Tuesday, 11 September 2012

Why you should read the book before you review it

It’s hard to know what to make of John Rentoul’s blog that tells you what to think about my new book and the Blair government’s September 2002 dossier.
Unfortunately, I've never read much of John’s work – though I do follow him on Twitter. From that and from the comments on his blog, I infer he’s got a bit of form when it comes to the former Prime Minister and the war on Iraq.
Perhaps I shouldn't be as surprised as I am that he feels able to tell us what to think about my book without being troubled by actually reading it.
Very few have yet. As I write, the ink is still drying at the printers.
Serious libel
However … I’m intrigued that John calls Dr Kelly’s allegations about the September dossier “one of the most serious libels in political history”. That’s quite a charge which, I’m sure, he can substantiate.
Or perhaps not – as we now know, Dr Kelly was correct in every particular.
John is wrong, too, about more or less everything else he assumes I say in the book. 
Absolutely right
As it happens, I don’t argue that I was only “sort of right" and that "Tony Blair and Alastair Campbell were totally wrong”.
I do argue that I was absolutely right to broadcast Dr Kelly’s allegations, though I had no agenda of my own in doing so other than to lift a small corner on the truth of the September 2002 dossier.
As for Tony Blair and Alastair Campbell, I think I’ll disappoint a lot of those who want to ‘prove’ both were "war criminals" who “lied” to take the country into an “illegal war” etc etc.
I don’t argue, as did Desmond Tutu, that the case for war was “premised on the lie that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction” - I set out the reasons in my previous blog.
John concedes that “Gilligan did not use the l-word” but then ruins what looked like it might become a promising argument by asserting that “he said, in effect, that the Government ‘probably’ lied”.
That phrase “in effect” and others similar have dogged this whole debate.
Everyone thinks they "know" what "in effect" was said.
Contrary to John’s jibe – not worthy of him, I think? – I know exactly what Andrew Gilligan said on air, what he did not and what he intended to.
You’ll have to buy the book to see the full sequence of events – but I was clear that we could substantiate every word of what Gilligan intended to say. The allegations he’d presented to me in his notes and set out in his script – yes, there was a script, by the way.
That script read:
“The first thing you see (in the September dossier) is a preface written by Tony Blair that includes the following words: ‘Saddam’s military planning allows for some weapons of mass destruction to be ready within forty five minutes of an order to deploy them’.
Now that claim has come back to haunt Mr Blair because if the weapons had been that readily to hand, they probably would have been found by now.
But you know, it could have been an honest mistake, but what I have been told is that the government knew that claim was questionable, even before the war, even before they wrote it in their dossier.”
I would challenge anyone to contest the truth of any of that.
For reasons that only he knows, Gilligan decided to do his 6.07 two-way without that script in front of him. It was an error – a huge error. His formulation of the allegation that I knew we could substantiate – that “the government knew that claim was questionable, even before the war, even before they wrote it in their dossier” – became mangled:
 “the Government probably knew that the forty-five minute figure was wrong, even before it decided to put it in”.
John writes that “this is, of course, er, not consistent with the facts, and no “probably” about it.” Unfortunately for him, it's entirely consistent with the facts.
Gilligan's mistake was not that he made this inference - it was, in fact, a perfectly reasonable inference to draw from what Dr Kelly had told him. Had he said "I think that the government probably knew ..." he would have been on much firmer ground.
His mistake - and it was a very, very serious one - was to attribute his inference to Dr Kelly. The inference, however, we now know was in line with all the facts.
I think John knows that. He certainly should.
Questionable intelligence
We now know for certain that the Head of MI6, Sir Richard Dearlove, the Chairman of the JIC, John Scarlett, the Chief of Defence Intelligence, Sir Joe French and the Chief of the JIC Assessments Staff, Julian Miller, all knew the 45 minutes claim was “questionable” – that it was single sourced, without a secure reporting line and, the analysts in Sir Joe’s service thought, both “wrong” and applicable only to battlefield weapons and not WMD.
