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

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

0800 7318496