreproachable stories.
The offending passage in Gilligan’s first report was bound to be taken as impugning the government’s, Campbell’s, and the prime minister’s veracity and thus their integrity. To that extent their furious reaction was understandable, and the BBC managers ought to have recognised much earlier than they did that this reaction was a serious matter requiring a serious and carefully investigated response, rather than a knee-jerk reaction ("We stand by our story and our reporter and our defence of the BBC against pressure from government to suppress inconvenient news"). But Gilligan was far from being the only voice accusing the prime minister and Alastair Campbell of lying. The Tories lost no opportunity of levelling the charge against them in and out of parliament. Many newspapers, not only the tabloids, made the same accusation. Demonstrators in the streets carried placards attacking "Tony bLiar". Why did Campbell pick on a single sentence in an obscure broadcast, in the small hours of the morning, by a reporter whom few outside journalism had heard of, as the basis for his declaration of total war on the BBC? Did he regard the BBC as a natural enemy of government and as a soft target that would be more vulnerable to his assault because of the vulnerability to the forthcoming review of its charter and the licence fee method of funding it?
Campbell’s complaints against Gilligan’s broadcast were only parts of No. 10’s massive campaign of attack and complaint against the BBC for its whole coverage of the Iraq war, with Campbell’s hurricane force letters of outraged complaint landing almost daily on the desks of BBC news editors, directors of news, and others, from the chairman of the governors downwards, from well before Gilligan’s seminal broadcast. Not to have spotted the potential significance of this particular complaint from among so many was an error of judgement, but it was plainly an understandable one. In the event it was handled in much the same way as all the previous letters had been.
It’s not obvious that Lord Hutton appreciates the conditions in which news stories are prepared and transmitted by the BBC and the practical limitations on the extent to which every one of them can be scrutinised for total accuracy and reliable sourcing in advance. The advent of digital radio and television with their multiple channels and 24-hour news programmes have caused an exponential increase in the volume of material put out by the BBC: one commentator has claimed that in every hour of the day and night, the BBC broadcasts 40 hours of material in one form or another. Anyone who has taken part in a radio or television broadcast from a busy BBC news studio will testify to the air of suppressed panic and the atmosphere of breathless crisis that reigns. It is quite wrong and unrealistic to try to apply to every broadcast story the standards of impeccable veracity and accuracy expected by judges of witness testimony given on oath in a court of justice. But that is the impression that the Hutton report conveys of this judge’s demands as applied to the BBC. He conspicuously refrained from applying the same exalted standards to his judgement of both the dossier and the evidence of some of the government witnesses at his inquiry.
First postscript: I have some reservations about the post-Hutton clamour for another inquiry, with broader terms of reference, to investigate the real basis on which the prime minister took us to war in Iraq and why the intelligence used to justify it has turned out to be (probably) so faulty, with no WMD found in Iraq months after the country’s occupation by the so-called coalition. First, it seems unlikely that yet another inquiry would turn up facts that we don’t already know. Secondly, the WMD issue is to some extent itself a diversion from the principal issue, namely that the war, lacking the authority of the Security Council as required under the UN Charter, was in plain breach of international law and immensely damaging to the standing and authority of the UN, and posed serious dangers for the future by setting a precedent that could easily be exploited by the powerful and unscrupulous in years to come. There were cogent arguments for regarding Saddam as a threat to international peace and security, as the Security Council had repeatedly declared: but Messrs Bush and Blair failed to persuade the great majority of the Council of the justification for resorting to the use of force at a time when Blix and his UN inspectors had not had an opportunity to finish their work. (It is a fine irony that we now hear our ministers appealing to us to be patient, and not to jump to conclusions about Iraq’s WMD until the coalition’s inspection teams have had time to finish their work.) Even in the unlikely event that huge stockpiles of WMD were to be discovered tomorrow under the sands of the Iraq desert, the war and the occupation would still be illegal, and the thousands killed in the course of it would still have died in vain. The issue of WMD — were there or weren’t there? — and why the intelligence was flawed, if it was flawed, shouldn’t distract attention from the fact, which even Lord Hutton would find it difficult to excuse, that Tony Blair broke his solemn promises, publicly declared at least twice, not to go to war unless there was a second Security Council resolution authorising it, or a majority in the Council in favour of authorising war but frustrated by that legal novelty, the "unreasonable veto". Neither condition was satisfied, but we went to war anyway. Promises, promises! (And this was Mr Blair’s second illegal war, as evidence on the record clearly shows. Not a record to be proud of.) So there is some danger in over-emphasising the importance of the failure so far to find the WMD, lest the essential illegality of the Iraq war thereby be obscured, and ministers let off the hook of their unlawful acts and broken pledges by being able to put the blame on the intelligence services for serving up flawed intelligence. But it is certainly right and necessary that both ministers and the intelligence services should also be held to account for the way they used or abused the intelligence that was reported by and to them.
Phrases that should be banned forever from the radio, television and print media:
"a line should be drawn under…":
"time to move on…";
"fall on his sword";
There’s nothing quite so dead as a dead metaphor.
And now it’s — well, time to move on.
1 February 2004
(1) From Hutton report:
"371. Mr Campbell had made the following entries in his diary for 9 July and 15 July 2003:
9 July 2003
BBC story moving away because they were refusing to take on the source idea. There was a big conspiracy at work really. We kept pressing on as best we could at the briefings, but the biggest thing needed was the source out. We agreed that we should not do it ourselves, so didn’t but later in the day the FT, Guardian after a while Evans [Defence Correspondent of the Times] got the name." My emphasis.
(2) Para 362 of report: "Sissons: Why was his name then leaked? Hoon: I’m not aware that his name was leaked. It was certainly not leaked by me, and I assure you that we made great efforts to ensure Dr Kelly’s anonymity."
(3) Not entirely inexplicable: Greg Dyke has now pointed out that until the inquiry, Gilligan had maintained that his report had relied not just on the partial notes of his talk with Kelly as typed later into his personal organiser, but also on his clear memory of what Kelly had said. Scrutiny of the personal organiser, and the discovery that parts of Gilligan’s account of Kelly’s words were not supported by the notes on the organiser, would not necessarily have invalidated Gilligan’s account. The issue was how far Gilligan’s memory deserved to be trusted. It was only when he gave his evidence to the inquiry that Gilligan admitted to having wrongly attributed the fatal sentence to Kelly when in fact it was his own inference from what Kelly had said.