SocialismToday           Socialist Party magazine

Issue 77, September 2003


Spin, or the art of lying

BUSH, BLAIR AND the Australian premier John Howard are all facing inquiries into their alarming claims that Saddam possessed so-called weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) – chemical, biological and nuclear weapons – which posed an imminent threat to Iraq’s neighbours and even to the US and Britain. This was presented as the main argument for launching a pre-emptive strike against Iraq. Since the occupation of Iraq, however, no unconventional weapons, or even traces of such weapons, have been found. WMDs increasingly appear to have been a scare, a pretext, based on bogus intelligence.

In Australia, a former senior intelligence officer recently told a parliamentary inquiry that Howard’s government "skewed, misrepresented, used selectively and fabricated" the intelligence used to justify its decision to send troops to Iraq. "Sometimes the exaggeration [about Iraq’s weapons] was so great it was sheer dishonesty". (Independent, 23 August)

In the US, Bush, Rumsfeld and other hawks have come under more intensive Congressional scrutiny since it was revealed that Bush’s claim that Saddam was importing uranium from Africa was based on forged documents and phony intelligence that the White House had already been warned about by the CIA (see article on p4).

In Britain, Bush’s eager drummer boy, Blair, faces the Hutton enquiry – which has opened a seething can of worms and has the potential to drag Blair from his prime-ministerial position.

This is a judicial enquiry, headed by senior judge, Lord (Brian) Hutton, who was formerly a Northern Ireland judge. His remit is to enquire into the ‘circumstances surrounding the death of David Kelly’, a senior Ministry of Defense weapons expert, who apparently committed suicide. He was found dead after a bitter furore blew up between the government and the BBC, when Radio 4’s Today programme challenged the validity of the claim, highlighted by Blair in the government’s September 2002 dossier, that Saddam’s forces could deploy WMDs within 45 minutes of receiving orders. Today’s reporter, Andrew Gilligan, reported that the 45-minute claim, supposedly the product of the intelligence services, had been inserted into the dossier at the insistence of Blair’s office – and Kelly was subsequently revealed as Gilligan’s source.

The general public impression was that Kelly had died as the result of pressure from his bosses in the Ministry of Defense and from the PM’s office, who had leaked his name to the media as Gilligan’s source and then forced him to give evidence to two parliamentary committees, one in private and another in public. To appease the outraged reaction to Kelly’s treatment, Blair was forced to set up an inquiry.

Hutton is already unprecedented. Never before has a judicial inquiry provided such an instantaneous, revealing view of the inner workings of government. For the first time, a senior intelligence officer, John Scarlett, head of the Joint Intelligence Committee, has given evidence in public. And a huge mass of documents, including daily email exchanges, has already been posted on the internet. In the past, such enquiries only published their documentation long after the event, when most of the issues were dead.

It will take time, undoubtedly, to analyse the mass of information – and the enquiry is far from over as we go to press. Nevertheless, some things are already clear.

Although Scarlett, the official author of the September dossier, dutifully testified that there was no pressure on him from the Blair government to ‘sex up’ the document, numerous witnesses and documents testify to the fact that Blair and his No.10 office put intense pressure on the intelligence services to come up with ‘smoking gun’ evidence that would justify war against Iraq. Several senior intelligence officers were unhappy about this pressure to exaggerate, and especially about the 45-minutes claim.

On the basis of ‘comments’ and ‘suggestions’ from Blair’s aides, notably Alistair Campbell and Jonathan Powell, the first few drafts of the dossier were repeatedly amended to give a stronger impression of an imminent threat from Iraq. Campbell and co claim this was just a question of ‘presentation’.

David Kelly, the weapons expert, did tell Andrew Gilligan and, before him, another BBC reporter, Susan Watts (who taped the interview), that the dubious 45-minute claim had been inserted in the dossier under pressure from the No.10 office, which he regarded as ‘synonymous’ with Campbell. Gilligan’s report, which triggered the government-BBC row, was slightly hyped-up but substantially true.

After the row erupted, Kelly told his boss that he had spoken to Gilligan, but appears to have been less than completely frank about what he told him. Through a sequence of Machiavellian manoeuvres, Blair and co decided surreptitiously to ‘out’ Kelly to the media and put him up to testify before two parliamentary committees investigating the government’s WMD claims. On the basis of what Kelly had told his boss, they mistakenly believed his evidence would vindicate Blair’s approach and refute Gilligan. Under threat of disciplinary action, losing his pension, and facing possible criminal prosecution, Kelly was briefed on what to say.

