Nigel West

How Labour has subverted British Intelligence

Nigel West says that the lesson of the Hutton inquiry is that the government is using the intelligence services for political purposes, and that this Soviet approach is making us a less secure people

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It is not just the reputation of ministers and their bagmen that is taking a bashing at the Hutton inquiry. So is the reputation of Britain's intelligence services. British Intelligence has been subverted. The nation's front line of defence has been catastrophically damaged by New Labour's spin machine. The tawdry ethics of Robert Maxwell's Daily Mirror newsroom have infiltrated the secure Cabinet Office rooms occupied by the Joint Intelligence Committee.

The merest suspicion that an intelligence agency has succumbed to spin undermines its credibility and authority. But there is more than mere suspicion here. Recent events highlight a process of politicisation that has been going on since Tony Blair arrived in Downing Street in 1997. The government has used the JIC for purely political purposes. It has proceeded as though it is the job of the committee to prepare documents for public consumption and to endorse the information contained in propaganda pamphlets (or 'dossiers'). For the first time, Secret Intelligence Service personnel have been called in to brief ministers personally, instead of relying on the JIC to undertake that task. The whole approach is, to put it mildly, grotesque.

It is quite normal, of course, for the JIC to clear information in its reports for public dissemination. But that is not what has happened since 9/11. No effort was made at any stage in the preparation of the notorious 'dodgy dossier' of February 2003 to consult the JIC about what information could be downgraded and released. The fundamental, life-saving principle of security is that only an originating agency can authorise the declassification of its own intelligence. This is mere common sense, because someone unfamiliar with the actual source of a particular snippet may, by releasing it, jeopardise a multimillion-pound investment in, say, a satellite programme, or put someone's life at risk. Yet we now know from the most recent Intelligence and Security Committee annual report, published in June, that the dodgy dossier 'was not checked with the agency providing the intelligence or cleared by the JIC prior to publication'. There has been no public admission of the damage sustained by this cavalier handling of sensitive data.

Attention this week is focused on the '45-minute' dossier released last September after its content had been prepared, not by the JIC in its secure rooms in the Cabinet Office, but at meetings of the 'Iraqi Communications Group' chaired at No. 10 Downing Street by the Prime Minister's political appointee, Alastair Campbell. Following evidence to the Hutton inquiry, we now know that no minutes were kept of the meetings held by Campbell on 5 and 9 September 2002, ahead of the release of the dossier of 24 September, but that at least two senior Defence Intelligence Staff analysts made written objections about the content of the final document, which included a foreword supposedly written by Tony Blair, and an 'executive summary'. Blair is furious that anyone should question the proposition that Iraq could deploy weapons of mass destruction in 45 minutes. He insists that the figure was not simply invented, and had indeed been reported by the JIC. But that's not the point. Nobody suggests it was invented, either by the government or by the JIC.

The real cause for concern is the way that intelligence material was misused. The source of the 45-minute story is known to have been a senior Iraqi officer, who presumably has now been resettled and is receiving a large pension from the British government. The issue is not the officer's alleged assertion that WMD could be deployed against British interests (in Cyprus) in 45 minutes, but that in the editing process at No. 10 this single detail, buried in the main text and hedged with the appropriate qualifications, was given headline treatment in the executive summary. Nobody doubts that the Iraqi officer made a remark about 45 minutes to his Secret Intelligence Service (SIS) contact. The question is whether such an unverified assertion was as claimed, or should have been included in the report at all.

Downing Street thought that it should, and that it should be highlighted. The thinking here was crudely political: the government wanted to put the frighteners on the British public, who at the beginning of the year were sceptical about the need for war. More to the point, so were many Labour backbenchers. The September document was used to bully reluctant support from recalcitrant backbenchers who only voted in the division lobbies because they were told that Britain was under a direct and imminent threat from Saddam. The false suggestion that Saddam had been attempting to procure nuclear material from Africa was used for exactly the same purpose.

Even the very best intelligence can only be effective if it is trusted; and about the worst crime an intelligence officer can commit, short of plotting the assassination of an overseas leader, is to trim his reports to suit his political masters. One of the reasons for the collapse of the Soviet bloc was the KGB's tendency to forward to the Kremlin only information that they thought the Politburo would be pleased to read. British Intelligence is in danger of finding itself in the same unhealthy position.

