The Sunday Times (£) has a piece describing in some detail how ‘Former MI6 Chief’ Sir John Sawers was ‘slapped down for Iraq gaffe’. Here.

The article is little more than a breathless description of one document unearthed by the Chilcot Iraq Inquiry. But the author Defence Correspondent Mark Hookham does not get his terminology right.

On 21 February 2002 John Sawers who was then already a top UK diplomat serving as HM Ambassador to Cairo (NOT as MI6 Chief – that came later) sent a teleletter to London posing a number of trenchant questions about UK Iraq policy. The teleletter was marked RESTRICTED. Here it is.

What, you cry, is a ‘teleletter’?

Once upon a time the FCO’s capacity to send diplomatic traffic over its global wireless network was at its limit. The FCO’s telegrams (ie messages in the form of a sort of letter to the Foreign Secretary signed by the ambassador regardless who had written it at post) all had to be typed up on special tape and fed into the comms machine. Embassies were given annual ceilings for the number of words they could send this way – anything less pressing could go by diplomatic bag. Most telegrams were not sent to named individuals: the comms rooms in Whitehall decided which officials saw them according to set distribution lists and common sense.

Things eased as technology improved. So they invented the teleletter. In effect this was an e-letter (a predecessor to an email) sent by a named person to other named people around the network. These were rather less formal but not necessarily less authoritative. It was an important principle that no teleletter be classified SECRET or above – indeed to do so would be a security breach.

So, in this case Sir John sent such a teleletter (ie not as the Sunday Times puts it a ‘dispatch’ or a ‘memo’) to the top FCO Iraq policy brass plus Sir David Manning and Jonathan Powell at No 10, as well as a number of key heads of mission. He posed a number of Big Questions in arguing that the key policy goal in Iraq should be Regime Change: “the lawyers and peaceniks should not prevent us from saying what we really want in Iraq”.

His argument for this was not a bad one: by making the objective so clear in support of what President Bush wanted, the UK would gain leverage with the Americans on how regime change would be brought about and how the Iraq problem would then be managed. He then listed various questions:

How do we preserve Iraq’s territorial integrity … How would we provide for stability after Saddam and his cronies were killed? All these are much more important questions than legality, the Arab street and other hardy FCO perennials … We can look for a legal basis after we have decided what to do, as we did in Kosovo.

Fruity stuff. Plenty more in the teleletter. The more so when read now, when the legality or otherwise of the whole Iraq intervention remains so contentious.

The grim beauty of the Chilcot Inquiry is that such sensitive documents and a myriad more are now out there on the Internet, often in the PDFs of their original form. So in this case we can see David Manning’s cross manuscript note to Jonathan Powell written on his copy:

I have asked FCO to turn him off. Not helpful to have this winging its way round the world as a restricted teleletter. If John/other HoMs want to offer views they should be in personal letters to Michael Jay [ie the FCO Permanent Under-Secretary]

And J Powell’s reply:

I was gobsmacked by this. John deserves a slapping down

This whupping was duly administered in a telegram marked CONFIDENTIAL PERSONAL to Cairo and key posts sent by FCO Political Director Sir P Ricketts the following day. Full version here:

Your teleletter to the PUS raises a number of highly sensitive issues. I can assure you that thought is being given to them, necessarily on a highly restricted basis. You will understand that correspondence, widely copied, on these issues is to be avoided …

What was going on here?

Sir John had gone to Cairo in 2001 after working as PM Tony Blair’s foreign policy adviser (being replaced in that role by Sir D Manning). So John of course knew all the issues and most of the key personalities in Whitehall and Washington. He not unreasonably wanted to bring this active wisdom to bear as the first G W Bush Presidency reached full steam, only a few months after 9/11.

This raises a subtle question of professional civil service and diplomatic ‘form’. How far (and how in fact) to chip in on issues when you know all sorts of things but are no longer directly involved in the blow-by-blow policy debate in London?

Thus when I was HMA in Warsaw I opined in many a teleletter on UK policy towards Serbia/Kosovo/Russia, warning with unerring prescience that V Putin was not going to accept Kosovo’s independence and might seek to use it to advance Russia’s interests elsewhere in ways we did not like. Forsooth, I was the one person in the FCO/Whitehall system who knew most about those issues! But I was no longer working directly on them. Other people were reading all the key intel reports and were being paid to take the key decisions or offer the formal advice to Ministers. So while that Crawford has all sorts of clever views and appears to be unable to shut up in expressing them, do we really need to take them formally into account? Not so much!

Or take the Craig Murray saga. Craig was HM Ambassador in Uzbekistan. He started sending some pretty radical thoughts by telegram about UK policy in Iraq and how it was (he argued) unwise to invest too much in the odious Uzbekistan regime as part of that wider policy. But from where I was then sitting (as HM Ambassador in Belgrade) he started to sound shrill and annoying. I even dropped him a friendly personal teleletter urging him to pipe down and send his concerns in a handwritten letter to the PUS, as that might well have more helpful (for Craig) impact than splattering his opinions round the FCO telegram network.

In this Iraq case John was HM Ambassador in Cairo, so working in a front-rank Arab country where UK/US decisions on Iraq might well have drastic consequences, including for the embassy itself. He had a clear locus to take part in the general policy debate.

However, the first problem here was that in the eyes of Whitehall Sir John was giving bold but sensitive policy advice (“policy first, legality later!”) with all the authority of his previous job but in a widely distributed RESTRICTED contribution in the ‘less serious’ teleletter format as opposed to a PERSONAL SECRET telegram, or a CONFIDENTIAL letter by Bag. (For a classic example of the latter genre, see this letter from HMA Riyadh sent a few days later to Michael Jay, taking up some of the points in John’s teleletter in an FCO camelish way albeit while getting its date wrong).

The other problem was the inevitable one – Sir John’s successor at No 10 and all the other top policy team were bound to feel peeved that Sir John was posing these questions in quite this way, as if they were not already thinking about them day and sleepless night? As the old FCO saw goes, “sucking eggs and all that”.

Hence Sir P Ricketts’ characteristically elegant but stern telegram, whose message was unmistakeable: Cool it!

These things happen. Sir John went on to bigger and better things. The key questions he posed received the answers they received. Or not.