Minor factual

by Daniel on January 29, 2004

Alastair Campbell was on the box last night to discuss being cleared of all charges by the Hutton inquiry. Fair do’s to the guy; he got cleared and we have to respect that. Doesn’t change the fact that every single word we were fed about WMD, including “the” and “and”, was bollocks, but it seems churlish to deny even the Blairites their day in the sun. But I have to take issue with one claim he made. Mr Campbell said, pressing his advantage home:

“If the Government faced the level of criticism which today Lord Hutton has directed to the BBC, there would clearly have been resignations by now. Several resignations at several levels.”

Well, let’s go to the tape. See, the dossier which Dr Kelly did or didn’t denounce, was actually one of two such dossiers put before the UK government and public. There was, subsequent to September 2002’s authoritative (but wrong) “Iraq’s Weapons of Mass Destruction“, a rather lower-budget affair entitled “Iraq – its infrastructure of concealment, deception and intimidation

The second dossier was, frankly, an embarrassment. It was this one which had the plagiarised PhD thesis in it. It also had exactly the kind of aggressive phrasing which was at issue in the Gilligan story: “assisting opposition groups” (in places like Syria) turned into “supporting terrorist organisations” (where? tell us! help!). And the rest. It really was very bad (note in passing that this docuent was outside the remit of the Hutton Report).

Quite appropriately, this document came in for quite some level of criticism. The Foreign Affairs Select Committee made the folowing points:

The sources used should have been credited (note that this would have involved admitting that the PhD thesis was 12 years old)
The document should have been reviewed by ministers, rather than being chucked out into the public domain by civil servants
The publication was “almost wholly counter-productive” and undermined the credibility of the government’s case.

The general tenor of the criticism is perhaps best summed up by the fact that the relevant chapter of the FASC’s report is entitled “A glorious, spectacular own goal”. I’d note in passing that Blair attributed this dossier to the security services in a speech to the House, which is misleading as they had not in fact checked it.

The thing is, that this dossier was the idea of … Alastair Campbell. He admitted as much to the FASC (the words used were “it was my idea”). Jack Straw was the minister in whose name it went out, and Tony Blair spoke about it in front of the House. All three have admitted since that it was an embarrsing mistake.

Alastair Campbell resigned from his job for unrelated reasons a few months later. Nobody, at any level, has lost their job as a result of the “Dodgy Dossier” fiasco. It’s understandable that the BBC didn’t feel it appropriate to cry “balls” to Campbell’s statement in the circumstances, but that doesn’t mean I shouldn’t.



harry 01.29.04 at 2:25 pm

Question: when did a male minister last resign in acknowledgement of their own incompetence, responsibility for some failure, or some dishonour attaching to their carrying out of their duties? I can think of only one minister in recent years who has done this, Estelle Morris. Unless I’ve forgotten someone, your conjecture looks pretty solid, Daniel.

And I now notice that, whereas Campbell’s claim is about ‘resignations’, you talk about people ‘losing their jobs’ (which is more likely than resignations). Even here I think you’re on solid ground — look how long it took Jo Moore and Stephen Byers to lose their jobs.


david 01.29.04 at 2:29 pm

Why give them their day after a whitewash? Not churlish at all, when the judge defines “sexing up” as something unrelated to changing the language of the dossier to make intelligence sound more threatening. Hutton has it coming, as does Blair, as does Campbell, and they should hear it everyday for the next year. We have to respect this investigation about as much as we respect the convictions in Tulia.


dsquared 01.29.04 at 2:32 pm

Why give them their day after a whitewash?

Basically cos it looks churlish not to, and there’s enough material in the FASC report to hang them anyway.


david 01.29.04 at 3:05 pm

You, an optimist? FASC has been out there for a while, and we haven’t seen any hanging. All that’s left for you over there in the best of all countries is the Gingrich method. So toss aside your worries about your reputation and bitch bitch bitch. And maybe toss off a book called: Blair Lies, and the Right-Wing Media Bastards Lap It Up. May be some money in it.


Conrad barwa 01.29.04 at 3:59 pm

I was kind of surprised at the Hutton report’s outcomes; not that I don’t think his criticisms of the BBC were unexpected but I did assume that at least some of the blame would be evenly spread across the board and land on the govt. As it is, one would have to do a lot of digging to even find a soft-pedalled criticism; it was kind of painful to see some BBC analysts and other reporters to have been following the affair, look up the obscure sub-para’s in the report where even some mention of this could be found. One thing that is clear is that Hutton could have destroyed Blair’s position if he had chosen to do so; I don’t think many seriously thought he would go down this road, once he had made clear how narrowly he had decided to interpret his remit. Still, the final report does seem very one-sided in how responsibility is apportioned.

As for Campbell’s comment, is it even meant to be taken seriously? Unless one caught is soliciting on Clapham Common or exposed as taking loans/intervening on behalf of dodgy foreign businessmen; it is difficult to see what conditions would force a ‘resignation’. The era when politicians resigned with relative alacrity on the principle of some sort of ministerial responsibility is somewhat behind us, I think. This is not to say that such politicians are not still around, I just think that there is a distinct lack of them in the Blair cabinet and given Campbell’s closeness to Downing Street, it stretches credulity that he does not know this and expects the public to believe otherwise merely on his say-so.


