More than four years after the invasion of Iraq, the full truth of the infamous September 2002 dossier is yet to come out. This was the dossier central to Tony Blair’s case for war, claiming that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction that could be deployed within 45 minutes. This was the dossier that BBC journalist Andrew Gilligan famously reported had been ‘sexed up’. Coalition forces found no evidence of weapons of mass destruction – weapons whose existence Blair had claimed was ‘established beyond doubt’. Yet the former prime minister survived a number of inquiries by falsely claiming that the dossier was written solely by the Joint Intelligence Committee. Getting to the bottom of who really wrote the dossier remains as important as ever: the lies that have been told to cover it up are almost as damaging as the lies that took us to war in the first place.
The dossier was indeed sexed up, because the government’s spin doctors were on the inside of the drafting process. The clearest evidence of this is that the first full draft was written by John Williams, then director of communications at the Foreign Office. During the Hutton Inquiry in 2003, I noticed that references to this document were not being followed up. So I used the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) to research it, along with other evidence of sexing up. This has taken years, during which time the government has used every trick in the book to avoid complying with its own legislation. The Williams draft still remains buried in Whitehall.
My first request for documents, a month after the introduction of the FOIA in January 2005, was to the Foreign Office for the Williams draft – which, had it been promptly disclosed to the Hutton Inquiry, would have been posted on the Inquiry’s website. Given that hundreds of other documents, including many other drafts, were posted on the site, explicitly under freedom of information principles, it stretches credulity to suggest that Whitehall would be significantly affected if this one were released. Yet that is the claim Jack Straw made when foreign secretary, using the controversial Section 36 exemption (‘prejudice to the conduct
of public affairs’) he had had the foresight to include in the FOIA as home secretary. This exemption has been accurately described as a ministerial veto.
At a stroke, Straw proved right all those who argued that ministers could not be trusted with such a catch-all exemption. To release the draft would, he claimed, inhibit the free and frank provision of advice in future, so the public were not to know his personal spin doctor’s contribution to the dossier. It is quite relevant in Section 36 cases to ask what the effect of disclosure might be in the same context in future, as the Information Tribunal’s ruling on the
BBC governors’ minutes shows. The implication of Straw’s approach is that it is necessary to protect the space within which spin doctors might draft future intelligence-based dossiers.
But wasn’t the involvement of the spin doctors in the dossier at least partly what the Hutton Inquiry was investigating?
In May, two years after my initial request, the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) ruled in my favour and told the Foreign Office to release the draft. There had been some comedy delaying tactics along the way, including the Foreign Office disputing the security status of the ICO investigator who would assess the significance of a document destined for publication. However, the Foreign Office did not release the draft, in spite of the Commissioner’s view that the strong public interest grounds for doing so outweighed its very weak case for withholding it: given 28 days to appeal to the Information Tribunal, it did so on the very last day. The Foreign Office has now achieved months of further delay but also the ability to release the draft at a time of its choosing in the meantime, as Gordon Brown did with the revelations on pension funds.
My research also focused on Tony Blair’s claim that Iraq could develop a nuclear weapon in one or two years. I suspected this timescale was fabricated because an early draft of the dossier said ‘at least two years’ for the same scenario, while even earlier drafts (pre-Williams) merely stated ‘much quicker’ than five years. My tactics were to make a topsy-turvy freedom of information request, where the objective was not to obtain information, but to establish that the government had nothing to support the claim.
I asked the Cabinet Office whether either of the specific timescales was based on a formal assessment. The short answer is ‘no’ – but of course the Cabinet Office did not want to admit this, so it stood on its head to counter me. It deployed the Section 12 exemption, where a freedom of information request does not have to be answered if the cost of providing the information – or establishing whether it exists – exceeds £600 or three-and-a-half days of officials’ time. It made the ludicrous claim that it would be unable to establish within this time whether such assessments, which would be classified, existed or ever had existed.
I complained to the Information Commissioner, who was appropriately sceptical. I also wrote to the Cabinet Secretary, pointing out that the potential loss of classified assessments should concern him. The Cabinet Office finally admitted that it had ‘no information’. There was no basis for Blair’s claim.
There are of course more conventional cases where the government finds it convenient to find ‘no information’ or admits having ‘some information’ but deploys one of the many exemptions within the FOIA to block its release.
The Cabinet Office has claimed, for example, to have no record of who redrafted the dossier between the 10 September and 16 September 2002 versions, although it has conceded that members of a wider drafting group may have provided ‘comments which were then fed into the executive summary of the draft’. That group included Williams and other spin doctors.
This matters because the crassest case of sexing up took place between the drafts. Initially, the executive summary contained two sets of bullet points. The first presented a set of ‘judgments’, while the second was headed ‘recent intelligence . . . indicates’. This second heading was removed so that the claims beneath it that had been presented with a degree of uncertainty – including the notorious 45 minutes claim – were now presented as the ‘judgments’ of the Joint Intelligence Committee (JIC). This was the sexing up to which the Defence Intelligence Staff bitterly objected, with Dr Brian Jones and a colleague registering formal complaints. The Ministry of Defence, specifically Geoff Hoon, initially concealed
this from the Intelligence and Security Committee 2003 inquiry. In cases where the government admits to having information, but uses an exemption, the most popular have been Section 36 and Section 27, ‘damage to international relations’. More recently Section 24, ‘national security’, has reared its head.
