Spies, lies and blowing raspberriesThe Prime Minister has quoted intelligence sources that just don't existBrian Jones
Sunday August 1, 2004
The ObserverI seem to recall an episodic sketch run by the incomparable Two Ronnies about 'The Phantom Raspberry Blower of Old London Town'. The hunt for the perpetrator assumed the proportions of that for Jack the Ripper because the 'raspberry' was so effective in exposing the Victorian establishment's worst excesses.
The raspberry remains an effective weapon for the exposure of nonsense and the deflation of overblown establishment egos. It was in response to the Prime Minister's assertion that 'the threat [from Iraq's WMD] is current and serious' that John Morrison thought he 'could almost hear the collective raspberry going up around Whitehall'.Morrison was a career intelligence analyst in the Ministry of Defence with wide experience of the British intelligence community in 1995. When he retired in 1999 he took up a part-time post as the Intelligence and Security Committee's 'investigator'.When he used the word 'raspberry' in his interview for Panorama 's 'A Failure of Intelligence' he cut right through the layers of confusion and hype to the very heart of the government's Iraq problem. Even if the intelligence community had 'established beyond doubt' that Saddam had continued to produce chemical and biological weapons, which it had not, that could not be translated into a threat that could only be dealt with by war. When pressed that the Prime Minister's argument was about a risk Saddam might use them, at least regionally, and we would inevitably get sucked into such a conflagration and thus there was a threat to British interests anyway, Morrison replied succinctly: 'No, that's piling supposition upon supposition.'
A deeply held respect for the intelligence process led me and, I believe, John Morrison, to comment publicly on these matters, for we are not natural allies. We had known each other since I joined the Defence Intelligence Staff in the 1980s and from the mid 1990s he had been my boss. We shared a respect for one another's professionalism but had intense disagreements on management and organisational issues that were never resolved. After his retirement in 1999 we did not keep in touch. I was, therefore, surprised and delighted at his contribution to the Panorama programme for which I was interviewed independently. I contacted him after it was broadcast to thank him for the kind things he had said about me.A few days later I called him again because I had heard rumours that, as an act of reprisal, he was to lose his job supporting the ISC. He told me that he had heard nothing of this, and doubted that it could be anything more than mischief. Although he had studiously avoided any mention of his association with the ISC, he had advised both the chair and clerk of the committee of his impending action and there had been no suggestion that he should not proceed. He mentioned that his contract ran until April 2005 and that he expected to fulfil it.Timing is all, and notice of the curtailment of John Morrison's employment did not emerge until after the House had risen and the Prime Minister had conducted his inevitably difficult end-of-term press conference. There has been some late scrambling to deny any association of the decision with Morrison's comments on Panorama and both the Cabinet Office and Number 10 have sought to suggest that his contract comes to a natural end in October. Unfortunately, the raspberry is an area-effect rather than a precision weapon. It is therefore difficult to discern which of those caught up in its fallout decided to retaliate. Perhaps there was an alliance of all concerned. The ISC, with its reputation diminished, can ill afford to lose high quality advice.It is worth focusing on this word 'threat' that led the nation into battle. It is one that comes very easily to the Prime Minister's lips but is more difficult for intelligence analysts. At his last monthly press conference before the summer recess, according to my count, Mr Blair used the word seven times. 'It was absolutely clear from those [Joint Intelligence Committee] assessments what [their] judgments were ... that Iraq posed a threat both in terms of chemical and biological weapons and the continuing nuclear weapons programme,' he said. In the first place I did not understand quite what threat was being referred to and, second, I could not recall that the JIC papers he referred to and which were produced before I retired, made any judgments at all about 'the threat'.To show that he was right, the Prime Minister urged us to go back and read the JIC assessments reproduced in the Butler report which he had started to read out in the House of Commons. I did so and could not find the word 'threat'. In the House the PM quoted from the JIC of 9 September 2002. This was an unusual paper because in examining possible scenarios for Iraqi use of chemical and biological weapons the assumption that they existed was implicit. Even then, the point at which repeated interruptions stopped him reading was significant. The very next key judgment got as close as any in defining a 'threat'. It said: 'The use of chemical and biological weapons prior to any [US-led] military attack ... is unlikely.'The absence of any real threat was recognised at least in some parts of Number 10 since, thanks to Lord Hutton, we know of Jonathan Powell's comment to the chairman of the JIC as late as 17 September on a draft of the dossier. I do not know to what extent his view was informed by JIC papers or access to the most sensitive new intelligence but it is unambiguous. 'First, the document does nothing to demonstrate a threat, let alone an imminent threat from Saddam. In other words it shows he has the means but it does not demonstrate that he has the motive to attack his neighbours, let alone the West.'But these arguments are complex, underlining the value of the raspberry to counter prevarication. If John Morrison has time on his hands after October, perhaps a few Honourable Members should beat a path to this expert's door. A healthy raspberry or two might be more effective than some speeches I have heard in the Commons lately.· Brian Jones is a visiting senior research fellow at the University of Southampton. He was formerly with the Defence Intelligence Staff dealing with nuclear, biological and chemical warfare.