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Passive Deceit and the Death of David Kelly
September 24, 2003
By Dennis Hans

Dr. David Kelly, the British weapons inspector who took his life earlier this summer, would likely be alive today if the the best and brightest of British intelligence had not engaged in "passive deceit." If they had not allowed a misinterpretation to lodge in the brains of the media and public, Kelly would not have made the allegations that started the unfortunate chain of events culminating in his death.

Deceit can be active or passive. An example of active deceit is to claim that you "know" that Iraq continued to produce chemical and biological weapons from 1999 to 2002 when you merely suspect such was the case. The September 24, 2002 dossier "Iraq's Weapons of Mass Destruction" gave the false impression that a mere "judgment" - based on limited, unconfirmed intelligence - was an established fact. The misleading formulation was presented both in the main text, prepared by the Joint Intelligence Committee (JIC) under the supervision of JIC chairman John Scarlett, and in the Prime Minister's Foreword, penned by Alastair Campbell and reviewed and approved by Tony Blair.

Passive deceit occurs when you're in position to correct a misperception but you fail to act. Perhaps you prefer to allow the misperception to lodge in the brains of citizens as fact, because it serves your political interests. An example of passive deceit is the non-response of two intelligence chiefs, Scarlett and MI6's Sir Richard Dearlove, after much of the British public and media assumed from their reading of the dossier that Iraq could launch a WMD attack on Britain's overseas interests (if not on Britain itself) within 45 minutes of an order to do so.

In fact, Iraq could not. The spy bosses knew it could not, yet neither man appeared to make any effort to correct the misimpression or urge anyone in the Blair administration to do so.

Presenting the 45-Minute Claim to the Public

According to senior British spooks, a few weeks before the publication of the dossier British intelligence received information from a reliable source that a second reliable source - a senior Iraqi military man - said Iraq could deploy some of its chemical and biological weapons within 20 to 45 minutes of an order to fire them. Intelligence analysts presumed that the weapons in question were battlefield munitions with scant range - that is, they posed a threat to Iraqi citizens and perhaps foreigners living within a few miles of Iraq's borders. The analysts did not believe the Iraqi's info referred to the 20 or fewer long-range missiles Iraq allegedly still possessed, which if they existed could reach British bases on the island of Cyprus. (We can, of course, add "allegedly" to the chem/bio weapons themselves.)

As for missiles that might reach Mother England, not even Tony Blair pretended Iraq had such weapons. But just to be on the scary side, he or Campbell removed this reassuring sentence from an early draft of the Foreword: "The case I made is not that Saddam could launch a nuclear attack on London or another part of the UK (he could not) ..."

No need to unduly comfort the public with reliable information on the limited nature of the Iraqi threat.

The "45 minutes" claim appears four times in the dossier. In the Blair/Campbell Foreword, it's presented as established fact, and the preceding sentence declares, "Intelligence reports make clear that he sees the building up of his WMD capability, and the belief overseas that he would use these weapons, as vital to his strategic interests, and in particular his goal of regional domination."

Consider these three consecutive bullets from a section in the main text laying out "what we know":

• Iraq possesses extended-range versions of the SCUD ballistic missile in breach of UNSCR 687 which are capable of reaching Cyprus, Eastern Turkey, Tehran and Israel. It is also developing longer-range ballistic missiles;

• Iraq's current military planning specifically envisages the use of chemical and biological weapons;

• Iraq's military forces are able to use chemical and biological weapons, with command, control and logistical arrangements in place. The Iraqi military are able to deploy these weapons within 45 minutes of a decision to do so.

Only a fool would read those passages and think, "I gotta hunch that the only weapons that can be deployed within 45 minutes are battlefield munitions with minimal range."

Passive Deceit Works Its Magic

JIC chairman John Scarlett and MI6 chief Richard Dearlove have explained to the Hutton Inquiry that yes, the public misinterpreted the passages, and no, that was not the intent.

So why didn't they correct the misinterpretation? Even if they preferred to remain anonymous, as befitting spy chiefs, they could have spoken to Blair and Campbell and urged them to clue the public in. After all, the dossier was presented as a work of the intelligence services, the JIC in particular. The JIC chairman should have been concerned that, despite his best intentions, the public had got the wrong idea. Wouldn't he want senior government officials, including the prime minister, to go on TV and say, "Hey, sorry about the confusion and the scare, but here's what that '45 minutes' really means"?

