The truth is more tawdry than the lies

The so-called "Williams draft" of the notorious Iraq weapons dossier confirms at last that governmen

Now we have the missing draft of the government's notorious weapons of mass destruction dossier in our hands, it is horribly plain why officials and ministers went to such lengths to stop us seeing it. The so-called "Williams draft" - named after John Williams, the former Sunday Mirror journalist who became director of communications at the Foreign Office - demonstrates beyond doubt that the government's spin machine was at the heart of the process of drafting the dossier designed to persuade MPs and the British public of the case for war. The official narrative (that the dossier was the work of the intelligence community) was severely damaged by the Hutton and Butler inquiries. Now, thanks to the tireless work of a charity researcher-turned-sleuth, Chris Ames, who has pursued the issue via Freedom of Information requests as detailed in the pages of the New Statesman, that argument is holed below the waterline.

Williams and the government have stubbornly held to the line that the draft, produced on 9 September, was a helpful act of freelance work, set aside when the real work began the next day, and was never intended to contribute to the genuine process. This is frankly preposterous. Working from first principles: if the document was the irrelevant work of an overeager press officer, why has the government gone to such trouble over the years to hinder its release? The Hutton inquiry was provided with drafts from 10/11 September, and 16, 19 and 20 September. It was also shown an earlier stab at a working document from the summer of 2002, which provided the basis of Williams's work. Each of these documents, on the face of it, is more sensitive than the Williams draft, which was, according to the government, merely the idle jottings of a press officer with too much time on his hands.

But it is not a laughing matter. The Williams draft demonstrates that assertions presented to the public as "judgements of the Joint Intelligence Committee" in fact originated from the pen of a spin doctor presenting the case for war. Take, for example, the claim in the Williams draft that Iraq "has developed transportable laboratories" to produce biological weapons. Thanks to documents released to the Hutton inquiry we now know that the working draft claimed merely that Iraq "sought to develop mobile facilities to produce a biological agent". Despite the government's assertions that the Williams document was not part of the drafting process, the spin doctor's wording about the mobile labs miraculously finds its way into the final dossier.

There is also the small matter of the marginal notes which litter the text of the Williams draft. These fatally undermine the case that Williams's work was "set aside" and the drafting process started from scratch on 10 September. The Foreign Office refuses to say who made the notes, but they appear to have been made by a senior official with detailed knowledge of the Middle East. Many of them urge Williams to tone down his tabloid stylistic excesses but they are patently written by someone who sees Williams's work as part of the dossier process.

Erased note

One revealing note follows Williams's assertion that Iraq "has retained a dozen al Hussein missiles, capable of carrying a chemical or biological warhead, either by hiding them from the UN as complete systems or by reassembling them". In the margin, an official has added: "The Al-Hussein range of 650km brings into Iraq's range Israel and British bases on Cyprus." The threat to British interests on Cyprus was a key element in the briefing to journalists that took place after the publication of the final dossier. A similar claim in the Williams draft about Iraq "developing as a priority longer-range missile systems capable of threatening Nato (Greece and Turkey?)" is firmed up in the final dossier to read: "Iraq . . . constructed a new engine test stand for the development of missiles capable of reaching the UK sovereign base areas in Cyprus and Nato members (Greece and Turkey)."

The marginal notes also provide a further clue to the real reasons the government did not want the draft released. When the Information Tribunal ordered the release of the Williams draft it allowed one of these handwritten notes to be "redacted" (ie, removed) from the document. The reason given was that the note would be damaging to international relations. Normally such a redaction would be marked by a blacked-out section in the text, but in this case the Foreign Office has simply erased the note altogether. So what did it say? There is already plenty in the notes that could be seen as damaging. Take, for example, the comments on the first paragraph of the draft, which begins: "Iraq presents a uniquely dangerous threat to the world." Williams goes on to state that, "No other country has twice launched wars of aggression against neighbours." The official makes a note in the margin that Germany might be considered to have done so and helpfully inserts "since WWII?". But he or she also adds "US. Cuba, Grenada, Mexico". The next sentence reads: "In the 77 years since the Geneva Convention against chemical weapons was signed, Iraq is the only country to have broken it." Here, the fastidious official has added: "Japan in China?"

The references to Japan and Germany clearly refer to the countries' dark past, but what marginal note could be more damaging than the suggestion that the US was in some way equivalent to Saddam's Iraq because it too was guilty of launching wars of aggression against its neighbours? What if the note referred to the final sentence in the opening paragraph, which reads: "No other country has flouted the United Nations' authority so brazenly in pursuit of weapons of mass destruction"? Because if officials in the Foreign Office believed there was another country as guilty as Saddam's Iraq of breaching UN resolutions, then this would seriously undermine the argument that it presented a unique case. It would be intriguing if the note had been removed at this point (there is a tantalising dash in the margin which appears to lead nowhere. Was there originally the name of another country here?). What diplomatic relations did the Foreign Office wish to protect by removing this marginal note and how can they be more sensitive than those with Britain's closest ally, the US?