Where does the chairman of the JIC, John Scarlett, stand on this? And why is SIS's chief, Sir Richard Dearlove, seeking an unprecedented early retirement? Dearlove is the 13th chief of SIS, and apart from one dismissal (Sir John Sinclair in August 1956) and one death in office (Sir Mansfield Smith-Cumming in June 1923), nobody has reached the top job and then decided, after just four years, to announce his intention to pack it in. No doubt Dearlove will make his reasons known, perhaps even contacting the BBC's Today programme, as he did at the height of the controversy over Andrew Gilligan, to clarify matters. He may have found the whole experience of government manipulation depressing and unnerving, as have other members of the intelligence community, and he may be reluctant to address the question of how SIS came to acquire, endorse and distribute forged letters purporting to link Iraq to the purchase of uranium yellowcake in Niger.

The role of John Scarlett is even more interesting. Scarlett is a former SIS station chief in Moscow. In 1999 he teamed up with David Rose, now of the Observer but then making The Spying Game for the BBC, to expose the elderly Mrs Melita Norwood as a former Soviet spy, in direct contravention of a ministerial ruling by Malcolm Rifkind. Under John Scarlett the JIC colluded with the government to enhance the significance of the 45-minute claim and failed to seek corroboration of the Niger fabrications. That any part of such falsehoods could have been passed to the CIA with SIS's imprimatur, and then ended up in President Bush's State of the Union speech, beggars belief. Trust has been damaged in a community where that commodity is vital.

Until New Labour's subversion of the JIC, Britain's system of analysing intelligence was regarded as a model by the Americans, though there are pronounced differences between the way in which the intelligence systems in Britain and the US operate. Whitehall relies on the JIC's assessment staff to pull together all the threads and weave a seamless report, which is then read by selected ministers and senior mandarins. A JIC report does not identify the agencies that are responsible for particular items of intelligence, although the context may strongly suggest to the cognoscenti whether they originated with the code-breakers at Cheltenham, diplomatic gossip or a human source in the bazaar.

The advantage of this arrangement is that there is an absence of jockeying for position among the individual agencies. In Washington, by contrast, each agency is re sponsible for its own analysis and submits highly partisan reports that routinely contain alternative interpretations from analysts who take a differing view. The disadvantage of the British system, so crudely exploited by New Labour, is that the JIC's integrated, unattributed information is much more vulnerable to government manipulation and spin.

The more competitive American system does not have these disadvantages. In the United States, when there are substantial differences in interpretation a team of outside experts and academics may be assembled to take a fresh look. This happened at the time of the 'missile gap' crisis, when there was an unresolved debate about the scale of Soviet ballistic missile production, and again when there were doubts about the apparent strength of the Soviet economy. On both occasions independent reviews, conducted in secret, came to different conclusions from those of the CIA, and their opinions prevailed.

There was no suggestion here of government interference. Even a hint that an assessment has been deliberately skewed to suit an administration is one of the gravest that can be levelled against an American intelligence analyst. The accusation was made against Robert M. Gates, the deputy director of Central Intelligence, when he was nominated for the post of director in 1987. His enemies said that he had rewritten key passages of a report to implicate the KGB in a plot to assassinate the Pope 'to whip up populist anti-communist feeling'. The charge almost cost him his job. But he was cleared by Congress. In contrast, the Prime Minister's official spokesman, Tom Kelly, has been caught, in direct contravention of a ban on spin, denigrating the reputation of the late Dr David Kelly by characterising him as a Walter Mitty figure. Did the civil servant resign? Of course not, and he is not likely to be required to. It is pretty clear that he was pursuing a covert government strategy to influence the Hutton inquiry.

The government can hardly get rid of a man who was simply following orders. If it did, it might find that, as in the case of Martin Sixsmith, it had a whistleblower to contend with. Alas, the stakes are now much higher than the fate of a single press officer. The fact is that 'British Intelligence' is a term now in danger of becoming an oxymoron – and the British people are less secure as a result.

Nigel West's The Secret War for the Falklands is published by Little, Brown.