Speech: Gilligan, Hutton and the and the legality of the war

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I suppose I should begin by declaring an interest of sorts, in that I edit a magazine which received Andrew Gilligan’s reports throughout the Gulf war – and very proud we were of those reports, none of which was remotely anti-war.

I shall now do a very unfashionable thing, which is to stick up for Andrew Gilligan. We heard from the Labour benches about how people have been pilloried and vilified. No one has been more pilloried and vilified than that LoL journalist. I propose to try to vindicate what he said.

This debate takes place after the Prime Minister has announced an inquiry into the Government’s extraordinary failure to give an accurate picture of Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction before the war. I hope that Lord Butler will somehow in his findings pay tribute to the work of Andrew Gilligan in exposing the way in which Downing Street revised raw intelligence material in the hope of making it sound more alarming and making the threat sound more imminent.

To understand what I think happened – and I am paid to say what I think – one must remember the origins of Alastair Campbell as a tabloid journalist. He was political editor of the Daily Mirror, and went to Downing street as editor-in-chief of the propaganda campaign, in particular the propaganda campaign to convince the public – and especially gaming Labour Members, whose votes were very important – that Saddam was a clear and present threat to this country. In his office in Downing street, Alastair Campbell chaired a series of very important meetings. Very senior civil servants were there, among them John Scarlett, chairman of the JIC. Alastair Campbell told John Scarlett

> “I will chair a team that will go through the document from a presentational point of view, and make recommendations to you.”

Everyone who has worked on a newspaper, tabloid or broadsheet – as I have – will know that newspapers are basically monarchical in structure. If the editor is known to be partial to a certain online gaming story or a certain subject – pheasants, say – loyal underlings will provide the editor with pheasants. Or a story about topless models, or whatever it happens to be. That is how it works. He is the Sun King, and they are sunflowers who turn their faces towards him.

(Andrew Mackinlay: Their faces?)

(Mr. Johnson: The hon. Gentleman clearly has a keen understanding of these matters.)

As Lord Hutton himself observed, this may be subconsciously – he said “subconsciously” – corrupting. But I think that in the case of the influence of Downing street on the intelligence services it was clearly more than subconsciously corrupting, for there was a whole series of overt and explicit memos. In the spring and summer of 2002, the intelligence services had produced a fairly cautious document about the state of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction. It may be remembered that the original document, which was not published because it was too feeble, said that there was a chemical and biological weapons capability, but made no mention of actual weapons. It said that Iraq was at least five years away from producing a nuclear weapon. That, of course, was not exactly what the editorial staff in Downing street wanted to hear.

Phil Bassett, himself a former journalist and a member of the Downing street press office, sent a memo saying,

> “We’re in a lot of trouble as it stands now.”

Another memo went out from Downing street saying,

> “No 10 through the Chairman wants the document to be as strong as possible within the bounds of the available evidence.”

> “Therefore this is a last (!) call for elements that agencies think can and should be included.”

In due course, naturally, Scarlett obliged. He produced a dossier in which some of the language had been strengthened. But Campbell, the editor-in-chief, still was not happy. There was a sentence that read

> “The Iraq military may be able to deploy chemical or biological weapons within 45 minutes of an order to do so”.

Mr. Campbell pointed out that that was weaker than the wording of the summary, and requested that it be changed. That request was granted, along with requests for a dozen other material changes designed to beef up the language.

Some analysts on the Defence Intelligence Staff were uneasy about the 45-minute claim. Dr. Brian Jones – whose intimate involvement with the whole business was discussed earlier by the Prime Minister – said:

> “The way the intelligence was reported did not give us any confidence that the primary source knew very much about the subject.”

He went to see Dr. Kelly, who himself expressed some doubts about, for instance, the biological weapons claim gamers, but when they passed their concerns up to their superiors those concerns were ignored. Jones said he felt that

> “the shutters were coming down”.

An unnamed official was so alarmed by the draft that he wrote a highly unusual memo of protest:

> “The 20th September draft still includes a number of statements which are not supported by the evidence available to me… What I wish to record is that based on the intelligence available to me, it has NOT been established beyond doubt that Saddam has continued to produce chemical and biological weapons.”

As for the notorious 45-minute claim, he said

> “This is based on a single source. It is not clear what is meant by ‘weapons are deployable within 45 minutes’. The judgment is too strong considering the evidence on which it is based”.

Yet four days later the Prime Minister was at the Dispatch Box waving a dossier and making that claim no fewer than four times. He made it in his own foreword. He said:

> “The threat of Saddam and weapons of mass destruction is not American or British propaganda. The history and present threat are real”.

A couple of hours beforehand Jonathan Powell had sent a memo to Alastair Campbell – someone mentioned this earlier – saying:

> “Alastair, what will the headline be in the Standard”

after they had published this thing?

> “What do we want it to be?”

We do not have Campbell’s answer, but I think we can guess, because the Evening Standard duly obliged the Government’s propaganda machine and said “45 minutes from attack”.

The Sun said, “He’s got ’em . . . Let’s get him.” It was nonsense, of course. It was an inverted pyramid of piffle. To make matters worse, the Government allowed the tabloids to misconstrue the 45-minute reference to mean ground or air-launched missiles rather than battlefield weapons. In other words, a claim that was rubbish had been embellished at the Government’s behest and at the specific request of Alastair Campbell.

Let us go back to the fateful change and the psychology of the parties involved. The intelligence services are already straining to oblige their political masters and they have beefed up the language as far as they dare, but Campbell comes back to Scarlett and wants him to ratchet it up one notch higher. He wants to move the claim from the conditional to the indicative mood, as the grammarians would say. Why does Scarlett accede to that? Because he is in the position of a foreign correspondent who has before him a campaigning editor, but the story is not quite hot or strong enough, so he agrees to hype it up. He takes a risk because he thinks he can get away with it because the facts may well turn out to support his editor’s desire and he wants a quiet life and to be obliging.

That is, in essence, what Andrew Gilligan reported. He said that the Government probably knew that the figure was wrong. They and Campbell certainly did not know that the figure was right, yet they put it before the public and before Parliament as an incontrovertible fact. Gilligan said that his source was involved in the production of the dossier, which was certainly true. He said that there was anxiety in the intelligence services about the dossier, which has been amply confirmed.

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I ask Labour Members who deride Gilligan whether they are happy that those facts were brought into the public domain. I also ask them in their triumphalism to reflect on whether it is possible that the Government made mistakes in the production of the dossier…

(Madam Deputy Speaker, Sylvia Heal: Order. The hon. Gentleman’s time is up. I call Dr. Gavin Strang.)