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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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Tuesday, September 02, 2003
 

Perhaps Blair's not so safe on the 45 minute claim


We're not even finished with Stage 1 of the Hutton Inquiry, and already the esteemed and venerable Economist (August 28 - outside subscription laager) has called the game for Blair:
A mistake, then. But nothing like bad enough to threaten Mr Blair's survival.

I suspect they may be celebrating a little too early.

The two key elements to the charge against HMG are:
  • whether or not the September dossier was sexed up, in particular, by the addition of the 45 minute claim known or believed to be wrong or questionable [1]; and

  • whether HMG's handling of Kelly was correct.

Received wisdom seems to be that, of the two elements, it's more vulnerable on the second. On the first, the impeccably straight bat of John Scarlett [2] is supposed to be his feste Burg.

To date, the questions the Inquiry has looked at on the 45 minute claim have been collateral ones: in relation to the handling (in particular, the extent to which No 10 influenced its use in the dossier). The quality of the intelligence itself has not been directly addressed.

Now, HMG failures in dealing with second order issues of procedure on the 45 would scarcely stick to Teflon Tony. The basic Gilligan claim was that Blair had taken us to war on a false prospectus - if the Inquiry merely criticised his paperwork, no one would be impressed.

In order for any damage to be done to Blair on the 45 charge, the substantive intelligence must itself be damaged.

Now, it's axiomatic that Hutton will be limited by security considerations in dealing with the intelligence [3]. Operatives, sources and methods should not be compromised. But that doesn't, surely, mean that he must take as unchallengeable the interpretations of the JIC, as communicated by Scarlett.

What do we know about the intelligence? (For the avoidance of doubt, what follows is questions, not analysis: I get flummoxed by John Le Carré...)

Reporting

From Scarlett's evidence [4] (48:10)
It was an
11 established and reliable line of reporting; and it was
12 quoting a senior Iraqi military officer in a position to
13 know this information.

So, pausing there, the information is, at least, secondhand: the original source (OS) getting it from the Iraqi source (IS). But the words established and reliable line of reporting suggest that the OS may not be a single individual; that a chain of intermediaries may have been instrumental in passing the intel up the line.

We're also told (45:25) that, as a matter entirely separate from drafting of the September dossier, there was underway
work on a classified JIC assessment,
2 assessing Iraq's capability for the use of chemical and
3 biological weaponry...

And that (46:14)
That
15 assessment -- or that subject had been commissioned by
16 the JIC itself in late August.

The circumstances - in particular, the timing - of this commission is not made clear; in particular, the relationship with the report of the 45 intel on August 30 (48:1) [5].


Content

The 45 Number - or range?

The 45 intel eventually appeared in the final JIC assessment of September 9 (CAB/17/3)
Intelligence also indicates that chemical and biological munitions could be with military units and ready for firing within 20-45 minutes".
Now, hold on one minute! Where did the 20 minutes come from?

This, it seems, is where the onion start to unpeel a little.

Part of the May 29 allegation against the 45 was that it was single source. Scarlett takes this head on (48:17): the distinction between single and double
represents a misunderstanding of the assessment
18 process. The assessment process takes into account
19 a large number of considerations when it is considering
20 intelligence against the background of other information
21 which is available and what has already been assessed,
22 and also, of course, the reliability and record of the
23 particular line of reporting in question.

And, the 45
...was consistent with established

49
1 JIC judgments on the command, control and logistical
2 arrangements and capabilities of the Iraqi armed forces
3 and their experience and capabilities in the area of use
4 of CP ammunitions.

In other words, Gilligan and his source were ignorant of the basics and could scarcely be trusted on anything relating to intelligence. Yet Kelly, though not in UKIC, was nevertheless sufficiently knowledgeable not to make what seems such an elementary blunder.

If, that is, it is a blunder. It should be possible to obtain corroboration on the point. And, if the single/double source question actually is generally deemed a valid one in intelligence circles, Scarlett would stand somewhat discredited [6].

(It's worth remarking that Kelly himself, in his conversations with Susan Watts, picked up on the figure of 45 (transcript 177:21):
We talked a bit about why such a precise timing
22 might be used, 45 minutes rather than 43 or 40

Evident suspicion of spurious accuracy. It seems that the 45 intel wasn't precise at all. Watts goes on
He said
23 that he was -- he made clear that he, in his word, was
24 guessing; but he said that in 1991 the Iraqis were, and
25 I quote, "playing around with multibarrel launchers and

178
1 that these take 45 minutes to fill". So that was his
2 best guess, if you like, as to where that figure had
3 come from.


He also talks about Scuds in their May 30 phone conversation - the one she recorded.)

The only reference in the documentary evidence to 20 minutes that I am aware of is CAB/17/4, an email from the BW branch of the DIS, which comments on a previous draft of the assessment:
Para 3 final bullet last line The intelligence refers to a maximum time of 45 minutes, the average was 20 minutes This could have important implications in the event of a conflict

Scarlett refers to this point in his evidence (45:16).

Several points here:

Firstly, the passage quoted from the September 9 assessment does not tally with the comment in the email: if the average deployment time was 20 minutes, and the maximum 45, that implies that the minimum was less than 20 minutes: either the email or the assessment must, as a matter of mathematics, be wrong.

(We are often told that the wordsmithing is vital in intelligence reports: Scarlett, even though he says he does not recognise the term, agrees with the principle (79:3):
..it is a concept
4 which I am very familiar with and is a good professional
5 concept.

