The Information Tribunal has today criticised the government for the absence of any audit trail showing the true authorship of its September 2002 dossier on “Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction”. In a new ruling, the tribunal has accepted the Cabinet Office’s position that it has no record of which officials or spin doctors made “substantial changes” to the dossier’s executive summary. The Liberal Democrats have already condemned this position as “dodgy”.
The case represents another blow to the government’s claim that the dossier was the work of the intelligence services, following the publication in February of the first draft, written by Foreign Office spin doctor John Williams. The existence of the Williams draft was first revealed in the New Statesman in November 2006.
In this latest freedom of information act case, I asked the Cabinet Office to state who re-wrote the dossier’s executive summary between the drafts of 10 and 16 September 2002. It initially claimed that evidence to the Hutton Inquiry by Joint Intelligence Committee (JIC) chairman John Scarlett covered this, but the Tribunal rejected that claim. Scarlett had told Hutton that he and his team of JIC assessments staff had been responsible for compiling the dossier but did not state that they had done all the drafting.
The Tribunal stated that it is clear “that substantial changes were made” between the two drafts and suggested that it was common ground that officials outside the JIC “may have gone as far as proposing particular forms of words”. These officials included Williams and other spin doctors such as Alastair Campbell, the government’s former director of communications.
The dossier’s executive summary included “judgements”, which Tony Blair presented to Parliament as having been “made by the JIC alone”. The judgements in the 10 September draft were themselves revealed to have originated in John Williams’ document. But the next version included a number of new ones. The government’s inability to account for these changes raises the possibility that none of the judgements in the published dossier originated from within the JIC machinery. Campbell later had a further “judgement” added to the summary, after the JIC’s oversight of the document had ended. This was the claim that Saddam would use weapons of mass destruction against his own Shia population.
The Tribunal accepted the Cabinet Office’s case that it had no record either of who had drafted the summary or who had made changes to it. But in doing so, it criticised the absence of a proper audit trail, particularly given the significance of the dossier. In its ruling it observed: “we are not very impressed by the quality of the record keeping… this was on any view an extremely important document and we would have expected, or hoped for, some audit trail revealing who had drafted what.”
The dossier formed the basis of the government’s case to Parliament for invading Iraq. It subsequently emerged that Iraq did not have WMD at that time and that the dossier’s claims were expressed with significantly more certainty than the intelligence on which they were said to be based.
The new judgements included the claim that Iraq could deploy WMD within 45 minutes and another false claim that it was continuing to produce chemical and biological agents. Both were opposed by intelligence experts at the Defence Intelligence Staff (DIS). The Butler Inquiry later criticised the government’s failure to make the intelligence behind the latter claim available to the DIS: “The fact that it was not shown to them resulted in a stronger assessment in the dossier in relation to Iraqi chemical weapons production than was justified by the available intelligence.”
Liberal Democrat foreign affairs spokesman Ed Davey told the New Statesman: “The absence of any audit trail for the substantial changes to the Iraq dossier is perhaps not surprising. The government’s spin doctors must have known what they were doing was dodgy and would not be approved by the intelligence experts. No wonder they left no fingerprints.”