2 February, 2004: Whiter than right?

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So, then, that Hutton Report, eh? (Yes, I know I should have written this last week, but I didn't have time. And these thoughts are slightly unstructured. I'm sure you can all deal with that.)

Lord Hutton, given the rather loose remit

urgently to conduct an investigation into the circumstances surrounding the death of Dr. Kelly

had a free choice of terms of reference. By selecting particular terms of reference, he could have distributed blame among the Government and the BBC in more or less any way he chose. It is interesting that he selected terms which yielded the result they did. But even within his chosen terms of reference, I still think his conclusion about Gilligan's report was wrong.

Let's start with semantics. Chapter 6 paragraph 220 of the Hutton Report states: (emphasis mine)

The term ``sexed-up'' is a slang expression, the meaning of which lacks clarity in the context of a discussion of the dossier. It is capable of two different meanings. It could mean that the dossier was embellished with items of intelligence known or believed to be false or unreliable to make the case against Saddam Hussein stronger, or it could mean that whilst the intelligence contained in the dossier was believed to be reliable, the dossier was drafted in such a way as to make the case against Saddam Hussein as strong as the intelligence contained in it permitted. If the term is used in this latter sense then, because of the drafting suggestions made by 10 Downing Street for the purpose of making a strong case against Saddam Hussein, it could be said that the Government ``sexed-up'' the dossier. However, having regard to the other allegations contained in Mr Gilligan's broadcasts of 29 May I consider that those who heard the broadcasts would have understood the allegation of ``sexing-up'' to be used in the first sense which I have described, namely that the Government ordered that the dossier be embellished with false or unreliable items of intelligence.

(It's worth pointing out that Hutton here means `intelligence which was known at the time to be unreliable or false', since it's clear that much of the intelligence was in fact unreliable and false.)

I cannot remember how I interpreted the term `sexed up' at the time of Gilligan's reports, but a brief search of the newspaper archives suggests that it was not, in fact, generally interpreted as Hutton suggests. For instance, The Mirror seems to have been the first paper to publish an editorial on the subject, on 30th May 2003, the day after Andrew Gilligan's broadcasts on the Today programme. It read, (emphasis mine)

Voice Of The Daily Mirror: Spinner's pitch.

THERE is a terrible ring of truth about the allegation that 10 Downing Street ordered a dossier on Iraq to be ``sexed up''.

Even though the claim by an intelligence officer has been denied, it sounds like the sort of thing No 10 would say.

Note the subtlety. They aren't asking for lies. Just for the dossier to be more headline-grabbing.

And grab the headlines it did, with the stark charge that Saddam could mobilise weapons of mass destruction in 45 minutes.

This is not compatible with Hutton's claim that, at the time it was broadcast, the term `sexed up' was understood to mean `embellished with known incorrect information'. Indeed, a week later, on June 6th, the same paper reported,

Voice Of The Daily Mirror: Spelling it out.

Now we learn that Downing Street sent the report on weapons of mass destruction back to intelligence chiefs six to eight times.

No 10 says it didn't order the dossier to be sexed up.

What was wrong with it then? The spelling?

And we know that the report was `sexed up' in the sense of being exaggerated, selectively edited, and re-worded. For instance, the 16th September 2002 version of the dossier contained the claim that, (emphasis mine)

The Iraqi military may be able to deploy chemical or biological weapons within forty five minutes of an order to do so;

three days later, on the 19th, this had changed to,

Iraq's military forces are able to use chemical and biological weapons, with command, control and logistical arrangements in place. The Iraqi military are able to deploy these weapons within forty five minutes of a decision to do so.

There is no evidence that additional intelligence appeared which justified the strengthening of that claim. Similarly, an early draft of the report contained the statement that,

Saddam Hussein is willing to use chemical and biological weapons if he believes his regime is under threat;

later, the qualification `if he believes his regime is under threat' was removed. Christopher Hitchens argues unpersuasively that this doesn't matter; but it is clearly a change of substance, just like strengthening the `45 minutes' claim. In any case, the semantics of the term `sexed up' seem to me slightly irrelevant.

Yet Hutton claims that Andrew Gilligan's report that the dossier was `sexed up' was `unfounded'.