We know, too, that the Prime Minister’s Director of Strategy and Communications, Alastair Campbell, had read the JIC assessments that went into the dossier – or at least, that’s what he told the Foreign Affairs Select Committee towards the end of June 2003.
Is the idea that those preparing the dossier – including Campbell – didn’t know the claim was at best “questionable” at worst “wrong” plausible?
Is it plausible that Campbell included the claim in his draft of the foreword, unqualified, without knowing its limitations?
Everyone will no doubt come to their own conclusion on both.
As to "creating the truth", I’m surprised that a political specialist like John is unaware of Peter Mandelson’s chilling interview with Katherine Viner of the Guardian back in 1997
That’s a pity. I commend it to him - there he would find that it was Mandelson not I who coined the phrase “create the truth”.
It might well be a “media-studies phrase” – I don’t know and I bow to John’s expertise in these things.
Obstruction and concealment
It’s interesting how those who prefer not to be critical of Blair and his case for war now direct our thoughts towards what they term, as John does, “Saddam’s history of obstruction and concealment”.
While that was part of the argument at the time, it was not the part of the case that argued for urgent military action.
That history - and more importantly, by the winter of 2002/3, that present - was open to differential interpretations.
Again, if John hasn't caught up with the UNMOVIC reports of early 2003 (and not the gloss that Tony Blair, Alastair Campbell and Colin Powell put on them) he should.
Hans Blix reported at the end of January 2003, for example that:
"Iraq has on the whole cooperated rather well so far with UNMOVIC ... access has been provided to all sites we have wanted to inspect ... we have further had great help in building up the infrastructure of our office in Baghdad and the field office in Mosul. Arrangements and services for our plane and our helicopters have been good. The environment has been workable."
Obstruction and concealment? Hmmm.
In any event, Saddam's history was no evidence of imminent threat … Blair’s own Chief of Staff and Foreign Secretary told him as much at the time. The Head of MI6 told me something similar, too, within days of the fall of Baghdad.
Self interest? 
Do I have an “interest in proving that what the Today programme alleged in May 2003 was "essentially" true, as John claims (how DO these journalists look inside others’ minds)?
To be picky for a moment - the Today programme alleged nothing. We reported the allegations of a credible source.
But on the substantive point - no, I have no interest in proving anything was "essentially" true nor that it was part of some "higher truth". I'm interested in showing only why I knew at the time that Dr Kelly's allegations were both reportable and part of the truth of the dossier.
Gilligan mangled Dr Kelly's allegations in one broadcast and paid the price. Was that good journalism? No. Was that one broadcast defensible? No. But of course, the other twenty or so he made that day followed the script I'd approved and he'd ignored in that one 6.07 two-way. And I stand by the allegations in that script still.
Were Dr Kelly’s allegations “false in every specific”? Well, obviously not – Lord Butler and an army of FOI researchers have left us in no doubt of that.
Was the BBC “anti-war”? Well, I can’t speak for the BBC now, but I know for a fact it wasn't at the time and I'm certain I was neither pro- nor anti-war either … except in the very broadest sense that old men like me should never find comfort in sending the young to die their deaths for them.
Advice to reviewers
Perhaps John will read my book before he writes any more about it.
I hope that when - if - he does he'll find that far from contradicting “by assertion” Hutton and Butler, I give what I believe is a reasoned account of Hutton’s shortcomings while commending Butler, the Foreign Affairs Select Committee, the Intelligence and Security Select Committee and the Public Administration Committee as the common sense they all so evidently were.
I have a feeling he'll be disappointed but am confident his spleen will live to fight another day.
As for whether New Labour had the habit of “creating the truth” – well, he'll have to take that up with Peter Mandelson not me.


