I found myself reading again the testimony of MI6 officer SIS4 to the Iraq Inquiry.

The full text is here. Lots of his testimony is blacked out for operational security reasons. But there’s plenty left. It’s interesting as a rare example of someone with both huge experience and a dark wit sharing deep frank insights into how top levels of government work when matters of the highest sensitivity are involved. What checks and balances are in place in theory? What do they mean in Real Life when the pressure is on? Who decides?

Let’s look at some examples. Note that some of the sharpest questions are from Sir Rod Lyne, formerly HM Ambassador to Moscow and someone steeped in the highest workings of Whitehall and its workings.

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David Manning back in the day was Tony Blair’s foreign policy adviser. He calls SIS4 who he knows to be an expert on all things Arab and asks for some urgent but basic points. Now!

David Manning wants to speak to you, and David coming on the line and saying, look, this Iraq stuff is it building up apace. Can you just do me a quick paper, a sort of Anglican 39 articles or whatever it’s called, just bullet points, of key issues that we need to bear in mind to keep our balance and our perspective in considering Iraq as a rapidly expanding threat.

So he wanted a sort of sedative paper, and he wanted it by 6 o’clock. So I had to cancel everything else I was doing and knock that up in about an hour.

… I wanted to arm David with background reminders that this is not going to be simple or straightforward, and it doesn’t have to pan out well. I don’t think I had in my mind particular wheezes, schemes or policy programmes which could be followed up, simply to argue for caution, circumspection and awareness of what a heavy matter Iraq could prove to be because it had been in the past … My understanding was that he wanted arguments and points to give to the Prime Minister, which the Prime Minister could bear in mind in his discussions with the Americans.

Prime Ministers and Presidents need things kept simple. There is true art in drafting papers that convey the essence of complex issues in just a few paragraphs so that leaders can grasp what is really going on and what is at stake.

Where did this objective of regime change in Baghdad come from? How did this come into the conversation?

I think it came out of the ground like a mist following the change of temperature on 9/11. I think it became clear to all of us that nothing short of decisive intervention in Iraq was going to satisfy the Americans.

Beautiful subtle simile.

… remember that I would have been writing these papers like this very, very privately for David Manning. We weren’t a policy department. David would have been asking me, because he knew that I was responsible for the Middle East. I knew my way round it. I speak Arabic. And he knew that I would probably get it done on time. It certainly wouldn’t have been part of a co-ordinated interdepartmental policy consideration, and I don’t doubt that if the Foreign Office got hold of this, they would have been frightfully cross.

Note this. At the highest level of government atop the system after a couple of decades working your way up the ranks, you know who gets work done quickly and accurately. Sometimes you ignore all the ‘machinery’ and go straight to that person. That has advantages (speed, less guff/process) but also risks (over-reliance on that person’s acuity/integrity). Hence the next question – what exactly did SIS4 represent here?

It is important in terms of whether this is you as a foreign policy — very knowledgeable in the region of foreign policy, responding to a request from David Manning as someone he trusts, or something which involves a number of people at SIS.

SIS officers always refer to themselves in the first person plural. Only the Chief is allowed to use “I”, and so there’s that ambiguity to factor into this as well. But I suspect that this would have been a small roundtable meeting with David Manning and he looked at some of these problems.

In other words, sometimes No 10 just wants to talk things through as frankly as possible with some smart key people, regardless of ‘form’.

What did you see as the attractions of removing Saddam Hussein? What was the case that you were making here for regime change?

Iraq was part of my consciousness. I remember saying to somebody at that time that the lack of our response to the re-emergence of Iraq as a serious regional power was like having tea with some very proper people in the drawing room and noticing that there was a python getting out of a box in one corner.

Brilliant, Saki-like way of putting it.

So many people think of WMD as being rather like tanks and missiles and aeroplanes, things that you could look at. In my own mind, I always thought of WMD as being contained really in the brains of the experts who understood them and who were able to produce them, sometimes at very short notice. Nuclear would be slightly different under that heading, but we had dealt with the Iraqi nuclear threat.