It is hard to defend Gilligan's reporting. He failed to take proper notes or record his conversations with Dr. David Kelly, and therefore left himself open to the charges put to him by Hutton. But the facts remain that,

  1. The main thrust of Gilligan's report was true: the September dossier was `sexed up' in the sense that it appeared to be understood at the time (though not in the sense that Hutton claims it was understood at the time).
  2. We do not know exactly what Dr. David Kelly told Gilligan. But what he reported was compatible with what we know Dr. David Kelly told the Newsnight reporter Susan Watts. Particularly important here is the transcript of a conversation between Watts and Kelly on 30th May 2003. In particular, Kelly appears to have made the same allegations about the insertion of the `45 minutes' claim having been at the behest of Alastair Campbell, despite a general feeling that it was unreliable.

    Unfortunately, Watts and Kelly in their conversation only allude to Kelly's previous statements, and Kelly back-pedals on some of his statements, for instance in, (page 5 of the transcript)

    Watts: OK just back momentarily on the 45 minute issue. I'm feeling like I ought to just explore that a little bit more with you. The um... err.... So would it be accurate then, as you did in that earlier conversation, to say that it was Alastair Campbell himself who...?

    Kelly: No I can't. All I can say is the Number Ten press office. I've never met Alastair Campbell, so I can't... But... I think Alastair Campbell is synonymous with that press office because he's responsible for it.

    What Kelly told Watts is certainly consistent with the claims that Gilligan made: that instructions were received that the dossier be `sexed up'; that these instructions came from Alastair Campbell (though perhaps this was Kelly's own embellishment, using Campbell's name to anthropomorphise the Downing Street press office); and that the `45 minutes' claim was inserted or emphasised on these instructions.

None of this means that the particular claim that Alastair Campbell caused the `45 minutes' claim to be inserted into the dossier was true. But it does mean that it's plausible that Kelly made the statement to Gilligan. Kelly appeared to be -- was -- a credible source. His back-pedalling in conversation with Watts suggests that he may have told Watts -- and probably Gilligan -- more than he could be certain of. But Gilligan did not know this. If Gilligan's report repeated statements that Kelly had made -- something we can't prove, because of Gilligan's incompetence as a reporter -- then his report, far from being `unfounded', was perfectly proper. The question of embellishment of the dossier was certainly one of public interest, and Gilligan's report of Kelly's statements brought it to the attention of the public. (None of this detracts from Gilligan's failure to keep proper records.)

(As an aside, Kelly's conversation with Watts also addresses another interesting question about the `45 minutes' claim. The dossier repeated the claim that weapons could be deployed -- i.e., used -- or made ready for use within 45 minutes of an order to do so. It seems that Kelly did not believe that this was true. He felt that an incompetent interrogator had picked `45 minutes' out from the testimony of an informant, without understanding to what it applied. Kelly told Watts that,

I could give other explanations [of the claim], which I've indicated to you: that it was the time to erect something like a Scud missile or it was the time to fill a 40-barrel multi-barrel rocket launcher.... I mean I have no idea who debriefed [the source for the `45 minute' claim]. Quite often it's someone who has no idea of the topic and the information comes through and people then use it as they see fit.

We don't know whether Kelly meant filling a multi-barrel rocket launcher with rockets, perhaps with chemical or biological warheads; or whether he meant filling the munitions with the chemical or biological agent, which might well take 45 minutes, but is very unlikely to be done under battlefield conditions immediately before the weapon was used. Erecting a Scud missile might take 45 minutes, but then nobody was claiming that Iraq had any remaining Scud missiles and there's no evidence that they'd ever solved the very difficult problem of how to use a Scud to effectively deploy chemical or biological agents.)

And in related news

I gather that we are now to have an inquiry into the quality of intelligence about `weapons of mass destruction'. (I remind readers that anyone who uses the term `weapons of mass destruction' as if it actually refers to a meaningful and distinct category of munitions is either ignorant or seeking to mislead, as I've said before.) I'm going to go out on a limb here and predict that such an inquiry will not conclude that the our intelligence services are incompetent and not worth the money they cost; but rather that honest mistakes were made as a result of underfunding, and the solution is to spend more on them. I refer those interested to Phillip Knightley's splendid -- but hardly faultless -- book, The Second Oldest Profession, in which he argues that as a result of historical accident and failure of oversight, the spy services of modern states have evolved into expensive, unimpeachable, self-justifying, and fundamentally useless organs. It would be foolish to pre-judge the results of the putative new inquiry, but certainly the evidence so far supports my guess....

Copyright (c) 2004 Chris Lightfoot; available under a Creative Commons License.