Magazine article The Spectator

Why Is Mr Blair Still in Downing Street?

Magazine article The Spectator

Why Is Mr Blair Still in Downing Street?

Article excerpt

Tony Blair has done more damage to Britain's intelligence services than anyone since Kim Philby or Burgess and MacLean. He has done so not by acting in bad faith or lying to Parliament, but through poor judgment, incompetence and arrogant indifference.

The first charge against him is that he has politicised MI6 and the other intelligence agencies. Never before has any government, Labour or Conservative, required MI6 and the Joint Intelligence Committee to publish, in their own name, their intelligence assessments. The notorious 'dodgy dossier' was demanded by Blair in order to support his case for war in the face of a sceptical Parliament and public.

Tony Blair could have published the same material in his own name but he was astute enough to realise that that would not be as authoritative as the intelligence agencies being required to give their own views directly. In effect they were ordered to give a character reference for the Prime Minister. That was a disgraceful error of judgment, and it would have been equally so even if the intelligence in the dossier had turned out to be accurate and reliable in every respect.

It is not the role of the intelligence agencies nor of the JIC to be a witness or an advocate for government policy. John Scarlett and Sir Richard Dearlove, the then head of MI6, are civil servants. Their task is to advise ministers and provide them with information; it is not to be part of the public debate in Parliament and in the nation.

This is not just an issue of principle. By politicising the intelligence agencies and the JIC, and dragging them into the national debate about the justness of the war, Blair antagonised many individual agents who did not like being used in this way. The consequence has been that the self-discipline of MI6 and the other agencies has been eroded, journalists have been provided with unauthorised information and leaks, and the reputation of the agencies has been compromised.

The Prime Minister should never have been so foolish as to have required such a document. When he did, Mr Scarlett should have responded that the request was improper and that the role of the JIC was to advise and inform ministers and not to be used as a tool of the government in a public debate which divided the nation. If Mr Blair had refused to withdraw his instruction, Mr Scarlett should have offered his resignation. That would have been in the best traditions of the Civil Service.

The second charge against Tony Blair is, of course, that the intelligence assessments were published in the document with the health warnings and caveats removed. The Butler report makes it clear that this happened and that it should not have done.

I received MI6 intelligence assessments almost every day during the five years that I served as foreign secretary and minister of defence. Invariably it was made clear that, with very few exceptions, the agencies could not guarantee the accuracy of the information. Some of it was received from defectors who had their own agenda, some was hearsay, some might have been planted by a foreign government with the deliberate intent of deceiving us. Of course, much of the information did turn out to be accurate, but it was essential that ministers did not take that for granted.

If that was true as regards internal advice, how much more imperative was it that those health warnings should have been included in a document that was being presented to Parliament and the nation to promote the case for going to war against a country that had not attacked us. …

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