There has been much talk of “Intelligence” over the last 18 months. Yet beyond Le Carré novels I suspect few can imagine how it works, in a day-to-day sense. The consequence is that the word is used to mystify and to pretend that the political elite have access to crucial insights not available to ordinary mortals. I met many people who said, in the run up to war, that Tony Blair must know something that they didn’t.
I want therefore – without giving away any secrets – to describe how intelligence works for Ministers who try to read it and make use of it for legitimate purposes. I suspect that if we did have a wider public understanding of the way in which intelligence is properly provided to government, there would be less likelihood of its misuse to excite the media and misinform the public.
It is increasingly clear that, in our euphoria when the Berlin wall came down and Nelson Mandela was released from prison, we did not appreciate how deep a challenge this change would be to makers of foreign policy and shapers of international institutions. The division across the world, organised behind Mutually Assured Destruction, had shaped all military, diplomatic and intelligence priorities for a very long time. The United Nations organised all its activities around the need to keep middle aged men talking rather than rushing off to war. All of this needed rethinking and all institutions find deep and rapid change difficult. And thus the end of the Cold War led to many ugly developments – ethnic cleansing in the Balkans, genocide in Rwanda, the collapse of Somalia and in many poor countries imploded states with overlarge armies falling into civil war, causing suffering, displacement and further impoverishment. In the face of these threats, the international community performed very badly, failing to act in the Balkans, pulling out the UN mission so that 1 million people were killed in the genocide in Rwanda and leaving Somalia to this day a collapsed state.
For the intelligence agencies, the Cold War was clear and deadly serious. Whatever view one took of how we got to Mutually Assured Destruction, we needed brave people to take risks in order to understand the forces at work because if things went wrong, the consequences would have been catastrophic. And then the Cold War was suddenly over and spending on armed forces and intelligence operations was run down. It was into this period of history that I walked when I took over as Secretary of State for International Development. There were regular files put onto my desk containing globules of information about the countries in Africa and Asia in which we were particularly interested. But little of it seemed particularly useful to our purposes and overall the department gave little priority to the intelligence.
But from time to time, the ‘C’ of the day came to call on me. They were keen to discuss how much more they could do to help DfID. We had enjoyable discussions, but it always ended with my teasing them about the fact that the Cold War was over and they were casting about for a new job and I wasn’t very keen on employing them to spy on the governments with whom we were trying to develop partnerships for the reduction of poverty.
Then time went by and I became increasingly focussed on the need to end conflicts – particularly in Africa – where there had been a massive growth of civil conflict in the 90’s which was causing great suffering but was also an enormous barrier to development, affecting whole regions and destabilising development. This led on to DfID proposing, and the Treasury accepting, the establishment of a pooled fund devised to bring together the work of the Foreign Office, the Ministry of Defence and Department for International Development, focussed on conflict prevention and resolution in Africa. In the past, the Foreign Office had dominated our diplomatic representation in Africa and our role on the Security Council where Africa takes up 65% of the time; the Ministry of Defence supplied Defence Attachés and some training for African military forces and the Department for International Development was on the ground in bigger numbers, closest to governments and the concern of poor people. But communication between the three departments was weak and the UK thus far less effective than it potentially would be in helping halt conflict and create the conditions for development in some of Africa’s poorest countries.
It was at this stage that one of C’s very bright underlings came to see me again. He said they had few resources for Africa but would like to do more. He was very interested in the conflict prevention pool and told me that his agency had instant access to African Presidents whenever they asked. He also gave me two books to read on my forthcoming visit to Sierra Leone, one on how Sierra Leone’s diamonds had been misused and the other on the strange nature of the rebel movement that had cut off so many limbs. This was a different approach and I decided it would be beneficial to work together to try to understand issues such as who was supplying arms and money, where the corruption was coming from and who was getting in the way of cleaning up management of defence budgets and arms procurement.
We also talked about our efforts to support reform in government institutions and economic management in Pakistan, our worries over Nepal and whether there was anything we could usefully do to ease the tension and suffering of the people on both sides of the line of control in Kashmir.
We were developing a strong, mutually respectful, relationship based on a shared understanding that if we could help end conflicts, build competent, uncorrupt state institutions and reduce poverty we would help to make the world more just and more stable and that this was in the interests of both the people of the developing world and the UK national interest.
Then came September 11th 2001. My very able friend was pulled off work on Africa and required to focus on WMD, drugs and other global threats. We also lost our analyst focussed on arms supplies to the militias causing suffering in Eastern Congo and organising to reinvade Rwanda. The events of September 11th of course created a major new challenge, but the first response was I think wiser than the deeply misconceived ‘war on terror’ that came later. Immediately after September 11th, the whole world wanted to support the US and the Security Council set up a Committee, chaired by our Ambassador to the UN, to ask every country to share information and tighten up on money laundering so that all would work together to counter Al Qaeda. And then the focus shifted to Osama bin Laden organising Al Qaeda in Afghanistan. Again, the world came together to challenge the Taliban to hand him over and when this was refused, to overthrow the Taliban. And right through that conflict in Afghanistan, the UN’s World Food Programme kept food moving into the country and being distributed so that 9 million Afghans would not go hungry. And as the war ended, we agreed a UN supported peace keeping force for Kabul, the UN took on the role of bringing into being a representative interim government and a process of constitution writing; and the UN and DfID worked with the World Bank and Asian Development to build competent state institutions. All this went well, but we have not made progress in Afghanistan because the military were unwilling to insist that the war lords demobilise their fighters, and thus the drug growing and instability continued and economic and social development was delayed.
