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Sunday Herald Feb 1 2004


Now let's have a proper inquiry into why we went to war with Iraq

What we think

"LET us begin by committing ourselves to the truth." In politics this kind of promise appears commonplace. Richard Nixon said it when the Republicans nominated him to run for the US presidency - a promise he never kept. Now the current President says: Jeez, I2m with the rest of the Americans; I just want to know "the facts" about Iraq's weapons of mass destruction. So let's get this right: after a war to take out the threat from Saddam's dangerous WMD, now we are going to find out the facts.

But everyone accepts there are no WMD in Iraq, apart from Tony Blair and Alastair Campbell. One by one all the warriors have changed their tunes. Condoleezza Rice, Bush's national security chief, admits there may have been flaws in the gathering of intelligence material about Saddam's arsenal. Colin Powell says much the same and the US Senate hearings heard last week from the former head of the 1400-strong Iraq Survey Group, David Kay, that there is nothing there, and there was nothing there throughout the 1990s. Anything found is from the Iraq-Iran wars.

Yet despite Bush's Orwellian spin, he has at least ordered some kind of investigation. The terms have yet to be set and it would seem unlikely in a presidential election year that the White House would risk a deep dig that could upset Bush's plans for a second term. In stark contrast, Blair remains defiant telling us he awaits the "truth" about Iraq's WMD from the Iraq Survey Group "who must be allowed to complete their work". Campbell said on Friday night WMD would be found.

And what of the black and white conclusions of last week's Hutton report which gave the government a five-star honesty rating? Hutton however did not offer any judicial conclusions on why Blair took Britain to war. Despite material being raised in Hutton's lengthy inquiry that showed there was major unease inside parts of the MoD and among intelligence staff over the claims being made about Iraq's arsenal, Hutton said his own self-imposed remit did not allow him to draw conclusions in this arena. The result? What should have been a key element in deciding how the BBC and the government became embroiled in a bitter row over truth and trust, and which led ultimately to death of Dr David Kelly, was simply skimmed over and ignored. Senior legal figures are totally perplexed that the evidence presented to Hutton was virtually all ignored. Let's take a couple of examples. Did Alastair Campbell "sex-up" the document? Hutton heard that he demanded 15 changes to the document. Was Tony Blair involved in the strategy to name Dr David Kelly? Hutton heard he chaired the committee that agreed how he would be identified. Did Campbell have an agenda against the BBC? Hutton heard that he wanted to"out" Kelly to "f*** Gilligan". To all that Hutton turned a deaf ear. And finally, Campbell asserted that the BBC made a false allegation against the government when it said the "45-minute claim was based on a single uncorroborated source". That was Number 10's key point of attack, namely that the BBC challenged the government's case for war on a single source. First of all the BBC simply reported the sceptical views of the UK's most expert adviser on Iraq's WMD capabilities, and second, we now know the "45 minute" claim was made by a single Iraqi source who asked MI6 to verify the report before using it.

Despite all this Hutton gave Blair the benefit of doubt on all counts, which allowed the Prime Minister to tell the Commons that the allegation that he or anyone else had lied to MPs or deliberately misled the country by falsifying intelligence on WMD "is itself the real lie". If Blair is so confident this is the real lie, then he cannot object to a serious, deep and thorough investigation to determine what the truth is. He should commit himself to bringing out the truth - not in the form of a warped and twisted Nixonian promise, but a genuine investigation. The decision by Anne Taylor's Intelligence and Security Committee to formally question the head of MI6, Sir Richard Dearlove, on why he believed the intelligence on Saddam's weapons was reliable, points to major unanswered questions: namely, what was the intelligence MI6 offered Downing Street? Where had it come from? Any inquiry should also ask why a former MI6 man, Sir John Scarlett, was put in charge by Blair of the team that drew up the case for war dossier, the Joint Intelligence Committee, rather than the previous norm which was a Foreign Office civil servant? The fudging of the lines between the intelligence community and politicians was partly to blame for the politicised intelligence report, according to Sir John Walker, a former senior MI6 man.

Unlike Blair, most people remain convinced Hutton is not a document of closure. Yet the government claims it is confident that Hutton has gone a long way to restoring to it much of the trust it has lost. But if that trust is indeed to return, it will not do so simply because - as Blair and Campbell believe - Hutton has dented the public's trust in the BBC. It has not. Hutton chose to find the government "not guilty". All blame was laid at the BBC's door. As we are beginning to see, those who will dissect the evidence, statements and testimony offered by individuals who appeared before Hutton, will in time find his judicial conclusions unwarranted. There is much disquiet in the legal profession that Hutton was used as a political tool to settle a dispute between the government and the BBC. Judge Alan Levy, QC, reviewing some of the evidence said "the BBC has every reason to cry foul".

The worst outcome of this war between the government and the BBC over who told the truth about the reasons for going to war, would be a neutered, cowed and supplicant BBC. In Britain's democracy a state broadcaster, like the BBC, with the ability to challenge, question, push and prod the government is crucial. We need the independence and authority of an organisation like the BBC to be a key part of the totality of the British fourth estate. An independent BBC is highly valued both in the UK and abroad (in the US millions tuned to the BBC to get a balanced view of the war which the US networks, particularly Murdoch's Fox channel, failed to give). And were the government seen to compromise that independence, such an action would backfire. That the British media (and here we must remind readers of our own coverage) is still asking questions on the very existence of Iraq's WMD, while trying to sort the spin from substance - as the BBC does 24 hours a day - is not a sign of democratic weakness, it reflects the working of a mature, and accountable democracy. If Blair is confident the "BBC's lie" has been exposed, and that Saddam's WMD will be unearthed, he has nothing to fear from a strong BBC. A weakened BBC will benefit only those with something to hide, hence the appointment of a potentially independent chairman and director-general is crucial for the future of the BBC. Placemen, in the job merely to carry out the subconscious commands of Number 10, would further erode trust in this government. Responsible sections of the media will closely watch what happens next at the BBC, there are a raft of key decisions to be made including the appointment of the new DG to replace Greg Dyke, the new chairman of the governors, the new Controller of BBC Scotland, and the start of the negotiations over its Charter and licence fee. Some good may yet come from the unsatisfactory outcome of the war the government declared against the BBC. In contrast to what Number 10 hoped for public confidence, trust and support for the BBC has grown. The public overwhelmingly acknowledges the value of the BBC's independent journalism and may act as some kind of praetorian guard against government interference. You don't know what you've got till someone threatens to take it away.