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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Wednesday, September 17, 2003

Sexing up by omission - the key caveat that got lost...

The phrase is one used by one Michael Mates [1], a member of the UK Intelligence and Security Committee, at the press briefing on the issuing last week of its report on Iraqi WMD intelligence (discussed here on September 11) to ridicule complaints about the the drafting of the September dossier.

Mates sounded very pleased with his mot - but, as the Observer (September 14) suggested, this was indeed what happened.

Take, for instance, a passage that remained in successive drafts of Tony Blair's foreword to the September dossier, but suddenly disappeared whence it came, never to reappear. The words seem to appear for the first time in a draft attached to an email from the afternoon of September 16 (CAB/11/38) [2]:
The case I make is not that Saddam could launch a nuclear attack on London or another part of the UK (He could not).

This passage remained [3] until it suddenly disappears from the draft attached to an email from the afternoon of September 17 (CAB/11/56) [4].

Having the checked with a certain degree of thoroughness the evidence given by the main players interviewed on the subject [5], I can't see that any of them volunteered, or were asked to supply, an explanation for the omission.

That the reason for the omission was some kind of glorified typo is inconceivable. Someone (at whatever pay grade) must have made a decision that the caveat pooped the party, and decided to take it out. Presumably, this did not without notice by the rest of those concerned in the drafting process. They must all either have agreed, acquiesced or been overruled.

The lawyer's Latin tag is suppressio veri, suggestio falsi: one makes a false representation by a failure to state a relevant fact. The passage struck out of the foreword was an inference of fact - an inference that HMG was peculiarly well placed to make. The whole document trumpeted the fact that it was based on the best intelligence - it was an expert report. (I believe that, in ascertaining the legal consequence of a misrepresentation, such an asymmetry of knowledge places a particular onus on an expert party dealing with a layman [6]. )

[I have seen no suggestion that the passage was in any way factually incorrect, even viewed with the perspective of mid-September 2002. Clearly, if it were factually suspect, that would have been an excellent reason to remove it.]

The information contained in the omitted passage was certainly serious and directly relevant to the issue in hand: what to do about Saddam's WMD. No one would suppose that such a statement was just political window-dressing - what the lawyers call a puff. Nothing there of the knockabout bear-garden familiar to the world as Prime Minister's Question Time!

Moreover, the language of the passage is clear and unambiguous: no one would suppose that a lay reader, seeing it in the published dossier, could misconstrue what HMG was telling him by it. Journos could have been expected to flag it up in their reports.

The only inference to draw from the sparse information we have on the omitted passage is that it was deliberately removed by those in HMG responsible for drafting the dossier with the intention that its omission would enhance the chances of public acceptance of HMG's Iraq strategy.

In other words, the dossier was thereby sexed up by omission.

  1. Mates's main political claim to fame - after a military career, he was an insignificant minister in the John Major government - is his resignation speech on June 29 1993 (on grounds that need not detain us) during which he successfully fought off attempts by the redoubtable then Speaker of the House of Commons, Betty Boothroyd, to censor his material.

  2. The email dated September 16 (a Monday) at 1542 from Alastair Campbell's assistant. Campbell provided the draft, it seems.

  3. Drafts attached to emails CAB/11/46, and CAB/11/49.

  4. Email timed at 1614.

  5. Neither Sir David Manning nor Sir David Omand were questioned - that I noticed - on the preparation of the September dossier - which, given their then positions (September 14) is perhaps odd.

  6. Similarly, the content of a prospectus supporting the issuing of securities is peculiarly within the knowledge of the directors of the company concerned - the sanctions employed against those issuing false prospectuses are correspondingly severe.

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