When spies meet spin... all hell breaks loose

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Posted by Sadie from ? ( on Monday, June 02, 2003 at 11:57AM :

When spies meet spin...

Claims that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction are at the heart of a ferocious political debate. Were we misled?

Peter Beaumont in London and Gaby Hinsliff in St Petersburg
Sunday June 1, 2003
The Observer

In the stifling heat of the Chinook helicopter, Tony Blair was uncharacteristically quiet during Thursday's 20-minute trip from the outskirts of Basra to the port of Umm Qasr: but then, he had much to think about.
Less than an hour before, the Prime Minister had told an audience of British soldiers that they had achieved a 'momentous and mighty' act of which all Britain could be proud.

But as the jeans-clad Prime Minister began shaking soldiers' hands, journalists were besieging his director of communications, Alastair Campbell. They wanted the answer to a single question that had come to obsess the media, military, politicians and intelligence community on both sides of the Atlantic: where were the weapons of mass destruction over which those soldiers risked their lives? And was it true that intelligence reports had been made up?

The media were not alone. Squinting into the sun, one long-serving officer who had listened to the speech in respectful silence summed it up: 'I believed him in January when he said they had WMD and we'd find it. It seemed we knew exactly where it was and we'd find it in two weeks. Now, it's been two months...' The officer tailed off.

Richard Dearlove, the head of MI6, is a stocky figure, a little under average height, and a career spy to his bones. When he sat down at the table of the Cabinet Office's Joint Intelligence Committee early last autumn to discuss the Government's dossier on Iraq's WMDs, the sometimes heated conversations would lay the foundations of a feud between the intelligence community and senior officials at Number 10 that would continue through the Iraq war and finally explode last week.

Also around the table of the ad hoc committee were the head of MI5; Jack Straw, the Foreign Secretary; John Scarlett, chairman of the committee and himself a former head of MI6; Blair; and Campbell.

It was a difficult moment for Dearlove. For the first time in MI6's history, it had been asked to supply its product not just for the eyes of the Prime Minister and senior Ministers and the military, but also for a dossier that would be made public.

It was a move that Dearlove knew was deeply unpopular with some of his most senior officers, who feared that the publication of such information would not only endanger sources but might also lead to a profound misunderstanding of the analysis they generated.

As the members of the committee sat down to go through the dossier line by line to argue for inclusion in the published version, they would make a decision that would have profound reverberations for the Government and its case for going to war against Iraq: the allegation that Iraq not only retained WMDs, but also that Saddam's regime was capable of launching them at 45 minutes' notice - an allegation that would be repeated by the Prime Minister more than once and would provide the underpinning for a war.

And what bothered some of those present, as intelligence sources admit, was the fact that the information, gleaned from an Iraqi scientist, was from a single source - it was therefore 'uncorroborated' intelligence.

But it wasn't the only issue to come up. As the argument came to an end another controversy emerged. Campbell insisted that the information in the dossier was still too diffuse and argued for the inclusion of a passage that the rest of the JIC felt stretched the evidence too far. When the dossier was finally signed off - with the agreement of all present -- that passage had been excised.

Nervous as they were, the senior MI6 men felt comfortable that, despite the very public airing of their material, it reflected their analysis.

The spooks thought they had a deal and that the Government would brief in line with the carefully constructed jigsaw puzzle of the dossier - a shadowy world of best guesses, cautious conclusions and circumstantial evidence.

They had not, however, counted on Number 10's formidable spin machine. Campbell's offence, in the eyes of the spooks, would be to allow the Government to brief the cautious conclusions as hardened fact.

'Basically, it was over-sold,' said a well-placed source last week. 'He [Campbell] did not understand the basic nature of intelligence material. It is almost never a set of facts; it's a set of indicators from which you can make judgments.'

For example, the '45 minutes' allegation was based on one defecting scientist, say sources , not corroborated elsewhere: not necessarily untrue, but not a concrete fact either. But it was sold as 'true'.

It was a point that Dearlove himself would insist on, even in the immediate run-up to the invasion of Iraq, when he would let it be discreetly known that intelligence, in his view, far from being hard facts and rocket science, was instead a far more nuanced affair; that the intelligence on Iraq's WMD in particular was more equivocal than had been sold to MPs and the electorate.

It was not the way that it would appear in the British media, briefed by Number 10 - and it was the beginning of a falling out between MI6 and Campbell that crashed into the open last week.

For if Campbell had oversold the '45-minute allegation' and the Government's second dossier, he would embarrass the Secret Intelligence Services and Dearlove - a man with whom he was on on 'Sunday lunch terms' - by his 'appalling behaviour' in stuffing extracts from a plagiarised student thesis between two wedges of MI6 material to beef it up and claiming it as intelligence.

All of which might well have been quietly forgotten if the allied forces had turned up the WMD promised in the first September dossier, spun to the media by Number 10. But those weapons - the British casus belli - have not turned up. And on both sides of the Atlantic, it has turned the spotlight both on the intelligence produced by MI6 and the CIA and on how their political masters span that intelligence to both their own legislatures and their publics to accelerate the trajectory to war.

