It’s official: Blair’s government set out to deceive us

The New Statesman 

In July 2003, in the week following the death of David Kelly, a reader contacted the New Statesman and suggested that the media were missing the obvious. The Commons foreign affairs committee had just cleared the government of “sexing up” the September 2002 dossier on Iraqi weapons of mass destruction – a claim, first made by Andrew Gilligan on the BBC’s Today programme, for which Dr Kelly may or may not have been the source.

Our caller pointed out that although the Commons committee had said it was satisfied the “first” draft dossier, produced on 10 September for a meeting of the Joint Intelligence Committee (JIC), was the unspun work of intelligence, it had missed the true significance of a meeting the day before, chaired by Alastair Campbell.

Our caller was Chris Ames, whose name will for ever be etched on the memory of all those in government, particularly in the Foreign Office, who have resisted making public what has become known as the Williams draft (after John Williams, the Foreign Office press officer who wrote it). Using the Freedom of Information Act, Ames has doggedly pursued the evidence that he believed would show that the September dossier was the work not of intelligence experts, but of spin doctors whose intention was to “sex up” the known intelligence.

From denying that the document existed, to seeking to have it withheld because publication threatened government confidentiality, to claiming that the Williams draft was an uncommissioned activity by a bored press officer (who just happened to come up with conclusions similar to those of the JIC), the government has ducked and dived and done its utmost to obstruct Ames in his pursuit of the truth.

Now, almost five years after he first contacted us, Ames’s efforts have borne fruit. On 18 February, just two days before the deadline set by the Information Tribunal, the Foreign Office released the Williams draft.

Interpretations of its contents will differ, but on many counts the document speaks for itself. From it we learn that the draft was, without question, intended as part of a process of producing a dossier that would persuade the British people and parliament of the case for war. And, importantly, it shows us how much of the final dossier was the work of a spin doctor. Let’s not forget that the Blair government lied repeatedly about this. The draft also reveals the extent to which Williams reworded and rewrote – and occasionally invented – intelligence assessments that were later presented to the public as the work of intelligence experts and “judgements of the JIC”.

We have also learned how raw intelligence was pumped up to make a strongly worded “executive summary”. Thus, a draft report from the JIC which claimed that Iraq had “sought to develop” mobile facilities to produce a biological agent becomes, in Williams’s draft, “has developed transportable laboratories”. The strengthened Williams version fed into the 10 September dossier (still being claimed as the unspun work of intelligence) and the final document. Williams does not attempt to disguise the fact that his task is to produce a document which will persuade. Judge for yourself whether the following is driven by spin or intelligence:

The bombs that fell on Halabja that Friday morning were equipped with (what chemical?). (what does the chemical do to the body – how does it kill? Sorry to be grisly, but this will have real impact on real people, not journalists who take it as read).

As our political editor, Martin Bright, argues on page 10, the release of the Williams draft leaves no room for doubt that the Blair government set out to deceive us. Cynics may shrug. Governments lie. But the consequences of this deception have been catastrophic and tragic. The roll-call of victims runs into tens of thousands and includes that early casualty in July 2003, the government scientist whose suicide started an angry debate over whether the case for war had been “sexed up”.

Thanks to Chris Ames, we at last have an unequivocal answer. And it shames all those involved in the process.

The saints stop marching in

You can’t get to heaven,” went the old song, “in a limousine,/ ‘Cause the Lord don’t sell no gasoline.” Perhaps not, but under the last pope some felt that transport to the upper echelons of heaven was a little too swift. So many saints were created by John Paul II that it did seem as though he was running some form of celestial limo service, or “saint factory”, as others put it: 482 people were canonised and 1,338 beatified (the first stage to sainthood) by the pontiff – more than all his predecessors put together since the current procedures were laid down in 1588.

So news that Benedict XVI is to tighten the rules is to be welcomed by those who take such matters seriously. It may also be a relief, however, that the new rigour is not to be applied retrospectively. It is just possible that not all the “miracles” performed by or attributed to some saints would withstand modern scientific scrutiny.

What, say, are we to make of the Belgian shrine to the 11th-century St Godeliva? Drinking from her well is said to have a powerful, yet curiously specific, effect on sore throats. Or the 15th-century St Francis of Paola? Fame of his miracles spread in his own lifetime, yet they were occasionally of a rather prosaic nature. One involved setting a pot of broad beans boiling: handy if you’d run out of kindling, no doubt, but surely a power more appropriate to a domestic goddess than a holy man. What next – St Nigella? Not under the new rules, thank goodness.