Friday, March 13, 2009

Desmond Bowen - political advisor?

Evening Standard blogs

Paul Waugh



New Iraq memos

A raft of new Iraq memos and emails have been finally published by the Cabinet Office today - and interesting reading they make.

Thanks to the tireless work of FoI campaigner Chris Ames, we now learn of memos on T Blair's infamous WMD dossier. The memos include emails from unnamed officials which veer from mickey-taking to warnings that a "misleading impression" could be given on the threat posed by Saddam.

But perhaps the most striking items are in "Document 7", a minute written by Desmond Bowen [then in the Cabinet Office Overseas and Defence Secretariat] to John Scarlett [then JIC chairman but now MI6 chief], and copied to Alastair Campbell, Jonathan Powell and David Manning.

"In looking at the WMD sections, you clearly want to be as firm and authoritative as you can be. You will need to judge the extent to which you need to hedge your judgements with, for example, "it is almost certain" and similar caveats.

"I appreciate that this can increase the authenticity of the document in terms of it being a proper assessment, but that needs to be weighed against the use that will be made by the opponents of action who will add up the number of judgements on which we do not have absolute clarity"

That sounds awfully like a man who is telling colleagues 'look the intelligence bods want more caveats but that will risk undermining our argument for war'. Is there any other way of interpreting this section?

Bowen, who is now policy director at the MoD, also adds an intruiging section at the end of his memo. "Finally, the question which we have to have in the back of our mind is' Why now?' I think we have moved away from promoting the idea that we are in imminent danger of attack and therefore intend to act in pre-emptive self-defence.

"The approach is rather that Saddam has failed to abide by UNSCRs and his flouting of international law and continuing acquisition of WMD cannot be tolerated any longer. This difference is important because the focus shifts to Saddam's continuing efforts to equip himself with WMD, which is what the evidence shows."

This is strange because the '45 minutes' from attack claim in the dossier - which Butler later found was based on unreliable sources - certainly does suggest that Britain could be under imminent attack.

UPDATE: Lib Dem foreign affairs spokesman Ed Davey is now on the case. "The jigsaw of how the public were duped on Iraq is nearing completion. This confirms the widely held suspicion that advisers to Blair deliberately tweaked the presentation of intelligence to bolster the case for war."

FURTHER UPDATE: Whitehall sources tell me that Bowen was a senior intelligence official in the Cabinet office and his views should be seen in that light. This was not a spin doctor or political aide trying to make a case, it was the informed judgement of an intelligence expert being passed to an intelligence chief (Scarlett), they say. Alastair Campbell and the others were merely copied into the correspondence and so the suggestion of "political spin" does not enter the equation, I'm told.

Equally, it is suggested that Bowen was not trying to recommend that caveats be left out, but was merely pointing out that there was a judgement to be made - by Scarlett not the political staff - about the extent to which 'hedging' should be used.

8:30PM UPDATE: Now here's a thing. The Whitehall sources above may have got things wrong. I'm told by a different source that actually Mr Bowen was a policy official NOT an intelligence official. A former MoD staffer, he was sent to work with Manning at the Overseas and Defence Secretariat within the Cabinet Office.

So in fact what's happened here is an illustration of the problems with the system during the dossier's drafting. We have a policy guy writing to the intelligence guys (on the JIC) to suggest ways of presenting the intel. This underlines the heart of the issue that concerned some within the Defence Intelligence Staff: that the policy people were too close to the intelligence staff. Now admittedly, this was a dossier for public use rather than a JIC assessment. But given that Number 10 went out of its way to say the dossier was drafted by the intel people and as close to JIC assessments as you could get, that closeness is significant.


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