Day by day, the noose tightens round No 10
Henry Porter, bestselling author of espionage novels, examines the role of
intelligence chief John Scarlett and shows how the Hutton inquiry is
uncovering a dangerous mix of spies and secrets
Saturday September 06 2003
During the first phase of Lord Hutton's inquiry, the action has cut quickly
between three issues - or three strands of the same plot, if you like. They
were the outing of Dr David Kelly and his subsequent suicide, the venomous
row between the Government and the BBC, and the production of the dossier
that was to form Tony Blair's argument for taking Britain to war.
They are connected but separate narratives, which by turns come into focus
and recede according to the grand design of Lord Hutton's schedule of
witnesses and release of documents. He is in a very real sense pulling
together the story like a great novelist, prising motive and truth from a
cast of 63 characters and throwing light on the most secret processes of
government and on the nature of the people at the apex of British public
As in all great plots, there is still a large mystery - not why Kelly
committed suicide, nor even who was responsible for piling the pressure on
him. For it is already plain that Number 10, the Ministry of Defence, the
Commons Select Committee on Foreign Affairs (FAC) together with Andrew
Gilligan, who was anxious that his reporting be vindicated by questions
planted with members of the FAC, all contributed to Kelly's personal despair
These two strands concerning the BBC and the responsibility for Kelly's
death have been largely settled in the public mind and opinion probably
won't be much changed when Lord Hutton reports at the end of October and
names the culprits.
The narrative that still remains unresolved is what happened during the
preparation of the WMD dossier this time last year, when intelligence
analysts and spin doctors worked overtime to construct a convincing,
unsinkable case for war. This is strictly outside the remit of Lord Hutton's
inquiry into the circumstances of Kelly's death, but during the past 10
days of evidence the unlit border between the intelligence services and
policy-makers has become surprisingly central to the hearing.
Surprisingly, because it is difficult to think of any moment in recent
British history when such a thing has been allowed to happen, when in fact
the average British voter can reasonably hope to get some answers from the
process like the one going on in Court 73 - or at least from the things that
may flow from it when the House of Commons returns tomorrow.
Some - including me - feared that the hearing was aiming off the main
issue, but as the number of documents swelled and the cracks began to open
up between the accounts of those responsible for the dossier, it has become
obvious that Lord Hutton is a clear and present danger to the Blair
The business of how spies serve policy-makers and the decisions that emerge
from the relationship are rarely explored in public and, had it not been for
Kelly's death and Gilligan's admittedly cavalier reporting, we would have
little expectation of winkling out the truth about the dossier.
Now, as each day goes by without serious evidence of WMD being found in
Iraq, the authorship of the dossier, its contributors, editors and promoters
come into focus. Did the Joint Intelligence Committee (JIC), the body that
makes intelligence assessments for the Government, own the document, or was
it ultimately the product of the policy-makers and staff at Number 10?
This question may be a little crude. At such altitude, the definition
between responsibility for particular acts blurs, especially when there is a
great deal of pressure and a deadline looms. But in quieter times the Joint
Intelligence Committee is held to pro vide a number of options for
Ministers, based on a close and often repeated analysis of raw intelligence
provided by MI6, GCHQ, MI5 and the Defence Intelligence staff.
The chairman of the JIC between 1985 and 1992, Sir Percy Craddock, argued
in his book Know Your Enemy (John Murray, 2002) that a balance has to be
struck in the JIC between being the friend of policy-makers and being too
detached from what decision-makers actually need.
In the latter case, he writes that the 'assessments become an in-growing,
self-regarding activity producing little or no work of interest to the
decision-makers'. When the link is too close, he suggests that policy begins
to play back on assessments, 'producing the answers the policy-makers would
like. The analysts become courtiers, whereas their proper function is to
report their findings, almost always unpalatable, without fear or favour'.
The first thing that can be said is that, at no stage during Hutton, have
we seen anything from the JIC that remotely countered the prevailing view in
Number 10 that Saddam was an imminent threat. This is not to say that an
assessment isn't lying somewhere in the files which takes the opposite view
to the dossier, but as things stand the analysts in Room 243 of the Cabinet
Office and the committee under John Scarlett's chairmanship do look a bit
like courtiers, trying to conform to the current mood in Number 10.
A novelist might suggest that Scarlett was playing the long game, perhaps
nurturing an ambition to succeed Sir Richard Dearlove as 'C' at MI6, a post
he has already been passed over for once. Can we seriously suggest that the
JIC's chairman would go so far as to manipulate the evidence in a matter of
war and peace to suit his plans? That is certainly the stuff of thrillers,
but it seems highly unlikely in the real world.
There are no categoric answers because we still don't have the complete
picture about the writ ing of the dossier that in the first place caused
Kelly to express his doubts to Gilligan and to Susan Watts of Newsnight.
He was not a one-off nutter, a Walter Mitty character, as Number 10 made
out, because last Wednesday we heard from Brian Jones of the Defence
Intelligence Staff (DIS), who said: 'My concerns were that Iraq's chemical
and biological weapons capabilities were not being accurately represented in
all regards in relation to the available evidence.'
That was a bombshell of the conventional type if ever there was one, and it
may occur to Hutton that there are other chemical and biological weapons
experts on whose knowledge he can draw in order to confirm or rebut the
impressions of the DIS, namely those at MI6.