On this vital point, it would seem a rather shoddy job of it was done.)

Secondly, the intel in the assessment implies reference to one or more particular weapon systems, by model or type or whatever. The range could only be credible if one knew to what weapons it refers:
  1. it would be a test of the general credibility of the IS that he was familiar with the operating characteristics of the weapons; and

  2. it would allow the specific intel to be checked against the existing body of knowledge.

Even though such details might not appear in a document like a JIC assessment which has (I get the impression) a fairly widely circulation, as intelligence documents go, those performing the assessment should know.

(And is there any reason now why we can't be told something of the raw intelligence and the steps taken to verify it?)

For example, a wide range in deployment times might imply several types of system, or a variation in the distance between storage locations and the units deploying the weapons (and no doubt many other possibilities I can't imagine). Or it might indicate a shot in the dark from an officer only peripherally involved with CW/BW, and doing favours for US/UK in anticipation of an invasion.

Without the detail, I suspect the JIC couldn't tell.

[If the 45 minute maximum, 20 minute average numbers are right (implying some WMD was immediately deployable), it makes it all the stranger that no WMD have been found...]

There is what seems something of a bootstrap operation involved, according the Scarlett: talking about the 45 intel, he says that (49:6)
It brought an additional detail
5 because for the first time in our reporting it gave
6 a particular time, gave some precision.

Now, of course, it doesn't give a particular time - it gives a range. And Scarlett is implying that the timing detail is new to UKIC.

That seems, first of all, a good reason for as much corroborative detail as possible before this nugget is added to the store of accepted wisdom. And, secondly, makes one ask what precision the JIC were working with before the 45 intel came along. Thirdly, suggests that the novelty of the intel was in some way taken to be a recommendation in itself: that the merit of precision was a virtue in itself, whether or not the information was in fact correct.


Missiles or mortars?

The minor bombshell of Scarlett's evidence, according to the UK media, was his revelation that, contrary to the assumption of the average onlooker, the WMD that to which the 45 intel referred was battlefield munitions, not missiles (my piece of August 27).

There is a wordsmithing point that had eluded me at the time: Scarlett says that the report (emphasis mine)
related to munitions,
21 which we had interpreted to mean battlefield mortar
22 shells or small calibre weaponry, quite different from
23 missiles.

This, if read literally, would seem to imply that the JIC had to apply interpretation because the intel did not specify which weapons were involved.

So, instead of using its store of knowledge to test the 45 claim, the JIC was actually using its knowledge to fill in the blanks to fit the claim! Was the word munitions the only description of the weapons that the IS gave? Wasn't he asked by OS, Is that missiles or mortars?

No doubt, I'm showing my ignorance of the intelligence world by even raising such questions. So be it.


Timing, motive, etc

It's HMG's case that the decision to produce the dossier sprang from genuine external factors (Blair at 1:20) bringing matters to a head.

Such factors would not have escaped the notice of senior members of the UKIC nor of well-placed Iraqis. One does not need to suppose some Le Carré-style operation to suggest that such factors might have affected the appearance of the 45 intel and the way in which it was dealt with.

After all, we are not talking about intel like, say, the death of Saddam - which is either true or false. In the case of the 45 claim, not only the interpretation, but the information being interpreted, would necessarily be approximate and to a large extent a matter of judgement.

Blair is evidently - even more than other prime ministers - dominant in HMG: there would, I suspect, be a tendency amongst civil servants to anticipate his requirements that, after five years in power, would have almost become a reflex.


Ownership and the envelope

An attempt is made in HMG evidence generally to conflate two principles on which the dossier was drawn up:
  1. that it should be owned by the JIC;
  2. that it should be as strong as the intelligence allows.

It's vital to recognise that they are fundamentally different. Even with intel on the death of Saddam (a yes-no question), there will be a margin of interpretation. With the 45 claim, all the more so.

Under Principle I, the JIC could legitimately pitch its conclusions anywhere within the margin: under Principle II, it's obliged to go hard against strong side of the margin.

The fact that this difference does not appear to be appreciated (or, more likely, is being deliberately skated over) is even more worrying than the confusion over the 20-45 minutes in the JIC assessment mentioned above.


As I said, all I have at the moment are questions. And there is certainly an element of wishful thinking on my part that there should be a fatal flaw in the HMG on the 45. But, the more I look at the thing, the more I wonder, might not wishful thinking have been at work at the JIC, too?

  1. Transcript 0607 and 0732 Gilligan broadcasts of May 29.

  2. I have still not traced if the guy is a knight, and, if so, when he was knighted. When he was appointed Chairman of the JIC (September 4 2001), he was a humble CMG - according to Downing Street. The natural thing would be a promotion to KCMG. There does not seem to be any comprehensive list online of those who have received honours. The Inquiry did not call him Sir - plenty of others do. It annoys the hell out of me that I can't easily pin down the truth on this online.

  3. His visit to the Cabinet Office to read secret papers, as previously discussed.

  4. Transcripts to p101 and the rest.

  5. Scarlett at 48:1 says of the 45
    that intelligence was based on a report which was issued on 30th August
    But at 49:13 says
    it had come in on 30th August

  6. Is this the SIS issuing the report, which comes in to the JIC on August 30? HMG makes a fetish of saying that the JIC is the intelligence services - on such a matter, surely the JIC would be informed straight away.

  7. A brief search on "single source" "double source" intelligence does not turn up a single apparently non-Hutton-related item - suggesting Scarlett might be right...


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