Iraq’s potential, its capability in the WMD field, was very dramatic. Our understanding was that Iraq cracked the Iran/Iraq War with a sarin attack, and 45,000 Iranians died on the Fao peninsular. The Iranians got themselves into a muddle sending their artillery and mortar to Hallabja, and the Iraqis pifpaffed that army. It was very, very striking.

So the idea of putting an end to this problem, was not something that I would advocate, but I could see the force of the desire to do it, to be decisive.

Yes. But if WMD is capability, not kit, what on earth do do about it?

The point about it being possible to talk about regime change, I can remember, was a remark about managing the paradox of working hard for regime change, communicating in secret, and being able to communicate to the world and to the Iraqi population, in the hopes maybe of precipitating local Iraqi help, without compromising that core and secret effort. So I was just making the point that it was possible to develop international support, Iraqi support, inure people to the idea that this might be coming down the line; to do all that without compromising any operational work being done on the ground to achieve that end.

Important point as seen from an SIS corner. All these fancy interventions are all very well, but don’t forget that there are also vital intelligence issues in play that may or may not be jeopardised.

I don’t want to leave the impression in your minds that at this point there was an autonomous UK based drive towards regime change, because I have no memory of that. I have a vivid memory of people being very concerned that all this stuff may be about to happen, and what do we think about it.

What do we think of the arguments? What are the pluses? What are the minuses? What are the dangers? Rather than this being a pencil we were sharpening for HMG use. But clearly we would need to be in a position to discuss it with the Americans. They were likely to bring it to us. I think there’s a distinction there.

Important. The record and the mood need to be looked at together. They aren’t the same thing

I was reading only a couple of weeks ago an account of very early Mesopotamian civilisation, and the writer said “civilisation is a matter of diffusion, but of ideas rather than models”.

I liked that. I thought it was a wonderful way of summing it up because it was what I already believed. The idea that Iraqi Shias could be fitted out with Republican, Democrat, Lib Dem identities, organisations and run the difficult place which is Iraq, a place which has never had stable political geography, wouldn’t have occurred to me in 2001.

Profound. One of the driving logics of ‘peacebuilding’ work is the assumption that ‘really’ lots of people out there are LibDems at heart, ie on-the-one-hand-on-the-other-hand folks who want to live nicely and reasonably with everyone else. But what if they’re just not that?

The discussion moves to ‘legality’:

I do remember, and vividly from my WMD time, that there was a notably shifting climate affecting foreign policy and our work, Government relations with private people, in the category of legality. We had, I think, a decisive difficulty after the war in Iraq because we couldn’t round up all these scientists and find out what they had been doing, for legal reasons. We had just fought a war. We had lost all these men. Tens of thousand of Iraqis had been killed, and suddenly we were on Maidenhead rules.

Back to WMD:

… it’s important to say that there is a distinction between the broad impression of a country’s WMD capability and the specific operational success in penetrating its secrets …

Iraq was a well-known foe, but our intelligence base was small, and our conviction was that the items of WMD, if we are talking about pots of liquid and rockets and centrifuges, were very, very small. The phrase I used to use with people in the Service was “back of a petrol lorry – it would all go in there.” Iraq as a WMD danger to the world, because of the success they had had, and their gearing this up to a military scale of application, was enormous in my view, given the nature of the regime …

I myself, just as SIS4, discount so many anecdotal comments from Iraqi scientists that they weren’t doing anything. They wouldn’t say, “Yes, I was.” Knowing how legalistic we are, what would they do next? Would they ever get a visa?

Good point. How to have a sense when our own probity gives others strong reasons to tell lies?

