Hijacked by that Mob at No 10
Britain's foreign policy and intelligence decisions have been politicised - co-opted by the Tony Blair advisers they call the Cosa Nostra, writes Anthony Sampson
Sunday June 8, 2003
Behind the fierce current questioning of Blair's use of intelligence lies a deeper worry running through Whitehall: that the Prime Minister has so centralised foreign policy that the key decisions have become much more politicised, without looking objectively at alternative advice or information.
Intelligence is only part of the problem, but it has inevitably attracted unprecedented political exposure because the Iraq war was, very unusually, a pre-emptive war, where the Government had to depend heavily on intelligence reports to justify the invasion of a sovereign state.
The argument for war rested crucially on the assessment of Saddam's potential for weapons of mass destruction, which could only be provided by the intelligence services, together with the UN inspectors. And the Joint Intelligence Committee - which includes both MI6 and the Foreign Office - found themselves at the centre of foreign policy.
The JIC has always been acutely aware of the dangers that their own assessments would be politicised. As their former chairman Sir Percy Cradock wrote in his book Know Your Enemy, the JIC kept their distance from policy-making, to ensure that analysts did not become courtiers: they had to 'report their findings, almost always unpalatable, without fear or favour'. They needed to operate 'in separate but adjoining rooms, with communicating doors and thin partitions, as in cheap hotels'.
But the partitions can easily fall down; and they have become thinner since the JIC, which is part of the Cabinet Office, has become closer to Number 10.
Last September, when Blair first wanted to publish the original dossier about Saddam's weaponry, some intelligence officials were opposed to publishing anything, lest it be misunderstood or politicised, or betray sources in Iraq.
And when the second 'dodgy dossier' suddenly appeared on the Government website, including additions from Alastair Campbell's office which the JIC had not even been shown, the worst fears about political interference appeared to be vindicated. It was only after a serious bust-up that intelligent officials were reassured, having been promised it would never happen again.
They are now all the more determined to separate their information from political pressure. But they still have their corporate memories of Harold Wilson developing paranoia about intelligence, which appeared to be returning when John Reid complained last week about 'rogue elements' within MI6.
And they will remain in an exposed position on the front line of politics, so long as the British concern about terrorism continues, the Middle East remains unstable, and the Americans turn their attention to other Islamic countries, particularly Iran. The British intelligence assessment of the dangers of Iran in the near future may prove as important, and as difficult, as the assessment of Iraq in the past.
In the meantime the conventional diplomats in Whitehall are having their own worries about the politicising of foreign policy. For Tony Blair has gone further than any Prime Minister since Churchill in overriding and by-passing the advice of the Foreign Office.
He has surpassed Thatcher in establishing his own diplomatic staff at Number 10, and promoting his own favourites. So long as the combative Robin Cook was Foreign Secretary, Blair was reluctant to intervene; but after Jack Straw took over he was much freer to extend his rival diplomatic network.
Blair had already appointed his friend Lord Levy, who is Labour's chief fund-raiser, as his special envoy in the Middle East, with his own base in the Foreign Office - to the fury of the professionals. Now he has two very senior diplomatic advisers in Number 10, Sir David Manning and Sir Stephen Walls, both with their own staffs.
Moreover, the ambassador in Paris, Sir John Holmes, was previously Blair's Principal Private Secretary. And now Blair has chosen John Sawers, his private secretary at Number 10 before he became ambassador in Cairo, to be his special envoy to Iraq.
The traditional diplomats within the Foreign Office are exasperated by the alternative centre of foreign policy run from Downing street, which they call 'Cosa Nostra'. They see that the road to the top is no longer through the steady promotion through embassies abroad, but through catching the attention of one man, the Prime Minister.
The most influential diplomat is no longer the head of the Foreign Office, Sir Michael Jay: but Sir David Manning in Number 10. And who is occupying the key position, the ambassadorship to Washington, at this crucial time? Nobody.
The previous ambassador, Sir Christopher Meyer, left before the Iraq war broke out, and could not be persuaded to stay on because he was due to become chairman of the Press Complaints Commission. Later this summer he will be succeeded by Sir David Manning, but he is still kept by Tony Blair at Number 10, where he is deeply involved with both the Middle East in America.
It is not surprising that Blair relies heavily on Manning, who has travelled widely with him: he is an accomplished diplomat who was previously ambassador to Israel, and is a good friend of Condoleezza Rice, whom he frequently rings in Washington. But the empty residence in Washington is an indication of how far Blair is controlling foreign policy from Number 10.
And many experienced British diplomats have been critical of the consequences of 'Cosa Nostra'. Arabists and ambassadors in the Middle East - as well as many military men - complain that the Government ignored their warnings about the dangerous aftermath of a war in Iraq; while diplomats in Europe and the UN think that Blair needlessly insulted the French and the Germans, and underestimated their opposition to the war with Iraq.
But the real danger is that the concentration of policy-making in Number 10 - linked to real centres of power in Washington - is undermining the crucial distinctions between objective information and subjective policies on which serious decisions in Britain depend: and those thin partitions and adjoining doors are being dismantled, whether in covert or overt diplomacy.
And only the most rigorous questioning and unbiassed reporting by the select committee on intelligence can reassure both Whitehall and the British public that those partitions remain.
More on the WMD debate www.observer.co.uk/iraq Post questions for our panel who will be online on Thursday.