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News, gossip and insight from PoliticsHome Editor Paul Waugh

Blair's "silver bullet"

Ahead of Tony Blair's second session, the Chilcot Inquiry has today released some new evidence on how we went to war in Iraq.

I've just gone through hundreds of pages of fascinating testimony (hey, someone's gotta do it) that has been given in private by key MI6 figures.

Former MI6 chief Sir Richard Dearlove is among them, but so too is a previously unmentioned figure - a senior intelligence officer known only as "SIS4".

No doubt in time this officer will become known as "004", particularly because he makes clear that he has little time for Whitehall and prefers to be in the field doing what he does best.

An Arabic speaker and Middle East expert, this is the man to whom Downing Street first turned soon after 9/11 for a swift analysis on what it meant for Iraq.

You can read his evidence for yourself on the Iraq Inquiry website HERE, but I thought I'd give you a few highlights. This secret agent has a lovely turn of phrase, as you'll discover.

* The "Silver Bullet"

SIS4 confirms that Tony Blair wanted a "silver bullet" of intelligence to put into his dossier on Saddam's WMD in 2002.

He explains how MI6 felt at the time that it was "being circled by people calling for a silver bullet" (though who these "people" are remains unclear).

SIS4 referred to a new piece of raw intelligence that had popped up in early September 2002. This (now discredited) bit of intel on Iraq's biological weapons capability was deemed so important that Sir Richard went directly to Blair with it.

SIS4 put it like this: "The Prime Minister was interested in a silver bullet. If there was a gleam of a silver bullet anywhere, he would want to know about it, and he would want to see the product. That was not hazarding a guess in those days. Clear answers."

In the end, Sir Richard ensured that the intel didn't actually go into the September 2002 dossier (see his own evidence HERE).  Still, he stressed that "I had to put my foot down" to ensure it didn't; again, however, we don't know on whose toes he had put his foot.

SIS4 says he had no problem with the intel being shown to the Prime Minister. But he then adds a curious turn of phrase that could either be dry sarcasm or something straighter:

"What I divine to be the direction of questioning is the issue of whether the Chief detonated a psychotropic line of thinking and excitement in the Prime Minister by giving him what in quieter days might be thought rather precipitate briefing on casework which turned out not to be real. I don't think it's for me to offer a judgment on that."

Don't you just love that "psychotropic" phrase.

* The dossier

SIS4 makes clear that he and other people in MI6 didn't want a dossier at all. He explains how the service first heard of a draft in the spring of 2002 but thought it had seen it off by the summer. "We strongly disliked the idea, as we would do. All our training, all our culture, bias, would be against such a thing, and we were very relieved when we thought we had seen it off."

He went away on holiday and then: "I got back to London in early September, 3, 4, 5 September, and it was up and running like a racehorse. It had just come back into play, and we felt there wasn't very much we could do about it."

"We were all pretty much of a mind about the dossier. By the time that came back into the picture, as I said, the racehorse was running and we didn't feel that there was an opportunity, an occasion, when we could throw ourselves in front of it."

* MI6's bigger problem - "politicisation"

SIS4 then mentions the bigger problem. He had  

"a conviction that the problems of WMD and terrorism were bringing the Service close to the surface of policy where we were not well represented, well trained, nor had locus or authority".

"Who was there in Government that was chasing down Iraqi WMD, and who understood the subject? What were the policy people doing to develop a conceptualisation of policy approach to these problems on the basis of the intelligence? What operationalisation, in policy terms, was coming out of intelligence on terror, crime and WMD?
I have to say, very little. Very little indeed. The impression we got was that all this would be left to the agencies, as a sort of law enforcement activity.

"This moved us in to closer contact with ministers who were facing extremely difficult political decisions, and I could see the threat to the peace of mind and independence of our officers which they needed, to go off and do this difficult work in foreign places. If we became a Whitehall-centred outfit, we would no longer be extrovert and good in the field. Politicisation in that sense."

* MI6 was NOT too close to Number 10 but it wasn't ideal

"I think that we may not have been as wise as we would like to have been in retrospect, collectively. I don't think, in the circumstances of those days - completely different from my memory of top level consideration of intelligence in the Cold War - that we got too close to the sun. The Icarus metaphor is used time and again. It has limited applicability because Tony Blair was not the sun and Dearlove was not a child with wax wings. They were consenting adults, wrestling with unprecedented policy riddles.

