Iraq, 10 years on: why did our intelligence bosses allow it?
The JIC was once known for the highest standards of accuracy and detailed analysis. What made it bow to Blair's wishes?
WITHOUT the say-so of the Joint Intelligence Committee, there would have been no British participation in the Iraq War, which began ten years ago next week. Simple as that. Neither parliament nor people would have been hoodwinked.
It has always been a puzzle why this august organisation, in effect guardian of the guardians, enthusiastically backed Tony Blair's folly - particularly for me as I was seconded from the army to write papers for it from 1999 until March 2002.
The JIC consisted of the capos of the British intelligence families - MI5, MI6 and GCHQ, the Chief of Defence Intelligence, some high-powered Foreign Office types, a representative from the Treasury (usually a taciturn Scotsman) and, more often than not, the chief of the CIA station in London - codename Grosvenor (nothing too exciting there: the station is inside the US Embassy in Grosvenor Square.)
For many years the custom had been for the chairman to be a senior member of the diplomatic service, but in the run-up to Iraq, the chairman was John Scarlett - an MI6 lifer who had been 'H' (head of station) in both Moscow and Paris.
These were experienced men and women, well aware of the stakes involved in high level intelligence analysis. They met in those days on Wednesday afternoons in a room overlooking Horse Guards Parade to consider papers produced by groups of specialist analysts and drafted by people like me. In summer months you could hear the guardsmen preparing for Trooping the Colour.
Whoever designed the room had both good taste and a sense of theatre. The green leather fittings contrasted with the scarlet leather intelligence folders, lavishly embossed in gold with the royal arms and the sort of health warnings better known to the general public as the titles of James Bond films.
The atmosphere was donnish and formal. The solid core of the committee table meant that no one could lean back in his or her chair, as is the habit in less austere departments. Attention to detail and respect for the power of the written word were the cardinal virtues. Every fact was double-checked. Every sentence carefully crafted.
The secret intelligence that formed the basis of each paper was read and re-read to make sure no inaccuracies or exaggerations crept into the analysis. We were encouraged to make judgments. "On the one hand, on the other hand" was anathema. If no judgment was possible then we said so. If additional intelligence was felt to be required before a judgment could be reached then the intelligence agencies were instructed to go out and find it.
Papers that involved months of work might be thrown out if they were felt not to meet the standard - quite right too. As a final safeguard the process was subject to searching audit: key judgments were reviewed after six months to see how well the predictions matched up with the subsequent facts.
Everyone involved in producing JIC papers was acutely conscious that British lives could depend on our findings. Memories were still fresh of perhaps the committee's most tragic blunder in modern times – the failure to give adequate advance warning of the Argentine invasion of the Falklands in 1982.
How were they persuaded to endorse Alastair Campbell's dodgy dossiers?
The most powerful factor was that most of them would have shared Tony Blair's world-view – interventionist, comically pro-American. Partly because that was the way the UK had behaved during most of their professional lives – partly because they owed their own status, and in many cases the status of their service, to the American alliance. Blair may have been a personal Bush toady but the British intelligence system is institutionally toadyist.
Party politics may also have had something to do with it – not that 'politically neutral' mandarins would ever discuss anything so vulgar. But you could tell from the little signs – the sneer whenever anyone mentioned Mrs Thatcher, the Masonic handshake of the leftie civil servant. And in offices littered with newspapers and periodicals, copies of the Daily Telegraph or The Spectator were rarer than rocking horse manure.
But the real corrupter in my view was personal ambition. Scarlett wanted to be 'C' – Chief of MI6. Most of his colleagues and contemporaries did not regard him as a runner, but that wasn't the way he saw it. The post was ultimately in Blair's gift. I have heard it said that other figures who could have stopped the nonsense were afflicted with 'peerage-lust'. The prospect of a knighthood corrupts, but the prospect of a peerage seems to corrupt absolutely.
I always rather looked up to the great men and women who sat on the Joint Intelligence Committee and felt honoured to work long hours for them in the service of Queen and country.
I suppose there are some people who felt the same about working for the Royal Bank of Scotland. ·