I spy with my little eye . . . a new, Frank inquiry

Simon Jenkins

Historians should note. At the turn of the 21st century Britain was ruled by two men, a lawyer and a tabloid journalist. The first profession does not do whole truths, the second does not do long sentences. Both suffer occupational hyperbole. Neither likes being wrong.
Now a third and nobler calling has crossed the path of Tony Blair and Alastair Campbell, that of spy. The head of Whitehall's Joint Intelligence Committee (JIC), John Scarlett, was head of MI6's Moscow station and reputedly the last man in that city to wear spats. A person of some panache, he, or at least his "friends", were clearly driven beyond endurance by the antics of Messrs Blair and Campbell.

Last September Mr Scarlett found himself in that familiar bind of the intelligence assessor. His bosses were screaming for material "to cook" to justify a preconceived policy. They wanted evidence to support Britain in joining an American invasion of Iraq, should that come to pass. Every sinew was to be strained to find evidence of weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) posing an "immediate threat" to Britain. Any old tosh and gossip would do.

Mr Scarlett should have stuck to the holy writ of his profession. He should have pointed out that the integrity of intelligence depends on independence and judgment. Each prediction, each nuance is exquisitely crafted. It cannot be "sexed up" or "put through Alastair's typewriter", like a tabloid front page. The assessor says, with Pontius Pilate: "What I have written, I have written."

With hindsight the JIC should indeed have gone down on its collective knee and pleaded with Downing Street to present Iraq as an humanitarian issue, not a "threat". It could have offered blood-curdling tales of torture, death cells and mass graves. But that was not what Mr Blair and Mr Campbell wanted. Throughout 2002 they denied any policy of regime change. Aggression required evidence of urgency. They had to satisfy the Attorney-General, the Labour Party and the UN that Britain needed defending against Saddam Hussein. That is why Mr Campbell seized the JIC assessment and its raw material and, like a Fleet Street pro, took the best bits to the top of the story. I am told that the fell phrase "ready in 45 minutes" was not even in the assessment.

Sir Richard Dearlove, head of MI6, was asked by Downing Street to tell Cabinet ministers not only that Saddam was a monster but that he was an "immediate threat". Mr Blair abused the UN weapons inspectors not for ignoring Saddam's torture chambers but for ignoring WMDs which "I know are there". He curdled London's blood with "intelligence" of imminent chemical and biological attacks, even sending tanks to protect Heathrow.

Mr Blair is not the first lawyer to sweat in the cauldron of honesty. Yet he was adamant as recently as March 23 that "our aim has not been regime change". He knew that while change might be a salutary byproduct of military aggression, it cannot be its legal justification. The fall of Argentina's General Galtieri was a welcome byproduct of the Falklands war, but the reason for that war was self-defence.

Nor has Mr Blair weakened in this commitment. His loyalty to Saddam's military might is worthy of the Iraqi Information Minister, Mohammad Saeed al-Sahhaf. When even his mentor, Donald Rumsfeld has given up on the weapons and withdrawn his search teams, Mr Blair keeps the faith. He cannot have been wrong.

Britain's political establishment now faces a challenge. It cannot accept the ludicrous volte-face of London's "Pentagon-lite" cheerleaders, that WMDs never mattered after all, since "we won". The charge here is serious, that military Intelligence was perverted to make appear legal a war that ministers knew was otherwise illegal. Irrespective of our delight at the fall of Saddam, the allegation merits democratic scrutiny. Ends never justify means.

I do not regard the abuse of espionage as a hanging crime, merely dangerous. Politicians have polluted intelligence since Cassandra and the siege of Troy. The appropriate recourse should be to politics. But recourse there must be. War is a failure, whether of diplomacy or deterrence. Inquest is silent during the conflict but, as Roy Jenkins said after the Falklands, later inquiry "is always part of the bargain".

Mr Blair claims to regard Margaret Thatcher as a hero. In that case he should show her courage. Three weeks after her Falklands victory, in July 1982, she set up an independent committee, under the former mandarin Lord Franks, to review "the way in which the government departments concerned discharged their responsibilities" before the war. The inquiry was not judicial, but it was given full access to intelligence sources and even Whitehall log books.

The report proved something of a whitewash, forcing Lord Franks to tell critics to "read between the lines". Those lines did indeed offer a failure of "intelligence", or at least what happens when ministers get intelligence they dislike. They did not want to know of the Argentine threat to the islands. A culture of Treasury cuts and Downing Street aversion to the Foreign Office left Britain unguarded.

In the case of Iraq the opposite applied. Ministers wanted evidence of an immediate threat that intelligence could not deliver. Just as Mrs Thatcher's bias was against overseas spending, Mr Blair's was in favour of supporting Washington whatever it chose to do. Such known bias infects any intelligence machine. Desperation breeds misjudgment. The September and March dossiers on Iraq were barely plausible. Yet Mr Blair presented them with such conviction that even I half-believed them.

Downing Street is now refusing independent scrutiny. It wants the job to go to Parliament's implicitly "dependent" Intelligence and Security Committee, under the trusty Ann Taylor. Scarcely more ruthless is likely to be the Labour-led Foreign Affairs Committee, also now holding an inquiry. Both are pale shadows of the independent scrutineer set up by Mrs Thatcher in 1982.

Parliament is about to be taught its job by the US Congress. That body may be unworried over the legality of war, but it is fastidious about executive deception. Unlike Britain's hopeless MPs, it regards such deception as wrong. It demands that Colin Powell and Mr Rumsfeld come and explain themselves. It may reveal No 10's mishandling of intelligence, since this was shared with Washington. Congress could yet reach parts of Whitehall where MPs dare not tread.

If not Parliament, then who? Labour made great play of the 1996 Scott inquiry into arms-for-Iraq. Mr Blair eagerly supported it, with Robin Cook as his rottweiler grinding his political teeth on the pavement outside as Tory ministers squirmed within. What glorious irony it would be if Mr Cook plays the same role again.

The Scott inquiry was ridiculously overblown. Its judicial format, held with QCs in public, cost a fortune and achieved little but mild embarrassment. But it was independent. It is hard to see how Mr Blair can demand sauce for the Tory goose, yet deny it for the Labour gander.

The obvious middle way between Parliament's impotent scrutiny and a judicial inquiry is to find another Franks. Mr Blair's best bet would be a senior judge of intellect and integrity, such as Lord Bingham, sitting with two colleagues in private but with a published report. They would not need judicial powers, only the co-operation of the executive and agreed access to "persons and papers". This would deliver the best and fastest product. The ball could then be returned to the political arena. The wounds of this sorry episode would be cauterised.

In May 1983, some time after Franks had given Mrs Thatcher his equivocal exoneration, she did a remarkable thing. She summoned him privately and remarked: "I don't think you said all that was in your mind about intelligence." Franks replied with a Ciceronian lecture: any government with enough money can gather information. The test of a ruler is the judgment applied to that information. That is the true quality of intelligence. It will be of use if it can exert leverage on the swirling forces of power. Thus nothing is more dangerous than intelligence so processed as merely to reinforce the existing prejudices of government.

I am sure Mrs Thatcher regarded this as a truism. It is not. It clearly needs hearing afresh with each generation. Oh, for another Franks to say it again.