Tinker, tailor, soldier, stooge
Bruce Anderson reveals the steps by which the intelligence services succumbed to the magnetic charm of Tony Blair
THE conventions of secrecy were maintained. Only, Richard Dearlove's disembodied voice appeared in front of the Hutton inquiry. But, irrespective of the effect on individuals' reputations, there are fears that recent events have compromised the Secret Intelligence Service. Its operating procedures have been subjected to too much daylight, and it has been used for purposes that were never intended. One former intelligence officer has described this as the Icarus syndrome; SIS has flown too close to the sun. In this case, the sun is Tony Blair.
There is a piquancy in Mr Blair's developing such a close and indeed affectionate relationship with SIS. About a year before he became Prime Minister, he was invited to lunch at the service's Vauxhall Cross HQ. Those present hoped to dispel any suggestion that they were a bunch of rightwing fascists and to assure the Labour leader that SIS would work as hard and loyally for his government as it had for previous Labour governments. Tony Blair seemed unimpressed. He appeared to take little notice of what was said to him. The lunch was a stilted affair; it was one of the rare occasions when Mr Blair's charm had deserted him. He came across as graceless, edgy and uninterested. After his departure, his hosts scratched their heads over his attitude. They wondered if his mind had been poisoned against them and, if so, whether the damage was redeemable. No one present at that lunch — least of all Mr Blair himself — would have predicted that within four years the new PM would have at least as good a working relationship with SIS as any of his predecessors.
This was partly a result of changed circumstances. Back in 1996, Tony Blair expected to be a domestically focused PM, with only one major foreign-policy priority: Europe, where SIS had little contribution to make. Events developed otherwise, and as they did. Mr Blair became more and more involved with defence and intelligence. Like many of his predecessors, he was struck by the contrast between the cheerful efficiency with which soldiers and intelligence officers set about their tasks and the committee-burdened procrastination of the home Civil Service.
There was a further factor. Although SIS has always recruited able officers, the group that was rising to the top by the late 1990s was exceptionally talented. They were also formidable personalities. Since the war, despite its cloak-and-dagger image. SIS has recruited a lot of officers with an academic temperament: very suitable for the close, cautious analysis of complex intelligence material. The characters who now hold the key posts are at least as academically gifted as their predecessors, but there seem to be more bigscale figures. Richard Dearlove is an obvious example. He has always been outstanding behind a desk, but, as one would expect of someone who, as a young officer, went trekking with Wilfred Thesiger, his personality could never be confined to a desk. The same is true of his board of directors. Even a prime minister would find it hard to see such men at work without being impressed. The chilly luncheon at Vauxhall Cross was quickly forgotten.
Mr Blair was also influenced by SIS's worldview. Well before 9/11, he had been persuaded of the danger that terrorist groups would get hold of WMD. Post-9/11, he got religion on the subject. This inevitably heightened the role of SIS, as did Afghanistan.
After 20 years of virtually no contact with the country, the Foreign Office had little to add to Afghan discussions. SIS did, as did the SAS. But SIS's role quickly crossed the frontier between operations and policy. Afghanistan earned it a seat at the top table, which it retained for Iraq. There were a number of reasons for this. In the first place, conventional diplomacy had little role to play in the build-up to the conflict. From the outset it was clear there would not be another grand coalition as in 1990-91; this would be an Anglo–American enterprise.
Equally, a large section of the Foreign Office was unhappy about the venture. The Arabists felt that the balance of Middle Eastern policy would be undermined, with the UK losing its independence and becoming an Israeli–American client. The Europeans, who had placed such faith in the Blair government, were horrified to see their hopes of entente sabotaged by a PM who seemed determined to out-Thatcher Mrs Thatcher in his closeness to America and his willingness to disregard European sensitivities, If Jack Straw had been a more assertive Foreign Secretary, those institutional doubts would have been more forcefully expressed. Even so, the PM was aware of them, which strengthened his determination to run policy from No. 10. Richard Dearlove played a key role in that. For many months, he was a regular sight on transatlantic aircraft, liaising closely and effectively with the US intelligence world. As one American, saluting the closeness, described the outcome, We don't ask ourselves what we can show you Brits; we show you everything,' Sir Richard also had dealings with Condi Rice. In one meeting in early 1992, she told him that the Bush administration was determined to bring about regime change in Iraq, Richard Dearlove said that this could cause difficulties for his boss: there might be a problem with legality, 'Forget legality. Richard,' came the reply. 'This is policy.' It is not clear that Tony Blair would have disagreed; Sir Richard was almost certainly being more cautious than his Prime Minister. By Easter 2002 at the latest, Tony Blair not only understood the sweeping nature of George Bush's plans for the Middle East. He endorsed them, In that respect, Mr Blair had become a neoconservative.