In my preparation for coming here today, I had a day in Head Office and was able to see some of the paperwork, and was astonished to see how much Whitehall activity there was through the year to September, which would give, for instance, a historian with access to the paper, the impression this was quite a continuous narrative from about February to September. My clear memory was that we thought we had seen it [Iraq WMD dossier] off by April. There was quite a hot discussion, and then, as far as SIS were concerned or understood, it went away.

… I got back to London in early September, 3, 4, 5 September, and it was up and running like a racehorse. It had just come back into play, and we felt there wasn’t very much we could do about it.

Of course what ‘goes away’ in one part of the sprawling Whitehall system may trundle on for months elsewhere. It all comes down to what the highest people are contemplating, regardless of what everyone else is up to.

So how much were you involved in the actual drafting therefore?

Not at all. I think I was shown drafts towards the end so everyone could say that I had seen them.

NB sometimes papers are deliberately produced with certain key people NOT involved directly in the drafting as it’s known they’ll be ‘difficult’. But then the final docs are run past that person so that they can shrug ‘(‘Ah – so that’s how this one is going down‘) and be indirectly/directly implicated in the policy. See the signatures on the infamous Katyn submission – how many of those top Soviet leaders really took an active part in approving that war crime? Did anyone dare openly oppose it? No.

What was your view of what you saw?

To be honest, I don’t know that I reflected very deeply on it. To be honest, I don’t think that I saw very clearly at that time what a difficult communication problem, exam question, the dossier would pose for us. And I was certainly very relieved when the dossier came out: it wasn’t greatly noticed …

Did you have much contact with Alastair Campbell through this period or generally?

I never met him. I saw him across the Cabinet room table on the morning after 9/11 and I didn’t know who he was. I had to ask.

Truly wonderful. SIS4 spends his time spying, not watching flamboyant of New Labour parakeets preening themselves on TV.

… your reaction to all of this seems to have been a bit distaste for the process and happy to let other people get on with it. Is that a fair assessment?

I don’t know if it was as subjective as distaste, as much as a conviction that the problems of WMD and terrorism were bringing the Service close to the surface of policy where we were not well represented, well trained, nor had locus or authority.

I was brought up in a Service that kept well clear of policy issues, in the Cold War and Middle East and stuff in general, and had a very high opinion through my career of the Foreign Office people who handled the ministerial end of it all. It seemed to me that we were coming up to that interface at some speed, because of the nature of the problems and, I would also add as a personal comment, because of the failure of other departments to get up to speed on this sort of thing. We were rather being lumbered, and I felt we were getting into a situation which was awkward for us.

Important! In a democracy there are deep unspoken checks and balances, one of which is that Policy and Intelligence are kept strictly separate. How that works under pressure comes down to the sense of ethics in each official involved.

… is it possible to say that there was a controlling mind somewhere inside SIS about the SIS contribution to the dossier, but that it was not at board level?

I wouldn’t want to appear to be pushing down that responsibility. We were all pretty much of a mind about the dossier. By the time that came back into the picture, as I said, the racehorse was running and we didn’t feel that there was an opportunity, an occasion, when we could throw ourselves in front of it.

Key point. HMG for its own highest level policy reasons wanted to present a ‘dossier’ on Iraq WMD. How far was it down to SIS as an intelligence gathering agency to object to what was in that dossier? SIS knows what it thinks it knows, and only that. The policy/presentational aspects of that intelligence information and all the other information out there are not SIS’s responsibility. Indeed, it’s arguably improper for SIS even to express a view, unless asked to do so.

How did SIS deal with the ‘silver bullet’ line of intelligence reports suggesting that Iraq/Saddam did have WMD after all? The core operational SIS dilemma in this saga. By fine tradecraft you find a line of intelligence reporting that MIGHT transform the whole politics of the situation. What weight to give to it?

The Prime Minister was interested in a silver bullet. If there was a gleam of a silver bullet anywhere, he would want to know about it, and he would want to see the product. That was not hazarding a guess in those days. Clear answers.

