The shameful legacy of Iraq should never be forgotten (via the Daily Mail):
The exhausted secret intelligence officer was heading home after a heavy session analysing reports from Iraq. As he stepped out through the high-security air-lock exit from MI6’s grand headquarters beside the Thames in London, a newspaper-seller’s placard caught his eye — ‘45 minutes from attack,’ it proclaimed.
Alarm bells rang in his head. It was September 2002, and Prime Minister Tony Blair had that day unveiled with great fanfare the government’s dossier detailing Saddam Hussein’s arsenal of weapons of mass destruction, as a justification for going to war.
He knew, in a way the public did not, the precise background to that headline. His first thought was that this was not what the original intelligence report had said. ‘If this goes wrong, we’re all screwed,’ he muttered to himself.
It did go wrong, spectacularly so, as a new history of MI6 by the BBC’s well-informed security correspondent Gordon Corera recounts. It’s a disturbing story of how tiny sparks of dubious information picked up in the backstreets of Baghdad and elsewhere were fanned into giant flames.
The result was a firecracker of a dossier which was pivotal in the run-up to the deeply divisive British and American invasion of Iraq. For many people, the scary information it disclosed — that Saddam was so advanced with his chemical and biological weapons that he could fire them with a mere 45 minutes notice — was a tipping point.
The ending of the Cold War and MI6’s legendary cat-and-mouse tussles with the KGB seemed to herald that redundancy. Then the post-9/11 era offered a new mission.
Out to prove it still had a vital use in the modern world, MI6 set to work.
Early drafts were begun of a dossier on Saddam’s weapons programmes.
Some MI6 officers were unhappy with the idea of working to so precise an agenda. ‘All our training, all our culture, bias, is against such a thing,’ one complained.
But there was no stopping what quickly became a juggernaut as Britain’s two most senior spies — Richard Dearlove, head of MI6, and John Scarlett, chairman of the government’s Joint Intelligence Committee, whose job was to sift and assess MI6’s information — became central to the build-up to war.
Dearlove in particular became one of the Prime Minister’s closest advisers and, according to officials, enjoyed a ‘privileged relationship’. Blair was open about his reliance on him to provide the central plank of the argument for intervening in Iraq. At one point he turned to his spy chief and said: ‘Richard, my fate is in your hands.’
Meanwhile, Scarlett was working closely with Downing Street, to the extent that Alastair Campbell, Blair’s all-powerful media director, would talk of him as a ‘mate’ and ‘a very good bloke’.
The JIC’s brief was to make its dossier suitable for publication to the public, in itself an unprecedented step in the publicity-shy world of spies. Campbell called for it to be ‘revelatory’. As the drafting process continued, Scarlett attended meetings chaired by Campbell to look at the presentation.
Intelligence was being sucked closer to policy than it had ever been before in MI6’s history.
Scarlett disputes this, maintaining that he was just putting information in the public domain not taking sides. Subordinates disagree.
‘We knew the purpose of the dossier was precisely to make a case for war,’ one senior military intelligence officer later complained. ‘Every fact was managed to make it as strong as possible.’
Direction and pressure were being applied on the JIC and its drafters, he maintained. A line had been crossed. Intelligence was being used as a tool for political persuasion.