Disarmament DiplomacyIssue No. 75, January/February 2004
In the News
Lord Hutton Reports on the Death of Dr David Kelly
Prior to its publication on January 28, 2004, intense speculation had surrounded the possible political damage that the report from Lord Hutton's inquiry into the death of biological weapons expert Dr David Kelly might inflict on Tony Blair's Government (see Disarmament Diplomacy 73, October/November 2003). In the event, Hutton cleared the Prime Minister of dishonourable behaviour, and used the report to turn the tables on the government's critics, most notably the BBC. Instead of pointing the finger at Blair or his Secretary of State for Defence, Geoff Hoon, as most who had listened to the inquiry or read the evidence posted on the Hutton Inquiry's website, expected, Hutton's report resulted in the resignation of the BBC's Chair of the Governors, Gavyn Davies, and Director General, Greg Dyke.
Background: On May 29, 2003, in an unscripted interview for the Today programme at 6.07 a.m. BBC journalist Andrew Gilligan had accused the government of manipulating intelligence and deliberately seeking to mislead the country about Iraq's weapons of mass destruction capability in the run-up to the war on Iraq. It later emerged that Gilligan had based his story on a conversation that he had had with Dr Kelly who, recognising himself as the potential source, informed his Ministry of Defence employers. As the official at the centre of what, by July, had become a seismic political confrontation between the government and the BBC, Dr Kelly was exposed to the full glare of parliamentary and media inquisition. Some days later, he was found dead. Dr Kelly's apparent suicide caused reverberations throughout the British establishment. As a consequence, the Prime Minister swiftly established a judicial inquiry in to the circumstances surrounding Dr Kelly's demise, under the auspices of Brian Hutton, a senior law lord from Northern Ireland. The hearings, which mostly took place in August and September, were held in public, with transcripts and evidence published daily on a website for all to see.
Terms of Reference: Those who were hoping that Hutton would interpret his remit broadly enough to include an examination of whether or not Britain should have gone to war based on the available intelligence were disappointed. The Judge said that after careful consideration he had rejected this idea because it was 'a question of such wide import, which would involve the consideration of a wide range of evidence'.[Paragraph 9]1
Instead, he confined himself more narrowly to the direct circumstances surrounding Dr Kelly's death. He chose to focus heavily on Gilligan's news story and concluded:
'... the allegation reported by Mr Gilligan on 29 May 2003 that the Government probably knew that the 45 minutes claim was wrong before the Government decided to put it in the dossier, was an allegation which was unfounded.' [467.I.ii]
On 'sexing up' the evidence: On the wider question raised by Gilligan's report that his source had complained of the intelligence dossier being 'sexed up' by the government, Hutton first defined the term, which he said was open to two interpretations. The distinction he made was between the dossier being 'embellished with items of intelligence known or believed to be false or unreliable to make the case against Saddam Hussein stronger' on the one hand, or that 'whilst the intelligence contained in the dossier was believed to be reliable, the dossier was drafted in such a way as to make the case against Saddam Hussein as strong as the intelligence contained in it permitted'.[467.II.viii]
Lord Hutton then decided that because the drafting suggestions made by Downing Street were intended to make a strong case against Saddam Hussein, it could be said that the Government had 'sexed-up' the dossier according to the latter definition of that term. However, he rejected the charge that the Government had embellished the dossier with false or unreliable information.
