Campbell muddies the water

by Chris Ames

In this morning’s Sunday Telegraph, Andrew Gilligan picks up on what he calls Alastair Campbell’s garbled retraction of a small but important part of his evidence on Tuesday. Campbell subsequently sent in an “addendum” to his live evidence. As I say in the article, Campbell knows that he blew it and has sought to muddy the water by redefining the question.

He was asked if the combination of evidence that joint intelligence committee (JIC) assessments at the time and evidence to the Inquiry from former JIC members that Tony Blair’s “established beyond doubt” claim could not be sustained would mean that parliament had been misled. He said that it would not. I described this here as showing his willingness to defend the indefensible.

Coverage of other Sunday papers looks forward to the appearance of Jack Straw and Geoff Hoon this week. The Sunday Times’ Michael Smith publishes in full Jack Straw’s March 2002 letter to Tony Blair, which was originally leaked to him and which has been available on the internet for a while. It remains to be seen whether the Inquiry will still feel unable to publish – or quote from – the letter when questioning Straw.

The Observer covers Tory claims that British troops were short of vital equipment such as body armour because Geoff Hoon refused to allow it to be ordered in case it showed that a war was being planned. I’ve never fully understood why the government felt obliged to hide this – whether or not Tony Blair was secretly bent on war as alleged. As Britain’s overt policy was that the attempt to deal with Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction was backed by the threat of force, what was the problem with being seen to prepare for war?

The Observer’s Nick Cohen, always a supporter of the war and a self-defined polemicist, resorts to his usual attack on his opponents’ motives and claims of conspiracy theories, unsupported by facts.

“Last week, the media convinced themselves that Campbell made an astonishing admission to the Chilcott inquiry when he said that Blair had sent Bush notes saying that he would support removing Saddam by force if America could not remove him any other way.

“Much of the supposed exclusive had been “revealed” in the Campbell diaries, published as long ago as 2007, but the venerable age of the scoop did not matter because it supported the dominant narrative that Blair was determined to go war come what may.”

It is hard to know where to begin with this ridiculous anti-analysis, apart from the poor spelling of Chilcot. Cohen does not show us where in Campbell’s published diaries he reveals that Blair sent Bush letters showing that that he would support removing Saddam by force if America could not remove him any other way. So how can his reader’s establish that Campbell had said nothing new on Tuesday? And if Campbell had revealed this in his diaries, why would the age of the “scoop” in any way detract from its validity as evidence to the Inquiry. Surely if Blair had sent letters to Bush in the terms described by Cohen, that would support the “dominant narrative” nevertheless.

I wonder whether Cohen has simply been convinced by Campbell’s own claim that the letters were set out in his diaries. It would not be the first time he has been taken in by Campbell’s spin. In my piece yesterday for Comment is Free, I showed how Campbell has now contradicted his own claim at the Hutton Inquiry that Downing Street spin doctor was not terribly closely involved in the process of writing the dossier. Three years ago I wrote:

the prize for group think on Hutton has to go to investigative journalist turned pro-war pundit Nick Cohen for a piece he wrote during the Hutton Inquiry called “Etiquette of email”. Cohen’s contention was that people like Campbell were too clever and too high up in the pecking order to put anything in writing, unlike No 10 press office Daniel Pruce. Cohen described how, when asked about Pruce’s emailed comments on Scarlett’s first draft of the dossier: “A silky Campbell side-stepped the trap by damning Pruce with faint praise.” Campbell famously described Pruce as “making contributions effectively above his pay grade”.

Cohen fell for Campbell’s spin without asking why he had deployed such a well-honed phrase to portray Pruce as out of the loop. He failed to notice that Pruce represented Campbell on the “dossier drafting group” that inserted the 45 minutes claim – or the many incriminating emails that showed that Campbell did, after all, sex-up the dossier.

But, worse, Campbell was being quizzed about an email in which Pruce described Scarlett’s supposed “first draft” of the dossier as “this latest draft”, something that should have a whole belfry of alarm bells.

Ironically, Cohen wrote: “No one has claimed that the government has tried to hide evidence from Hutton.” This was the ultimate in circularity. With a big clue under his nose that the government had hidden evidence, Cohen cited his own failure and that of his colleagues to notice as proving the government’s good faith. Group think had triumphed, with a little help from the ultimate spin doctor.

4 comments to this article


    on January 17, 2010 at 12:00 pm -

    I have always been keen on an Iraq inquiry but now conclude the critics were right who required a legal presence. I cannot believe that Scarlett or Campbell would have got away with it if such as Michael Mansfield had got to work on them.
    Furthermore why did a demonstrable incompetent like Scarlett get a later promotion. It sounds to me like a pay off.

  2. Stan Rosenthal

    on January 17, 2010 at 3:21 pm -

    Campbell muddies the waters? I think it was the convoluted question put to him that did this. I’m still trying to work out what it actually meant. Anyway Campbell’s clarification of his answer is the real point emerging from this episode

    “The reason I said ‘No, it wouldn’t, is because, as I stated elsewhere in evidence, the PM would be entitled to make the judgement he did based on the assessments he saw and had had explained to him, and those words did not have to be in the
    assessments for him to make that statement.”

    This addendum entirely accords with my own take on what he said at the time which I recorded in my comment on your post “Defending the Indefensible”. I said then that my
    interpretation rather poops the party you were having about Blair’s words misleading Parliament and Campbell elaboration on his answer obviously double poops it.

    I think you will have to keep that champagne on ice after all.

  3. Chris Ames

    on January 17, 2010 at 7:35 pm -

    Campbell in his garbled addendum:

    “it would appear that I am saying it would not matter if it transpired that JIC members had made clear at the time of the assessments, and in the preparation of his presentation of the September dossier to Parliament…”

    The question to which he replied:

    “…if members 15 of the JIC and we have already heard somebody who did serve on the JIC, Sir William Ehrman were to say that “beyond doubt” was not a phrase that was justifiable would you at that stage say that Parliament had been

    Interesting that anyone would claim – having read the transcript – that in answering a question that quite obviously refers to a hypothetical situation in the future, he gave an impression relating to a completely different situation that might have occurred in the future.

    Where does he get “had made clear at the time of the assessments” from?

  4. Stan Rosenthal

    on January 17, 2010 at 8:09 pm -

    Nit-picking again, Chris?