Andrew Simon said...

Kevin –

The more I think about it the more I really don't like this term "create the truth". 'Created their own (version of) the truth', 'created their own (vision of) reality' – these formulations I much prefer – they seem to have something of a much more tangible quality to their existence.

The phrase really reminds me of what was attributed to Karl Rove: "That's not the way the world really works anymore...We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you're studying that reality -- judiciously, as you will -- we'll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that's how things will sort out. We're history's actors . . . and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do."

This is far more chilling, you might agree, than anything the so-called Prince of Darkness is reported to have said – and he was only talking about aspects of news management!

Is the idea that those preparing the dossier – including Campbell – didn't know the claim was at best "questionable" at worst "wrong" plausible?

Is it plausible that Campbell included the claim in his draft of the foreword, unqualified, without knowing its limitations?

You pose two more crucial questions.

We know that Richard Dearlove told SJC (actually SLF) that someone (unidentified) in SIS, probably a senior manager, talked to Alastair about these things. We know that much of the recorded SIS testimony has been redacted, and that there do not appear any references to any such contacts in that which has been published. The oral evidence given by three other SIS officers (8, 9 and 11) remains completely embargoed. As yet, I would say, the jury is still most definitely out on this one.

(Just a few words on John Rentoul and his small yet active group of acolytes – even collectively these individuals remain only as a handful of people who have adopted a highly passionate belief in the notion that Tony Blair did absolutely no wrong in the way he committing British forces to the US-led effort to overthrow the entire regime of Saddam Hussein. Their main tactic, in place of accurate analysis, is very often to denigrate what they see as their natural opposition. From their point of view a battle of practically mythological proportions is being waged by the 'antis', by which they mean anyone who is in any way critical of this most recent Iraq military expedition, all committed to the last man (or woman) to the total decimation of the personal character of their, as they see him, 'perfect leader'.

From my own experience as an interested blogger it would seem that any conceivable linguistic tactic seems to be permissible in their efforts to maintain the perception of their supposed 'moral' superiority. I very much expect that you haven’t heard the last from them yet...)

Kevin Marsh said...

Thanks Andrew (by the way, I hope you're coming to one of the discussion/debates).
I certainly agree that the term "create the truth" is not a particularly lovely one - I've always assumed Peter M used it with at least a whiff of irony ...
I agree too that there are more startling/chilling ways of expressing similar ideas - I've used "create the truth" in the book and stuck to it, though, because it was the phrase that seemed at the time to capture the essence of the New Labour media operation ... not just when it came to the dossier but - as I explain in the book - pretty much everything their media machine touched.
As to what AC knew about the limitations of the intelligence as he sat down to draft Blair's foreword for him ... I put it as a 'plausibility' question because, as you say, the facts one would need to prove things one way or another aren't available to us and may never be.
It seems from the spare hard evidence that we have that Sir Richard briefed Blair personally about the 45 minute claim and was explicit about its shortcomings. Ditto the "mystery" piece of intelligence later in September 2002 that was used to counter-argue the analysts - we know he wasn't prepared to allow that second piece of intelligence to go into the dossier but that he was content for the text to "assert" its content.
It seems from that same spare evidence that it's very likely AC was in the room - but it can't be stated as a fact either way.
However, as you know, there was a well documented tussle between the dossier drafting team - which overlapped with the JIC assessments team - and the analysts over the wording of the 45 minute claim - both the precision of the words and the extent to which the intelligence's limitations should be included. That tussle was reflected in JIC assessments ... and AC told the FAC that he'd seen the JIC assessments that were the basis of the intelligence in the dossier.
Hence the question 'Is it plausible ....?'
As for John, well he's not someone who's really registered with me before, I have to say. I'm sure he means well. Doubtless there'll be a lot more of that kind of thing before the book is forgotten, as it surely will be.

Stan Rosenthal said...

I have not been able to track down whether all the principal intelligence players actually used the word "questionable" regarding the 45 minute claim but here are extracts from the Guardian's report of Sir John Scarlett's evidence to the Iraq inquiry on the matter (and on the validity of the intelligence generally)

"The former chairman of the Joint Intelligence Committee said today that it would have been better to have made clear that the claim that Saddam Hussein had weapons that could be deployed within 45 minutes did not refer to ballistic missiles.