AIJ 01.29.04 at 4:04 pm

Reading the exchange of emails among the key players (one of the appendices of the Hutton report) one certainly gets the impression that here was a group desperately trying to make more persuasive a relatively weak and speculative case. They sounded like public relations people for whom the straight facts weren’t going to sell their product.


Chris Bertram 01.29.04 at 4:11 pm

Glad you’ve posted on this Daniel. I tried to put something together, but couldn’t find the right tone or balance. One thing I did enjoy was the sight of Michael Howard who looked as he might had he been about to sink his teeth into the neck of a sleeping virgin only to have her disappear into thin air.

It does put a new light on the previous day’s events. I’d thought that Gordon Brown had deliberately saved Tony’s bacon at the last minute just to show him that he could, who the real boss is etc. But if GB knew what Hutton was going to say and that Blair would be exonerated, then that also gave him a motive to refrain from acting and to wait for a more auspicious day.


Graham Hinrichs 01.29.04 at 5:58 pm

Stop whining crooked timbers! Gilligan made the stuff up. The BBC forgot who’s paying the wages. Hutton saw at a public service that is off message and now the heads are rolling at the Beeb. The apology has come as well, but a little late in the day. Arrogance and agenda have damaged a great service which depends on trust for its standing.


Adrian 01.29.04 at 6:01 pm

Oh get a life the lot of you. This pathetic straw-clutching, deliberate misrepresentation, moulding facts to fit your prejudices. Face it. You lost the argument…AGAIN. You lost it because you’re wrong. You’re wrong because you’re embittered, resentful and incapable of objective assessment. Why that is, I don’t know and couldn’t care less. But you should.


mandarin 01.29.04 at 6:17 pm

Oh get a life the lot of you.

It’s too late for them to get a life. They’re academics.


david 01.29.04 at 6:18 pm

Which argument was that, Adrian?


British Spin 01.29.04 at 6:55 pm


I was going to comment, but the thing got so long I’m afraid I’ve had to post rather critically on this post over at my blog…


Sebastian Holsclaw 01.29.04 at 7:28 pm

It is a bit odd to make a big point about old information when the left did its very best to make sure no one could get any useful information out of Iraq by simultaneously resisting strong inspection regimes in the mid and late 1990s (pre-Bush please note)while demanding that we shift away from human intelligence sources because they tended to be too unsavory. Quite a bit of this mess could have been avoided if the UN in 1998 had insisted that Saddam allow the inspectors to go wherever they wanted with no notice. They had a US president whom they liked, I’m sure he could have been convinced to provide the small amount of military support that the UN might need.

Oh, sorry. I probably shouldn’t talk about fantasy worlds where the UN actually tries to do anything other than play the status quo for junket meetings.


Carlos 01.29.04 at 8:07 pm

Oh, I see, the Hutton report is good for the Blair government because it says that there was no malice in its affirmations about Irak WMDs, it’s just that they had absolutely no good intelligence about Irak and most of their beliefs were completely wrong.
Sebastian, please explain to me what is the exact relationship between U.N: inspections and the intelligence services abilities to get information. ¿Do you mean that without inspections the intelligence community had no sourdes of information on Irak? ¿Is this supposed to make us feel good?


ahem 01.30.04 at 5:24 am

Quite a bit of this mess could have been avoided if the UN in 1998 had insisted that Saddam allow the inspectors to go wherever they wanted with no notice.

And if UNSCOM hadn’t been compromised so that it was acting as a franchise of the CIA.

Anyway, Hutton’s basic point is that since governments and intelligence services hold high office, they can’t be deemed to play rhetorical games for political expediency. It just wouldn’t be polite. Instead, we’re going to remember ‘subconsciously influenced’ for a long time.

(Chris: I think you’re right. Gordon’s giving Tony as extended a Pyrrhic victory as possible.)

And as for choosing Campbell and Mandelson of all people to open their gobs… it takes the cake.


Sebastian Holsclaw 01.30.04 at 7:17 am

“And if UNSCOM hadn’t been compromised so that it was acting as a franchise of the CIA.”

Even if true (and I’m conceeding it only for the sake of argument), so what? Saddam started a war with Kuwait. He end up losing to the United States, ahem the UN, and as part of the ceasefire he agreed intrusive inspections of his WMD programs. Why did we insist on inspections? Because UNSCOM found out that he was about 6-12 months from a nuclear weapon when before the war they thought he was 4-5 years away. But after inspections resumed, they still allowed Saddam to play games for years, ending in their total inability to leave their hotels by 1998. And that was after almost 3 years of being thwarted at major sites and being barred from the palaces. So frankly I’m not impressed with “And if UNSCOM hadn’t been compromised so that it was acting as a franchise of the CIA.” as a useful comment on anything except how to contruct a sentence fragment.


dsquared 01.30.04 at 9:26 am

Sorry, Sebastian; I’ve lost the thread that connects this to how its OK to lie to the British Parliament.


