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, October 08, 2003

UK Iraq war intelligence: perspective from the Scott Report

I mentioned before (September 25) the Scott Inquiry which has many echoes of the current Hutton Inquiry.

Scott concerned various exports from Britain to Iraq during the 1980s of machinery Saddam intended for his arms factories. A tale of ordinary political duplicity in aid of the export effort got its edge from the fact that several executives of companies responsible for these exports were prosecuted for breaching arms control laws, despite the fact that HMG had connived at the exports. The collapse in 1992 of one of the trials (Matrix Churchill) when this fact became evident from the evidence of MOD minister Alan Clark [1] kicked off the process that led to the establishment of the Scott Inquiry.

The volume of paperwork generated by Scott makes the stuff on the Hutton website look like the contents of the backs of a couple of envelopes. As I mentioned in the earlier piece, none of the Scott stuff - not even the report - is online.

However, the book I mentioned, Under the Scott-light, is a way into the material; and has an interesting chapter [2] on the intelligence aspects of the case.

The law provided a process whereby applications for prospective arms-related exports were scrutinised by the FCO, the MOD and the Department of Trade and Industry - DTI - with the benefit of intelligence supplied by MI6/SIS and assessed by the DIS - UK spooks' glossary. Machinery was provided for the coordination of such scrutiny - but it failed pretty abysmally in the cases reviewed by Scott.

In fact, the intelligence operation was well set: there was an MI5 source within Matrix Churchill [3] itself, senior executive Mark Gutteridge, who, as early as May 1987 (p112) had tipped off his handler that Iraq was looking for machinery for arms production. MC put in applications for exporting machine tools to Iraq in August 1987, which were approved in the October. SIS filed a report in late 1987 that Iraq was planning to use such tools for arms manufacture.

Oh dear. Officials only got on the case in January 1988 - when most of the order had yet to be shipped, so not too late to put the intel to use. Meetings were held, and ministers in the three departments involved. Masterly inactivity was the agreed course of (in)action: the real reason was that, if the orders were stopped, the West Germans would be eager to fill them. But they persuaded themselves that HMG could not stop them for fear of compromising the MI5 source (ie Gutteridge). Not that Gutteridge was in danger of some Georgi Markov-style operation. Just that he would become useless as a source.

Alan Clark put it thus (p114):
Intelligence was telling you what [the exports] were being used for, but the machines had to be provided in order to protect the source telling you how they were being used. It was a total circularity.

Subsequent complications I won't trouble you with: more of the same, only worse. Ministers were guided by the (perfectly reasonable) imperative of fostering the UK arms trade - the West Germans and others would be happy to take the business if we turned up our noses at it, UN embargo or no UN embargo. Officials were - Scott found - merely direly incompetent in not properly using the germane intelligence they were provided with. (I suspect that some inconvenient intelligence was misfiled. And there was always the source protection excuse.)

However they reconciled it with their consciences, officials kept from ministers' eyes intelligence that they would not have wished to see.

Now the contrast with the Hutton/Kelly case is striking: whereas Hutton is concerned with intel at the apex of the structure - where top pols and civil servants meet (Blair and John Scarlett, for instance), the Scott intel was being used at a much lower level. Our old friends at the DIS were involved in evaluating the intel [4] - but this seemed to be a different animal to the high-level stuff of the famed JIC assessment.

John Major is quoted (p124) as saying that the FCO got 40,000 pieces of intel a year:
Some...would be extremely valuable, others not so.

But, equally, some would be used in the high-flown prose of product refined in the hieratical JIC process - and some would be used in more humble ways, and be subject to much less rigorous quality control - as, for example, in the arms export licence system.

On top of that, there was the fact that intelligence reports were inherently liable to be deceptive, as Geoffrey Howe [5] pointed out (p125, emphasis mine):
Many look at first sight to be important and interesting and significant, and then, when we check them, they are not even straws in the wind. They are cornflakes in the wind.

When it comes to intelligence, despite the mystique surrounding the subject and the absurd airs that the likes of Sir Richard Dearing and John Scarlett give themselves, in the words of the title of a book on mid-70s UK government, 95% is crap. It's washing around Whitehall, one piece contradicting another, available to be used or discarded according to the convenience of the man in possession of it, or his political master.

And what of that higher plane of wisdom, the JIC? Part of the reason why SIS was not as active in the case as they might otherwise have been was that the JIC had told them to prioritise nuclear weapons (p119). Scott found (p120) that, as far as intel relevant to the MC export applications,
no one person was familiar with all the accumulated intelligence
until July 1990 - just as the horse was preparing to bolt from the stable!

