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Some Hutton puzzles

Mike L | 05.02.2004 00:00 | Analysis | Anti-militarism | Iraq | Cambridge

The Hutton report has provoked an enormous debate about the culpability of
the government and the BBC - a debate which has hinged upon the accuracy
and completeness of its findings. Much has been written about what Hutton
'didn't say'. Surprisingly little detailed analysis, however, has dissected
what he did say. The following, based upon an admittedly cursory reading of
the report, suggests that

1) the report's conclusions reflect a pattern of biased and selective
consideration of evidence 2) The report's avowed refusal to comment upon
the actual WMD issue conceals sufficient comment upon the issue to give the
government the opportunity to forestall further criticism.

[Please note that the following does not comment fully upon the editorial
shortcomings or otherwise of the BBC, but focusses mainly upon evidence
about the government. Paragraph references refer to the final Report; other
references refer to evidence submitted to the Inquiry, which can be found
on the Report website at ]

1) At the heart of the report is a fundamental double standard.

(a) Journalists' claims, Hutton says, have to be rock-bottom accurate if
they are likely to bring the government into disrepute i.e. not only do the
journalists have to *believe* that they are accurate on the basis of what
their sources tell them, but they have to *be* accurate too (although quite
how a journalist can verify what their sources tell them, beyond their
sources, is unclear): "Para.291:...the right to communicate such
information is subject to the qualification...that false accusations of
fact impugning the integrity of others, including politicians, should not
be made by the media."

Thus Hutton criticises Gilligan for reporting that the government probably
knew that 45 minute claim was untrue, despite the fact that "it is not
possible to reach a definite conclusion as to what Dr Kelly said to Mr
Gilligan" (para 259). So, although he can't know what Kelly said,
nonetheless Hutton is mysteriously "satisfied that Dr Kelly did not say to
Mr Gilligan that the Government probably knew or suspected that the 45
minutes claim was wrong" (para. 259).

(b) In contrast, all the government has to do is have some grounds for
belief in something - that there are 45 minute WMD; that if they don't
release Kelly's name they'll be accused of covering up - and they can say
it, not just in a news report, but in a dossier justifying war: "The issue
whether, if approved by the Joint Intelligence Committee and believed by
the Government to be reliable, the intelligence contained in the dossier
was nevertheless unreliable is a separate issue which I consider does not
fall within my terms of reference."

2) This double standard is not only applied to standards of public
statement by the BBC and the government, but also to the treatment of
evidence from the BBC and the government. A series of conclusions in the
report cumulatively suggest that, again and again, Lord Hutton trusted the
motives and evidence of officials and the government over others, often in
the face of opposing evidence.

A few examples:

(i) Hutton considers it outside his remit to discuss the truth of
Alaistair Campbell's evidence to the FAC, because he has already discussed
Campbell's involvement in putting together the September dossier in detail,
and thinks that it is perfectly fine for him to suggest drafting changes to
a JIC report for the purposes of defending an existing policy for war,
rather than basing a policy decision on the available information.

Yet he feels it necessary to indirectly criticise the FAC (which might
well be within his remit as a factor in Kelly's decision to take his own
life, but is equally circumscribed in Hutton's ability to comment on it):
"The Bill of Rights provides that the affairs of Parliament
(which include the proceedings of a Select Committee of the House of
Commons, such as the FAC) should not be commented on other than in
Parliament. Therefore it would not be proper for me to express an opinion
on the way in which Dr Kelly was questioned before the FAC, but it is
relevant to record that on 16 October 2003 the Liaison Committee of the
House of Commons decided to review the working of Select Committees in the
light of this Inquiry." (Para. 461)

(ii) On several occasions, Hutton is unwilling to take the 'balance' of
evidence in some cases, and willing to speculate on probabilities in
others. We've already seen that he speculates, despite admitting incomplete
evidence, about what Kelly told Gilligan.

