The Lincoln Plawg - the blog with footnotes

Politics and law from a British perspective (hence Politics LAW BloG): ''People who like this sort of thing...'' as the Great Man said

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Friday, September 05, 2003

Is Scarlett Blair's weakest link?

Not waving but drowning beneath the half million or so words of oral evidence given during Stage 1 of the Hutton Inquiry (and many more in the documentary files), not to mention the wall-to-wall punditry.

One desperately wants time to get round to reading the stuff - but Hutton seems intent, for the moment at least, on his snappy timetable which would see him hearing his last witness on September 25, after only eight days of cross-examination in all.

Fatuous indeed to suppose this is a case that can be cracked by some brilliant Sherlockian jeu d'esprit or tour de force. But equally wrong, surely, to view the inquiry as an exercise in management consultancy, designed to identify systems flaws for which only institutions can be held responsible: the equivalent of Peter Simple's Dr Heinz Kiosk's We are all guilty.

The guessing game whereby Kelly's name became public was always a favourite for Hutton's opprobrium, and his interventions with MOD witnesses certainly gave some indication of his concerns on the point. It is not too fanciful, I think, to attribute to him as a Scots-Irishman a David Trimble-like loathing for smartarse Sassenach prestidigitation.

Blame for the guessing game falls primarily on the MOD (officials and politicians) - though Geoff Hoon's highly successful interpretation of the Boneless Wonder, assuming whatever pose into which Number 10 manhandled him, leaves Blair exposed. (Blair's attempt in his oral evidence to claim something along the lines of Sir Kevin Tebbit's responsibility without culpability may well fall into the smartarse Sassenach category.)

It's also an issue that the tabloids and TV can readily explain to their readers and viewers which is not something that can be said about the allegations in relation to sexing up the September dossier.

On which, I suspect, the Blair defence may turn out to be most suspect at its keystone: the Uncertain Knight [1], John Scarlett. In Blair's extraordinary session (it's not testimony, of course) - to which I shall hopefully return, he hits the point hard and early (12:12):
...I think the important thing
13 I would say is that once the decision had been taken
14 that, as it were, John Scarlett and the JIC should
15 actually own this document, it should be their document...

The notion is that Scarlett, who is ex-SIS (aka MI6), and who chairs the Joint Intelligence Committee, represents the pure and politically unsullied UKIC (as opposed to the waggonload of monkeys in No 10 making contributions above their pay grade [2]). This despite the fact that he is, apparently, a mate of Campbell's.

Now, the role of the JIC is summarised [3] thus:
It is responsible for providing Ministers and senior officials with regular intelligence assessments on a range of issues of immediate and long-term importance to national interests, primarily in the fields of security, defence and foreign affairs.

Considerable efforts have been made in evidence to Hutton to identify Scarlett with the JIC, and the JIC with the UKIC as a whole. The conclusion Blair and Co want to have Hutton draw is that the dossier was a UKIC production. Comments by the Number 10 people were just that: UKIC could choose to accept or reject, in their absolute discretion.

My hypothesis is that this is pure bologna. That, first of all, UKIC is riven with tribal dissension - between MI6 and the DIS, for instance - which informs treatment of intelligence, and which the JIC has to deal with. Second, that the JIC process is not (even in its regular work) divorced from political influence, but is designed specifically to integrate political concerns in its product [4]. Thirdly, that the unprecedented nature of the dossier led to a short-circuiting of the regular JIC procedure [5], such that not all UKIC queries were fully aired and dealt with. Fourthly, that Scarlett's role as the link between Number 10 and the JIC inevitably meant that the independence of the intelligence assessments supporting the dossier were compromised by political considerations.

There seems to be a particular problem with MI6 - its head, Sir Richard Dearlove, is to retire early (Observer August 3) allegedly through unhappiness with the treatment of Iraq intelligence (though this was, naturally, denied). And, at that stage, it seemed to be thought that John Scarlett was being lined up by Blair to take over [6].

(I use the word hypothesis advisedly: having yet to read a good deal of the evidence even for the first time, I'm very far from jumping to conclusions.)

Now, we have the belated production of minutes of a meeting [7] on September 18, the first item of which reads
Ownership of the dossier
Ownership lay with No 10

More amazing, in a way, is the covering letter from the Treasury Solicitor dated August 29 enclosing the minutes; it refers to
our continuing review of disclosure in the light of the evidence the inquiry has heard -
a sign of a the smaller and the later, the better approach to disclosure - and, on this basis, had not been disclosed because No 10 thought it irrelevant, since the meeting was
concerned purely with the mechanics of publication of the Dossier, public handling and briefing.

The Treasury Solicitor, in the form of Susanna J McGibbon, took it upon themselves to obtain ad hoc preemptive (!) testimony from Scarlett on the ownership point:
He has confirmed that he had ownership of the Dossier until the approved text was handed to No 10 on 20 September.

It was really scarcely worth Lord Hutton's while going to the trouble of hearing witnesses when Ms MsGibbon could clearly have done a bang-up job in his place....

The sorry Kelly saga has already fingered a number of flakes among the more flamboyant characters - Gilligan, first amongst them; whilst other players - grey men like top MOD civil servant Sir Kevin Tebbit (the PUS - no pun intended) - have emerged so far as retaining a patina of modest, if short-sighted, competence. Early days, but I'm wondering whether Scarlett may be a little too flamboyant for his own good.

Which would be serious news for Teflon Tone....

  1. Is he a knight or not? I've given up caring. There ought, by the way, to be a site for American political knights: there was the Plumed Knight - James G Blaine (in the famous jingle, The continental liar from the state of Maine; the Claude Rains character (Joseph Harrison Paine) in Mr Smith Goes To Washington - which has shamefully gone months without a namecheck here - is the Silver Knight. This strange order of chivalry has other members, I believe.

  2. Alastair Campbell's inimitable turn of phrase 36:5.

  3. A handy official guide to the UK Intelligence Machinery (PDF).

  4. After all, it includes representatives not only of components of UKIC but also of customers like the MOD. And it works under the aegis of the Cabinet Office. Even in the selection of topics on which to request assessments, the JIC is giving effect to an agenda.

  5. Evidence of Brian Jones (125:3) onwards tends to bear this out.

  6. Bizarrely, Dearlove is supposed (Observer July 6) to have briefed BBC executives on Iraqi WMD before Andrew Gilligan's May 29 broadcasts.

  7. For the moment, go here - and the doc is at CAB/27/0001-4.

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