Both from the standpoint of the JIC's reputation and the importance of informing rather than misinforming citizens in a democracy, a prompt, well-publicized clarification was in order. But it was not forthcoming.

On September 22, 2003, Minister of Defence Geoff Hoon told the Hutton Inquiry that he too knew the true meaning of the 45-minute claim. Asked why he did nothing a year ago when British newspapers ran scary headlines about the Iraqi threat, based on a logical but false interpretation of the dossier, he faulted the media for engaging in "exaggeration," said it was not his duty to correct their errors, and added it had been his experience that getting the press to issue corrections was "time-consuming and fruitless."

Hoon's astounding testimony on this point (click here and scroll down to sections 81-84) may well end his political career.

A Misimpression Quickly Corrected

One can contrast the willingness of Hoon, Scarlett and Dearlove to allow the media and public to assume their misinterpretation was in fact correct with the reaction of the Blair team when the public received a false impression on another matter. On May 29, 2003, BBC reporter Andrew Gilligan told listeners that a well-placed source told him that the 45-minute claim was inserted into the dossier not by intelligence pros, but by Blair's communication chief, Alastair Campbell, and that the claim remained in the dossier despite the government's belief that it was probably wrong.

Campbell, Blair, Scarlett and Dearlove knew the story was false. Did they think, "Oh, what's the harm in this story lodging in the minds of the public and media as gospel truth? And even if we issue a clarification, there's no guarantee that the media will even report what we say." No, they didn't see any upside in letting this particular misimpression stand, given that it called into question the integrity of every one of them. Blair later told the Hutton Inquiry that if it were true that his government had misled the public to win support for war, it "would mean we had behaved in the most disgraceful way and I would have to resign as prime minister."

Downing Street answered the charge the same day it was made, refuting the thrust of Gilligan's story and saying that the substance of the dossier was the work of the intelligence services. In the days and weeks to follow, Campbell in particular aggressively answered the allegations in Gilligan's report and even went after Gilligan's BBC bosses.

Blair and Campbell were in a position to set the citizenry right and that's just what they did - in a very public fashion. No passivity, no sitting back quietly and allowing the public to be deceived by a misleading report.

What Did Blair Know and When Did He Know It?

One thing that still needs clarification is whether Blair and Campbell knew, just as Hoon knew, that the JIC had judged the 45-minute claim to be a reference only to battlefield munitions. If they knew, they need to explain why they implied otherwise in the Foreword and why they didn't insist that the rest of the dossier make that point crystal clear. If they knew, Blair would seem to be guilty of that resigning offense. There may be a technical difference between actively deceiving the public and engaging in a sly act of passive deception, but at the root of both forms of deception is a cynical contempt for the public's right to know.

If Blair and Campbell were fooled just like the British public, did there come a time in the days, weeks and months after publication that the intelligence chiefs clued them in on the real meaning of 45 minutes? If so, why didn't Blair and Campbell clue the public in? If Scarlett and Dearlove didn't inform the prime minister, why didn't they?

The Conning and Suicide of David Kelly

Among those who assumed the dossier's 45-minute claim related to missile-delivered WMD was Dr. Kelly, Britain's leading expert on biological weapons. That's why he was bothered by the dossier's discussion of 45 minutes: he didn't see how that missiles could be loaded with WMD and readied for attack so quickly.

Kelly was confused because the people in position to clear up the confusion preferred to allow Brits to make a false presumption that increased the likelihood they would support Blair's Iraq policy.

Kelly wouldn't have talked about the 45-minute claim in May 2003 with BBC reporter Andrew Gilligan if the matter had been clarified in September. There would have been no ensuing Campbell-BBC brouhaha, no effort to find out who was Gilligan's source, for there would have been no story and no source. Kelly wouldn't have been hounded. He would have spent the summer in government service doing what he was exceptionally good at: investigating Iraqi WMD programs in Iraq.

There would have been no unbearable pressure, no long, troubled walk, no sad death years before his time.


Dennis Hans is a freelance writer who has taught courses in mass communications and American foreign policy at the University of South Florida-St. Petersburg. Prior to the Iraq war he published Lying Us Into War: Exposing Bush and His Techniques of Deceit and The Disinformation Age. He can be reached at HANS_D@popmail.firn.edu

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