How the war was spun

The Foreign Office has been ordered to release an early secret draft of the WMD dossier. Chris Ames

The Information Tribunal's decision to order the Foreign Office to release a secret early draft of the dossier on Saddam Hussein's "weapons of mass destruction" is offering new insights into how the government spun the case for war.

In particular, it has become clear that the false claim that Iraq had "purchased" uranium originated in this secret draft, written by the FO press adviser John Williams. While we wait for the FO to publish the document, MPs have called on the government to come clean about the uranium claim and the precise role the Williams draft played in making the case for war.

The existence of the Williams draft, suggesting that a spin doctor had a large hand in writing the WMD dossier, was revealed in the New Statesman in 2006. Making the order that it should be published, the Information Tribunal revealed that there are similarities between that draft and later versions. During last month's hearing it emerged that these included a claim about uranium that was unsupported by intelligence.

The draft dossier that immediately followed Williams's version, drawn up by John Scarlett, then head of the Joint Intelligence Committee, claimed that Iraq had actually purchased uranium. By the time of the final WMD dossier, published in September 2002, this had been watered down to say that Iraq had "sought" uranium from Africa, and was cited as evidence that Iraq was developing nuclear weapons.

It is now known that the CIA doubted both versions. The British government has always claimed it has "credible" and "separate" evidence for the dossier's allegation. But it is now clear that the CIA knew about the separate intelligence and doubted that too.

The "uranium from Africa" claim became highly controversial after President George W Bush quoted it in his January 2003 State of the Union speech, shortly before the start of the Iraq War. Weeks later, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) announced that documents it had received, "which formed the basis for the reports of recent transactions", were actually crude forgeries.

The controversy deepened in July 2003 when the former US diplomat Joseph Wilson let it be known that he had visited Niger and discounted the possibility that Iraq had sought uranium. In retaliation, the Bush administration leaked the fact that Wilson's wife, Valerie Plame, was a covert CIA agent. Following a criminal investigation, Scooter Libby, chief of staff to Vice-President Dick Cheney, was given a prison sentence for perjury and obstruction of justice, which Bush commuted.

The US withdrew the uranium claim after Wilson's reve lation, but Tony Blair insisted that Britain had separate intelligence. Lord Butler's review of pre-war intelligence described the dossier's uranium claim as "well-founded", based on intelligence it had seen. In fact, the New Statesman can now report that the intelligence was from Italy - the source also for the US intelligence that led to Wilson's Africa trip.

Since the uranium controversy, the government has insisted that it had both a source separate from the fake documents and intelligence it could not share with the US because it came from another country. But it is now clear that Britain has no remaining credible source that was unknown to the US.

Before Williams worked on the draft, the dossier's section on WMDs merely claimed that uranium had been "sought". Yet Scarlett's "first draft" asserted, for the first time in a published document, that the material had been "purchased". This was shown to the CIA on 11 September 2002.

The Butler review reports that: "The CIA advised caution about any suggestion that Iraq had succeeded in acquiring uranium from Africa, but agreed that there was evidence that it had been sought." George Tenet, the CIA's former director, later said the agency had been sceptical even of a claim about "acquisition attempts": "[The agency] expressed reservations about its inclusion but our colleagues said they were confident in their reports and left it in their document."

Britain learned later that its original intelligence, almost certainly from France, was based on the forgeries. The US did not know about France's intelligence until November 2002.

It appears that Britain acquired the intelligence, which it still stands by, during September 2002, possibly while consulting the US. A source who has seen the material has said that it originated from Italy, which reported a visit by a high-level Iraqi delegation, including two generals, to Niger.

Butler inquiry insiders insist this evidence proves that Iraq sought uranium. However, a source in the US has confirmed that the intelligence that led the CIA to send Wilson to Africa in February 2002 was also from Italy. This intelligence relates to the same visiting delegation. Wilson has maintained that he thought it impossible that Iraq had been seeking uranium.

Further questions

At the time of the dossier, neither the US nor the UK had seen the fake documents, which the US acquired in October 2002. In June 2003, an internal CIA document stated that, with the documents discredited, there was no longer "sufficient other reporting to conclude that Iraq pursued uranium from abroad".

As we wait for the Williams draft to be published, the Foreign Office has refused to deny that this draft makes the same false claim as Scarlett's version. The FO has also declined to say that it has credible intelligence that was unknown to the US. The Tory MP John Baron says: "If the Williams draft contains a claim about uranium which turned up in John Scarlett's draft, it raises further questions about the government's assurances to Lord Hutton and to parliament that the draft was immediately redundant. The government must now publish the Williams draft as the tribunal has ordered."

