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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Sunday, October 05, 2003

Robin Cook - on Hutton/Kelly, a Second Front or something that rhymes?

The revelations in the extracts published today in the London Sunday Times of the diary of Robin Cook, the Blair Cabinet minister who resigned over the war, have scarcely gripped the world's media, to judge from the Google news page [1].

As with so much relating to the war and the 1st-nth derivative issues arising therefrom, the liminal question of evidence bulks large. To the extent that Cook's assertions are and remain mere he said, she said, they can do little more that goose up the Iraq war media coverage that so misses its regular fix of Hutton evidence sessions.

Statements by Tony Blair in tête-à-têtes with Cook will be hard to corroborate! Such as the one supposedly made on September 4 2002:
Given the poor state of his conventional forces, it is not surprising that he wants to get his hands on nuclear weapons.

On the other hand, allegations Cook makes about Cabinet discussions would naturally have multiple potential witnesses to supply the necessary corroboration, or not. For instance, of the Cabinet meeting on September 23, the day before the dossier was issued, and the Commons debate held, he says:
The day of the much-heralded cabinet meeting on the eve of recall. Personally I found it grim. Much of the two hours was taken up with a succession of loyalty oaths for Tony's line. Estelle Morris, though, was frank, even pained in her contribution. She bravely reported that in the opinion of the people she had spoken to, what has changed in the past year to make war imminent is not what has happened in Iraq but the election of George Bush in the United States: "The question we have to answer is, 'Why us?' "

Morris famously resigned from the Cabinet (in circumstances unconnected with the war). Unfortunately, she has subsequently returned to junior ministerial office, and will therefore be no help to Cook in proving his point.

Clare Short might help - though, following her own bizarre on-off resignation pantomime [2], her credibility is not what it was. Helen Liddell was kicked out in June 2003 - but I suspect she would have ideological and careerist inclinations to stay mum. There must be one or two more potential witnesses since kicked out of the Cabinet: it would need some checking [3] and I don't hold out much hope. (The J-school students at Northwestern will have a higher strike-rate with their death-row appeals!)

There are a couple of things that strike me about the diaries:

First, there are clearly passages which could not have been contemporaneously recorded. The Times version doesn't distinguish typographically.

Second, is Cook's comments on intelligence.

For a start, he refers (September 24 2002 entry) to the fact that, as Foreign Secretary (up to the 2001 general election), he had regularly seen Joint Intelligence Committee (JIC) assessments (the technical name for the papers sent to ministers).

He has warm words for the SIS/MI6:
I grew to respect the caution of the Secret Intelligence Service and I would regard it as monstrously unfair to the men and women who serve in the agency if they were now made the fall guys because of the way their work was abused to produce the September dossier.

(The same SIS that was slagged off by ex-ambassador Sir Peter Heap a few days ago - my piece of October 2)

And, in commenting on the dossier, he says
The dossier did violence to their craft in two ways. First, it painted only a one-sided picture, whereas every JIC assessment I saw would honestly present any contrary evidence that might be inconsistent with the final conclusion.

Now, this is the polar opposite of my understanding of the way JIC assessments were presented. For example, Dame Pauline Neville-Jones (ex JIC Chairman) told the Foreign Affairs Committee:
There are several ways that you can assess material. The way that it was done in my day was when a single assessment came up we did not offer alternative explanations of life, nor do we do something else, which is have what I would describe as competitive assessment. Here I think we do differ from the Americans. We on the whole had a machine which built up the picture on the basis of each stage itself being satisfied, you could say the consensus method. The consensus method has its own penalties and shortcomings but that is the way we do it.

Strange that, having taken JIC product for four years, his impression should be so different. (Perhaps the MO changed after PNJ moved on from the JIC - I doubt it, though.)

Then, in his February 20 2003 entry, he refers to what comes over as an absurd Feydeau-esque production at his flat:
An old friend from the Foreign Office called first
with one or two choice animadversions on the subject of Foreign Secretary Jack Straw -
since the Blix report, Jack has been talking even faster than usual, always a sign with him that he knows he is under pressure.
I shepherded my friend down the lift, while I myself used the stairs in order that John Scarlett, chairman of the JIC, who had come to brief me, would not see my visitor.