One can well imagine a chap like Scarlett thinking that the matter of machine-tool exports was too sordid a matter for the Elysium that was the JIC table.

But the JIC had already been criticised by the Franks Inquiry into the diplomatic fiasco that led to the Falklands War in 1982. The Franks Report [6] is generally taken to be something of a whitewash - Foreign Secretary Lord Carrington [7] fell on his sword and that was that - but Franks is distinctly tart about the JIC, saying he was
surprised that the events in the first three months of 1982...did not prompt the Joint Intelligence Organisation to assess the situation afresh.
And continuing:
...we remain doubtful about...aspects of the work of the Joint Intelligence Organisation...We do not seek to attach blame to the individuals involved [but there is a] need for a clearer understanding of the relative roles of the assessment staff, the Foreign Office and the Ministry of Defence, and for closer liaison between them.

Which, being translated from mandarin-speak, is a bollocking and a half.

The assessment staff Franks mentions are, I think, not the DIS but the JIC's own Assessment Staff [8], seconded in from other departments. I have seen - but cannot lay my hands on - material casting doubt on the quality and effectiveness of this staff (still in the realm of rumour, then!).

Tomkins quotes ex-civil servant Michael Herman's criticisms of the system (p126). UK intelligence tends to be reactive to events, rather than anticipating them. On the Kuwait invasion, it had been
No one's job to study the parlous state of the Iraqi economy in detail and draw on the results in assessing Saddam Hussein's intentions.

Of the JIC, it
"incorporates the principle of the search for truth through the medium of the seminar" which leads to blandness, the establishment of a lowest common denominator of agreement and the search for the drafting solution that papers over the cracks and consequently softens meaning. This is all compounded by the fact that the JIC is composed of departmental interests and stitches departmental segments together rather than looking at subjects as a whole.

This, needless to say, is not a story to be got from the self-congratulatory, complacent boosterism to be found on the JIC in the testimony given to Lord Hutton. Perhaps everything has miraculously righted itself in the seven years since the Scott Report. Or perhaps not.

Tomkins refers to another article (by a guy called P Davies) on the producer/consumer interface in intelligence in which the author suggests
that the primarily departmental concerns of MI5 and [SIS] considerably weakens the position of the [JIC]. In the case of the SIS and GCHQ, this is in large part because, although their tasks are set by the JIC, their customers are individual departments, particularly the [FCO]. Customers have requirements: indeed, SIS and GCHQ regular receive lists of these.

The Intelligence and Security Committee is quoted from 1995:
agencies meet regularly with customer departments to ensure that they are meeting their needs...customers put forward proposals for new or amended any time.

Then, again with Davies,
This system predates and effectively bypasses the JIC. The idea that the intelligence agencies exist to provide intelligence for some common good appears to be a false assumption; in practice, they serve more diverse, and more private aims. The benefits of intelligence accrue to the departments.

Whether all this was true during the period covered by the Scott Report, still more whether it is true now, one must naturally be sceptical.

But the picture supplied by Herman and Davies rings distinctly truer than the party line given to Hutton [9] by all at HMG. At least, it suggests some lines of enquiry [10] he may care to pursue.

  1. Imagine an upper-class spiv, working not for himself (he was rich enough!) but for his country.

  2. By Adam Tomkins, p108ff.

  3. One of the manufacturers concerned, owned by Iraqis but located in the UK.

  4. Scott says
    there was no clearly understood system within DIS
    ensuring that intel on arms exports was got to the parties who needed to know it. (Scott said the problem had since been rectified (p119).) There was something similarly haphazard in the way that Kelly seemed to wander about the UKIC, chatting in corridors, communicating informally.

  5. Sir Geoffrey Howe, whilst in government; later, Lord Howe.

  6. Lord Franks was the archetypical member of that clan known as the Great and the Good, a member of the Establishment, a chap to be trusted to the right thing. (Lord Hutton is a very different proposition...) As Sir Oliver Franks, he was ambassador in Washington in the late 1940s.

  7. The last peer to serve as Foreign Secretary, I think.

  8. The glossy HMG brochure (PDF) National Intelligence Machinery on p19a.

  9. Where, it sometimes seemed, the approach of Scarlett and Co suggested that every mention of the JIC ought to be preceded by the respectful intake of breath that (I believe) loyal Japanese subjects took before mentioning the name of their God-Emperor.

  10. Inquiry seems very wrong here!

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