26 May 2011

Alastair Campbell and Iraq

In a post in April, I speculated about the impact on the Iraq Inquiry of the UK’s involvement in Libya. On 12 May the Inquiry website published additional witness statements, declassified transcripts and documents. Also, the Inquiry Chairman, Sir John Chilcott was reported as saying “… my colleagues and I hope to present our report to the Prime Minister later this year but not before Parliament’s summer recess.” The Libyan situation may well be resolved by then, Gaddafi’s removal presumably being the crucial factor.

One of the new documents published by the Inquiry was a submission sent on 27 January to the Chairman from a former Major General and member of the Defence Intelligence Staff, Michael Laurie, commenting on Alastair Campbell’s evidence to the Inquiry on 12 January. Laurie stated:
Alistair [sic] Campbell said to the Inquiry that the purpose of the Dossier was not “to make a case for war”. I had no doubt at that time this was exactly its purpose and these very words were used.
Campbell’s immediately responded using Twitter:
@BBCLauraK nothing to add to evidence to inquiry. Dossier not case for war. Set out why govt more concerned re IraqWMD. Never met Gen Laurie
Re media inquiries on Iraq inquiry please see tweet to Laura Kuensberg BBC @bbclaurak. Thanks. No point calling for interviews.
(BBCLauraK is Laura Kuenssberg, Chief Political Correspondent for the BBC News Channel)

On 19 May, Campbell wrote to the Inquiry Chairman:
As his [Laurie’s] letter to the Inquiry was specifically targeted at my evidence to you, and as much of the coverage it generated was inaccurate, I would like to make three points. The first is that I do-not know and have never met Major General Laurie, and was not aware of any involvement he may have had is the September 2002 dossier on Iraq’s WMD. Second, neither I - nor, so far as I am aware, anyone else in Downing Street - was made aware of his views at the time or at any time in the subsequent nine years, until he felt moved to write to you, and his letter was published. The third point is that witnesses who were directly involved in the drafting of the dossier have made clear to several inquiries that at no time did I put anyone in the intelligence community under pressure, or say to them or anyone else that the then Prime Minister's purpose in publishing the dossier was to make the case for war.
The Chairman, as to be expected, made a non-committal reply the following day, so we will have to wait for the report to learn what, if anything, the Inquiry will make of this apparent divergence of views.

I hope to post about the second volume of Campbell’s Diaries, Power and the People 1997-1999, which covers the first three years of Tony Blair’s government, when I finish it. But in the meantime, I think it’s worth pointing out that (as far as I can tell) Iraq first appears in Campbell’s record on 6 November 1997, when Robin Cook informs Cabinet of the dangers of Iraq and Saddam’s WMD (page 200 – note that the indexing of this volume is wrong, showing the first occurrence of “Iraq” per se as being page 280.)