They were questions that would would overshadow Blair's visit to thank British troops for their actions in Iraq. It was designed as a triumphal visit, but instead it served merely to underline the growing suggestion that the very basis of the war itself had been flammed up.

It is a suspicion that has grown daily while the Prime Minister has been away, fed both by stories in the British media and by a series of statements by senior US officials that have cut the rug from under the British case for invasion.

First, the hawkish US Secretary for Defence, Donald Rumsfeld, said last week that he believed weapons would 'never be found'. This directly contradicting Blair's position - a stance he was forced to reverse by the week's end.

Then Rumsfeld's deputy, Paul Wolfowitz, was quoted in an interview in Vanity Fair as saying that the whole issue of pushing the argument over WMD was simply a 'bureaucratic' device that would allow an invasion of Iraq and the removal of US troops from Saudi Arabia.

As if to pour petrol on the fire, Under-Secretary of State John Bolton has also been quoted as saying that the war was not about real weapons of mass destruction, but breaking up the 'intellectual property' - the scientists with the knowledge to produce them.

'The Americans can afford to be much more flippant,' said one British intelligence source last week. 'But Iraq's retention of weapons of mass destruction is why we went to war.'

None of which has been very helpful for a British Government that won shaky approval for war on the grounds that the weapons really did exist.

It was against this background of a split between Washington and London over WMD that Blair set off on his whirlwind tour of six countries in five days, supposedly to highlight Britain's brave new role in the world.

And it was against this background of 'unhelpful comments' from Blair's allies in the US that Tom Kelly, the Prime Minister's press secretary warned him of another bombshell that threatened to undermine Blair's case for war - the news that Radio Four's Today programme was reporting a much more damaging split - between the Government and its intelligence services, a division striking to the heart of the fabric of the state.

Defence reporter Andrew Gilligan was claiming that key elements of the dossier on Iraq published last September - specifically the suggestion that Saddam had chemical weapons ready to use within 45 minutes - were thrown in to 'sex up' painfully thin material - against the wishes of intelligence officers.

Gilligan was right in the broad brush, if not in the detail. The material had been 'sexed up' - as the spooks alleged - but by more subtle and more pernicious means. The consequence, however, would be the same.

In a hurried conference call with London from the airport lounge in Kuwait City, the decision was taken to wait and hope the story faded. The plane took off only a little behind schedule: within hours, the combative Defence Minister Adam Ingram and Foreign Office Minister Bill Rammell were deployed in London to insist that Downing Street had not applied undue pressure.

If Blair had hoped that would put an end to it, he was mistaken. By the time his Chinook landed in Umm Qasr, the travelling press had largely lost interest in his tour of a minesweeper in favour of asking questions about weapons of mass destruction.

When his third flight of a gruelling day touched down into a brilliant orange Warsaw sunset, the message of his tour - national pride, the skill of British troops, a new model of patriotism that embraced both being a good European and resisting a federal superstate - was unravelling.

And so, when the Prime Minister's party reached his suite on the sixth floor of the Hotel Sheraton in Warsaw, the secure phone lines to London were swiftly activated. The man in demand was Sir David Omand, known publicly as Britain's head of homeland security, charged with co-ordinating the security services with the political machine. It was clear by now that nothing would be resolved until the intelligence services denied they were unhappy with the dossier.

The deal hammered out late into the night was for Blair to come out fighting - and drag the complaining security services with him.

It may already be too late to repair the damage both to the reputation of MI6 and to relationships between key figures in the present Government and the intelligence community.

For even as Gilligan was being briefed, other media organisations were having conversations with intelligence sources about the failings of the government's use of intelligence material to justify the war - and in particular about the involvement of Alastair Campbell in overselling the story.

And if a shadow war has been declared between officers in the Secret Intelligence Service and Campbell and Number 10, then the front line has been the capital's coffee bars, the more chi-chi restaurants of the West End.

It has been a curious sort of punch-up. For while few who will talk can hide their contempt for the way they believe Campbell has behaved, which they argue has undermined a still strong case for going to war against Iraq, there are none who seriously believe that Campbell's scalp is up for grabs.

'What we are seeing,' said one source, 'is something very new, and very strange. MI6 is sticking its head over the parapet as much as it ever will and saying that it is unhappy with the way its intelligence has been used and its reputation damaged.

'MI6 feels totally discredited and used. That is behind the reason to brief [against Campbell].

'It has been bubbling under for a long time, since October at least. So they feel they are taking out the opposition, as that is what they are trained to do.'

Another source added: 'The focus is on Campbell at the moment. MI6 feels as though it has been pushed rather unwillingly into the limelight by the Government. It is a shot across the bows saying: "If you want us to be public property, then, when we feel you have misused our material, we'll brief against you."'

By yesterday, the spooks' point seemed to have prevailed on the Prime Minister, as he insisted to journalists travelling with him that whatever the outcome on finding Iraq's weapons of mass destruction, the intelligence services certainly 'would not be blamed'.

-- Sadie
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