In addition, despite there being no recorded notes of the content of a
conversation between Gilligan and the MOD press officer, Kate Wilson, the
night before Gilligan's report was aired, it just being down to the word of
Wilson over the word of Gilligan, he considers it "more probable than not"
that Gilligan had failed to explain to the MOD what the MOD minister was
going to be asked about on the Today Program the next morning:

"455. Neither Mr Gilligan nor Mrs Wilson made notes of the conversation
between them and it is not possible to reach a clear conclusion as to what
was said. A point which supports Mr Gilligan's account is that it is
unlikely that the conversation which lasted for 7 minutes 24 seconds would
have been confined only to cluster bombs, which was not Mr Gilligan's
story. But, on balance, I think it is more probable than not that Mr
Gilligan failed to give Mrs Wilson a clear indication of the allegations
which he was going to make that the dossier was exaggerated and that there
was concern in the Intelligence Services about the inclusion of the 45
minutes claim, because if he had done so I think that Mrs Wilson would
almost certainly have alerted 10 Downing Street to those allegations."

Yet there is, it seems to me, an equally strong case for arguing from the
"balance" of the evidence that the MOD's account of the conversation is
untrue. Hoon, on behalf of the MOD, claimed to the BBC that "As we have
already made clear, the conversation on 28 May was actually about a piece
on the use of cluster bombs in Iraq and a possible interview bid for Adam
Ingram. Mr Gilligan did not discuss any other story. He was asked whether
he was working on anything else for the programme. He then mentioned that
he was working on something else about WMD. He did not discuss any detail
of this story, he did not put any questions about it to the MoD and most
importantly, he said that this was not a story for the MoD. By his own
admission he did not regard MoD as the relevant Government department. I
cannot see how this can be described as 'checking the story'." (Inquiry
Document CAB/1/404 - letter from Hoon to Sambrook)

Yet there is also evidence that two other BBC people called the MOD about
the new WMD story that evening, and that at 9.45pm the MOD agreed that Adam
Ingram would also talk about the WMD issue:

"Between 6.30 pm and 7 pm producer Martha Findlay spoke to MoD press
officer Richard Walley and confirms the bid has widened from cluster bombs
to include WMD. Between 8 and 8.30 pm the MoD calls the Today Programme and
confirms an interview with Adam Ingram on cluster bombs but does not
confirm that he will speak about WMD. At 9.45 pm the MoD press office rings
the Today Programme to confirm Mr Ingram will speak about WMD as well."
(letter from Sambrook to Hoon, who might have been lying, but was not
accused of doing so by Hutton).

So: why would the MOD agree that Adam Ingram would answer questions about a
WMD story which they insisted to the inquiry they had barely been told
about by the BBC; and why would they agree that Adam Ingram would answer
questions about a WMD story which they claim the BBC had told them was not
an MOD issue, and would thus not be put to Ingram?

Hutton is, curiously, silent on this conflict, simply covering the whole
issue by claiming that on balance, Gilligan didn't give the MOD enough

In short, much of the report's conclusions are simple arbitrations between
the BBC's word against the government's word. Again and again Hutton comes
down on the side of the government.

4) Lord Hutton's verdict about of the releasing of Kelly's name is
mystifying. What he expects us to believe is:

(a) that there was sufficiently little liaison between the Number-10 and
MOD press offices that they would pursue partly separate press strategies
in relation to the release of David Kelly's name, and thus that Blair would
not have known about the Question and Answer method of confirming the name
if asked: "I am further satisfied that...the Question and Answer material
was prepared and approved in the MoD and not in 10 Downing Street."

(b) Yet, conversely, that there is sufficiently close liaison between the
Number 10 and MOD press offices that it is implausible that Kate Wilson,
the MOD press officer, could have been forewarned by Gilligan about his
story, because otherwise she would definitely have told Number 10 about it.

(c) That there are only 3 options available to a press officer when asked
to confirm Kelly's name: (i) that they deny it (which might be lying), (ii)
that they confirm it (which they apparently don't want to do), (iii) that
they 'no comment' it, which Hoon argued is generally taken by the press as
a confirmation, and might lead unfairly to the finger of suspicion being
pointed at the wrong person.