Some answers to the mystery lie in the 900-plus documents published by
Hutton, a close reading of which not only gives you a sense of the steely
nature required to survive at the top of the BBC, government or civil
service, but also the strange absence of the Foreign Secretary, Jack
Straw, who is notionally in charge of a major component of British
intelligence - MI6. Where was Straw, and for that matter Geoff Hoon, during
the preparation of the dossier?
Going through it all, you sometimes have the impression that a poltergeist
took over the dossier and was bending all to its will. Campbell and Scarlett
provisionally exonerated themselves from distorting the content for
political purposes during their appearances in front of Hutton, so what was
the hidden force driving things along?
The process started on 3 September last year, when the Government told the
media that it intended to publish a version of the dossier drawn up in March
2002 by the JIC. This would be a new, improved model, although there was a
widespread belief that it wouldn't produce anything new.
On 5 September, Jonathan Powell sent an email to Alastair Campbell about
timing and preparation of the dossier. 'Will TB have something he can read
on the plane to the US?' he asked. Campbell replied that a substantial
rewrite was in progress, with JS (John Scarlett ) and Julian M (Miller) in
charge, which JS would take to the US on the following Friday.
On 9 September, Campbell wrote to Scarlett and all the intelligence chiefs
to set out the way the dossier would be produced. He says: 'The first point
is that it must be, and be seen to be, the work of you and your team, and
that its credibility fundamentally depends on that.'
This seems reassuring, though insiders believe that it was a disastrous
mistake for Scarlett to agree to produce and publicise the dossier in the
first instance, and moreover that the true nature of the commissioning role
of the policy-makers is clear in subsequent exchanges.
On 11 September, a confidential email was sent between unspecified parts
of the intelligence apparatus, making a number of requests about firming up
the nuclear aspect of Saddam's effort and the chemical and biological
weapons programme. The anonymous author says: 'I appreciate everyone, us
included, has been around at least some of these buoys before... But Number
10 through the chairman [Scarlett] want the document to be as strong as
possible within the bounds of available intelligence.'
This was sent at 12.42pm. Responses were required by noon the following
day. Twenty-four hours is hardly enough time to mount a serious intelligence
effort and one is left with the idea that, far from weighing intelligence
carefully, the chairman of the JIC was sending out a last call for
Earlier on the morning of the same day, Number 10 was weighing in with
advice about presentation. Daniel Pruce of the Number 10 press office says
in an email to Campbell: 'Our aim should be to convey the impression that
things have not been static in Iraq, but that over the past decade he has
been aggressively and relentlessly pursuing WMD.'
By 3.27 pm, Godric Smith and Philip Bassett, both press officers, have
contributed their views, in Bassett's case a notion that the report is 'too
journalistic' and has the feeling of being 'Intelligence-lite'. He adds: 'It
feels like this is the least possible intelligence material that the intell
people are prepared to let go.'
The truth of course was that the 'intell people' may not have had any more,
as evinced by the slightly desperate email sent at 12.42 that very day.
By the following Tuesday - 17 September - a draft was ready and Campbell
was writing to Scarlett. It is a crucial letter, because it is believed that
it establishes who is really in control: 'Please find below a number of
drafting points. As I was writing this, the Prime Minister had a read of the
draft you gave me this morning, and he too made a number of points.'
In other words, Campbell is acting as the conduit for Tony Blair's views on
the draft, which in normal circumstances would be conveyed directly to the
head of the JIC without a press officer in sight.
It is difficult to exaggerate the importance of this, and the suspicious
mind wonders whether Hutton has published this correspondence in order for
people to draw the time line for themselves and log the influences at play.
In his reply, Scarlett does not seem to object and merely complies to the
editing process with some large points and some rather small ones. By 19
September, another draft is ready. That day a senior employee at the
Ministry of Defence - the name is blacked out on the original - is writing
to colleagues, including the Deputy Chief of Defence Intelligence, to
complain about the dossier. 'Although we have no problem with a judgment
based on intelligence that Saddam attaches great importance to pos sessing
WMD, we have not seen the intelligence that "shows" this to be the case.'
There are other strong reservations on these lines which deal with certainty
On 20 September, Scarlett forwards the finished dossier to Campbell, which
is essentially the one presented to Parliament. The formal impression given
was that the dossier was Scarlett's document, owned by him and signed off by
the Joint Intelligence Committee. He maintained this line in evidence to
Hutton, saying that 'ownership, command and control' lay with him.
But then, on Thursday last week, Hutton published the record of a meeting
held in Scarlett's office on 18 September last year - two days before
Scarlett presented the finished dossier. Entitled Iraq Dossier: Public
Handling and Briefing, it states categorically, under the sub-heading
Ownership of the Dossier, that ownership lies with Number 10.
In the light of this very important release, it is hard not to suspect that
the mysterious force driving the process forward was in fact the need for
the policy-makers to be in possession of certain types of intelligence to
persuade Parliament and the country of the imminent threat presented by
This must be a provisional conclusion, but what we now know for certain is
that, during that important period last September, the JIC failed absolutely
to remain detached from the agenda of the policy-makers, which is a pretty
serious dereliction of duty.
The story is not over and there will be many surprises yet, but we are
nearer to solving the mystery of the September dossier which does look dodgy
for Number 10.
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