Tuesday, July 10, 2007

How the war was spun

Alastair Campbell’s diaries will earn him piles of money but the former Downing Street spin doctor is still playing fast and loose with the truth about the preparations for the attack on Iraq. Key entries for the days leading up to the infamous autumn 2002 dossier, with its false claims about weapons of mass destruction (WMD), are omitted from his diaries. The dossier, with its introduction by Tony Blair claiming that Iraq could launch WMD within 45 minutes, played a crucial role in the propaganda justification for the invasion that took place six months later. Campbell was, of course, at the centre of the accusation by BBC journalist Andrew Gilligan that the government had "sexed up" the dossier because the early drafts from the intelligence agencies were too weak. While he has always denied any direct involvement in rewriting the dossier, Campbell’s diaries actually reveal that he told intelligence chiefs that the Iraq dossier "had to be revelatory" and that "we needed to show that it was new and informative and part of a bigger case". Then the diaries fall silent about the process that led to the inclusion of the fictional 45 minutes claim. What a surprise!

Across Whitehall, John Scarlett, chairman of the Joint Intelligence Committee, was co-ordinating the work of drafting the dossier. Scarlett admitted to the Hutton inquiry into the death of the scientist and WMD expert Dr David Kelly that he had allowed last-minute changes to strengthen the document. One crucial alteration was to cut the observation that Saddam Hussein was more likely to use chemical and biological weapons defensively than offensively. For his loyalty to the New Labour government he was later made head of MI6 and then knighted. While Campbell and Scarlett are alive and prosperous, Kelly was hounded to his death (or perhaps eliminated) by the authorities after briefing the BBC about the way the government had exaggerated Iraq’s military potential.

Campbell’s diaries claim that many cabinet ministers had reservations or doubts about the attack on Iraq. Only one, Robin Cook, resigned. The rest sat on their hands and sanctioned an illegal invasion. They did so even in the wake of another infamous dossier, this time published in February 2003, just weeks before the war. Large parts of the dossier on Iraq - allegedly based on "intelligence material" – were actually lifted from published academic articles, some of them several years old. The dossier was nothing more than an old-fashioned, cut-and-paste job that had the fingers of Downing Street spin doctors all over it. It was just one of many examples of disinformation and media manipulation that characterised the Blair years. On this occasion, it proved deadly, however, because the spin helped to justify a war that has resulted in the deaths of tens upon tens of thousands of Iraqis, the dismemberment of their country and a sharp increase in recruitment by Al-Qaeda.

Paul Feldman, communications editor

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