Desperate measures

The official story about the Williams draft is contradictory and has changed several times, so it is quite possible that the "diplomatic relations" argument was just a desperate last-ditch attempt to scupper the release of the document.

John Scarlett sent an email in September 2002 saying that Williams had provided him with "considerable help" with the drafting of the dossier. But he later changed his story at the Hutton inquiry, and played down the spin doctor's role. Alastair Campbell, Tony Blair's director of communications, even denied the existence of the draft. The Foreign Office initially withheld the draft from the Hutton inquiry. The man responsible, Stephen Pattison, now director of international security at the Foreign Office, was one of the key witnesses at the Information Tribunal, where his evidence was criticised. The draft was finally handed over to Hutton after a request by the BBC, although it appears never to have been handed over to the interested parties, including the journalist at the centre of the storm, Andrew Gilligan. It is revealing that at no point in this process was the rogue marginal note - now seen as so damaging - removed from the document.

The Williams draft is a pitiful document, especially as we now know from the former spinner himself that he was not convinced by the argument for producing a dossier. Williams used all his skills as a tabloid journalist to write a racy and convincing story to engage his readers. We have long known the narrative was fictional, but we now have confirmation that the original author was not from the intelligence community, but a government spin doctor. The truth could not be more tawdry.

Click here for the Guardian's take on the dossier story

This article first appeared in the 25 February 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Pakistan reborn

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Theresa May could live to regret not putting Article 50 to a vote sooner

Today's Morning Call.

Theresa May will reveal her plan to Parliament, Downing Street has confirmed. They will seek to amend Labour's motion on Article 50 adding a note of support for the principle of triggering Article 50 by March 2017, in a bid to flush out the diehard Remainers.

Has the PM retreated under heavy fire or pulled off a clever gambit to take the wind out of Labour's sails while keeping her Brexit deal close to her chest? 

Well, as ever, you pays your money and you makes your choice. "May forced to reveal Brexit plan to head off Tory revolt" is the Guardian's splash. "PM caves in on plans for Brexit" is the i's take. "May goes into battle for Brexit" is the Telegraph's, while Ukip's Pravda aka the Express goes for "MPs to vote on EU exit today".

Who's right? Well, it's a bit of both. That the government has only conceded to reveal "a plan" might mean further banalities on a par with the PM's one-liner yesterday that she was seeking a "red white and blue Brexit" ie a special British deal. And they've been aided by a rare error by Labour's new star signing Keir Starmer. Hindsight is 20:20, but if he'd demanded a full-blown white paper the government would be in a trickier spot now. 

But make no mistake: the PM didn't want to be here. It's worth noting that if she had submitted Article 50 to a parliamentary vote at the start of the parliamentary year, when Labour's frontbench was still cobbled together from scotch-tape and Paul Flynn and the only opposition MP seemed to be Nicky Morgan, she'd have passed it by now - or, better still for the Tory party, she'd be in possession of a perfect excuse to reestablish the Conservative majority in the House of Lords. May's caution made her PM while her more reckless colleagues detonated - but she may have cause to regret her caution over the coming months and years.

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David Pannick, Gina Miller's barrister, has told the Supreme Court that it would be "quite extraordinary" if the government's case were upheld, as it would mean ministers could use prerogative powers to reduce a swathe of rights without parliamentary appeal. The case hinges on the question of whether or not triggering Article 50 represents a loss of rights, something only the legislature can do.  Jane Croft has the details in the FT 

SOMETHING OF A GAMBLE

Ministers are contemplating doing a deal with Nicola Sturgeon that would allow her to hold a second independence referendum, but only after Brexit is completed, Lindsay McIntosh reports in the Times. The right to hold a referendum is a reserved power. 

A BURKISH MOVE

Angela Merkel told a cheering crowd at the CDU conference that, where possible, the full-face veil should be banned in Germany. Although the remarks are being widely reported in the British press as a "U-Turn", Merkel has previously said the face veil is incompatible with integration and has called from them to be banned "where possible". In a boost for the Chancellor, Merkel was re-elected as party chairman with 89.5 per cent of the vote. Stefan Wagstyl has the story in the FT.

SOMEWHERE A CLOCK IS TICKING

Michael Barnier, the EU's chief Brexit negotiator, has reminded the United Kingdom that they will have just 15 to 18 months to negotiate the terms of exit when Article 50 is triggered, as the remaining time will be needed for the deal to secure legislative appeal.

LEN'S LAST STAND?

Len McCluskey has quit as general secretary of Unite in order to run for a third term, triggering a power struggle with big consequences for the Labour party. Though he starts as the frontrunner, he is more vulnerable now than he was in 2013. I write on his chances and possible opposition here.

AND NOW FOR SOMETHING COMPLETELY DIFFERENT

Emad asks if One Night Stand provides the most compelling account of sex and relationships in video games yet.

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Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.