Politics - John Kampfner asks if we'll ever go to war again

By undermining public confidence in intelligence, Tony Blair has made it very hard for any future Br

Hutton inquiry equals blame equals scalps. Who will fall on his sword? Which is more culpable, the government or the BBC? Was Tony Blair responsible for the naming of Dr David Kelly? Did the Ministry of Defence fail in its duty of care towards its scientist? Why did BBC managers fail to check properly the accuracy of Andrew Gilligan's report? These will be seen as the central questions when Lord Hutton publishes his report amid high drama on Wednesday.

But there is one longer-term and potentially more damaging question. Will any British prime minister ever again be able to convince the people of the case for war, especially a pre-emptive war?

The problems of intervention - when, why and on what terms - were discussed recently at a revealing conference involving diplomats, defence chiefs and other practitioners. Two pressures are combining to make future military action harder to "sell". In this post-9/11 world, and in contrast to the cold war, threats are more diffuse and intangible. Whether it is a terrorist cell within our shores, a so-called rogue state, a country's possession of, or attempt to secure, weapons of mass destruction - after the debacle of Iraq, any future UK government will struggle to persuade voters that "the risk of inaction is greater than the risk of action".

The failure to win over the United Nations on Iraq compounded the credibility gap. But it was already there. Credibility requires trust. And Blair's people know that trust in the government has long been a problem.

In order to make the case for any future military mission, Blair - or his successors - will require evidence. Whatever the strength of Hutton's criticisms, the suspicion of intelligence as spin will linger for years. And yet intelligence will, in the new world order, form part of any pre-conflict debate.

The use of dossiers relying on intelligence is not new. Blair used them before the Operation Desert Fox air strikes against Iraq in 1998. He used them before Afghanistan in 2001. In the case of the former, he was still in his honeymoon period and the military strikes were over before they became a political issue. In the case of Afghanistan, the world was traumatised by 9/11, and the case against Osama Bin Laden appeared to be incontrovertible. The documents were deeply flawed, but few noticed or cared.

The nature of intelligence does not lend itself to a public document. By definition, it is hedged. By definition, it refers to possibilities and probabilities, juxtaposing different pieces of information on the ground. It makes judgement calls, it makes clear what is not known as much as what is.

Leaving aside the sifting of material that could expose sources and endanger security, a document such as this could not be presented to the general public. It simply would not convince. To an untrained eye, it could actually dissuade. Our spooks, people would say, are not as good as they're cracked up to be; the threat is either distant or non-existent.

Blair, Alastair Campbell and the others knew that. They concluded that if they were going to produce a document putting the case for war, they had to make it compelling. Call it "sexed up", edited, or knocked into shape, this was an inevitable part of the process. Campbell admitted during his testimony last August that he had strengthened the text in some places, though he claimed also to have weakened it in others. In the US, the process was more blatant, with intelligence cherry-picked for public consumption, including the claim, not even believed by the Brits, that Saddam Hussein had been involved in the al-Qaeda terrorist attacks.

Dossiers are probably here to stay. One of the first post-Hutton announcements the government could make is a review of the link between the Joint Intelligence Committee and ministers - a link that has become deeply compromised. One possible solution would be to increase the role of the parliamentary intelligence and security committee. Its job until now has been to scrutinise the work of the intelligence services. This committee or another organisation could be given responsibility for the publishing of dossiers, or at least for overseeing the process. The objectivity of the information would then be less susceptible to challenge.

This is not an arcane Whitehall matter. It goes to the heart of what went wrong on the road to war, the failure to find WMDs and the unseemly events that led to the suicide of Dr Kelly. The Tory MP Sir John Stanley made the point that the UK has never before relied so much on intelligence in setting out its reasons for war. There could be a legitimate case for interventions in the future. By its nature, the intelligence cannot be fail-safe, but the processes for making it public and making it believable certainly can be.


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