The Labour MP Lynne Jones has put down parliamentary questions based on the New Statesman's information. She says: "The government has always implied that it had a credible source that was not known to the US when it expressed concern over the uranium claim. If that is not the case, this is an example of the government misleading parliament."

This article first appeared in the 04 February 2008 issue of the New Statesman, God

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The Somme and modern memory

My father was 16 when he enlisted in the army in September 1914. Within nine months he was fighting on the Western Front.

On 30 June 1916, the day before the Battle of the Somme began, my father’s regiment, the Cambridgeshires, were 40 miles north at Richebourg-Saint-Vaast. What happened the next morning was a great acceleration of attrition along the front. My father’s diary – a black hardbacked book, fraying at the edges 100 years on, but with his immaculate pencil handwriting still legible – records that the Royal Sussex Regiment, in the line in front of his, launched an attack but “had to retire with great loss leaving hundreds of dead and wounded behind”. The Cambridgeshires also suffered; 28 were killed or wounded.

The next morning was a “lovely day, very hot”. Relieved in the afternoon, his company “passed graves of men who fell on the 30th. It was a sad sight to see the rows of dead waiting to be buried, with a chaplain reading the burial service over them.” He was 18 years and six months old: 2578 Signaller James Heffer, 1/1st Cambridgeshires, had enlisted on 7 September 1914 at the Hills Road recruiting office in Cambridge, aged 16 years and eight months, two days after the Kitchener poster was published in the press. He had lied about his age, claiming to be 19, the minimum at which one could be sent abroad. He was a tall, healthy lad and the recruiting sergeant might just have been taken in. He was on the Western Front by May 1915 and served there for most of the rest of the war as a signaller (he was fluent in Morse code even in old age) and despatch rider before manning the first tanks. The war, and particularly the Somme, coloured the rest of his life and cast a perspective on everything. If you could survive that, you could survive anything.

I was a child of his second marriage. He was widowed in his late fifties and was 62 when I was born. I recall the Saturdays before Remembrance Sunday in the 1960s, when he would drive to Cambridge for his regimental reunion. He came back uplifted: he was in no doubt about how awful the war had been, how duped the people had been, and what a terrible price men such as those with whom he served had been called upon to pay for the mistakes of politicians. Yet he made friendships in the trenches that lasted for life; the Cambridgeshires had their share of losses but were not devastated in the way that some other regiments were.

James Heffer and his three brothers all served on the Western Front for over three years and came back in one piece. When I was a child, he would take out some maps he had of the front, used so often that their seams were patched with brown Sellotape. He had marked the trenches on them and would talk me through passages in the diary with reference to the maps and recall long-dead men whose names he had noted. Visiting war cemeteries in the 1990s, many years after his death, I found some of them. For him, remembrance was never abstract.

***

In July 1916, word went up the line about how well things were going further south. “British and French still making good progress in the Somme – 9 villages taken,” my father wrote on 3 July. There was no mention of the inconceivable number of dead and wounded on that first day. As a signaller, he received information to which most in the ranks had no access, and in keeping a diary he was in breach of King’s Regulations. It seems that the men at the front were told only good news: villages captured, huge numbers of prisoners taken. However, as they met those who had been in the thick of it, the truth could not be contained. After a month just outside Lens, the Cambridgeshires were relieved by the East Yorks. “By what they said,” my father noted on 10 August, with commendable understatement, “the Somme ­offensive is not at all a success.”

James Heffer spent the next week just outside Arras, learning a new form of visual signalling and being trained in attacking enemy trenches. Both skills were felt to have been deficient in the great battle and the next wave of soldiers had to be better. “I had seen better attacks made by Boy Scouts,” he wrote on 18 August. Within five days, he was on the front line of the Somme battlefield, country he knew well, as the regiment had been there in October 1915. As they neared Pozières, he noted a bombardment of unusual force and duration. By 26 August he was at Thiepval, where Lutyens’s great monument now crowns the battlefield. “Everywhere you looked there were guns and they were keeping up their fire. I had no idea we had so many guns. I bet they give the Germans a merry time.”

The bombardment continued all night, most of the following day and all the following night. James remained standing in mud and water, even though the hot weather had persisted. The rations had deteriorated. This was a harshness of warfare he had not experienced in his 15 months in France. A gas attack was launched on the night of 28 August; the following day, a British plane was shot down in no-man’s-land. “Both airmen killed: they lie just the other side of the trench riddled by the Germans’ bullets.” By 30 August, after four days of non-stop shelling and comrades being picked off around him, he was “tired and miserable”. A high point was the arrival of a German deserter, who admitted that things were no better on the other side.

