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A MATTER OF 45 MINUTES
- Unravelling truth, inch by inch

 

It was not always so, but these days all the land in the world — except for Antarctica — is divided into countries. Each has a government, which is supposed to guard its borders and keep order within them. Their right to do so is re- cognized in the UN charter; within broad limits they can choose their own methods of doing so — including various ways of keeping disorder. This world-order persisted more or less unchanged for 40 years after World War II. It looked as if the world had learnt the lessons of the war, and the governments had agreed on rules to banish it.

What in fact had happened, however, was that the world was dominated by two nuclear powers which had decided that war between them would be too costly; that prevented war between them as well as their allies, which meant most of the world. The Soviet Union put down an uprising in Hungary in 1956, Argentina invaded the Falkland Islands in 1982 and was repulsed by Great Britain, and the United States of America invaded Grenada in 1983 and removed the leftist government there — and India and Pakistan kept fighting little wars all the time. But by and large, nations, however badly governed, however little governed, retained their sovereignty because of the two-power equilibrium.

After that equilibrium ended with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, however, the constraints on invasion of countries have been much relaxed, and cross-border warfare has become more frequent. And as is usual in public affairs, whenever such invasions occur, intellectual formations in the invading countries formulate ideologies to justify invasion.

Thus after the US conquered Iraq, the justification found for the invasion was that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. They could have been nuclear, biological or chemical. It was never specified too closely which, but the implication was that it was either or both. The buildup of public opinion started with a report issued by the US government on September 12, 2002, entitled A Decade of Deception and Defiance.

In Britain, the government issued a report on September 24, 2002, entitled Iraq’s Weapons of Mass Destruction: the Assessment of the British Government, later known as the September Document. In its foreword, Tony Blair, the British prime minister wrote: “What I believe the assessed intelligence has proved beyond doubt is that Saddam has continued to produce chemical and biological weapons, that he continues in his efforts to produce nuclear weapons, and that he has been able to extend the range of ballistic missile programme. I also believe that Saddam will do his utmost to try and conceal his weapons from the UN inspectors”. What was unusual about this report was that it was the first public report ever issued by the Joint Intelligence Committee, a committee of heads of intelligence agencies and senior officials which provides the prime minister with intelligence. The government recalled parliament to debate the dossier.

On February 3, 2003, Alastair Campbell, the prime minister’s director of communications, issued another report entitled Iraq — its infrastructure of concealment, deception and intimidation, later known as the “dodgy dossier”.

This dossier catalogued the various Iraqi espionage services and militias which kept Iraqis loyal to the regime and spied upon foreigners, including the 108 UN inspectors, who, it said, were outnumbered 200:1 by Iraqi spies. This report was later discovered to have been largely copied from a University of California PhD thesis and off the internet. Incidentally, Alastair Campbell had worked as Tony Blair’s spokesman since 1994, and was considered responsible for changing the image of the Labour Party and bringing it back to power in 1997. Earlier, he had also made a living for some time by writing pornography.

Following this information or disinformation campaign as the case may be, the US, together with Britain and a few other allies, invaded Iraq on March 19, 2003, and occupied it. On May 29, Andrew Gilligan, defence reporter of BBC’s Radio 4, alleged that 10 Downing Street — meaning Alastair Campbell — had “sexed-up” the September dossier with the claim that Iraq could fire WMDs at 45 minutes’ notice. Alastair Campbell replied, saying that every word in the dossier had come from intelligence agencies — that none was added in 10 Downing Street. Gilligan clarified that the 45-minutes bit came from intelligence agencies, but they were not as sure about it as the dossier made out. In his evidence to the House of Commons select committee on foreign affairs in June, Campbell called Gilligan’s story a lie, and demanded an apology.

Who was right hung on Gilligan’s source. David Kelly, a microbiologist and adviser to the British ministry of defence, admitted to his superiors on July 8 that he had talked to Gilligan. He was called before the house foreign affairs select committee on July 15, and before the security and intelligence committee on July 16. Before the foreign affairs committee, Kelly was barely audible. He was asked which journalists he had met since 2002; he asked the committee to ask the defence ministry. He was asked if he had attributed the sexing-up to Campbell; he denied it.

In the security and intelligence committee, he was asked if he was authorized by the defence ministry to see journalists. He said no. Had he met them' He said, often. Had he got into trouble' He said no, never before this time. He said Gilligan probably asked him if the weapons could have been deployed in 45 minutes, why were they not' Why were they not found later' And he said that he could not recall any system from his six years as a UN weapons inspector in Iraq which could be deployed so quickly. Then he was asked, why was the statement made then in the September dossier' And he said, probably for the impact. In other words, he admitted without realizing that he was the source of the statement on sexing-up.

On July 18, he was found dead: he had gone for a walk, and there cut his vein and bled to death. Soon there were allegations in the press that the government had covertly leaked out his name, and thereby made him a sacrifice. On this question, the government appointed Lord Hutton to conduct an enquiry. In his report in January 2004, he said that Gilligan had been wrong to allege that the September dossier had been sexed-up, that once Kelly himself came forward and said he had talked to Gilligan, the government would have been accused of a cover-up if it had shielded him.

Thus in effect, he exonerated the government and condemned Gilligan. As a result, Gilligan resigned; so did Gavyn Davies, the chairman of BBC, and Greg Dyke, its director-general. Alastair Campbell had resigned earlier, on August 30.

But WMDs had still not been found, and allegations that the government had invented them to justify invading Iraq persisted. To counter them, the British government appointed a committee of privy councillors chaired by Lord Butler, retired cabinet secretary, in February 2004 to review intelligence on WMDs. Its 200-page report is a model of clarity and thoroughness. Comparing the September dossier with its sources, it says that it mixed up advocacy, which is the task of politicians, with assessment, which is the task of the intelligence services. It found that evidence was not strong enough to support the 45-minute claim, but did not blame anyone for it. In other words, Gilligan was right, and so was Kelly, but Butler refuses to name the culprit. Meanwhile, Tony Blair has deftly shifted grounds, saying that even assuming there were no WMDs, it was right to remove Saddam Hussein.

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