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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Thursday, October 02, 2003

Ex-ambassador disses Iraq intelligence - what gives?

A piece in the Guardian yesterday - ostensibly a small contribution on the side of ridding intelligence from the censer-swinging, cathedral-hush, hieratic deference with which it seems generally to be treated in and around HMG - causes me some puzzlement.

The writer is Sir Peter Heap, KCMG (the standard gong for the senior diplomat). Except that Heap was not as senior as all that - Ambassador to Brazil in the 90s and Trade Commissioner in Hong Kong [1]. His post-FCO career has taken him to Amerada Hess (the Guardian for some reason didn't mention this) where he is (or was) a consultant. He is also Chairman of the Labour Finance & Industry Group Executive Committee [2].

His language is scarcely diplomatic:
I suggest that the whole system of intelligence-gathering is all too often prone to producing inadequate, unreliable and distorted assessments, often at considerable cost. But only very rarely, as in the Hutton inquiry, is intelligence material subject to the same scrutiny, verification and testing as information governments receive from other sources.

Having studied MI6 operatives at work during his various postings, he's not impressed:
The security services use phrases all the time like "an established and reliable line of reporting", or "a trusted and reliable source", or "a source close to the president", or "a source with regular access to cabinet ministers"...But neither ambassadors who sit close to these sources and often might know them, nor the recipients of their reports, namely officials and ministers, are normally informed about their identity. It would make a huge difference in assessing the value of a report from, say, "a source close to the president" to know whether that source is the vice-president, or a household servant, or someone with whom the president lunches occasionally.

On one occasion the British ambassador, in an embassy in which I was his deputy, threw down in front of me a secret CX report [a report describing raw intelligence] that an MI6 officer had sent to London. He asked me if its contents looked familiar. I said they did, but I could not think why. "That's why," he said, handing me an article from the previous day's local newspaper. The two were practically identical in wording and in content.

On the critical intelligence that lies at the heart of the Hutton Inquiry, he suggests:
A report dressed up in a CX jacket and bearing a high-security classification can easily take on an importance and a gravitas that it does not deserve. I doubt whether anyone at 10 Downing Street, on first seeing the intelligence report of the capability of Saddam Hussein to launch weapons of mass destruction in 45 minutes, asked the following questions: "Who exactly reported that claim? What had he been paid for that information? What was his rank or access? And what precisely had he revealed before that made him such a reliable source?" And if the replies were plausible, it would still have been prudent for Mr Blair to demand further supporting evidence before the information was used. I suspect that the security services would have replied, even if asked those questions, that they were satisfied with the reliability of the source and that on a "need-to-know basis", and with heavy hints of lives being at risk, their answers should be taken on trust.

All good stuff. Yet I can't help wonder, for a start, why Heap and why now? His online presence (far from an infallible indicator, I grant you) is trifling - "sir peter heap" produces the grand total of 19 out of 35 items on Google - whereas the head of MI6 (or SIS), Sir Richard Dearlove (who one might have expected to have a wafer-thin profile for professional reasons) manages 319 of 1,230!

What is Heap's deal? Disgruntled ex-employee, disillusioned Blair groupie, looking for a book deal? No idea.

The world's (anglophone) media seem less than impressed - 14 items, including dupes, on Google News. (Again, not infallible, but...)

One to note for future reference, I think.

  1. I can't get much further with his diplomatic career - because I can find no biography at all online.

  2. The LFIG, according to the site,
    was formed in 1972 and has a proud history of service from the business community to successive Labour leaders. It has achieved it's (sic) primary objective of enabling the Labour Party to be pro-business as a means to achieve economic success.
    So much for education, education, education! (On the LFIG biography page, the space allotted for Heap's is blank!)

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