On 3 September, he wrote: “At 5am every man was ordered to get into the trench as bombardment was about to commence.” However, three signallers – including James – were sent to a fort in the trench system to establish communications with another unit of the regiment. “The sky was coloured blood red by the rising sun and everything shook and trembled when all our guns opened out.” Looking through clouds of smoke, he wrote: “[The town of] Albert could be seen, with its shattered towers looming faintly above the smoke. It was a splendid but yet awful sight when you think of the lives to be lost and this bloody conflict through a country’s greed for territory.”

Eventually James went forward: “The rest of us made for trenches across country under heavy shelling. Reached communications trench, which was blocked up by dead and wounded. It was hell itself . . . The bottom of the trench was a mixture of blood and mud while it rained iron from above. Just missed getting buried alive several times by large shells.” There was no respite. He was sent back with a signal and “had to crawl over dead and wounded getting back. Some had awful wounds. What with the smell of blood, no food, no sleep it took me all my time to get along.”

He discovered that the rest of his battalion had been forced to retreat by the huge German bombardment. They managed to hold their original position until the Hertfordshires relieved them.

The next day they were back in the line, under a torrent of German gas shells. “Kept this up for six hours. Put on gas helmets. Had about 6,000 over with one on the top of the dugout. It was enough to send one mad when tired out as we were.”

The staccato nature of the writing reflects his exhaustion and, perhaps, an attempt to keep a distance from the constant horror. When the bombardment ceased he sustained a minor wound: “I got through with just one small knock from shrapnel,
bringing dead in.” He and his surviving comrades spent the whole of the next day bringing in the casualties: he estimated that 5,000 men in the division had been killed or wounded, and the Cambridgeshires had lost 140. For several days they braced themselves for a German attack. By the time they moved to Beaumont-Hamel on 13 September, it had not come.

Over the next fortnight, friends and comrades are killed by stray shells or snipers. There are near misses for the diarist, who is several times buried in mud, sandbags and chalk as shells burst on the trench parapet. A dugout he has just evacuated is obliterated by a direct hit. Attempts to take German positions fail, usually because of an inability to cut the wire. An officer is wounded and another who tries to retrieve him is taken prisoner; a third is wounded even more seriously in making another attempt; the next officer who goes out never comes back. It typifies the futility of the battle.

Regular transports attempt to bring in food but the Germans have taken a small hill nearby and wreck the vehicles before they reach the trenches, or attack them as they are unloading. On 25 September the shelling becomes so heavy that the transport goes “hell for leather” before delivering any food. However: “We had about 2 quarts of rum between 8 men so you can bet we had a jolly old time before the night was out.”

The next day, he watched British shells landing on the centre of Thiepval “like hundreds of volcanoes just exploding, and it looked as if the hill was slowly being blown to pieces”. The battle had been raging now for nearly three months and the ­attacks continued day and night. “At 11am [26 September] the artillery here opened out like one long crash of thunder and the earth rocked with the vibration: such an artillery action I had never heard before.” This was the attempt to recapture Thiepval.

He observed the enemy from a ridge: “The Germans I could see running towards us across the open, in places where the trenches had been knocked flat . . . There must have been a company of them without rifles and equipment running and falling down the trench in mad terror, exposed to anybody who would care to shoot them, our shells bursting right among them. I had never seen men run like it before.” The Germans were surrounded and he soon watched through his binoculars a wave of British troops jump into the same trench and start shooting – before the Geneva Conventions, prisoners were not always taken. He saw Germans using the remains of sandbags as white flags and surrendering.

On 29 September, after five weeks on the Somme, his battle ended with a “Blighty one”, a wound so bad that he had to be repatriated. He was standing by a trench mortar when a shell in it blew up. “With a smash, we were blown back, deafened and choking. I thought my heart was never going to start again.” His right hand was badly burned, “the fat burning on my fingers”. A corporal helped put out the flames on his hand: “I went mad: the pain was awful.” He recorded this a few weeks later at Leeds Infirmary, where surgeons managed to save his right hand, once he had regained the use of it.

***

James Heffer went back to France early in 1917 and was still six weeks from his 21st birthday when the Armistice was signed. He talked of the Somme, like the rest of his war, with the detachment of a historian (he became a tax inspector) rather than with the emotion of one who had been up to his ankles in blood there. Perhaps even for one so calm and as philosophical as he was, any detailed introspection was, even half a century afterwards, more than would be wise.

Simon Heffer is a columnist for the Daily and the Sunday Telegraph

Simon Heffer is a journalist, author and political commentator, who has worked for long stretches at the Daily Telegraph and the Daily Mail. He has written biographies of Thomas Carlyle, Ralph Vaughan Williams and Enoch Powell, and reviews and writes on politics for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 23 June 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Divided Britain