He also concluded that it was not improper for the Head of the Joint Intelligence Committee (JIC), John Scarlett, to take into account Downing Street's drafting suggestions as long as these were consistent with the intelligence available to the JIC, expressing satisfaction that those engaged in the drafting of the dossier were 'concerned to ensure that the contents of the dossier were consistent with the intelligence available to the JIC.' [467.I.vii] Nevertheless, he also noted:
'However I consider that the possibility cannot be completely ruled out that the desire of the Prime Minister to have a dossier which, whilst consistent with the available intelligence, was as strong as possible in relation to the threat posed by Saddam Hussein's WMD, may have subconsciously influenced Mr Scarlett and the other members of the JIC to make the wording of the dossier somewhat stronger than it would have been if it had been contained in a normal JIC assessment.'[467.I.vii]
On the Game of 20 Questions: The MoD's decision to drop hints and then confirm Kelly's name if it was correctly put to them by a reporter was another area of controversy. Lord Hutton took the view that:
'There was no dishonourable or underhand or duplicitous strategy by the Government covertly to leak Dr Kelly's name to the media.' [467.4A.i]
He accepted Downing Street's contention that the matter was of such intense public and media interest that to try to conceal that Gilligan's source had come forward would leave the government vulnerable to charges of a cover up. The press were bound to discover Dr Kelly's identity and it was not thought right that media speculation should focus, wrongly, on other civil servants. [467.4A.ii]
If the decision to revel Dr Kelly's name was understandable, Hutton considered that the way in which it was implemented was unsatisfactory.
'Once the decision had been taken on 8 July to issue the statement, the MoD was at fault and is to be criticised for not informing Dr Kelly that its press office would confirm his name if a journalist suggested it.'
The judge said that it must have been a 'great shock and very upsetting' for Dr Kelly to be told that the MoD press office had confirmed his name to the press and must have made him feel that he had been 'badly let down by his employer'. He should have been informed 'immediately' his name had been confirmed, rather than one and a half hours later.
On the BBC's mistakes: Turning his attention to the BBC, Lord Hutton not only castigated Gilligan, but also condemned his employers' editorial and management processes. After concluding that Gilligan's central allegation against the Government was unfounded, Hutton pronounced:
'The communication by the media of information (including information obtained by investigative reporters) on matters of public interest and importance is a vital part of life in a democratic society. However the right to communicate such information is subject to the qualification (which itself exists for the benefit of a democratic society) that false accusations of fact impugning the integrity of others, including politicians, should not be made by the media.' [467. 3.ii]
He went on to say that there should be far greater editorial control over reports that intend to impugn the integrity of others. Gilligan's initial broadcast had not been scripted and his editors had not been aware of exactly what he was going to say. Some weeks earlier, the Inquiry had heard, the Today programme editor, Kevin Marsh, had himself described Gilligan's method of reporting as employing 'loose use of language and lack of judgment in some of his phraseology'. In that context, the BBC management was found to have been at fault for failing properly to investigate the government's complaints about Gilligan's allegations. Furthermore, once they realised that aspects of Gilligan's report was incorrect, as the journalist admitted to the Inquiry, they to give 'proper and adequate consideration to whether the BBC should publicly acknowledge that this very grave allegation should not have been broadcast'. [467. 3.v]
Political reaction: Having pored over the evidence made public to the Inquiry and on its website, most people in political and media circles had expected Lord Hutton to castigate the BBC and the government in fairly equal measure, finding both guilty of sexing up their reports beyond what the evidence of their sources could support and making mistakes. There was thus widespread astonishment at the degree to which Hutton cleared the government of wrongdoing and condemned the BBC.
As reflected in opinion polls, public opinion considered that the Government had 'got off lightly', and some called the Report a 'whitewash'.
The Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw, continued to reiterate that the decision to go to war in Iraq was justified given the defiance of a regime which had used WMD and had refused to comply with United Nations Security Council obligations, stating 'That is a decision for which we, as elected representatives, took responsibility and will continue to take responsibility.'2
Nevertheless, there was renewed clamour for a wider inquiry into the fundamental question of whether or not the threat from Iraq's WMD had been exaggerated in order to justify Britain going to war.
Buoyed up by the Hutton Report's exoneration, the government argued that critics should wait and see what the Iraq Survey Group (ISG) concluded before reaching judgement about the apparent lack of Iraqi WMD. This defence was undermined, however, when the head of the ISG, David Kay, resigned his post and said that intelligence on Iraq's WMD was 'almost all wrong'.3 It then became completely untenable when President Bush announced that his Administration would open an investigation into US intelligence failures in Iraq.
