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14 May 2007

Spinners and spooks

Chris Ames on the Iraq dossier and his dogged pursuit

By Chris Ames

It is now more than two years since I asked the Foreign Office for the missing draft of the Iraq dossier, the document the Prime Minister used to persuade parliament and the British public that Saddam Hussein was an imminent threat. The draft was considered so sensitive that when he was foreign secretary, Jack Straw intervened to prevent it being released.

Now the Information Commissioner has finally found in my favour and ordered that the document should be released within 35 days. The Foreign Office may appeal, but we have learned much already about the secret draft.

Written on 9 September 2002 by John Williams, then head of news at the Foreign Office, it was the first full draft of the document offered to parliament. This contradicts the government’s story that the dossier was the unvarnished work of the Joint Intelligence Committee, which represents the views of the intelligence service to ministers.

When the New Statesman broke the story last year, Williams suggested that his draft was something he wrote on his own initiative. The detailed response I have now received from the Information Commissioner suggests otherwise, disclosing that the secret first draft was produced by Williams at the personal request of John Scarlett, then chair of the Joint Intelligence Committee and now head of MI6.

This also contradicts Scarlett’s evidence to the Hutton inquiry into the death of the government weapons expert Dr David Kelly and casts doubt on Alastair Campbell’s version of events. He was asked whether Williams had carried out a “media-friendly editorial job” on the dossier and denied outright that such a thing could happen. “I offered John Scarlett a member of my staff, if he wanted it, to help him write it. John Williams was volunteering for the job; so was somebody else at the Foreign Office. John Scarlett was absolutely clear; the word was ‘ownership’ – he wanted ownership of the dossier, and the best way to have that was to write it.”

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Scarlett misled Hutton by claiming Williams produced his draft “on his own initiative”. He claimed: “I was concerned that that redrafting which was happening independently from me might cause confusion as to who was actually controlling this.” In other words, government witnesses at the inquiry made much of asserting that the involvement of Williams was incompatible with Scarlett’s “ownership” of it.

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It’s impossible to say what would have happened if Blair had told the truth about the involvement of Williams and other spin-doctors when he was told about it by Scarlett. What is clear is that before, during and after the exposure and suicide of David Kelly, the government knew it was in the wrong, having let spin-doctors loose on a document that took the country to war on a false prospectus.