Option (iii) is questionable - for instance, surely you could say, 'we are
not confirming or denying any names because we do not want to point the
finger of suspicion at anyone'. Even if it were for some strange reason the
case that a 'no comment' is routinely taken by the press as a 'yes', for
one name, it makes no sense that 'no commenting' a list of 20 names (the
number it took a Times journalist to get to Dr Kelly's name) would cast
suspicion on innocent people in the list, such that it was necessary
instead for one to be unambiguously identified. The allegation by
journalists that they were actually *invited* to submit names that would
then be confirmed or denied - very different to simply confirming the name
if asked - is not dealt with at all.

So once again, Hutton takes the good faith of Geoff Hoon and Sir Kevin
Tebbit entirely at face value: that despite the extraordinary guiding of
journalists towards the right person (see the amazing document at ),
this was not part of a strategy to out Dr Kelly, but part of a strategy to
prevent others from being impugned. EVen if that were true, which I think
there is some question, this is surely nonetheless a strategy to out Dr
Kelly in order to save others, no?

The key evidence is Geoff Hoon's, given 22 September Page 30 Line 1:

"Gompertz, QC: I am putting to you a rather wider point at the moment, that
the Government as a whole had decided on a strategy which would lead Dr
Kelly's name into the public arena, with a view to him giving evidence
before the FAC. Now, is that a strategy that you recognise or not?

Hoon: No, it is not; and indeed I do not believe that there is the
slightest shred of evidence for that assertion."

Similarly, Tebbit denies that the guiding questions in the Q and A material
were 'clues' to Dr Kelly's identity: "it does seem, reading this, and
certainly I think we are likely to hear this from journalists, that once
you got these clues, if they can be so described, it is not going to be
very difficult to identify Dr Kelly?

A. These were not intended to be clues." (para. 314)

And yet, compare this denial of the intention to "lead Dr Kelly's name into
the public arena, with a view to him giving evidence before the FAC", with
Tebbit's own assertion that the MOD press strategy was drawn up in order to
confirm Dr Kelly's name in the public arena, with a view to him giving
evidence before parliamentary committees:

"it was a collective view of Sir
David Omand, John Scarlett, the Prime Minister. It was one which I did not
disagree with at all, but I was not there. And, as you recall, the first
idea was that this should be sent in the form of a letter to the
Intelligence and Security Committee for them to look at, and also that it
should be put to the BBC in the context of: we are not asking you to say
whether this is the source but only to say if it is not, so that we could
be clear on our ground. As it happened, Ann Taylor decided she did not wish
to receive this unless it was preceded by a public statement.

Q. Is that the reason that the impetus came for the public statement?

A. I think that was the reason, so that when I returned from Portsmouth it
was quite clear that the view in Whitehall, which we shared in the Ministry
of Defence, we did not dissent, was that we should indeed issue a public
statement, and the sense was that that needed to be done more or less then
on that date, the Tuesday or so. So we needed to issue a statement before
we had got to a stage really where we could name Dr Kelly, because the last
conversation we had had with him had not actually got to that point."
(Hearing Transcripts Monday 13th October)

Beyond these injustices, however, which it seems most of the British public
have picked up on, there is a far more serious consequence to the Hutton
Report: the precedent it sets, which can be mobilised in an argument to
forestall consideration of government manipulation of evidence in the
forthcoming Butler Inquiry.

Hutton insists that he has refused to discuss the issue of the reliability
and manipulation of intelligence, since it is "outside his remit". This
would be just about acceptable if it thus left the field open for another
enquiry. However, despite finding these issues "outside his remit" (even
though it surely bears very heavily on the question of the validity of
Gilligan's claim that the government 'probably knew' that the 45 minute
claim was wrong), Hutton then goes on to talk about precisely this question
- whether intelligence was unduly manipulated - and decides that it was not
(his dual definition of 'sexed up'). This precedent will, I think, severely
hinder a further inquiry, because the formally correct but bizarre logic of
his conclusion will allow the government to claim that a lack of
manipulation on their part has already been proven.