The Butler Inquiry on Intelligence
Since the Hutton Report did not silence critics of the government's basing its rationale for war on incorrect claims of Iraqi WMD, on February 3, the Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw, announced plans for a new inquiry to review the intelligence in relation to WMD.4 This inquiry will be conducted by a small committee of high level military and political figures, chaired by former Cabinet Secretary Lord Butler of Brockwell. Unlike the Hutton Inquiry, its deliberations will be conducted in secret. In addition to Lord Butler, the committee comprises Sir John Chilcot, Field Marshal Lord Inge and the MPs Ann Taylor (Labour) and Michael Mates (Conservative).
The Liberal Democrat party refused to participate on the grounds that the terms of reference were too narrow. They wanted the inquiry to investigate not only the intelligence per se, but also the ways in which intelligence providers and the interpretation and presentation of intelligence findings may have been politically influenced. The government has refused to widen the terms to include political considerations: paradoxically, since Lord Hutton had largely ignored this aspect of the evidence before him, Blair's main argument for excluding political influence from Butler's terms of reference rests on the claim that the Hutton inquiry had exonerated the government from political interference.
The committee's remit will therefore be to: 'investigate the intelligence coverage available on WMD programmes of countries of concern and on the global trade in WMD, taking into account what is now known about these programmes; investigate the accuracy of intelligence on Iraqi WMD up to March 2003, and to examine any discrepancies between the intelligence gathered, evaluated and used by the Government before the conflict, and between that intelligence and what has been discovered by the Iraq Survey Group since the end of the conflict; and to make recommendations to the Prime Minister for the future on the gathering, evaluation and use of intelligence on WMD, in the light of the difficulties of operating in countries of concern.'5
It is expected that the committee will work closely with the US inquiry and the Iraq Survey Group and will report back in July. It is intended to have access to all intelligence reports and assessments and other relevant government papers, and will be able to call witnesses to give oral evidence in private.
Butler Inquiry to focus on systems rather than individuals
Lord Butler's Inquiry will focus on systems rather than the actions of individuals, and he confirmed that all its hearings will be held in private to avoid giving the public a partial view of the evidence. The inquiry committee will start taking evidence in April but will only discuss its work when it reports in the summer. Unlike the Hutton Inquiry, witnesses will be questioned by the committee, rather than legal counsel.
Liberal Democrat Foreign Affairs Spokesman Sir Menzies Campbell told BBC Radio 4's Today programme that the inquiry's latest announcement justified the concerns voiced by his party when it was set up. He pointed to the focus on systems rather than individuals, saying: "That inevitably means that there will be no reference either to the competence or to the judgement of the politicians which took the decision that the only way to deal with Saddam Hussein and the threat it was said he posed was to take military action... That, I do not believe, will satisfy the public, after all for whose satisfaction this inquiry has been set up."
The Conservatives have insisted the inquiry's remit cover the way intelligence was used before the war, saying that meant politicians' actions would be investigated.6
Selected Comments on The Hutton Report
Lt. Col. Crispin Black, February 12, 2004
"From what came out at the Hutton inquiry I could hardly recognise the organisation I had so recently worked for. Meetings with no minutes, an intelligence analytical group on a highly specialised subject which included unqualified officials in Downing Street but excluded the DIS's lifetime experts (like Dr Brian Jones), vague and unexplained bits of intelligence appearing in the dossier as gospel (notably the 45-minute claim), sloppy use of language, that weird 'last call' for intelligence like Henry II raving about Thomas à Becket - with 'who will furnish me with the intelligence I need' substituted for 'who will rid me of that turbulent priest'...I looked forward to Lord Hutton making some serious suggestions about how to keep the intelligence process free of political manipulation and analysts free from the preparation of propaganda dossiers. I thought he might help explain, too, why the intelligence community had been taken by surprise by the aftermath of victory in Iraq.....