Empress 01.30.04 at 11:35 am

This discussion is pointless. The fact of the matter is, we are all POWERLESS against the Blair-Bush tag team. We can protest, debate, confront, challenge, but it won’t make a blind bit of difference. The war has been fought, lives have been lost and now all we are left with is a cyclic argument over who said what. Let it go people, the BBC and Dr. Kelly came too close to the truth and look what happened to them. Even if Blair did admit that the grounds for going to war with Iraq were wrong, whose got the balls to oppose the U.S?


robin green 01.30.04 at 7:21 pm

There’s a simple answer to that one (replacing “US” with “Bush”): The US public are the only people who can really defeat Bush. That’s why the obsequiousness of so much of the US media is so appalling.

Of course, replacing Bush with a Democrat is unlikely to more than tweak US foreign policy. I forever live in hope, however.


Sebastian Holsclaw 01.31.04 at 12:26 am

“Sorry, Sebastian; I’ve lost the thread that connects this to how its OK to lie to the British Parliament.”

I’m sorry your post didn’t make it obvious that you were upgrading from unsatisfactory dossier to lie. Which lie are you talking about? Or do you take intelligence failures to be lies?

BTW does this change the argument that we should rely on our intelligence agencies to determine the exact moment when a power-hungry dictator with actual banned weapons experience becomes a threat that is imminent?


ahem 01.31.04 at 11:19 am

frankly I’m not impressed with “And if UNSCOM hadn’t been compromised so that it was acting as a franchise of the CIA.” as a useful comment on anything except how to contruct a sentence fragment.

How about the contemporary comments from the UN to say that it was inappropriate for a UN body to become, and I only loosely paraphrase, a franchise of a national intelligence service? You also mischaracterise what happened to UNSCOM in 1998. But that’s to be expected.

After all, that’s one reason why John Bolton and the US delegation at both the chemical and biological weapons treaty negotiations undermined steps to implement the proposals for verification: the fear that independent inspection teams looking at US facilities might be compromised by connections to foreign commercial or state intelligence interests.

I’m sorry your post didn’t make it obvious that you were upgrading from unsatisfactory dossier to lie.

I’m sorry you forget that Blair backed up his unsatisfactory dossiers with parliamentary statements.

BTW does this change the argument that we should rely on our intelligence agencies to determine the exact moment when a power-hungry dictator with actual banned weapons experience becomes a threat that is imminent?

No: it makes it more imperative that intelligence agencies should not be put in a situation where they to abandon their usual standards for assessment to produce publications for public consumption and to back up the a prioris of their political masters. See dsquared’s references to the FASC report, passim.


Julian Todd 01.31.04 at 1:19 pm

How much longer is this rewrite of the record permitted to go on? Clearly, by the latest reports, the probabality of the WMDs being in Iraq is now known to be zero. There is no room for doubt on this experimental fact. There was also absolutely no rationale for Saddam Hussain to mislead anyone about this.

The inspection regime of Iraq should have declared it clean. However, under Blix, it was not permitted the time to to reach this conclusion. It may well have reached it soon, but war had to be started in time to head off that possibility.

Under the previous regime, the inspection process was perverted by the CIA who wanted to not to find all the WMD, but to hunt down Saddam and kill him. This was attempted in 1998 by a night of bombing presidential palaces (they missed their target). The top inspector at the time, Scott Ritter, said on the news on December 17, 1998:

“The U.S. has perverted the U.N. weapons process by using it as a tool to justify military actions, falsely so. … The U.S. was using the inspection process as a trigger for war.”

That’s why we are now at the point of splitting hairs with this accusation that, although Saddam Hussain did not violate the terms of holding and developing WMD, he did violate the terms of the inspection regime up to 1998, five years before the invasion of 2003, although he had not violated the terms of the 2002/3 inspections. And you’ve also got to really delude yourself that the 1998 inspections were conducted in good faith, when the people doing it say not.


dsquared 01.31.04 at 4:20 pm

Which lie are you talking about?

Specifically and provably, Blair’s statement to the Commons that the February dossier came from the intelligence services when they hadn’t checked it. More generally; numerous statements by Blair, Straw and Hoon into which we haven’t had a proper inquiry.


Mick Fealty 02.02.04 at 1:26 pm

The point I think is being missed here is that the BBC clearly believed Gilligan was on to a great story.

Had the 6.07 broadcast been true, (i.e. that the government knew that the 45 minutes element of the dossier was untrue) that would have been a great story. It would also have warranted the 19 broadcasts he did that day. For whatever reason the BBC dined out for a day on the substance of his original mistake.

Now I’m not saying it wasn’t true (it and much worse may yet come to light), but Gilligan did not know it to have been true at that time. For some reason I was awake enough at the time and I heard the first and the second report. I was so startled by it that, accordingly, I waited to hear the fallout in the second bulletin. There was none.

It was clear from the changed account that Gilligan had over-egged the original into the great story category, from what it was worthy but essentially dull notebook detail (i.e. something that might be explosive were it to fit with another two or three corroborating facts).

Much else around this story is sound and fury (to which some very senior figures have contributed). The BBC has an important national and international position of credibility. It cannot expect to retain that if it maintains the current levels of hysteria!

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