"I would have done it differently. I believe in a Chief who stays south of the river and is not so easy to get
hold of. That's my daydream. But that's a [SIS4] daydream. Real life, with green phones and Brents, is different."

Anyone know what a Brent is here? Forgive my ignorance. [UPDATE: Thanks to all those who have pointed out a 'Brent' is an encrypted telephone line]

* Secret UK papers on "regime change" post 9/11

We learn for the first time that Blair's foreign policy chief Sir David Manning called SIS4 on November 30 2001. As MI6's top Iraq expert, he drafted a paper within a couple of hours.

SIS4 drafted three papers, the first and third (titled "US attacks on Iraq, the risks and costs") pointed out - rather presciently according to Sir Rod Lyne - all of the downsides to regime change. The second, however, set out a "route map" for such a policy.

Titled "Iraq further thoughts", this second paper gives us the very first use the phrase "regime change" in an official UK document:

"At our meeting on 30 November we discussed how we could combine an objective of regime change in Baghdad with the need to protect important regional interests which would be a grave risk if a bombing campaign against Iraq were launched in the short term."

This second paper also makes quite clear that the UK should "speak openly" about supporting American action, partly to boost the regime's opposition within Iraq. SIS4 suggested that the Government should say plainly "We want regime change in Baghdad".

When asked where this new idea of regime change had come from, SIS4 comes up with this elegant phrase:

"I think it came out of the ground like a mist following the change of temperature on 9/11.

"I think it became clear to all of us that nothing short of decisive intervention in Iraq was going to satisfy the Americans. That can't be sourced to a particular telegram, conversation, that I can recall."

All 3 ideas papers were seen as so impressive that 'C' sent them directly to Number 10. He also sent two of them to the Foreign Office, which was "frightfully cross" at some of the ideas.

When asked why he felt regime change was an option, the officer replied with another key quote:

"I remember saying to somebody at that time that the lack of our response to the re-emergence of Iraq as a serious regional power was like having tea with some very proper people in the drawing room and noticing that there was a python getting out of a box in one corner.

"I was very alarmed at the way that Iraq was eroding the sanctions regime and evading it."

* UK military planning

The options paper has one section titled "Military planning", which includes the sub-section "Consideration of international participation in this task force."

* Legality

SIS4  says: I'm not aware of any discussions of the legality of doing the Iraq thing."

He then adds a fascinating line about the way the security service sees its role:

"Generally speaking, this was a considerable point of concern, not because we aimed to do something we knew was illegal, though of course, by definition, all SIS activity was illegal, but because we didn't want to put our feet in the wrong place or get snagged."

James Bond fans will particularly like the point that ALL SIS activity is by definition "illegal".

* MI6 officials refer to themselves as 'we'.

"SIS officers always refer to themselves in the first person plural. Only the Chief is allowed to use 'I'. "

Sir Richard's own evidence was full of self-justificatory stuff and not nearly as gripping. He did however have some interesting points.

* VX agent

He makes clear that he felt that Saddam DID weaponise VX nerve agent and that it was there to be found somewhere.  'C' says he is "sick of this being glossed over".

* Blair's reliance on 'C'

On Jan 9, 2003, Blair says to him "Richard, my fate is in your hands".

* Straw's "jealousy"

Dearlove says:

" I wasn't sipping Chardonnay in the evenings with Tony Blair, or nipping off to have breakfast with him in Chequers. I was going to meetings, as the head of SIS, to discuss SIS business in relation to the development of national security policy. I think that the record shows that absolutely clearly.

"A lot of people were jealous of my position, and therefore, I think, motivated to talk about it, including the Foreign Secretary of the day. You know, this was a very difficult and awkward period for me.."

* Curveball

George Bush's claims about mobile biological weapons were based on false testimony from Iraqi exile Rafid Ahmed Alwan aka Curveball.

Dearlove points out that another secret service (we know it to be the German BND) handled the informant. But he says his intel "hit DIS [Defence Intelligence Staff] right between the eyes".

In a footnote, the record states: "The witness described SIS’ efforts to validate CURVE BALL’s reporting, which had provided the vast majority of the intelligence that suggested that Iraq had developed mobile facilities for the production of biological agent."

 

One shame about today's evidence was the heavy redaction, page after page of it. Here's just a taste:


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