If you had been the Chief, would you have taken a slightly more cautious line, knowing how much excitement this was going to cause, this promise of a silver bullet, at a high political level? He didn’t have to tell the Prime Minister straight away. He could have waited to check it out a bit more thoroughly before doing so.

I don’t think there should be abroad in the Committee an idea that there are any mechanisms for validating, checking incoming intelligence which weren’t taken within the constraints of that time …

… this was potentially a very, very serious breakthrough. It would have changed so much for Greenstock in New York, and so on and so forth. So this wasn’t something that we neglected. There wasn’t anything we could do, other than patiently and securely, without damaging the goose with its egg, edge the casework forward to see if it turned out to be as good as first described. I’m not sure in those circumstances that it would have been right (1) to deny people the intelligence, or (2) not to offer an update for which we knew people were desperate.

Hmm. Desperate?

What I divine to be the direction of questioning is the issue of whether the Chief detonated a psychotropic line of thinking and excitement in the Prime Minister by giving him what in quieter days might be thought rather precipitate briefing on casework which turned out not to be real. I don’t think it’s for me to offer a judgment on that.

… He did not act, in my view, unprofessionally. This wasn’t a matter of great debate, or gossip, “guess what he’s done now”, in the Office. That would not be a fair account.

He felt, as Chief — and don’t forget, we don’t have a private office in Head Office. We don’t have a local minister living with us. The Chief has to take all these political decisions on his own shoulders, bearing in mind his own relationship with the Prime Minister and his ability, man to man, to deal with him. Heavy responsibilities. He judged that Blair needed to know, and he told him.

Of course, it makes a wonderful story in retrospect when the bits which weren’t clear to us at the time are tabled. But the motivation, the analysis and motivation at the time, ante the denouement, stands.

When he told the Prime Minister, with [another SIS officer] and this of course was an extremely sensitive bit of information at this time, those present at the meeting are recorded as being Jonathan Powell, Sir David Manning and Alastair Campbell. Are you surprised that Alastair Campbell should be present, given this couldn’t be used in the dossier or in the public arena?

Post 1997, the culture, disciplines, attitudes of HMG went through phases of profound change. It wouldn’t have happened before, closer to the Cold War. But SIS doesn’t always have it in its hand to discipline HMG, not at the level of Number 10 anyway, or control its social activities.

They have somebody in the room. I think it’s difficult for the Chief to say, “Can I have a private word, Prime Minister. I can’t do it in front of Campbell”. Difficult, given that he knows Campbell has already seen so much stuff. The water is already over the dam.

Again, a central operational point. New Labour elevated its top political/spin advisers into positions of striking access to innermost secrets. We live in a democracy! Is it for SIS to tell the PM who should leave the room?

Now, a still wider question. You spoke earlier, when discussing the dossier, about intelligence being used for domestic political use in the UK. How did you feel that this was manifesting itself?

Because the Service and a great amount of the Service’s interest and operations were getting close to the surface. Who was there in Government that was chasing down Iraqi WMD, and who understood the subject? What were the policy people doing to develop a conceptualisation of policy approach to these problems on the basis of the intelligence? What operationalisation, in policy terms, was coming out of intelligence on terror, crime and WMD? I have to say, very little. Very little indeed.

The impression we got was that all this would be left to the agencies, as a sort of law enforcement activity. This moved us in to closer contact with ministers who were facing extremely difficult political decisions, and I could see the threat to the peace of mind and independence of our officers which they needed, to go off and do this difficult work in foreign places. If we became a Whitehall-centred outfit, we would no longer be extrovert and good in the field. Politicisation in that sense.

Again, here is SIS properly pondering on how to keep itself under control and not get dragged into policy/enforcement work.

Do you think that SIS got too close to the policy making, too involved in Number 10?

I think there’s a high volume of urban myth to that effect abroad in the world, and many people are convinced of that. I think that we may not have been as wise as we would like to have been in retrospect, collectively.

