Published on Sunday, February 1, 2004 by the Toronto Star
BBC Takes Bullet Meant for Blair
by Linda McQuaig
It's perhaps forgotten that the two Washington Post journalists who broke the Watergate scandal got one thing wrong in their reporting. They acknowledged their mistake (about testimony given to a grand jury) and, in the end, it did nothing to divert the public's attention from the real story the treachery of U.S. president Richard Nixon.
It's worth keeping this in mind in light of the bizarre even perverse findings released last week by a British inquiry, led by Lord Hutton, which lambasted the BBC and exonerated Prime Minister Tony Blair over his government's wildly erroneous claims about Iraq's weapons.
The BBC got an aspect of its reporting wrong, and it acknowledged the error. It deserves some criticism.
But fascinating documents made public at the Hutton inquiry show that the BBC accurately reported something of crucial importance that senior political aides repeatedly pressed top intelligence officials to come up with a more dramatic dossier on Iraq's weapons in order to bolster the government's case for war against Iraq.
On the basis of these documents, one could conclude the government pushed for the Iraq dossier to be "sexed up," which was the essence of the BBC's reporting.
In going after the BBC, Hutton unfairly tarnished the broadcasting corporation's worldwide reputation and helped create a climate in Britain and in North America where media outlets will be even more timid in challenging those with power.
Hutton also diverted attention from the real story the Blair government's manipulation and spinning of evidence in order to overcome the public's natural reluctance to go to war. This, by any meaningful measure, is a more serious assault on the democratic process than anything the BBC failed to do in its reporting.
The documents give us an intriguing window into what happened.
Blair asked his aides in September, 2002 to prepare a dossier on Iraq's weapons to help win over a skeptical British public.
Britain's intelligence services had, in fact, just completed such a dossier, but Blair's aides were dissatisfied with it.
It didn't make Iraq sound very threatening, saying only that Iraq had the capacity for producing chemical and biological weapons and noting that, even if sanctions against Iraq were lifted, it would be at least five years before Saddam Hussein could produce nuclear weapons. (At that pace, we'd all be grandparents before tanks rolled.)
There was no way the country could be whipped into a war frenzy with that sort of intelligence. So the intelligence officials were sent back to the drawing boards.
Over the next couple of weeks, the dossier was substantially overhauled, in a process supervised by Blair's political aides, who urged it be made stronger. At one point, Blair's press secretary apologized to intelligence officials for pushing so hard. "Sorry to bombard on this point ..."
But bombard he did. When a redrafted version claimed that Iraq "might already have" started producing VX gas, Blair's press secretary complained about the word "might," noting it "reads very weakly."
The intelligence team redrafted again, reporting back the next day: "We have been able to amend the text in most cases as you proposed." Among the changes: A claim that the Iraqi military "may" be able to deploy chemical and biological weapons within 45 minutes was firmed up into a claim that the Iraqi military "are able to" deploy such weapons in 45 minutes.
Thus, the intelligence officials' original dull-but-accurate portrait of Iraq's lackluster weapons arsenal was transformed into a hair-raising account of hellish destruction that could be unleashed in less than an hour. Hence, the feverish headlines in the major London dailies upon the dossier's release: "45 Minutes from Attack" and "He's Got 'Em. Let's Get Him."
Hutton said he wasn't assessing the accuracy of Britain's intelligence on Iraq. But he did determine there was nothing wrong with the way the the government acted, even though he concedes that Blair's obvious desire for a stronger dossier may have "subconsciously influenced" intelligence officials.
Where would be get a wild idea like that? As we all know, people never alter their positions to accommodate the wishes of their superiors. Right?
The BBC reported and later retracted that the government "probably knew" the 45-minute claim was wrong.
Hutton concluded that the BBC's editorial process was "defective." But he found nothing defective about senior political aides hounding intelligence officials to rewrite a dossier to fit the government's war agenda.
It's interesting to imagine what Hutton would have thought of Watergate.
Certainly, if we applied his standards, we'd remember Watergate as the scandal that finally exposed the treacherous editorial practices of the Washington Post.
Linda McQuaig is a Toronto-based author and political commentator. Her column appears Sundays.
Copyright Toronto Star Newspapers Limited