The key section is in para 227 of the Report:

"The term "sexed-up" is a slang expression, the meaning of which lacks
clarity in the context of the discussion of the dossier. It is capable of
two different meanings. It could mean that the dossier was embellished with
items of intelligence known or believed to be false or unreliable to make
the case against Saddam Hussein stronger, or it could mean that whilst the
intelligence contained in the dossier was believed to be reliable, the
dossier was drafted in such a way as to make the case against Saddam
Hussein as strong as the intelligence contained in it permitted. If the
term is used in this latter sense, then because of the drafting suggestions
made by 10 Downing Street for the purpose of making a strong case against
Saddam Hussein, it could be said that the Government "sexed-up" the

The impact of this assertion is immediately lessened further with the use
of the weak word "subconsciously" in describing the effect which the need
to produce a strong case for war had on the language of the dossier. Given
the evidence that Hutton has seen, this word is simply incorrect: the
pressure to change language was not subconscious - it was written out in a
series of memos by Alastair Campbell to change the words.

AND YET: Hutton insists that there was no attempt to stretch the dossier
beyond the truth.

THIS IS KEY: In other words, his clearing the government of duplicity
*legitimates* the process by which the dossier was pushed beyond (as Hutton
would no doubt say) 'the balance of the evidence'. As Catherine Bennett
pointed out in an excellent Guardian article (,3604,1133584,00.html ) "Hutton decides
that the dossier's egregiously scaremongering tone is entirely
understandable in a document whose purpose is to get the public to support
a war." In allowing that the cherry-picking intelligence selection, and
linguistic manipulation, of the dossier was acceptable because it fitted
the dossier's purpose, Hutton lends bizarre moral probity to the
government's reversal of the policy process: from formulating a policy on
the basis of evidence, to manipulating evidence to suit the public
presentation of an existing policy.

This moral probity is possible, Hutton adds, because the JIC approved the
dossier. True. But given that we have *seen* that Campbell, Smith, Scarlett
et al decontextualised evidence, and changed language, beyond the
boundaries of truth, this can only mean one or both of two things:

(a) That the Heads of the Intelligence Services in the JIC were happy with
the war-mongering intention of the government despite the evidence - a
gross abrogation of their duties, given the fact that the intelligence
services are supposed to be impartial suppliers of information, not

(b) That Hutton has forgotten why the JIC was the final arbiter the
dossier. This was not because the dossier was intended to be a balanced
assessment of evidence, as most JIC reports are supposed to be (this was
clearly nothing like a normal JIC report, as all the ex-chairs of the JIC
and the ISC have publicly agreed). Rather, it was because the dossier
contained intelligence, and so had to be made (i) consistent with the raw
intelligence evidence itself (which takes us back to point (a)), and (ii)
suitable for release, given the dangers and risks to intelligence sources
inherent in publicly releasing intelligence, something which had never been
done before, for precisely this reason.

(Incidentally, consideration (ii) was subsequently disregarded entirely by
the 2nd dossier, if the government is to be believed that some of its more
general statements included intelligence - the JIC, nor the security
services, saw this at all before release. Indeed, I would argue that this
might be regarded as a breach of the Official Secrets Act. If, on the other
hand, it contained no whiff of intelligence at all, then Tony Blair lied to
parliament, plain and simple).

There are only two conclusions here, neither of them hopeful:

(a) Hutton has refused to comment on anything which would make the
government look bad, to the extent of mind-twistingly bizarre logic about
the production of the dossier.

(b) Hutton nonetheless comments on the intelligence manipulation issue just
enough to give the government ammunition to resist further inquiries.

Mike L


Display the following 6 comments

  1. Email Blair — Gus
  2. whether you believe in Him or not — dexter
  3. Cracking. — martian
  4. Excellent Analysis, Mike — Jordan Thornton
  5. I Dig Dyke! — Auntie "Phwoar"
  6. BBC and iCan — e