But the turning point came when voices in the US started talking about the desirability of a war in Iraq. Senior people in the administration had a long standing commitment to the overthrow of Saddam Hussein and were willing to mislead their country into believing that Al Qaeda was based in Iraq in order to go to war. And echoes were heard in our country. But our Prime Minister assured us we would only act through the UN. My view was that containment was crumbling and that UN sanctions were causing enormous suffering to the Iraqi people; so I was in favour of action through the UN, to tackle the suffering of Iraq and I was willing to contemplate the use of force to back up the authority of the UN. My hope was that we would hold onto Blair’s ankles and he onto Bush’s and we could get the road map to a Palestinian state under implementation and work to help the Iraqi people to overthrow the Saddam Hussein regime and begin to usher in a new era of hope in the Middle East.
But the drums of war got ever louder. So I cancelled all my travel and read every scrap of intelligence that came through on Iraq. I asked for briefings, from my friends in MI6 and was surprised to be told this required the Prime Minister’s consent because normally I saw them as I pleased. But I made a fuss and the briefings were allowed. We in DfID were anxious not to make war more likely by preparing for its inevitability, but like the UN decided we must prepare for all eventualities. We asked Defence Intelligence for a briefing on the likelihood of the use of chemical and biological weapons in the event of war in order to prepare for the possible effects on Iraqi civilians. I had briefing from the MoD on details of the planned military campaign so that we could prepare to try to protect the people.
It was basically clear from the written intelligence and all the briefing that our agencies believed the Saddam Hussein regime was dedicated to developing chemical and biological weapons and that its nuclear programme had been dismantled by the weapons inspectors, but that given the means it would pursue a nuclear programme. It was also clear that the regime had obstructed and deceived UN inspectors. The general view was that Iraq needed dealing with, but there was no immediate danger.
But somewhere else in the forest, Alistair Campbell was working on the dossier. He had produced dossiers before and as I considered it to be basically a propaganda exercise, I told my Private Secretary I did not wish to see the drafts or propose any amendments. But I was still hopeful that we could hold our Prime Minister to his promise on the Second Resolution and progress on a Palestinian state.
The rest is history – sad history. The tragedy is that the UK might well have been able to insist on progress on the road map and two resolutions and saved a lot of lives, avoided the chaos in Iraq and the strengthening of Al Qaeda that has followed the war. On top of this, I am afraid that the deceit on the road to war and the deliberate marginalisation of the UN led to an unforgivable failure to prepare for the aftermath of the inevitable speedy victory. The international community was willing to come together to support the reconstruction of Iraq.
Tony Blair persuaded me to stay in the Government because the war was unstoppable, but we could have helped the Iraqis rebuild and secure a better future. But the Pentagon was king and hated the UN and our Prime Minister, despite his promises to me, did not feel able to stand up for a proper UN lead and thus the continuing chaos in Iraq.
My conclusion is that we could have handled Iraq much better if we had abided by just war teaching and ensured that all other means had been exhausted. It is clear now that the US set a date for war and we went along with it, and thus Dr Blix was not allowed to finish his work and we did not indict Saddam Hussein or even explore the impressive alternative policy put forward by the American churches. But my conclusion is that the mistakes lay with the politicians and not the security services. The leaders of those services went native with No 10 and the Hutton process revealed. But the significant mistakes in Iraq were political and not intelligence mistakes.
The spying on Kofi Annan’s office is a footnote. This had been going on for a considerable time. It was odd, but until Iraq the UK was working so closely in support of Kofi Annan and his reform agenda for the UN that it did little harm. But once Iraq brought division and manipulation and dishonesty at the UN, the practice became deeply insidious. I thought I could use the Gun case to bring it to light, in order to bring it to an end. For some reasons, revealing that it was going on brought on a vicious onslaught from No 10. The Prime Minister claims I was deeply irresponsible to reveal it. But whether this is true depends on whether we should be spying on Kofi Annan. If yes, then it should continue and it is irresponsible to reveal it. If no, then it is a means to bring it to an end. The Prime Minister could have said he was not aware and would look into it, but instead we got the bluster over the sacred nature of Intelligence. It was suggested that I was damaging the national interest and endangering our security forces and ought to be prosecuted. I think it much easier just to stop spying on Kofi Annan.
Sadly now the world is much more bitterly divided. 20,000 Iraqis have died and many US and UK soldiers, the terrible suffering and killing in Israel and Palestine continues and Al Qaeda is stronger. Our security services now have more money and personnel. They are no longer casting around for a role. And Africa has slipped way down the agenda. I am certain the present approach cannot succeed. We will turn back to justice and development to heal the dangers of the world. The question is how long it will take and how much suffering and hatred will flow before we get there.