A disaster for British public
Peter Oborne says that
Lord Hutton has produced an unbalanced report that will do great
harm to his reputation It could not have been more perfect, in its ghastly
way. For six months Lord Hutton conducted his inquiry with complete
rectitude. There had been no embarrassments. No public document in
modern times had been as leak-free as this one — a tribute to the
solemnity, fastidiousness and sense of public duty of Lord Hutton.
|‘Is that your final
And then, 24 hours ahead of publication, Lord
Hutton sent copies to Tony Blair. Within hours of doing so, the law
lord’s conclusions were splashed all over the front and centre pages
of the Sun newspaper.
Needless to say, No. 10 has
categorically denied being the source of the leak. Fingers are being
pointed at the printers. The firm in question employed intense
security, with workers searched as they left the plant. Neither the
Kelly family nor the BBC, the other advance recipients, would have
given the Hutton report to the Sun.
The advantages for
Downing Street in pursuing such a course of action, by contrast, are
obvious. It got its own version of the story out first, with
selected quotes, to its own favoured paper. The rest of the media
had no choice but reluctantly to follow up the Sun. So, even before
Lord Hutton rose to make his judgment, the verdict was known, and
already spun in the way Downing Street wanted.
Street has a long track record of doing exactly this kind of thing;
the courts might call it a pattern of behaviour. Three years ago it
gave the date of the general election to the Sun, whose readers were
told even before the Queen was officially informed. Fierce denials
followed from the Downing Street press office. But in due course a
former No. 10 official owned up to the truth. Every year the juicier
celebrity honours are handed out like candy to the Sun (and other
papers); this practice too is officially denied.
are wonderful. The Sun gleefully revealed that Lord Hutton cleared
the Prime Minister of ‘underhand conduct’. Nevertheless, in its one
direct dealing with Lord Hutton, Downing Street could hardly have
behaved in a more dishonourable or underhand manner. It gave all
manner of undertakings to the law lord to keep his inquiry documents
secret, yet seems to have cheerfully broken them.
Hutton revealed that Tony Blair had no ‘dishonourable, duplicitous
or underhand strategy’ to leak the name of David Kelly. But the law
lord learnt the hard way that Downing Street may indeed have had a
dishonourable and duplicitous strategy — to leak his report.
There is no use being too solemn about all this. Trevor
Kavanagh, political editor of the Sun, had acquired another scoop of
famous proportions. Hutton’s conclusions were not just a triumph for
Tony Blair, but a liberation too. They are also a triumph and a
vindication for Alastair Campbell, Tony Blair’s former director of
communications. Last summer Campbell’s behaviour seemed unjustified,
bordering on the unbalanced; Hutton has blessed it with the full
imprimatur of the judiciary. For six months the Kelly affair has
hung over the Prime Minister’s head like an axe. Now the axe has
been taken away. Lord Falconer, Tony Blair’s former flatmate, served
the Prime Minister well when he chose Hutton to conduct his inquiry.
To an astonishing extent the Northern Irish judge has followed the
Downing Street line.
The Hutton inquiry did provide a minor
public service. It provided a rare glimpse of the Blair government
at work. It is a novel kind of government, driven by a small central
group without the usual reference to Cabinet ministers, Parliament
or the Civil Service. It has an unusual obsession with the
newspapers and broadcast media. Meetings are frequently left
unminuted. There is a laddish culture which comes across well in the
Campbell diaries, with his desire for ‘a win, not a messy draw’.
Two individuals highlighted in the Hutton inquiry perfectly
exemplify this special method of government. The first, and less
interesting, is Geoff Hoon. Theoretically Hoon is a Secretary of
State. In practice he is little more than an instrument of No. 10
Downing Street. The major decisions concerning David Kelly were
taken inside Downing Street, not at the Ministry of Defence. Indeed,
there was no MoD official even present at the critical meeting on 8
July when the press release for Dr David Kelly was agreed and then
imposed on the MoD.
The second, and far more important,
figure is John Scarlett, chairman of the joint intelligence
committee. Scarlett is a fine public servant who enjoyed a brave
career in the Secret Intelligence Service. At the end of the Cold
War he served as head of Moscow Station. The fascinating point about
Scarlett is how happily he is shown to have fitted into Downing
Street. Many officials, schooled in impartiality, taught to keep
their distance, find it impossible to work there effectively. Sir
Richard Wilson, who stood down as Cabinet secretary last year, is an
example. He was accepted within the Blair inner circle, but mainly
in so far as he agreed to be a political errand boy. For a while,
perhaps to his later regret, Sir Richard did indeed manage to make
himself adaptable, though not as much as Tony Blair wanted. But
Wilson found the task uncongenial, and in due course his relations
with Blair became cool.
As chairman of the JIC, John
Scarlett should surely remain a remote, exacting, perhaps rather
scary character. Two years ago, one of Scarlett’s predecessors, Sir
Percy Cradock, wrote a history of the JIC. He made a great deal of
the integrity of the British intelligence service compared with the
politicised agencies in other countries.
