Gordon Brown’s bid for a secret inquiry into Britain’s role in the Iraq war has backfired spectacularly, with the Chilcot inquiry threatening to return Iraq to the headlines before the general election. But this is not the first time that Brown has sought to sweep the issue under the carpet.
Today I can reveal that Brown misrepresented an earlier promise to “learn the lessons” of Iraq. A Labour member of the Commons foreign affairs committee (FAC) has compared this to the spin scandal that took Britain to war.
It was during a visit to the country in June 2007, just before he became prime minister, that Brown first sought to take the sting out of the Iraq issue. He announced that he had asked cabinet secretary Sir Gus O’Donnell to make two major changes to the way that intelligence is used.
Brown said he had instructed O’Donnell to separate intelligence analysis from the political process, and to ensure that any intelligence published in future was “properly verified and validated”. The announcement was spun as a criticism of the spin in Tony Blair’s September 2002 dossier on Iraq’s purported weapons of mass destruction.
A few days later, in a set-piece television interview with the BBC, Brown repeated these promises. He said he would put “rigorous procedures” in place to ensure “that where public information is provided it has gone through an authoritative process and it is free of political influence”.
In reality, Brown’s promise to separate intelligence analysis from politics actually returned government structures to the situation that had existed at the time of the dossier, where the chairman of the joint intelligence committee was nominally separate from the political process. And his claim to have asked O’Donnell to ensure the validity of published intelligence was as much of a pipedream as the dossier itself.
In response to my freedom of information and other enquiries, the Cabinet Office has told me it has no written record of Brown’s request to O’Donnell. It says the request was made orally to O’Donnell’s private secretary.
But the Cabinet Office has twice given accounts of the request that differ from Brown’s version. In each account, Brown is only said to have asked O’Donnell to ensure that intelligence analysis is separated from politics — making no reference to the future publication of intelligence. Although it has refused to publish O’Donnell’s recommendations, the Cabinet Office has admitted that they did not include any recommendations relating to the future publication of intelligence.
Brown first made his promise to restore public confidence in intelligence on a visit to Iraq on 11 June 2007. A few days later in an interview for the BBC’s Newsnight, he was asked whether the government had overstated the intelligence on Iraq’s weapons.
Instead of answering the question that was asked, Brown said: “I’m setting in place what I think are far more rigorous procedures so that the intelligence is seen to be different from any decision by a politician and, if it is published, intelligence has got to go through a process where that is seen to be the case.”
He added that he was proposing to bring in “two quite big changes” so that people could be satisfied “that where public information is provided it has gone through an authoritative process and it is free of political influence”.
Although Brown repeatedly referred to the future publication of intelligence, the Cabinet Office has disclosed that he only asked for “advice” on the separation of intelligence from politics. In response to a parliamentary question from Tory shadow foreign secretary William Hague in January, Brown was unable to name any new procedure relating to the publication of intelligence.
Labour MP Andrew Mackinlay, who has been on the FAC since its inquiry into the Iraq war, drew parallels with the government’s false claims that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction.
“This whole episode is in itself indicative of political spin – the very spin and ambiguity which has got us into so much trouble and which persuaded both parliament and the people that Saddam possessed weapons of mass destruction,” Mackinlay said. “After all that has gone by, what we need is confidence that parliament will not be misled again, either by the poor quality of the intelligence assessment or by the spin and gloss of a journalist embroidered dossier.”
Brown did tell Hague that, “to ensure that assessments are formulated independently”, he had separated the role of chairman of the Joint Intelligence Committee (JIC) from that of the prime minister’s intelligence adviser. He also said he had made the JIC chairman the professional head of intelligence analysis. In fact, Brown had announced this change during his visit to Iraq. He told the Commons in July 2007 that this change was “in line with” the Butler review into pre-war intelligence.
But the implication that this change in responsibilities would address any organisational failings identified by Lord Butler that had led to the inaccurate assessment of intelligence was itself misleading. In fact, it recreated the situation that existed in the run up to the Iraq war. At that time, the then JIC chairman John Scarlett was not Tony Blair’s policy adviser and was in theory responsible for presenting intelligence to ministers in a politically neutral way.
Scarlett did however attend a notorious Downing Street meeting in July 2002 at which it was agreed to develop an information campaign “to prepare public opinion in the UK that it is necessary to take military action against Saddam Hussein”. A few weeks later, he was the official put in charge of writing the dossier.
Chris Ames is a freelance investigative journalist