Peter Oborne

Tony Blair has deserved praise for his commitment to the building of democracies in parts of the wor

Might the government have put the life of an intelligence agent at risk?

Text settings

Most prime ministers arrive at 10 Downing Street battle-hardened. Not so Tony Blair. He had an easy ride to the top: the fortuitous arrival as a young MP; his swift emergence as a shadow Cabinet star; the man in the right place when John Smith died. For his first five years in government, this effortless success was sustained. He was blessed with a uniquely benign combination of circumstances: a strong economy, a large majority and a weak opposition.

He has never, till now, experienced political adversity. The last few weeks have been the worst by far since he entered politics 20 years ago. This is new, unpredictable terri-tory. The Blair government – witness the humiliation of the hunting vote or the reshuffle shambles – has lost direction. Public-service reform has failed, mainly because Chancellor Gordon Brown runs the domestic agenda. Cabinet ministers now habitually brief against No. 10 and some Cabinet ministers, like Peter Hain and Charles Clarke, defy Tony Blair to his face. The Prime Minister's closest allies – Alan Milburn, Peter Mandelson and Stephen Byers – have either given up the ghost or been destroyed.

The latest case in point is Alastair Campbell. Once a man who inspired fear, Campbell is close to becoming the object of pity. He is like Keith Vaz in 2001 or David Mellor in 1992, caught up in a hopeless trajectory of decline. As with Vaz and Mellor, it has become a question of when and not if he quits. He is incompetent, discredited and hopelessly duplicitous. The damage he has done to the moral character of the Blair government is beyond computation.

Campbell was at it again, telling yet another of his falsehoods during his eccentric Friday night appearance on Channel 4 news. It was a small deceit, about an apparently unimportant matter, yet so characteristic that it is worth going into the facts in some detail.

Jon Snow, in an aside, suggested to Campbell that he had misspelt the word 'weasel' in the angry statement denouncing Richard Sambrook, BBC head of news, that he dispatched to media outlets. Campbell reacted indignantly. 'If I may say so,' he replied, 'the statement that you are reading from was read to the Press Association.' He then went on loftily to advise Snow not to 'get hung up on the spelling mistake by somebody who's typed it'.

I have looked carefully into this alleged spelling mistake, speaking both to the Press Association and to Downing Street. It turns out that Snow was right all along. The statement was faxed or emailed by Downing Street to the PA and other organisations on Friday night. While it is true that some paragraphs were read out to a PA political reporter, James Lyons, the paragraph including the word 'weasel' was not one of them. The fault lay entirely with No. 10, not the PA as Campbell erroneously suggested. Doubtless Downing Street and its still surprisingly numerous press allies will dismiss this episode as irrelevant. The reason for recording it here is simply to illustrate Campbell's readiness to lapse into menda-city at a moment's notice. Many of his claims over the last week – for instance, the denial that forged documents from Niger formed the basis for government assertions that Iraq was trying to acquire uranium from Africa – are impossible to check. So the demonstrable fact that he was ready to mislead television viewers about a simple spelling mistake raises questions about what other whoppers he might have been telling.

But Campbell does deserve credit for one thing. By putting himself in the limelight over the last week, he has been doing his job to perfection. He has distracted attention from Tony Blair, the man who bears the ultimate responsibility for the mixture of shambles and deception that led up to the Iraq war. It was Blair who misled the House of Commons about the status of the fabricated second dossier, telling MPs on 3 February that 'it is obviously difficult when we publish intelligence reports, but I hope that people have some sense of the integrity of our security services. They are not publishing this or giving us this information, and making it up; it is the intelligence that they are receiving and we are passing it on to people.'

Any MP listening to Tony Blair say all this would have been left in no doubt that the Joint Intelligence Committee was behind the second dossier. In fact, although information from intelligence sources was published, the JIC was not consulted. The Prime Minister's failure to come to the Commons to apologise for misleading MPs about this vital point is culpable enough. But this deception is by no means the gravest crime committed within No. 10 ahead of the war.

Paragraph 82 of the annual report of the parliamentary intelligence and security committee, published last month, repays inspection. It reveals that the February dossier contained 'intelligence-derived material' which was not 'checked with the Agency providing the intelligence or cleared by the JIC prior to publication'.

A fundamental intelligence principle holds that 'only the originator can downgrade', i.e., declassify or publish information. In other words, the second Iraq dossier contained data that should have been cleared with its provider before being published. Not even the JIC, which carries out the analysis, always knows the genesis of a particular item, or the sensitivity of the source. And yet Downing Street went ahead and put intelligence data in the public domain without clearing it first – an unprecedented and perilous breach of long-established procedure. For all they – and we – know, they might have jeopardised the life of an agent, or put at risk a very expensive investment such as a satellite system. It is reasonable to guess, though impossible to say for sure, that this was the crime for which Campbell was obliged to apologise to the intelligence services.

This Monday the Labour-controlled foreign affairs select committee will deliver its verdict on the way the British government used intelligence ahead of the Iraq war. Downing Street is confident that Campbell will be cleared of the charge of tampering with the first Iraq dossier, made by the BBC and now the subject of a vicious argument between the government and the BBC. One Labour member of the committee, Eric Illsley, has already firmly stated that Campbell is in the clear on this point. The foreign affairs committee has been denied access to the critical documents, as well as key witnesses such as JIC chairman John Scarlett. In these circumstances it is hard to see how this committee could reach any authoritative conclusion of any kind about the handling of the first dossier.

The second dossier is another matter. From material already in the public domain, we know that Tony Blair misled the Commons and the country about the nature of the grounds for war, in which British soldiers died, and handled intelligence with such criminal negligence that agents' lives could have been put at risk.