Spin doctors and the Iraq war

A Tory MP challenges the government to come clean about the role spin doctors played in sexing-up th

As the government challenges the Information Commissioner's ruling it should publish the secret first draft of the Iraq dossier, a Tory MP has challenged it to come clean about the role its spin doctors played in sexing-up the case for war.

And I can reveal the government is suppressing many more crucial documents that were not disclosed to the Hutton Inquiry.

Last week Foreign Office (FCO) minister Kim Howells admitted trying to conceal the origins of the first full draft of the weapons of mass destruction dossier, produced by former FCO press secretary John Williams. Howells is also blocking the release of an unknown number of documents showing the involvement of the Coalition Information Centre (CIC) in preparing the dossier that took Britain to war in Iraq.

The CIC papers are among many documents covering the production of the September 2002 dossier that have been identified and requested under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). The government has almost invariably refused to release these documents, claiming that to do so would be prejudicial to the conduct of public affairs, international relations or national security, even though it is now five years since the dossier was published. The common thread in the suppressed documents is that they challenge the government’s claim that the dossier was the work of the intelligence services.

Last November the New Statesman revealed that the first full-length draft of the dossier was produced by Williams, not former Joint Intelligence Committee chairman John Scarlett. In August the NS revealed that Williams had based his version on an even earlier document from the CIC, the propaganda unit set up by Alastair Campbell to promote UK participation in US led wars.

It was Tory MP John Baron who obtained this evidence. Howells had sent Baron a copy of the letter that the government sent the Hutton Inquiry with the Williams draft. Initially this had the reference to the CIC redacted on the grounds that it was “sensitive”, but Baron used the FOIA to insist that the full text be disclosed. He then tabled a parliamentary question asking why the missing text had been seen as sensitive. Last week Howells replied, admitting that text had been redacted “because we wished to protect the process that Williams used”.

Baron also made a further request under the FOIA, to see all correspondence to and from the CIC as the dossier was being written. The FCO admitted holding “some information” – a standard formula in these cases – but did not state what that information was. Howells then blocked the request, using the catch-all Section 36 exemption, that disclosure would inhibit the provision of free and frank advice to ministers. This was the same exemption former Foreign Secretary Jack Straw had used to suppress the Williams draft. Howells admitted that officials had wrongly blocked disclosure without first seeking ministerial approval.

The FCO is still refusing to state how many documents it has and is refusing to deny that there is a substantial number of undisclosed papers, inspite of repeated requests.

The government has already the blocked the release of a number of documents on the dossier that were not supplied to the Hutton Inquiry and the Information Commissioner is due to decide soon whether they should be published. The possibility that the government may hold a further raft of undisclosed papers suggests that the dossier cover-up was even greater than previously realized. Lord Hutton said nothing about the CIC’s involvement, although his Inquiry was briefly told about it. The Butler Review also made no mention of the CIC, reporting that the dossier was in the “ownership” of the Joint Intelligenc Committee from the outset.

Paul Hamill, the CIC’s “head of story development” was one of four spin doctors named by Scarlett in a letter to Tony Blair as having been involved in ensuring that the dossier “deployed the intelligence effectively”. Hamill is also the likely author of the February 2003 “dodgy” dossier, which was revealed to have been largely copied off the internet.

On Thursday and Friday this week, the Information Tribunal is hearing the FCO’s appeal against the Information Commissioner’s decision that the Williams draft should be released under the FOIA. The FCO has resisted release of the draft for nearly three years.

Speaking to the New Statesman website, Baron, who has pursued the issue through debates and questions in Parliament, asked:

"Just what has the FCO got to hide? Why is the Government being so secretive about the involvement of the CIC, unless it is trying to cover up the prominent role played by spin doctors in the lead up to the war?

"This case has again exposed the casual attitude of the FCO towards its Freedom of Information responsibilities. It is high time we were told the truth about the presentation of Britain's case for war in Iraq."

Biteback and James Wharton
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“It was the most traumatic chapter of my life”: ex-soldier James Wharton on his chemsex addiction

One of the British Army’s first openly gay soldiers reveals how he became trapped in a weekend world of drug and sex parties.

“Five days disappeared.” James Wharton, a 30-year-old former soldier, recalls returning to his flat in south London at 11pm on a Sunday night in early March. He hadn’t eaten or slept since Wednesday. In the five intervening days, he had visited numerous different apartments, checked in and out of a hotel room, partied with dozens of people, had sex, and smoked crystal meth “religiously”.

One man he met during this five-day blur had been doing the same for double the time. “He won’t have been exaggerating,” Wharton tells me now. “He looked like he’d been up for ten days.”

On Monday, Wharton went straight to his GP. He had suffered a “massive relapse” while recovering from his addiction to chemsex: group sex parties enhanced by drugs.

“Crystal meth lets you really dig in, to use an Army term”

I meet Wharton on a very different Monday morning six months after that lost long weekend. Sipping a flat white in a sleek café workspace in Holborn, he’s a stroll away from his office in the city, where he works as a PR. He left the Army in 2013 after ten years, having left school and home at 16.