In an interview
with the Times two weeks ago, Alastair Campbell spoke of how modern
intelligence services had a ‘presentational role’ alongside their
historic function. The charge against Scarlett is that he accepted
this heretical proposition too avidly. He was on emailing terms with
quite junior members of the Downing Street press office. He allowed
Campbell to chair an intelligence meeting. When very senior DIS
staff took the extraordinary step of writing a letter to complain
that the dossier went too far in its claim that Saddam Hussein could
deploy WMD in 45 minutes, they were ignored. And yet when Campbell,
who told Hutton that he had never even seen the raw intelligence,
wanted the language materially hardened, he was accommodated. The
enduring image of Scarlett is of his conduct on 8 July, as the fate
of Dr David Kelly was being decided in Downing Street. He permitted
himself to join a little group of political hacks drafting a press
release on a word-processor in the Downing Street press office.
Campbell called Scarlett his ‘mate’. Though Hutton found that it was
not ‘improper’ for Scarlett to take account of Campbell’s
suggestions, other senior figures still feel that he got too close.
There is a hint about Scarlett that recalls the fictitious
SIS chief Percy Alleline in John le Carré’s masterpiece Tinker,
Tailor, Soldier, Spy. Alleline was not really a villain, more a
booby. His eagerness to ingratiate himself in Whitehall led him to
become the unwitting accomplice of the Russian mole. There is no
suggestion, of course, that Scarlett was, like le Carré’s Alleline,
an accomplice to treason. The charge is less grave, but nevertheless
powerful: Scarlett became so close to New Labour that he ceased to
be an objective guardian of the truth. There is a strong, urgent
word in Whitehall this week that Tony Blair wants Scarlett — now
that Hutton has given him a sparkling-clean bill of health — to
succeed Sir Richard Dearlove as head of the Secret Intelligence
There was not time, before The Spectator went to
press, to read Lord Hutton’s report in all its detail. Nevertheless
it is very hard to make sense of his conclusions. Hutton was
presented with abundant evidence that Downing Street ‘sexed up’ last
September’s dossier — Scarlett acquiescing while Blair’s aides
materially changed its meaning and strength in the last few weeks
before publication. Yet he rejects the claim that Tony Blair and his
little coterie exercised improper influence.
There is a
problem of logic here. The difficulty is simple enough to state.
Tony Blair ordered British troops to invade Iraq for one reason
only: Saddam Hussein’s possession of so-called weapons of mass
destruction and his ability to deploy them. In his famous speech to
Parliament on the eve of war, the Prime Minister insisted that they
presented an urgent threat to British interests.
have not turned up. It now looks unlikely that they ever will. Last
week David Kay left his post as head of the Iraq Survey Group
declaring: ‘I don’t think they existed.’ Colin Powell now admits
they may never be found. Virtually nobody, with the baffled
exception of Tony Blair and Jack Straw, thinks they are still out
In other words, it looks as though the invasion of
Iraq took place for no reason. The British people were misled —
though not necessarily lied to — about the reasons for a war in
which British soldiers died. Iraq was a very unusual situation. Most
wars are prompted by external aggression of some kind. In this case
intelligence material alone provided the casus belli. We have since
learnt that this intelligence material was in all probability false.
Iraq can only go down as one of the greatest failures of
intelligence gathering in history, on the scale of the failure to
warn of the Iranian revolution 25 years ago — perhaps greater.
There are three possible explanations for this tragic
dereliction. The first is that the WMD did exist, but have not yet
been found. Most intelligent judges now rule out that possibility.
The second is that they never existed at all and that the
intelligence services made an enormous blunder. The third is that
intelligence services on both sides of the Atlantic yielded to
political pressure. The most likely answer is that a combination of
the last two were at work.
Admittedly, as Lord Hutton made
clear at the start of Wednesday’s statement, the vexatious question
of the existence of WMD is outside his sphere. But it was absolutely
at the heart of the allegation made by Andrew Gilligan on 31 May
last year. Gilligan said that the government ‘sexed up’ the dossier
and that this led to discontent within the intelligence services as
a result. Much of the evidence given to the inquiry substantiated
these allegations: it emerged that the threat from WMD changed from
just potential to ‘current and serious’; the dossier suggestion that
WMD could be deployed was hardened into a certainty. A late change
from Jonathan Powell, the Prime Minister’s chief of staff, caused
John Scarlett to drop the caveat that Saddam would only deploy WMD
‘if he believed his regime was under threat’. And so on.
Gilligan’s story remains fundamentally defensible, though by
no means accurate in every respect. Yet Hutton came down scathingly
on the BBC, setting impossibly high thresholds for checking
information. Investigative journalism is a very difficult task. The
practitioner meets obstruction all along the way. Hutton showed no
sign of grasping this, and was unforgiving of the lapses by
journalists. By contrast, he showed no concern of any kind that
Downing Street and the intelligence services made serious claims
before the outbreak of the Iraq war, which have since turned out to
be false. It was an unbalanced report. It will do great harm to Lord
Hutton’s previously unblemished reputation and it amounts to a
disaster for British public life.
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