As a journalist, Alastair Campbell never knowingly broke a news story. As he would freely admit, even when working for the Daily Mirror, he acted as a propagandist, not a reporter. As such, it should come as little surprise that nearly 800 pages of his diaries have produced little new other than the odd piece of tittle-tattle - Tony Blair saving Gordon Brown from a locked toilet, Bill Clinton and Kevin Spacey showing up at McDonald's in Blackpool, Campbell flirting with Princess Di - all very diverting, but not so much as a peep of a real revelation. Or was there?
Look again at Campbell's diary entry for 19 September 2002. It is on page 638. This was an intense time for Blair's sofa government, which was then feverishly preparing a dossier for public consumption on the status of Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction. As the diaries state, most of Campbell's work during this period was on the dossier. You would need to be an obsessive student of the details of this document to spot it, but there is a single phrase that leaps out. Reflecting on his satisfaction that the dossier is finally coming together, he writes: "Nuclear timelines just about sorted."
To the untrained eye, it may seem a harmless enough statement. After all, adapting intelligence assessments for public consumption was fraught with difficulty. The diaries capture well the frustration as Campbell and his team struggled to render the nuances of the spooks' official language into easily digestible English. At the beginning of the process, he had said that the dossier would have to be "revelatory". When the intelligence people had done their work, he knew the dossier would demand a "media-friendly editorial job". The nuclear issue proved particularly tricky.
As the NS reported in May, the claim that Saddam could develop a nuclear weapon in "a year or two", which appeared in the final dossier presented to parliament and the public, was not borne out by the intelligence. It was a piece of spin. The Campbell diaries confirm how tirelessly Blair's chief spin doctor worked towards this outcome.
Throughout September, Campbell pressurised John Scarlett, then head of the Joint Intelligence Committee and now head of MI6, to improve an insufficiently worrying assessment of Saddam's alleged nuclear programme. Campbell's admitted "bombardment" of Scarlett, which was backed by Blair, resulted in the tentative assessment of the intelligence services being replaced with a more compelling one.
The assessment of the JIC, the body that acts as the bridge between ministers and the intelligence services, was clear. We know what it said because it appeared in a draft of the dossier produced on 16 September 2002 and later disclosed to the Hutton inquiry. This draft contained the claim that Saddam could produce a nuclear device in "a year or two". But it also included a paragraph, numbered 18, setting out the JIC's view, which did not mention this alarming timescale: "If sanctions continued, Iraq would not be able indigenously to produce a nuclear weapon. If they were removed or became ineffective, it would take Iraq at least five years to produce a weapon. This timescale would shorten if Iraq succeeded in obtaining fissile material from abroad."
The JIC had insisted that the dossier should cite its standing assessments separately, so that readers could judge for themselves the interpretations put on them by the government. But the nuclear assessment was just not frightening enough. The publication of the assessment would also show that the one-to-two-year timescale did not come from the JIC. So Campbell wrote to Scarlett on 17 September passing on Blair's comments on the draft: "He like me was worried about the way you have expressed the nuclear issue particularly in paragraph 18."
Initially Scarlett stood his ground, writing on 18 September: "I have retained paragraph 18, which factually summarises the JIC position." But a factual summary of the JIC position was the last thing Blair and Campbell wanted. Campbell sent Scarlett "another dossier memo" and told him he had given someone in his office the latest draft and the nuclear section had left her "thinking there's nothing much to worry about". He wrote: "Sorry to bombard on this point."
The next morning Campbell bombarded Scarlett some more. He asked him to "delete par 18" and for a single paragraph to combine a new account of the JIC assessment, with the one-to-two-year timescale suddenly attributed to the JIC. Campbell provided a proposed text, in which the JIC's post-sanctions timescale was "up to" rather than "at least" five years. It was then stated that "the JIC assessed in early 2002 that [with fissile material from overseas] they could produce nuclear weapons in between one and two years".
Under this pressure, Scarlett agreed to delete paragraph 18 and combined the JIC timescale and Campbell's version in a single paragraph, so that it was no longer clear where one ended and the other began. This rewrite took place on 19 September. As Campbell wrote in his diary: "Nuclear timelines just about sorted." His influence on Scarlett, at Blair's insti gation, had achieved the required effect. The reference to the nuclear threat was now "nothing to worry about".
At the Hutton inquiry into the death of the weapons scientist Dr David Kelly, the essence of the BBC's allegations was described by the government's own counsel in the following terms: "that the government was guilty of political interference with the presentation of intelligence in the dossier, that it had presented as the advice of the intelligence services material which did not in fact reflect that advice".
In the case of the nuclear threat from Saddam, this now seems incontrovertible and Campbell's own diaries help prove it.
John Kampfner reviews the Campbell diaries, Books, page 56