by Gordon Thomas
There is more than foolish, even dangerous, arrogance in Downing Street’s decision last week to blatantly plagiarise a student’s document, post it on its own website and pretend it was the latest intel from MI5 and MI6.
The clear and present belief in Downing Street was it could get away with the charade – just as it had done many times before. It was not so much published and be damned. It is more publish and you dare not touch us.
That decision has brought into the open the deteriorating relationship between Britain’s intelligence community and its political master, Prime Minister Tony Blair.
The timing of Downing Street’s monumental plagiarism has ruptured the essential trust between Blair’s intelligence chiefs and the prime minister. Such a relationship is always complex. Both survive from the same source – credible information and a mutual trust.
But increasingly, the intelligence chiefs – Richard Billing Dearlove of MI6 and Eliza Manningham-Buller of MI5 – have found their work manipulated into an agenda which Downing Street’s spin doctors have spun with the increasing speed of whirling dervishes.
Last week that spinning took on an almost demented form. The Downing Street website document was called “Iraq: Its Infrastructure Of Concealment, Deception and Intimidation”.
The clear implication was it had been compiled by the intelligence community. It had not. It was the work of a gifted former post-graduate student in California. Most of the material was out-dated, some by as much as ten years.
Parts were blatantly lifted, word by word, punctuation error by punctuation error. The work had been published last September in the specialist small-circulation journal, “The Middle East Review of International Affairs”.
The one certainty is that affairs had long moved on since then. MI5, MI6 and Downing Street knew that. They are all on the journal’s subscribers list.
But a decision was taken in Downing Street – undoubtedly approved by Tony Blair, for he is a keen internet surfer – to post the document.
US Secretary of State Colin Powell was urged to praise its originality and its up-to-the-minute proof in his address to the UN last week. He duly did.
He did so knowing that the document had been plagiarised. CIA Director George Tenet had told him. Powell had told President Bush. The President insisted the document not only contained “credible evidence”, but it bore the cachet of being published on Blair’s website.
In London, both Dearlove and Manningham-Buller had urged, the moment they saw the posting, to have the document removed.
Downing Street refused. It clung to the line that it didn’t matter who was the original source; the information was credible.
Shocked and furious at this latest display of how Downing Street grabbed at any piece of information that can bolster a case Blair wants to promote, Dearlove and Manningham-Buller fought back.
Their first stop was the BBC Radio-4 Today programme.
Andrew Gillingham, its defence correspondent, told listeners he had been briefed that both intelligence services were fed-up with being politicised. Further, he had been told from high-level sources that Blair’s much trumpeted links between al-Quaeda and Saddam were few.
What had been a behind the scenes row had taken on the shape of a burgeoning scandal.
At is core was the astounding way that Downing Street, often with barely disguised contempt, viewed Britain’s intelligence services.
Increasingly, since September 11, Downing Street has encouraged its own analysts to cruise the internet and to listen to the latest rumour from the chattering classes. The gossip is all too often matched against what comes from MI5 and MI6. And the result is that the intelligence services information is ignored – or given a spin that was never intended.
At Downing Street’s cocktail parties and private dinners, celebrity authors, film makers and bankers are encouraged to reveal the latest “intelligence” about Saddam and his latest paranoia.
Visitors to the White House, who later turn up for drinks at Downing Street, are similarly quizzed on their “inside” view of what is going on around the Washington Beltway…
All this data is set against what comes down the other official lines of communications: the Home Office, the Foreign Office. MI5 answers to the Home Secretary; MI6 to the Foreign Secretary.
But increasingly Dearlove and Manningham-Buller have found themselves grilled by Blair.
Polite, always ready to offer a vintage whiskey to his intel chiefs, the Prime Minister is no longer the wide-eyed newcomer to their world.
Before he first visited their £236 million headquarters along the Thames, he had been told by the Old Guard in Old Labour to never quite trust the intelligence community.
When he came into Downing Street, the memory of the gross betrayal by George Blake, Kim Philby, and Anthony Blunt and Sir Roger Hollis were a stain Blair could never forget or forgive.
All those men were Russian moles in MI5. Hollis had been the service’s long-serving director-general.
They had been trusted. They had briefed Labour prime ministers like Harold Wilson. He had not only been betrayed by them, but had become convinced they had fed him wrong intelligence.
Blair had not forgotten that. How could he?
But, perhaps inevitably, it has coloured his own perception of what the role of the intelligence community should be.
At first seasoned spy catchers like Dearlove and Manningham-Buller tolerated this attitude. In their experience a new prime minister always needed time to find his feet.
They did what they had done before. They gave Blair insights into their world. He was encouraged to read an MI5 in-house booklet, “Their Trade is Treachery”. It is filled with case histories of how successful the service had been. Dearlove told him about some of his adventures in those places where the streets have no names.
For a while, all seemed well. Then came September 11. This was a catharsis for the global intelligence community. For Blair it was an opportunity to place himself on the international stage.
While Bush stayed close to the White House, Blair criss-crossed the world. Along the way, inevitably, he picked up a lot of intelligence that did not come from MI5 and MI6. It became clear to those services that Blair liked what he was hearing. It was sexy. The kind of stuff his celebrity authors would later confirm, over a post dinner brandy.
The gap grew between Downing Street and the intelligence community.
At first, it was small things. What exactly were MI5 and MI6 to do with the extra money they asked for to supplement their annual budget each of £1 billion?
Blair was told of the need for more linguists, for more field agents, for specialists to infiltrate the closed world of Islamic fanatics.
Blair had many questions. All came down to one. When could be see more “credible evidence” to nail Saddam?
Downing Street became frustrated, and then irritated, that the flow of “credible evidence” was not the torrent they required.
From there, it was but a short step to spinning what was coming in.
Alerts began to be issued. There were well-placed leaks designed to show that MI5 and MI6 were not as successful as French, Spanish and German intelligence in capturing al-Quaeda terrorists.
There were scare stories. There was a “ricin factory somewhere in Britain”. Why hadn’t MI5 found it?
There were rumours that the London underground was about to be attacked.
So far, thankfully, nothing has come of this. Except to damage the relationship between the intelligence services and Downing Street.
As war looms, that relationship has reached its nadir. But the need for a secure working relationship between MI5 and MI6 and Downing Street has never been more vital. It is no exaggeration to say the Defence of the Realm depends on it.