Blair 'not interested in intelligence agencies'

Press Association
Tuesday June 10, 2003

Tony Blair was today criticised by MPs for failing to take sufficient interest in the work of the intelligence agencies.

The parliamentary intelligence and security committee (ISC) said that Mr Blair and other senior ministers with responsibility for intelligence were "not sufficiently engaged" in the process of setting long-term priorities for the agencies.

The ISC - which is about to conduct an inquiry into the use of intelligence in the run-up to the Iraq war - said that ministers were too preoccupied with the short-term crisis management.

The key committee on the intelligence services (CSI) - which is chaired by Mr Blair and includes the deputy prime minister, the chancellor, and the home, foreign and defence secretaries, still had not met, the ISC said in its annual report.

Although the ministers did meet - sometimes daily - to deal with crises like Afghanistan and Iraq, longer term issues were being ignored.

"These crisis-driven and ad hoc groupings did not provide ministers with an active forum in which they can make collective decisions about longer-term intelligence requirements and priorities for secret intelligence across the full range of topics," the ISC report said.

"The current system for setting requirements and priorities is almost entirely based on decisions and recommendations from officials, which are then endorsed by CSI members out of committee.

"As a result, we believe that CSI ministers are not sufficiently engaged in the setting of requirements and priorities for secret intelligence, nor do they all see the full capability of intelligence collection."

The ISC said it was concerned that not all the CSI ministers saw all papers prepared by the Joint Intelligence Committee - which produces analysis of intelligence material for ministers - as a matter of routine.

As a result ministers did not necessarily see all the intelligence assessments that they ought to see.

In particular the ISC expressed concern that ministers were not being fully briefed on the agencies' work on countering the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.

The ISC said that it was too soon to make any "definitive statements" about the role of intelligence in the conflict with Iraq.

However they said that they had received regular briefings from both the chairman of the Joint Intelligence Committee (JIC), John Scarlet, and the chief of MI6, Sir Richard Dearlove, in the run-up to and during the military action against Saddam Hussein.

The ISC went on to criticise the publication of the so-called "dodgy" dossier on Iraq, which combined material from the intelligence agencies with information lifted from a graduate student's thesis on the internet.

"We believe that material produced by the agencies can be used in publications and attributed appropriately, but it is imperative that the agencies are consulted before any of their material is published," the ISC said.

"We have been assured that systems have now been put in place to ensure that this cannot happen again, in that the JIC chairman endorses any material on behalf of the intelligence community prior to publication."

The committee confirmed that an earlier dossier issued by the government on Iraqi weapons of mass destruction had been endorsed by the JIC.

The ISC also expressed concern that the recent concentration of the agencies on counter-terrorism work was leading to "collection gaps" in other areas.

"The committee believes that, with the focus on current crises, the agencies' long-term capacity to provide warnings is being eroded. This situation needs to be addressed and managed by ministers and the JIC," the report said.

Committee members did not believe that their probe into the war on Iraq would be blocked by ministers or the prime minister.

"If they did, I think the committee would almost certainly say that they did," Conservative member Michael Mates told a news conference at the Cabinet Office.

Chairwoman Ann Taylor added: "I think that cooperation has been stated publicly in the House of Commons in a way which puts the committee in a strong position in terms of obtaining the information it wants."

She said the committee had received "information on an ongoing basis" about intelligence about Iraq.

"What we were getting was the briefing about the investigations of the intelligence agencies," she added.

She would not, however, confirm whether the committee would attempt to question Mr Blair's chief strategist Alastair Campbell, following allegations that he "spun" intelligence reports to present a stronger case for war.

The committee's report went on to reveal that a "small number" of UK companies were still trying to breach export restrictions which were in place to prevent the global proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.

The report said that "... the UK authorities seem to be thwarting these efforts", but it added: "However, world-wide, sanctions, even when effective, only slow proliferation."

It also confirmed that the issue of a "Blair Force One" aircraft for the prime minister had been raised by the defence secretary, Geoff Hoon.

It said: "The matter of an aircraft fitted with secure communications equipment for the use of the prime minister and other key ministers was raised by the defence secretary."

Much of the section dealing with the issue was classified, and therefore removed from the report, but it stated: "We are persuaded that this expense can be justified."