As such, he had a political problem at home, especially with the Labour party. He decided to resolve it by using WMD as cover. This is not to say that he lied. In the autumn of 2002 Tony Blair's overestimate of Iraq's WMD was widely shared in other capitals. But, as is clear from repeated testimony to the Hutton inquiry, No. 10 was constantly pushing the intelligence material to the limits of accuracy and beyond. In late 2002, SIS officers from Washington joined Richard Dearlove for an evening meeting in No. 10, As it broke up, Tony Blair addressed C. 'My fate is in your hands, Richard.' The PM said it laughingly, but it was not a joke.
Nor did it incite any breach of propriety on SIS's part. No document in the world is crafted more meticulously than a joint intelligence committee dossier. It can take up to a month to draft a three-page report, with every syllable weighed on troy scales of scrupulousness. Cerberus did not guard the gates of Hell more diligently than John Scarlett protected the 'ownership' of his paperwork.
Usage is another matter, Here, SIS was sympathetic to the PM's needs; this was encouraged by the atmosphere in No. 10. Tony Blair's magnetism is attested to by almost everyone who has worked for him. This helps to ensure easy working relations among the men who are running foreign policy in Downing Street, the Cabinet Office and Vauxhall Cross. Everyone knew that the PM had taken the big policy decisions; it was now only a matter of implementation. If this required political skulduggery, well, Tony Blair was the politician. That was a matter for him.
It did mean, however, that SIS was being drawn into public diplomacy, increasingly replacing a marginalised Foreign Office. There was an obvious risk. Such a publicised role could compromise SIS's ability to return to the shadows, where so much of its work must take place. It probably does not matter that everyone now knows what a JIC dossier is. It does matter that a senior Iraqi officer's role in providing information has been identified. Even though the officer's name remains secret, this may not encourage other senior officers in unpleasant regimes to collaborate with British intelligence.
Until about ten years ago, SIS was surrounded by an unnecessary degree of secrecy. In 1956, just before the Suez landings, Anthony Eden sent Nicholas Elliott of SIS to Israel to pass on our intelligence about the Egyptian forces. Nick Elliott was also asked to assess the calibre of Israel's forces; were they as good as they were cracked up to be? After asking if he could see some action, he was told that, though there was no room for tourist trips, Israel could use good men. Nick was assigned to the Gaza front, which was useless for his
purposes, as the Egyptians ran away so fast that his unit reached the Mediterranean in about ten minutes. Nick's fellow soldiers promptly tore off their clothes and rushed into the sea. He was busily following their example when the Colonel, who knew who he was, sprinted up to him gesturing at his groin. 'Before you take your trousers off, remember who and what you're supposed to be.' That's all right, Colonel.—My God! Your lot aren't half thorough when it comes to cover.
By the time Nick Elliott published the first volume of his memoirs, in which he did not refer to his career, that was a wellknown story, so I included it in a review. Nick was mildly cross. But when he published a second volume, shortly afterwards, the atmosphere had changed. He was able to acknowledge his role in SIS, as did other members of the service whom one met socially. There is no harm in that: anyone with enough curiosity and a copy of the diplomatic list can quickly work out who is in SIS. That said, it must remain a secret service. The boundaries between secrecy and publicity now need to be readjusted in the former direction.
Equally, the intelligence process needs to be depoliticised. In his admirable work on the JIC, Know Your Enemy, Percy Cradock reaches the following conclusion: 'The analyst needs to be close enough to ministers to know the questions troubling them. . . [but] too close a link and policy begins to play back on estimates, producing the answers the policymakers would like the best arrangement is intelligence and policy in separate but adjoining rooms, with communicating doors and thin partition walls, as in cheap hotels.'
Tony Blair is not running a cheap hotel at No. 10. It may be that the excessively comfortable atmosphere has created problems for SIS, which will not quickly be resolved and which will require a return to Sir Percy's more basic accommodation.