On 27 January 1998. Bill Clinton (engulfed in his Lewinsky problems) rang Tony Blair [Campbell’s TB] (page 275):
TB took a call from Clinton. He said he and C[herie] B[lair] were thinking of them and anything we could do to support him, we would. BC was straight on to Iraq and the need for firm action against Saddam because of his latest challenge to UNSCOM. It was pretty clear to anyone listening that what Tam Dalyell [Labour MP] offensively was calling 'the war of Clinton's penis' was about to begin. He said I hope you can support us if it comes to military action.
In February, prior to Blair’s visit to Washington, what now sounds like a proto-dossier is produced (page 283):
We turned the factual briefing [provenance unclear] into a paper for the media showing the extent of Saddam’s capability and the damage he could do. (4 Feb 98)
On 23 March, there is a great Whitehall flap (pages 330/1):
The main enlivening issue of the day came when John Holmes [Principal private secretary and Foreign Affairs adviser, page xviii] came in to say that there had been a running battle between the Sun and the Treasury Solicitor, Roland Phillips, over a sensitive piece of intelligence the Sun got hold of. It showed up an Iraqi plan to get anthrax into the UK. They had agreed to hold off publication over the weekend but now said they intended to publish. Stuart Higgins [Sun editor] was at the Oscars so I was dealing with Rebekah Wade [deputy editor]. I said we did not want to injunct but we were going in that direction, unless we can come to some arrangement.
I spoke to TB who said we should try to do some kind of deal. I spoke to Jan Polley [Cabinet Secretary's office] and got agreement to get the Sun in. So by 4.45, with a 5.15 court deadline, we were round my table, me, various intelligence and security folks, with some other people from the Foreign Office, Tom Crone, News International lawyer, Rebekah and Trevor Kavanagh, John Holmes and Roland Phillips. Our bottom line was that we wanted to avoid any reference to sensitive intelligence which might damage relations. I raised the option of doing it as an all-ports-warning story, i.e. something they could have got from a source at a port or in the security services here, rather than from intelligence. They went for it straight away, if reluctantly.
I gave them a PMOS [Prime Minister's Official Spokesman] quote and after to-ing and fro-ing they agreed not to refer to intelligence at all, other than to say it was intelligence from Baghdad. They were pretty reasonable. Trevor stayed and wrote the story at my desk, based on the Sun saying they had a source with access to intelligence in Baghdad.
Iraq then recurs frequently, reaching a climax on the weekend of 14/15 November. On 12 November (page 560) the Cabinet had been told that Saddam had broken the ceasefire agreement and was rebuilding his WMD programmes, but on the Sunday Blair was unhappy with the US attacking Iraq (pages 564/5):
He said we had got the assurances from Iraq - whether meaningless or not they had been given - but the US were still talking about going in today. This was a nightmare, he said. Having taken the wrong decision, they think they can put it right by taking the decision they should have taken in the first place. But the circumstances have changed and they may be making the wrong decision again. Then word came through from the MoD that the US were preparing plans based on the assumption that the UK would not take part. Jonathan [Powell] and I went back up to tell TB. We cannot let that happen, he said. Whether we think they are in the right place or not, it would be disastrous for the transatlantic relationship if we pulled out on this.
Bill Clinton in My Life (2004) provides a succinct summary of the outcome (page 833/4):
The Anglo-American assault lasted four days, with 650 air sorties and 400 cruise missiles, all carefully targeted to hit military and national security targets and to minimize civilian casualties. After the attack we had no way to know how much of the proscribed material had been destroyed, but Iraq's ability to produce and deploy dangerous weapons had plainly been reduced.
Within a month, Downing Street was unhappy with the BBC’s Iraq coverage (page 605/6):
I called Tony Hall [Director of News, BBC] … to say we had a lot of trouble with some of their coverage of Iraq - particularly [Jeremy] Bowen and [Rageh] Omaar [BBC correspondents]. He blathered on as he always did about how they always took our complaints seriously, but they felt their reporters were doing well in difficult circumstances. I said it was getting to a point where we would have to go public with our views that there was an inbuilt bias against us caused by their refusal to match their scepticism of what we said with scepticism of what the Iraqis said and showed them, in an environment where they were TOTALLY dependent on the regime for access and information. He said that would make it much harder to get any change in approach. (21 Dec 98)
This volume of Campbell’s diaries ends on 30 April 1999. Volume 3, due out in July, will cover the period to 11 September 2001. The Iraq Inquiry’s terms of reference state that “It will consider the period from the summer of 2001 to the end of July 2009, embracing the run-up to the conflict in Iraq, the military action and its aftermath.” It will be interesting to see, in the light of Campbell’s account, whether the Chilcot report will consider any aspects of the US/UK involvement with Iraq prior to 9/11, and how they might have conditioned later behaviours.

In the meantime, here is another extract from My Life (page 935) when, on 19 December 2000, Bill Clinton, about to leave office, meets with the president-elect, George W Bush:
He was putting together an experienced team from past Republican administrations who believed that the biggest security issues were the need for national missile defense and Iraq. I told him that based on the last eight years, I thought his biggest security problems in order would be Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda; the absence of peace in the Middle East; the standoff between nuclear powers India and Pakistan and the ties of the Pakistanis to the Taliban and al Qaeda; North Korea; and then Iraq.
[annotations above by me thus]

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