"It would have been much clearer and better, the matter would not have been lost in translation, if it had been spelt out in the dossier that the word was 'munitions' not 'weapons'," Sir John Scarlett told the Chilcot inquiry into the war in Iraq.

But the former JIC chairman said it had never been his intention to mislead.

"There was absolutely no conscious intention to manipulate the language or obfuscate or create a misunderstanding as to what they might refer to," he said.

Scarlett said the dossier, which was published by Blair in September 2002 – six months before the invasion – had been drawn up against a background of strengthening intelligence about Saddam's WMD capabilities.

He described a JIC meeting on 4 September in which what was described as "reliable and authoritative" new intelligence about Iraq's chemical and biological weapons was discussed.

"In the view of the committee that intelligence was sufficiently authoritative to firm up whether or not Iraq did currently possess chemical and biological agents," he said."

This seems to be a far cry from how the word "questionable" is usually used (dictionary definition: doubtful as regards truth or quality) being more about the precise nature of the weapons referred to than the strength of the intelligence involved. Certainly Scarlett and the JIC seemed to find the intelligence generally sufficiently robust to support Tony Blair's view that Iraq did possess WMD, which is the crucial point here.

As for Andrew Simon's snide reference to the Blair defenders using the tactic of denigrating the opposition rather than engaging with the arguments I would only say physician, heal thyself.

Kevin Marsh said...

Hi Stan,
All I would say here is that I think you've focused on only one aspect of the questionable nature of the 45 minutes claim.
Whether it referred to battlefield munitions or WMD was one thing - the reporting line, corroboration, the wording and the actual meaning of the intelligence were others.
I won't spoil the book for you - but there were known problems with the reporting line, not the immediate source but the sub-source; there was only the one source ... not necessarily a problem but, in this case, some in intelligence though it was a difficulty that it was uncorroborated; the wording of the actual report (the raw intelligence) was materially different from anything put into the public domain - and that also caused alarm with some in intelligence; and no-one knew for sure what precisely the intelligence meant.
The word "questionable" was journalistic shorthand - ours - to try to capture these doubts as regards to truth or quality in a simple, concise way. I still think it's the right word to have used.
That JIC meeting on 4 September was referring the 45 minute claim which had just come in and was being first analysed then turned into a formal JIC assessment. The fact that so much was being hung off this scrap - and it really was no more than a scrap, no more than a couple of sentences - was one of the things that so alarmed the analysts, given that it raised, they thought, more questions than it answered. That it was "questionable".
I find it hard to reconcile John Scarlett's assertion that there was "a background of strengthening intelligence about Saddam's WMD capabilities" in the six months before the war with what we now know about such little intelligence as there was.
But once again, do buy the book - I'm sure you'll find the detail interesting.

Stan Rosenthal said...

Sorry Kevin but if you say "we now know for certain" that intelligence chiefs including Sir John Scarlett, "all knew the 45 minute claim was "questionable"" as the term is usually understood you have to provide evidence that Sir John in particular knew that the claim was "questionable" according to the other aspect of the questionable nature of the 45 minute claim you refer to, bearing in mind that the evidence I have presented shows that Sir John was satisfied with the intelligence on this matter, his only quibble being that it referred to battlefield munitions not to ballistic missiles.

Is the evidence in the book? If not, I trust you will do the decent thing and withdraw this allegation as it pertains to Sir John.

Kevin Marsh said...

I think you'll find the evidence you're looking for in the book.

Stan Rosenthal said...

How about giving us the gist of it here, Kevin, since you made the allegation in this blogpost and it is only right that you should give us some idea of the evidence behind it in the same forum. Otherwise some might think there really isn't any evidence and your answer is simply a ploy for pushing up your book sales.