Three months after George Bush declared an end to "major hostilities" in Iraq, the US and Britain remain under pressure, both from resistance in Iraq and from questions at home about their reasons for going to war. In Britain the issue is now being debated in the framework of the Hutton enquiry, established to look into the apparent suicide of a weapons expert accused by the government of leaking information to the press.
Although Dr David Kelly’s death on July 17 was undoubtedly a tragedy for his family and friends, it was just one of thousands of deaths caused by the US’s determination to take over Iraq; millions if we consider the last 13 years. However, the Hutton enquiry is relevant for wider reasons. First, events within the British government leading to his name being revealed as the source for BBC stories accusing the government of exaggerating and misrepresenting Iraq’s threat to justify the war tell much about the nature and style of Western politics; and second, a great deal more information about the government’s case for war is now emerging than would have otherwise.
When BBC reporter Andrew Gilligan broadcast his story alleging that the British government had "sexed up" its September 2002 intelligence dossier — the story which we now know was based on conversations with David Kelly, although the BBC refused to name its source until after his death — it was just one of dozens of stories along similar lines emerging in much of the British media. This particular story became the key one because the government — primarily Alistair Campbell, British prime minister Tony Blair’s chief spin doctor — chose to attack it in order to discredit the whole lot. This story was chosen because Gilligan was apparently sloppy in his reportage, exaggerating and misquoting Kelly, so the government felt it was a weak chink in the massive weight of evidence being marshalled against it. Campbell may also have had personal reasons for attacking this story: it named him as responsible for the government’s ludicrous claim that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction that could be launched against Western targets within 45 minutes.
It was to disprove this story that Kelly was effectively identified to the media by the government, forced to agree to being interrogated in public by the Parliamentary Foreign Affairs Committee (FAC), and put under so much pressure that he apparently perjured himself before the FAC to protect the government, and later killed himself. (There is as yet little to support rumours that he may have been silenced by the intelligence services.) As this story is written, government officials responsible for this process are still being interviewed; defence minister Geoffrey Hoon is to testify on August 27 and prime minister Blair, whose role is emerging slowly, on August 28. Until these interviews take place the full details of this part of the story will not be known.
What is clear, however, from evidence already presented to the enquiry and documents published by it, is that the essence of the BBC story — and dozens of others— is quite correct. The British government did exaggerate its claims, and knew that the information it was presenting as conclusive evidence of the need to go to war was in fact neither conclusive nor damning. Perhaps the single most telling piece of evidence to have emerged so far is an e-mail from Jonathon Powell, Blair’s chief of staff, written shortly before its publication, in which he wrote: "The dossier is... convincing for those who are prepared to be convinced."
He went on to say: "First the document does nothing to demonstrate a threat, let alone an imminent threat from Saddam. In other words, it shows he has the means but it does not demonstrate that he has the motive to attack his neighbours, let alone the west."
It is now known that the original draft of the dossier suggested that, according to a single Iraqi source, Iraq "may be able" to launch weapons within 45 minutes. In the final version, it stated that the Iraqis "are capable" of launching weapons within 45 minutes. This claim was then promoted to the document’s introduction, where it could have the greatest possible impact, and emphasised by Blair when he presented the dossier to Parliament.
These are just two of many examples now emerging, all of which prove that, while the British government was claiming to be pursuing a diplomatic resolution to the crisis, it had decided on war already, and that its main concern was to create the public opinion to justify and legitimise that decision.
Yet the government seems largely immune to serious consequences of this deception because its lawyers and spin doctors ensured that it created the impression it desired without explicit enough falsehoods to be charged with lying to Parliament, and enough supporters in the media arguing that, whatever the government may have done, getting rid of Saddam and "freeing" Iraq was a good thing. Nonetheless, the government is skating on thin ice, and could yet suffer more damage as the Hutton enquiry continues.