I don’t think, in the circumstances of those days – completely different from my memory of top level consideration of intelligence in the Cold War – that we got too close to the sun. The Icarus metaphor is used time and again. It has limited applicability because Tony Blair was not the sun and Dearlove was not a child with wax wings. They were consenting adults, wrestling with unprecedented policy riddles.

Is it actually realistic, looking back at the lessons of this episode, to think that you can now, particularly when dealing with crisis and possible conflict, maintain that traditional distinction between intelligence provision on one side and policy making on the other? Isn’t it necessary to have the intelligence Chief at the table, providing his opinion, and maybe — indeed, certainly — helping in the execution of the policy?

I wouldn’t welcome that development. I can only speak for myself. Because of the importance of keeping our very few staff who have got to cover the world and you can’t have officers doing policy work — We don’t have the luxury to have them tethered out in Whitehall. Not in my view. I think that it’s natural that senior people would gravitate towards us for a word of advice, comfort, correction, particularly when there was no one else to talk to.

And this is something which individuals manage in a very individual way. I would have done it differently. I believe in a Chief who stays south of the river and is not so easy to get  hold of. That’s my daydream. But that’s a [SIS4] daydream. Real life, with green phones and Brents, is different.

Exactly. You can have whatever conventions and understandings and rules you like. But Real Life has a way of its own.

I remember Blair saying to me once, after the war, “The problem about this job, [SIS4], is there’s no shortage of bad advice“.

There seems to have been a shortage of advice altogether, of a speculative, deliberative kind, which you would have expected, for instance, in discussing those annual nuclear exercises we used to have years ago, where the importance of collective, deliberated, balanced advice had to be taken into — had to be part of it. It was a different world ten years later.

The witness referred to other evidence that the Foreign Office was saying in February 2003 that there was not going to be a war.

So the Chief had to be close to Number 10 because he was called to Number 10, because only he had the staff available really, maybe, to lay out some of the inner realities of this stuff to him. Obviously immediate good access to the intelligence. Only he had the operational levers to try and advance the UK position in this race at the UN. If there wasn’t much other debate and advice out there, I don’t think that’s something that he should be answerable for.

Here SIS4 laments the fact that other parts of the Whitehall system, notably the Foreign Office, either were not giving the PM the advice he needed or were not being asked (or trusted) by No 10 to do so. No 10 were summoning top SIS people instead. That’s how it was.

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The first SIS4 witness session ends here. He gave further evidence about some wider picture themes and what happened after the toppling of Saddam:

What I think, with the benefit of hindsight, it’s interesting to speculate on is whether the chosen vehicle of national will, national mission, national objectives – WMD — had got slightly out of proportion and was being asked to carry more weight at the bar of history, and all this stuff, than it possibly could be expected to bear.

There was a sense, perhaps, in which the metaphor of WMD as a bloody good reason for doing in Saddam was wearing thin. But no one could, in view of the technical aspects of the diplomatic context, change tune. We were on the flypaper of WMD, whether we liked it or not …

I remember myself having regard, worrying about this — for the morale of the Service, the integrity of the Service, and so our performance. Spying, like many other field sports, is very dependent on good heart and good fitness. You can’t do it off form. You can’t do it in a hostile environment without a very strong sense of corporate collective will power and mutual support. All these things were possibly being endangered by the situation we were finding ourselves moving into.

SIS4 sums up:

I sense from some of your questions that we have had difficulty — maybe I and other witnesses — in getting across to you the very, very fragile and difficult to identify quality of the danger from WMD, how it’s all in the cranium of just a few scientists, who we never did meet and we have been unable to meet ever since.

That remains a huge problem for the world because what these people know and what they can do — break-out is very, very quick — is a huge issue for our security, in my view, and it would be a terrible thing if generalisation and Magimix processing of the Iraq story left people thinking that WMD are a done and dusted threat. I’m thinking particularly BCW, which is the most dangerous — particularly of BW — most dangerous for populations and the most difficult to spot coming…