But it has recently got even more embarrassing. The Prime Minister told the House of Commons that he was unaware at the time of the war debate that the 45 minute piece of intelligence referred only to battlefield rather than strategic weapons. Let me list just some of the procedures which must have been executed incorrectly to allow him to be kept in such a state of ignorance at such a crucial time on such a crucial matter when other members of his cabinet (Cook and Hoon) appear to have been in the know...
This is not the case of a few guardsmen out of step or a few trumpeters out of tune. This is like holding trooping the colour but forgetting to tell the Queen the correct date."7
Lt. Col Crispin Black was formerly in Defence Intelligence (1994-96) and on the Intelligent Assessment staff, (1999-2002).
Brian Jones, February 4, 2004
"The problem was that the best available current evidence that Saddam actually had chemical and biological weapons (CW and BW) was the inference that this must be so from the claim of an apparently unproven original source that such weapons could be 'deployed' within 45 minutes. Although the information was relayed through a reliable second source, there was no indication the original or primary source had established a track record of reliability. Furthermore, the information reported by the source was vague in all aspects except, possibly, for the range of times quoted...
What was missing was, for example, strong evidence of the continuing existence of weapons and agents and substantive evidence on production or storage...
There was no indication that the Iraqi military had practiced the use of CW or BW weapons for more than a decade...
On balance the DIS experts felt it should be recorded that a CW or BW capability at some level was a probability, but argued against its statement in stronger terms...
But we were told there was other intelligence that we, the experts, could not see, and that it removed the reservations we were expressing. It was so sensitive it could not be shown to us. It was held within a tight virtual 'compartment', available only to a few selected people...
I considered who might have seen this ultra-sensitive intelligence and reached the conclusion that it was extremely doubtful that anyone with a high degree of CW and BW intelligence expertise was among the exclusive group.
It was becoming clear that it was very unlikely we could achieve the balance we desired in the dossier and it was important to register our misgivings formally...
I foresaw that after the likely invasion and defeat of Iraq, it was quite possible that no WMD would be found. If this happened scapegoats would be sought, so I decided that we should record our concerns about the dossier in order to protect our reputation...
I eventually found someone who was in the relevant compartment... I explained the reservations that we had about the draft dossier and asked whether the compartmented intelligence resolved any of these concerns. I was advised they did not...
In my view the expert intelligence analysts of the DIS were overruled in the preparation of the dossier in September 2002 resulting in a presentation that was misleading about Iraq's capabilities.
Lord Hutton describes the JIC as, 'the most senior body in the Intelligence Services charged with the assessment of intelligence'. But this is misleading.
The members of the JIC are mostly extremely busy officials. Some are effectively the chief executives of large organisations with large budgets and all that goes with that responsibility. Others have a wide range of other responsibilities. All will have a limited time to study personally intelligence reports and the related archives in detail. Most will have had quite limited experience of analysing intelligence.
From my perspective the JIC's function is to oversee the assessment of intelligence and question and challenge the experienced and dedicated analysts and intelligence collectors on issues where they, the JIC, might understand the broader relevance and significance of a particular assessment. When they take it upon themselves to overrule experienced experts they should be very sure of their ground, and if a decision to do so is based on additional sensitive intelligence unknown to the experts, it must be incontrovertible.
Events have shown that we in the DIS were right to urge caution. I suggest that now might be a good time to open the box and release from its compartment the intelligence that played such a significant part in formulating a key part of the dossier."8
Dr Brian Jones was formerly head of the branch within the Scientific and Technical Directorate of Defence Intelligence Staff that was responsible for the analysis of intelligence from all sources on nuclear, biological and chemical warfare. He retired in January 2003.