The pressure proved too much. Other evidence suggests that David Kelly also felt conscience-stricken because, while on an official mission to Iraq, he had assured Iraqi scientists that if they co-operated with UN inspections there would be no war.

Hutton has also brightly illuminated some characteristic tendencies of the Blair regime, well known before but now revealed in microscopic detail. Most prominent is the control-freak determination of Blair, his cabinet allies and his ‘spin doctors’, to manipulate the media and neutralize their political critics and opponents. Geoff Hoon, the Defense Secretary, told the Parliamentary foreign affairs committee that they were not allowed to ask Kelly about intelligence on the 45-minute issue ‘for security reasons’. When they realised how much David Kelly had damaged their credibility, Blair’s office tried to discredit him by telling favoured journalists, strictly ‘off the record’, that he was a ‘Walter Mitty’ figure, in other words a fantasist.

Campbell’s tried to justify his ferocious denunciation of Gilligan by pointing to his right-wing views and the fact that he wrote in the anti-Labour Mail on Sunday. But the savage offensive against the BBC in general, and the Today programme in particular, reflected the Blair regime’s anger at the BBC’s often critical reporting on Iraq, WMDs, etc. Shamefully, Blair, and especially his culture minister, Tessa Jowell, have sided with Murdoch and other commercial interests who want to restrict the BBC to minority public broadcasting, as in the US – so that big-business can dominate television and radio. Blair yearns for the kind of uncritical, propagandist support that Bush gets from Murdoch’s Fox News Channel in the US.

What will be the outcome? As we go to press, major players, including Blair, have yet to give evidence. Lord Hutton has yet to weigh the testimony of witnesses and the massive documentation. His verdict has the potential to bring Blair down, if he squarely lays responsibility on Blair and the No.10 spin doctors for the moves and the pressure which led David Kelly to his death. If, however, Hutton were to judiciously distribute blame between the government, the BBC (Gilligan, the Today programme, etc), and Kelly himself, throwing in ‘an unfortunate combination of circumstances’, he might let Blair off the hook, at least for the time being.

Whatever Hutton’s exact verdict, however, the revelations of the inquiry will have a corrosive effect on Blair’s government. The emerging picture of institutionalized manipulation, deception and duplicity on crucial issues of policy will reinforce the widespread alienation with New Labour, which is rooted in disillusionment with Blair’s across-the-board pro-big business policies. Hoon, directly responsible for the treatment of David Kelly, is likely to go – at the very least, a sacrificial lamb to spare the government. Debate on Hutton’s findings will add to the autumn’s political turbulence, making it difficult for Blair to pursue major projects, for instance, softening up the public for Britain joining the euro currency zone.

The real limitation of Hutton is that it is limited to an enquiry into the circumstances of David Kelly’s death. The key issue of fact, from the standpoint of this remit, is whether the September dossier’s claims about Saddam’s WMDs reflected the (supposedly) sober assessment of the intelligence services or Blair’s demand for a compelling ‘cause for war’ that would swing public opinion behind his policy of supporting Bush’s war. Most conspicuous throughout the Hutton enquiry is that none of Blair’s entourage and none of the top civil servants or intelligence officers have made any attempt whatsoever to justify the validity of the WMD claims, whether they were authored by the Scarlett and co or by Campbell et al. Yet the alleged imminent threat of Saddam’s weapons was the pretext used to justify a war that has cost thousands of Iraqi lives and plunged the country into a hellish chaos. This is a monumental war crime that completely overshadows the personal tragedy of David Kelly.

Hutton has been unexpectedly revealing. But we need a much more important, much broader enquiry into the claims about Iraq which were used to take Britain to war. It should be truly independent, composed of elected representatives of trade unions and community organisations. It should have access, among other information, to the intelligence reports that are said to contain evidence of an imminent, lethal threat posed to us by Saddam’s regime. All the relevant ‘persons and papers’ should be made available. The Blair government took Britain to war and is now participating in the colonial-style military occupation of Iraq. Blair must be called to account for his decisions.


Home About Us | Back Issues | Reviews | Links | Contact Us | Subscribe | Search | Top of page