The physical farce aside, one might ask why friend of the blog JS should be giving Cook a private briefing at all. At the time, Cook held the office of Leader of the House of Commons, one not uncommonly used, as with Cook, to remove a Cabinet minister from any influence over policymaking whilst avoiding the blowback of kicking him out of the Cabinet altogether. The LOTHOC has, so far as I'm aware, no responsibility whatever for intelligence matters. Was it for old times' sake, or because Blair thought JS could furnish some killer facts that would keep a wobbly Cook for walking [4], or because, in addition to being a mate of Alastair Campbell's, he is also one Robin Cook's?

I get that old Andrew Gilligan feeling about Cook - nuggets of good stuff thrown in with junk, and a general lack of judgement in distinguishing between the two for the benefit of those he is trying to convince. From a first look, it seems unlikely that Cook's revelations will do Blair much incremental damage.

Where Cook could be really useful is in conjunction with Hutton - who is (however much anti-war people may bellyache) the only inquiry in town. The best shot currently on the board would be a revelation sufficient for Hutton to recall witnesses - Tony Blair, in particular. In order to get him to do that, he will need some evidence that he has been seriously misled by such witnesses [5], by withholding documentary evidence, or giving false testimony about events.

My guess is that, the Scarlett briefing notwithstanding, Cook was almost entirely peripheral to the process of preparing the dossier. But, having several years experience in and around Downing Street, it's not inconceivable that his knowledge, applied to the Hutton evidence, might turn up a gap in, or falsification of, the evidence that an outsider might not spot.

We get a hint of what might be done with his comment for March 5 2003:
...Colin Powell invested four whole days, before his presentation to the security council in March, grilling the CIA on the reliability of the intelligence he was going to deploy. By the end of it he had decided not to use the claim about the Niger connection on uranium and he made no mention of weapons of mass destruction ready for firing in 45 minutes.

Given the intimate relationship between State Department and Foreign Office it is implausible that his cautious scepticism did not become known in London.

Contact between USG and HMG occurs at all sorts of levels between various government offices and agencies - a knowledge of the systems in place might make it possible to improve on implausible. (Where, for instance, systems automatically copy information across.)

In fact, the US/UK angle should, in theory, at least, be particularly fruitful - given the current state of the USIC and its agencies (with the Plame affair, the House Intelligence Committee correspondence with George Tenet [6], etc) and the known intelligence matters with a transatlantic angle (the 45 minute claim [7] as well as the Niger uranium business).

[Hutton sits to hear Sir Kevin Tebbit of the MOD on cross on Monday October 13, Hutton's last scheduled witness session.]

  1. A Guardian piece today runs through the main points.

  2. In early March 2003: work back from here.

  3. The dead-tree versions of bound copies of Hansard have at the front of each volume a full list of the members of the government for the period covered by the volume. The online version - nada.

  4. Did Clare Short get a private audience with JS, I wonder?

  5. New evidence covering matters not dealt with during the evidence session is unlikely to be enough.

  6. HIC to Tenet - and Tenet's reply.

  7. Work back from my September 9 piece.


By chance, a troubling indication of the quality of the Cook product. Another Guardian piece, discussing the publication of ministers' diaries in general, mentions that Cook
has yet to receive Cabinet Office clearance for his book..and won agreement from the cabinet secretary, Sir Andrew Turnbull, only last Friday to press ahead with publication of extracts from his diary.

Small changes were made, including one ensuring that John Scarlett was referred to as the chief of the joint intelligence committee as opposed to head of SIS (secret intelligence service).

That a man who was Foreign Secretary for four years, and before that did such sterling work with the minutiae of the Scott Inquiry and its voluminous report (September 25) - and who (he says) had his very own briefing from the man on Iraq intel! - should be confused on the point beggars belief.

Not the sort of thing likely to have been a typo, either. (Or is this the Number 10 dirty tricks squad getting its retaliation in first?)

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