A senior intelligence official has admitted that some of the most controversial and bitterly disputed changes to the Iraq dossier may have been made by the government's spin doctors. The revelation raises the possibility that Alastair Campbell may after all have “sexed-up” the notorious claim that Iraq could deploy weapons of mass destruction within 45 minutes.
The admission comes in evidence to the Information Tribunal from Chris Wright, the Cabinet Office’s Director, Security and Intelligence. In its ruling, published last week, the tribunal criticised the government for the absence of any audit trail showing “who drafted what” in respect of “substantial changes” to the document that took Britain to war. Wright told the tribunal that these changes may have been “made following oral comments” from the “communications professionals who were working on the dossier from a presentational point of view”.
The changes included the transformation of the 45 minutes and other claims to represent “judgements” of the Joint Intelligence Committee (JIC) and the inclusion of a new judgement that Iraq was continuing to produce chemical and biological agents. Both changes were strongly opposed from within the intelligence community and both claims turned out to be false.
The case follows the release in February of the first draft of the dossier, by Foreign Office press secretary John Williams. A few days later, the Guardian revealed leaked evidence from another government witness, Neil Wigan of the FCO. He had successfully asked the tribunal to remove from the published document a reference to Israel, which he said compared Israel to Iraq in its “brazen” flouting of UN authority in pursuit of wmd.
The new revelations are potentially more damaging as they show that the government lied about the role played by Williams and Campbell, then its director of communications. When BBC reporter Andrew Gilligan alleged that Campbell and others had “sexed-up” the document, the government responded that: “Not one word of the dossier was not entirely the work of the intelligence agencies.” Campbell claimed the whole document came “the pen of” JIC chairman John Scarlett, now head of MI6. These denials led to a furious row between the government and the BBC, leading to the exposure and apparent suicide of Gilligan’s source, Dr David Kelly.
Wright’s admission covers the period between Scarlett’s “first draft” of the dossier, produced on 10 September 2002, and a further draft on 16 September. This was when some of the most significant changes were made. Evidence to the Hutton Inquiry, including extracts from Campbell’s diaries, shows that Campbell was making changes to the dossier during this time.
The 45 minutes claim was not presented as a “judgement” on its first appearance in the dossier on 10 September. Crucially, it was not a “key judgement” in the formal JIC paper on which the dossier was said to be based. But by 16 September, the 45 minutes and other claims were presented as “judgements”. As Scarlett told the Hutton Inquiry, “it became a judgement of the JIC”.
During the Hutton Inquiry, it also emerged that experts in the Defence Intelligence Staff had strongly objected to this change and to the addition of the judgement that Iraq was continuing to produce chemical and biological agents, which also first appeared on 16 September.
Campbell’s diaries show that he spoke extensively to Scarlett on 11 September and proposed a new structure for Scarlett’s draft. The next day, Campbell was present at No 10 when Sir Richard Dearlove, then head of MI6, told Tony Blair about new intelligence, later said to be the basis for claims of continuing production of WMD agents. Dearlove said this could not go in the dossier directly “for reasons of source protection” but, with Campbell pushing for its inclusion, agreed it could go it “through assertion”.
A day later, Campbell met Julian Miller, Scarlett’s deputy, “to go through the new structure”. The Cabinet Office has stated in response to another freedom of information request that it has “no information” regarding these meetings. This means the government is unable to prove that Campbell did not “sex-up” the 45 minutes claim. Indeed, Wright’s evidence concedes that it is “possible that any changes to the Executive Summary were made following oral comments made in meetings or by phone and that those comments were not recorded”.
Wright’s evidence also reveals that officials in a “wider drafting group”, which included John Williams and other spin doctors, made comments on “each draft” of the dossier. This appears to contradict Scarlett, his former boss, who told the Hutton Inquiry that although these officials had attended meetings on the dossier on 9 and 17 September, they did not take part in discussions in between.
In response to the new revelations, Tory MP John Baron told the New Statesman: “Tony Blair told Parliament the 45-minutes claim was entirely the work of the JIC, but that statement now appears no more credible than claim itself. We know that spin doctors were heavily involved in drafting the dossier, and the overwhelming evidence shows that sexing up did take place.”