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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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Thursday, October 16, 2003

Powell's February 5 UN presentation all double-sourced - it says here...

The infamous David Kelly case (that the Hutton Inquiry is reporting on) depended crucially on two instances where, in one case a government, and in the other, a journo, relied on a single source.

Some considerable effort has gone into justifying, in each case, the use of a single source to listeners (Lord Hutton the most important amongst them!) sceptical that such reliance was wise. Sir Richard Dearlove - head of SIS (aka MI6) - treated with a sneer the suggestion that single-sourced intelligence was in any way inferior to the corroborated variety [1].

Quite different, apparently, is the attitude of Colin Powell's State Department. Yet another official - this time, ex-IRB [2] analyst Greg Thielmann - has had a go on 60 Minutes II at Powell's February 5 US Security Council presentation (UPI October 15):
"They knew what they wanted the intelligence to show," said Thielmann. "They were really blind and deaf to any kind of countervailing information the intelligence community would produce." As a result, he said, Iraq did not pose an imminent threat to anyone just before the U.S. invasion -- despite Powell's speech to the United Nations to the contrary.

Naturally, State have been crapping on the guy: the anonymous source (or senior State Department official ) told UPI that
Thielmann, who resigned from the State Department over a year ago, at no point briefed Powell on the intelligence estimate. "Thielmann was three levels down"...

No quite so personal as Tony Blair spinmeister Tom Kelly's gag about David Kelly (Walter Mitty character); but it covers much the same ground.

Thus far, it's boilerplate stuff. But SSDO decides the lily needs gilding:
He added that every piece of intelligence in Powell's Feb. 5 presentation was based on at least two different kinds of sources. "For example, if we had an intercept we would double check that with a transcript of a defector," this official said.

Three points arise:

  1. This seems to me something of a gimme for the hack. It's telling us something SSDO didn't need to tell us to make his point. (Which can never be good spin practice, surely?)

  2. Just one piece of Powell's briefing that wasn't double-sourced would make a liar of SSDO, and, by implication, Powell. Is there such a piece? With the various US intelligence agencies fighting amongst themselves like Trotskyite groupuscules [3], who can tell what goodies might come to light?

  3. The difference between UK and US attitudes on single sourcing is not exactly the only difference in style and content between the two countries' intelligence set-ups; but, with Hutton's report pending (ETA now pushed back to early 2004 - a delay I'm prepared to look on as mildly promising) and its outcome so dependent on his appreciation of the use of single-source information, for USG to highlight the point so forcefully is, at the very least, not devoid of interest.

Up till now, the difficulties with Iraq intelligence for USG and HMG have seemed to develop autonomously, with little transatlantic crossover. (Differences in cultures and journalistic ignorance of affairs the other side of the pond no doubt help.) Perhaps the single/double-sourcing thing is a chance to get those difficulties mixed up together...

  1. My piece of September 15.

  2. The Intelligence and Research Bureau, part of the State Department: one of the many stallholders in the marketplace of ideas through which the USIC offers its wares to customers in USG.

  3. Definitely marxiste, tendance groucho.

UPDATE (Issued with the original!)

I wrote the above on the Dearlove principle - that UPI was an entirely straight, reliable organisation, whose stuff could safely be used as a single source.

I was completely and utterly wrong. What [several expletives deleted] UPI fail miserably to do is to point out that this Thielmann character has been chuntering on with much the same story for months! The guy even has his own fan page (kinda), courtesy of The Shocking Elk, which lists his first utterance on the subject as a June 6 Newsweek piece - no longer up, but mentioned in a June 6 Boston Globe piece (happily reprinted).

[I'm shocked I didn't recognise the name - in the Captain Reynaud sense, that is...]

The fact Thielmann has been retailing the allegations for ages doesn't negate my UK/US single/double source point. Or, indeed, of itself cast doubt on his credibility - we have in the Valerie Plame leak business an example of something that was in the public domain for ages as a page A16 below the fold story before suddenly catching fire.

However, UPI's omission is a timely reminder on the substantive question of using single sources: don't!

[While re-reading the UPI piece, the following graf pulls me up short:
Powell told the BBC that at no point in his presentation did he use the phrase "imminent threat."

Why, pray, does UPI quote Powell telling the BBC this? Why doesn't it just get the text of the damned presentation from the UN Security Council page and state the fact on its own authority?

I have checked; and no one used the phrase imminent threat at the February 5 meeting.]

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