There is a dark cabal around Blair
If post-Hutton wounds are to heal, then John Scarlett must go
Thursday September 11, 2003
Lord Hutton's journey into the heart of Britain's secret government is about to resume. The recall of witnesses to his inquiry into Dr David Kelly's death will be announced tomorrow, following today's report by the parliamentary intelligence committee into how the spooks appear to have blundered in their assessment of Saddam Hussein's weapons programme.
Hutton's main concern is the treatment of Kelly and the way he was used by Downing Street in its fight with the BBC. Leaks yesterday suggested that the beleaguered defence secretary, Geoff Hoon, may be the intelligence committee's principal target - rather than the way intelligence was distorted about the supposed threat from Iraq.
But both divert us from a much more significant, sinister and dangerous development behind the political point-scoring and Whitehall's self-serving blame culture. What has already emerged - but been largely ignored - from the Hutton inquiry is the existence of a dark, almost Jacobean, cabal at the core of the Blair administration.
It is a group of powerful, unelected people few would have heard of were it not for the evidence given to Hutton: Sir David Manning, the prime minister's foreign policy adviser; Sir David Omand, his security coordinator; and John Scarlett, chairman of the joint intelligence committee. Until he resigned, the group also included Alastair Campbell, Blair's communications director. Indeed, he was a prime mover in establishing this inner circle.
Manning was widely respected as a high-flying diplomat and ambassador to Nato. Scarlett was MI6 station chief in Moscow responsible at one time for handling the KGB defector, Oleg Gordievsky. Omand was praised as director of GCHQ and top civil servant at the Home Office. Then they were brought to the centre of power in Downing Street to be seduced by the smell of high-octane politics, and threw away their professional independence.
Above all, they allowed themselves to be embraced by Campbell and opened the door to the tainting of intelligence by politics. You could hear it in their calculating treatment of Kelly who, in Scarlett's chilling words, should have been subjected to a "security style interview".
In evidence to Hutton, they protested too much that, in a well-rehearsed phrase, "ownership" of the Iraqi dossier was in Scarlett's hands. They distinguished between the "content" of the dossier and its "presentation". Yet the two concepts became one as the the sole purpose of the unprecedented exercise was to back up Blair's case against Saddam Hussein.
So Campbell could describe Scarlett as a "mate", and Scarlett allowed him to chair a meeting of intelligence officials. Campbell was so impressed with the relationship that he recorded in his diary that Scarlett had described him as the "brutal political hatchet man" and himself as the "dry intelligence officer". Scarlett "owned" the dossier, sharing its contents with his number two, Julian Miller, and with Campbell and his colleagues in Downing Street - but not with the rest of the joint intelligence committee, including the heads of MI5, MI6, GCHQ and senior Foreign Office officials.
Scarlett ignored the concerns of the defence intelligence staff who challenged many of the dossier's assertions. One senior intelligence analyst, Brian Jones, even questioned whether chemical and biological weapons in the Iraqi context could properly be described as weapons of "mass destruction" at all. And Scarlett let the cat out of the bag over perhaps the most contentious claim - the assertion, made most emphatically in Blair's foreword, that Iraq could deploy chemical and biological weapons within 45 minutes of an order to do so. That claim, Scarlett conceded, referred to short-range, battlefield weapons systems, not missiles. Thus they posed no threat to western interests, including British bases in Cyprus, as the government had strongly implied.
Criticism of the 45-minute claim from within the intelligence community is all the more damning since it echoes assertions made by both Kelly and the BBC reporter Andrew Gilligan. He said the dossier was "sexed up", Jones preferred the term "over-egged". The 45-minute claim was inserted at the last minute on the word, we now know, of an MI6 informant - whether a defector or not remains unclear - talking to a senior Iraqi armed forces officer. MI6 allowed Scarlett to include that "intelligence" despite opposition in an intelligence community concerned - as much now as it was before the war - about how its work was being abused.
This is the most damaging episode for MI6 since the Falklands. But then it was about complacency. Now its integrity is in question. As long as Scarlett remains in his post, that damage will not be repaired.
· Richard Norton-Taylor is the Guardian's security affairs editor