In the summer of 2005, I discovered that a raft of documents on the dossier had never seen the light of day. In response to a request seeking another missing draft, the Cabinet Office disclosed that it held a number of comments on the 10 September and 16 September drafts of the dossier. Looking at the Hutton website, I realised that for 12 September and 13 September there were just two documents, while other days generated ten or more emails and memoranda. Something was up. Perhaps the documents contained a smoking gun – beyond the very incriminating documents that the Hutton website already contained,
including a request from Alastair Campbell to remove an unvarnished account of the JIC’s position on nuclear issues that ‘worried’ Blair. This made clear that Iraq would not be able to get the bomb at all while sanctions remained effective.
Naturally, the Cabinet Office would not give me the documents, although I had asked to see any such material. They invoked Sections 36 and 27, but would not tell me which minister had approved the decision. I have since learnt that it was Jack Straw – again. Nor would they give me any details of the documents, but fell back on the usual formulation that they held
I submitted a new request under the Freedom of Information Act, seeking to know who the authors of the comments were or at least the departments from which they originated. The Cabinet Office’s reply was truly astonishing. They again cited Section 36, claiming:
We believe that disclosure of department names, individuals’ names and designations is as inhibiting for Government business as disclosing details of the responses.
Required to submit an internal appeal before going to the Information Commissioner, I pointed out the implication of this laughable claim was that officials would refuse to give any advice at all on the grounds that it might later be revealed that someone within the department for which they worked had done what they were paid to do. I also discovered that the Intelligence and Security Committee report had already disclosed that specific departments and individual ministers had offered comments on the dossier at the time in question. Had this inhibited government business?
None of this cut any ice with the Cabinet Office, which appears prepared to make such claims merely to buy time, with no concern for its credibility. In this case, as with many others, the Cabinet Office has treated deadlines for responses to the Information Commissioner Office’s inquiries with disdain. Now it has noted that claims under the Section 36 exemption will not wash and has taken a different tack. It has decided, a year and a half down the line, that the disclosure of the information would prejudice national security. It appears that the ICO is obliged to treat such newly floated exemptions seriously, although it may wonder in this case why such serious implications were not noticed earlier. National security is always the last refuge of a desperate government, as the dropping of the BAE-Saudi bribes inquiry demonstrates. When ministers ask why their insistence on the need for ever tougher anti-terror laws is treated with such scepticism, does the answer not lie at least in part in their cynical willingness to play the national security card when in difficulty?
For me, it all goes back to the dossier. Blair told people privately and publicly that his access to secret intelligence meant that he knew things they didn’t, for example when he presented the dossier to Parliament on 24 September 2002:
I am aware, of course, that people will have to take elements of this on the good faith of our intelligence services, but this is what they are telling me, the British prime minister, and my senior colleagues. The intelligence picture that they paint is one accumulated over the last four years. It is extensive, detailed and authoritative. It concludes that Iraq has chemical
and biological weapons, that Saddam has continued to produce them, that he has existing and active military plans for the use of chemical and biological weapons, which could be activated within 45 minutes, including against his own Shia population, and that he is actively trying to acquire nuclear weapons capability.
Blair’s words here also contain a hint of how he would later excuse his lies when it turned out none of these claims were true – by blaming ‘our intelligence services’. In truth, the intelligence picture was as sketchy and unsure as many believed at the time and Blair had taken the country to war on a false premise, having allowed his spin doctors to sex up the dossier. But when claims along these lines first surfaced, a myth was created – that the dossier was the work of the Joint Intelligence Committee. The entire document ‘was the product of the pen of the Joint Intelligence Committee chairman’, Alastair Campbell told the Foreign Affairs Committee in June 2003. Four successive branches of the establishment were fed this line and all fell for it. All vouched for the government’s good faith and the intelligence services took the blame, if not the fall.
Having lied without compunction to a series of public inquiries, the government has now dispensed with the idea that ministers should not mislead Parliament, and should correct inadvertent errors. Blair was challenged in oral and written parliamentary questions to justify his claim to Parliament that Iraq could get the bomb in ‘a year or two’. This is at least as serious a fabrication as the 45-minutes claim and yet Blair felt no obligation to back it up. Foreign Office Minister Kim Howells wrongly told Parliament that John Williams had informed Lord Hutton about his draft, possibly an inadvertent error.
Following Blair’s example, Howells has made no effort to retract or apologise. Both Margaret Beckett (when foreign secretary) and Cabinet Secretary Sir Gus O’Donnell have studiously ignored this, in spite of having it drawn to their attention and the clear requirements of the ministerial code.
One issue links the lies that took us to war with the subsequent cover-up – the absence of good faith. What is the government hiding if it is preferable for ministers and officials to make misleading statements at great cost to their own credibility, and play games that make a mockery of the government’s own legislation?
The truth is that the government started a war on a cooked-up pretext, misled Parliament and a host of inquiries to cover this up and is still covering it up. The war remains a matter of life and death, but the cover-up has grave implications for our democracy.
Chris Ames is a writer, researcher and creator of Iraqdossier.
This article originally appeared in Index On Censorship, vol 36, no 3