Wharton left school at 16 to join the Army. Photo: Biteback

With his stubble, white t-shirt and tortoise shell glasses, he now looks like any other young media professional. But he’s surfacing from two years in the chemsex world, where he disappeared to every weekend – sometimes for 72 hours straight.

Back then, this time on a Monday would have been “like a double-decker bus smashing through” his life – and that’s if he made it into work at all. Sometimes he’d still be partying into the early hours of a Tuesday morning. The drugs allow your body to go without sleep. “Crystal meth lets you really dig in, to use an Army expression,” Wharton says, wryly.

Wharton now works as a PR in London. Photo: James Wharton

Mainly experienced by gay and bisexual men, chemsex commonly involves snorting the stimulant mephodrone, taking “shots” (the euphoric drug GBL mixed with a soft drink), and smoking the amphetamine crystal meth.

These drugs make you “HnH” (high and horny) – a shorthand on dating apps that facilitate the scene. Ironically, they also inhibit erections, so Viagra is added to the mix. No one, sighs Wharton, orgasms. He describes it as a soulless and mechanical process. “Can you imagine having sex with somebody and then catching them texting at the same time?”

“This is the real consequence of Section 28”

Approximately 3,000 men who go to Soho’s 56 Dean Street sexual health clinic each month are using “chems”, though it’s hard to quantify how many people regularly have chemsex in the UK. Chemsex environments can be fun and controlled; they can also be unsafe and highly addictive.

Participants congregate in each other’s flats, chat, chill out, have sex and top up their drugs. GBL can only be taken in tiny doses without being fatal, so revellers set timers on their phones to space out the shots.

GBL is known as “the date rape drug”; it looks like water, and a small amount can wipe your memory. Like some of his peers, Wharton was raped while passed out from the drug. He had been asleep for six or so hours, and woke up to someone having sex with him. “That was the worst point, without a doubt – rock bottom,” he tells me. “[But] it didn’t stop me from returning to those activities again.”

There is a chemsex-related death every 12 days in London from usually accidental GBL overdoses; a problem that Wharton compares to the AIDS epidemic in a book he’s written about his experiences, Something for the Weekend.

Wharton has written a book about his experiences. Photo: Biteback

Wharton’s first encounter with the drug, at a gathering he was taken to by a date a couple of years ago, had him hooked.

“I loved it and I wanted more immediately,” he recalls. From then on, he would take it every weekend, and found doctors, teachers, lawyers, parliamentary researchers, journalists and city workers all doing the same thing. He describes regular participants as the “London gay elite”.

“Chemsex was the most traumatic chapter of my life” 

Topics of conversation “bounce from things like Lady Gaga’s current single to Donald Trump”, Wharton boggles. “You’d see people talking about the general election, to why is Britney Spears the worst diva of them all?”

Eventually, he found himself addicted to the whole chemsex culture. “It’s not one single person, it’s not one single drug, it’s just all of it,” he says.

Wharton was in the Household Cavalry alongside Prince Harry. Photos: Biteback and James Wharton

Wharton feels the stigma attached to chemsex is stopping people practising it safely, or being able to stop. He’s found a support network through gay community-led advice services, drop-ins and workshops. Not everyone has that access, or feels confident coming forward.

“This is the real consequence of Section 28,” says Wharton, who left school in 2003, the year this legislation against “promoting” homosexuality was repealed. “Who teaches gay men how to have sex? Because the birds and the bees chat your mum gives you is wholly irrelevant.”

Wharton was the first openly gay soldier to appear in the military in-house magazine. Photo courtesy of Biteback

Wharton only learned that condoms are needed in gay sex when he first went to a gay bar at 18. He was brought up in Wrexham, north Wales, by working-class parents, and described himself as a “somewhat geeky gay” prior to his chemsex days.

After four years together, he and his long-term partner had a civil partnership in 2010; they lived in a little cottage in Windsor with two dogs. Their break-up in 2014 launched him into London life as a single man.

As an openly gay soldier, Wharton was also an Army poster boy; he appeared in his uniform on the cover of gay magazine Attitude. He served in the Household Cavalry with Prince Harry, who once defended him from homophobic abuse, and spent seven months in Iraq.

In 2012, Wharton appeared with his then civil partner in Attitude magazine. Photo courtesy of Biteback

A large Union Jack shield tattoo covering his left bicep pokes out from his t-shirt – a physical reminder of his time at war on his now much leaner frame. He had it done the day he returned from Iraq.

Yet even including war, Wharton calls chemsex “the most traumatic chapter” of his life. “Iraq was absolutely Ronseal, it did exactly what it said on the tin,” he says. “It was going to be a bit shit, and then I was coming home. But with chemsex, you don’t know what’s going to happen next.

“When I did my divorce, I had support around me. When I did the Army, I had a lot of support. Chemsex was like a million miles an hour for 47 hours, then on the 48th hour it was me on my own, in the back of an Uber, thinking where did it all go wrong? And that’s traumatic.”

Something for the Weekend: Life in the Chemsex Underworld by James Wharton is published by Biteback.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.