Very Courageous, Prime Minister – 21 January 2010

First published on Kings of War:

It was Sir David Omand’s turn at the Chilcot Inquiry yesterday, and we were faced with the delightful situation of one KCL Professor (Sir Lawrence), lightly poaching a Visiting KCL Prof (Sir David) about his role in the run-up to the Iraq War.

As always, Sir David gave a very good account of himself, and similarly as always, he cast a protective arm over the intelligence agencies he managed so capably.

He told the Chilcot Inquiry team that the JIC and MI5 had repeatedly warned that attacking Iraq would make the UK a target for AQ terrorists (and as a JIC member it is interesting that Sir David said the level of terrorist activity in the UK had gone up after the invasion), but not for reprisals from Iraqi intelligence which had been assessed by MI5 (although this seems slightly odd given the limited analysis potential in the Security Service, and why wouldn’t the Assessments Staff be making such suggestions, unless it was purely Counter-Intelligence?…) to be easily neutralised.  Presciently, the JIC had warned that AQ would use the invasion to garner support for sleeper cells in Iraq, which was proved to be the case in the 2005-6 element of the insurgency, and in 2004 they judged that around 50 British citizens had gone to Iraq to engage in terrorism.

Sir David was slightly less kind to MI6 (SIS), who he said had ‘over-promised and under-delivered’. He described the ’45-minute claim’ as a ‘bit of local colour’, but conceded that including it in the public dossier was: “With hindsight one can see that adding a bit of local colour like that was asking for trouble, but we didn’t really appreciate that at the time”. What Sir David conceded, and I suppose we all knew really, was that the SIS (in particular) had been driven by an overt or tacit political agenda – a desire to please their political masters. He talked of the strenuous efforts of the SIS to find intelligence on Iraq, and of the ‘psychodynamics of groups’ (what we would call ‘group-think’) that drove the agencies to keep looking for evidence of WMD, instead of seeing the real elephant in the room, which was that there was no WMD to be found.

Throughout his testimony, I got the impression that he felt that the agencies had done nothing particularly wrong, but that it was (and these are my words and not his) the politicization of their activities that had led to their coming unstuck. Sir David said that the politicians should not have been able to use intelligence in a confident way for public presentation, and that it was the clear timetable that had contributed to the group-think. He did not say it, but one could hear it in his testimony, that ‘if we had been left alone, we’d have done a good job, as always’. And it’s difficult to dissent from that view. What he seems to be calling for here (and it is the academic understanding of intelligence) are ‘objective’ agencies ‘speaking truth to power’, and in many respects this kind of arrangement is an anathema – governments obviously want to steer their tools of power – but it is an arrangement that has existed in British politics on and off, over the past 100years. Let us hope the lessons of Iraq are not forgotten quickly.

In a related issue, I read with dismay about the reduction in the FCO budget dealing with radicalisation in Pakistan – quite how this counts as ‘joined-up thinking’, I don’t know. ‘Capitalism eating itself?’ – they’ll be doing a quiet celebratory jig in the mountains of Af-Pak…

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