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Scarlett must go

Britain went to war on a false prospectus. Its author should now resign

Timothy Garton Ash
Thursday October 14, 2004
The Guardian


John Scarlett, the head of Britain's Secret Intelligence Service, should resign. He should resign because he was, in his previous job as chairman of the Joint Intelligence Committee (JIC), directly responsible for the false prospectus on which Britain went to war in Iraq. The September 2002 dossier, of which Scarlett claimed bureaucratic "ownership", made intelligence-based claims about the threat from Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction which the Iraq Survey Group has conclusively established were wrong. The prime minister, the foreign secretary and other cabinet ministers have now admitted as much.

For an intelligence assessment to have erred so seriously, when the lives of British soldiers were at stake, is bad enough. Honest mistakes can kill as surely as dishonest ones. What is worse, in this case, is that those claims were presented in the dossier with a propagandistic confidence which Scarlett and his professional colleagues should have known was not justified by the evidence available to them. The claims were not just wrong, with benefit of hindsight they were misleading, in the light of what Scarlett (but not we, the public) knew at the time. That is what tips the balance to the need for resignation.

Can it really be that no one in government will take personal responsibility? Are they all to move smoothly on, festooned with additional gongs in the special Iraq section of the new year's honours list? The BBC's chairman and director general have resigned, after supporting a Today programme story which, while presented with unacceptable inaccuracy by the reporter Andrew Gilligan, turns out to have had more substantive truth in it than the sexed-up dossier it criticised. Two cabinet ministers have resigned in protest at the war. Across the pond, the head of the CIA, George Tenet, has resigned, at least implicitly taking responsibility for intelligence failures over 9/11 and Iraq.

Tenet assured George Bush that the evidence on weapons of mass destruction in Iraq was "a slam dunk". Yet even the eager Tenet did not swallow the claim that Saddam's WMD could be deployed in 45 minutes. Buried in the Butler report there is a mention of Tenet's pithy dismissal of the "they-can-attack-in-45-minutes shit". Lord Butler dryly adds: "We asked Mr Tenet directly for a comment but no reply had been received by the time that he resigned from office." Well, exactly: he resigned. But in our own little White House, apparently no one is to blame.

Meanwhile, Butler reveals that the SIS had a grand total of six sources of human intelligence on Iraq, of which three have been discredited and two, which were more reliable, were "less worrying" about Iraqi chemical and biological weapon capabilities. The 45-minute claim came from an unreliable "sub-source" via an SIS "main source". According to journalistic reports, the sub-source was a senior Iraqi military officer. His loose talk was passed on to British intelligence, second or third hand, by someone at the Iraqi National Accord, an opposition movement headed by Ayad Allawi, then a frustrated political exile in Wimbledon, but now prime minister of Iraq. (Allawi, at least, got what he wanted.)

So here's how it went. This single unreliable source's claim was transmitted to the SIS, doubtless suitably exaggerated, by a politically motivated exile. The SIS's own caveats about the claim were, as the parliamentary intelligence and security committee noted last year, not adequately reflected in the JIC's summary assessment. That assessment was simplified and exaggerated in the Downing Street dossier, with Scarlett compromising the careful presentational rules of his trade to satisfy spin-doctor Alastair Campbell. It was yet further strengthened in Tony Blair's introduction, becoming the bald claim that Saddam's "military planning allows for some of the WMD to be ready within 45 minutes of an order to use them".

On a rope made of such feeble, twisted thread, we were led to war. The man who could and should have cut this particular thread, and several others, was Scarlett. As a career intelligence officer, he had all the know-how to see that the source would not bear the weight being put on it. Why did he go along? Lord Hutton famously concluded that the prime minister's desire to make the case as strong as possible "may have subconsciously influenced" Scarlett. Whether the influence was conscious or subconscious, it seems a fair bet that finding yourself in that charmed but also embattled inner circle of power, behind the door of 10 Downing Street, with the prime minister's favour depending on your coming up with the intelligence goods, and your own future appointment as head of SIS depending on the prime minister's favour, might turn even the strongest head.

This is speculation on my part. I have never met Scarlett. I am not privy to any secrets of his service. I have no doubt that he is a very able, decent and honourable public servant. And I do not call lightly for anyone's resignation. Two arguments are urged against it. Butler concluded that, while it was a "mistaken judgment" for the JIC to be so closely associated with the dossier, "it was a collective one for which the chairman of the JIC should not bear personal responsibility". Coming from a former cabinet secretary, this is a piece of mandarin special pleading worthy of Sir Humphrey in Yes, Minister. Everyone is to blame so no one is to blame.

A more serious objection is that he was doing the prime minister's bidding. Why sack the monkey, not the organ-grinder? But Scarlett's role in all this was far more than the monkey's. The fact that he is an unelected official who cannot speak up publicly for himself cuts both ways; it also means that he cannot be voted out, whereas the prime minister can. When Scarlett resigns, Blair should apologise for the false prospectus. Not for the war itself, not for removing Saddam - that is a larger ground on which he must plainly stand or fall - but for the false prospectus. Then, probably next May (as Cherie Blair unintentionally confirmed, in the unlikely setting of the Cheltenham Literary Festival), we shall have a chance to decide, at the ballot box, whether his considerable achievements, and the lack of better alternatives in British politics, outweigh this monumental blunder. I personally think they still do, although a Lib-Lab coalition with the wise Menzies Campbell as our new foreign secretary would be the best outcome of all. But that's another story.

For now, Scarlett should go - perhaps being kicked upstairs to the House of Lords, in time-dishonoured fashion, as Lord Scarlett of Epsom-cum-Dossier, there to give us the benefit of his wisdom at 45 minutes' notice. One clinching reason he should depart is to restore the minimal credibility, if not the irreparably damaged mystique, of British intelligence. For, let's not kid ourselves, we will need that intelligence, and to know how far we can rely on it, in the dangerous years ahead - whether the subject is Iran, Libya, Russia or China. If Scarlett goes, his successors will understand that their own futures depend on sticking scrupulously to what the evidence will bear, whatever the political blandishments from above. That would be one small lasting benefit from this whole tawdry affair.

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