Tony Blair, January 28, 2004
"The allegation that I or anyone else lied to this House [the House of Commons] or deliberately misled the country by falsifying intelligence on WMD is itself the real lie."
Tony Blair is Prime Minister of the United Kingdom
Michael Portillo, January 28, 2004
"Certainly I don't think No. 10 could be more satisfied [with the Hutton Report] than if Alastair Campbell had written it - it's very satisfactory from No. 10's point of view."
Michael Portillo, a Conservative MP, is a former Secretary of State for Defence.
UK Press Reaction to Hutton
Senior journalists from Britain's press give their initial responses to the Hutton Inquiry report.
Boris Johnson, columnist, Daily Telegraph, and Conservative MP:
The extraordinary thing is that the report can be so one-sided. I was expecting rather more reflection of what came up in the Hutton Inquiry itself.
Hamish McDonnell, political editor, Scotsman:
It's not quite what we expected. It's surprised a lot of people in the way the government got off the hook while the BBC has taken it in the neck.
Kamal Ahmed, political editor, The Observer:
There's been some expression of surprise that Lord Hutton did not make a nod to some of the febrile nature in efforts to get Kelly's name into the open. The fact Blair was sitting shoulder to shoulder with Geoff Hoon in Parliament today betrays the confidence it has in him. It's not the government we are watching for resignations, but the BBC.
Michael Williams, deputy editor, The Independent on Sunday:
We welcome the Hutton Report, but now it is out of the way we need to return to the emphatic issue: were the British people taken into the war with the wrong information that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. The row between Campbell and the BBC was a diversion from this substantive issue.
Philip Stephens, associate editor, Financial Times:
At the heart of the Hutton Inquiry was the gravest charge that could be laid against any prime minister - that Tony Blair lied in order to take his country to war. It is an allegation that Lord Hutton has resoundingly rejected. We should take this judgement as a reminder that politicians in general are generally decent honest people trying to do the right thing, even when we disagree with them. The BBC and everyone in the media should now look carefully at the quality of their journalism, particularly in their coverage of politics.
Quentin Letts, sketch writer, Daily Mail:
My personal suspicion is that the report is laughably naive about the more slippery aspects of modern politics. It's a rotten day for independent journalism. Let's hope the BBC responds with muscle and doesn't despair.
Ewen MacAskill and Richard Norton Taylor, The Guardian:
Lord Hutton leaves himself open to accusations of having cherrypicked the evidence that supports the government case and sidelined that which supports the BBC. Awkward bits of evidence that do not fit his final conclusion are left lying around unanswered... The evidence of the BBC science correspondent Susan Watts, whose taped conversation with Dr Kelly corroborates much of Gilligan's report, is ignored.
David Cracknell, political editor, Sunday Times:
I'm surprised and a bit disappointed that Lord Hutton seems to have considered things in such a narrow way. There are questions which I'd hoped he would answer that he hasn't broached, such as why hints about Kelly's identity were appearing in newspapers before even Tony Blair apparently knew who he was. From my initial reading it seems the government has totally been let off the hook, bar one small point. The word 'whitewash' will be bandied around by others, no doubt
1. Para 9 of the Report of the Inquiry into the Circumstances Surrounding the Death of Dr David Kelly, by Lord Hutton, Parliamentary Copywright 2004. - all other references are to para 467 summary and conclusions. Can be found at: http://www.the-hutton-inquiry.org.uk/content/report/index.htm
3. CBS News, 2 Feb 2004.
6. Source: BBC News Website, 13 February 2004, http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk_politics/3484435.stm
7. Crispin Black, 'Blair's claim is simply incredible', The Guardian, February 12, 2004.
8. Brian Jones. 'There was a lack of substantive evidence... We were told there was intelligence we could not see', The Independent website, Argument Section, February 4, 2004 at http://argument.independent.co.uk/commentators/story.jsp?story=487515
Researched and compiled by Stephen Pullinger and Rebecca Johnson
© 2003 The Acronym Institute.