I have long suspected that Alastair Campbell, Labour’s former Director of Communications, may potentially have broken the UK’s Official Secrets Act. Now prima facie evidence is beginning to emerge that he did indeed breach the “clear bright line” against unauthorised disclosure of intelligence.
I know that the Metropolitan Police have their hands full investigating the meltdown that is the News of the World hacking scandal — and also trying to replace all those senior officers who had to resign because of it — but they do have a duty to investigate crime. And not just any old crime, in this case, but one that has potentially threatened the very basis of our national security.
Why do I say this?
You’ll no doubt have some vague recollection that, in the run-up to the 2003 Iraq War, the British government produced a couple of reports “making a case for war”. The first, the September Dossier (2002), is the one most remembered, as this did indeed sex up the case for war, as well as include fake intelligence about Saddam Hussein trying to acquire uranium from Niger. Most memorably it led to the “Brits 45 minutes from Doom” front-page headline in Rupert Murdoch’s The Sun newspaper, no less, on the eve of the crucial war vote in Parliament.
There was also the notorious leaked Downing Street Memo, where the then-head of MI6, Sir Richard Dearlove ©, was minuted as saying that the intelligence and facts were being fitted around the [predetermined war] policy.
However, for the purposes of a possible Regina v. Campbell day in court, it is the second report that requires our attention.
It was published in February 2003, just before “shock and awe” was launched to liberate the grateful Iraqi people. This report became known as the “Dodgy Dossier”, as it was largely lifted from a 12 year old PhD thesis that the spin doctors had found on the internet. However, it also included nuggets of brand-new and unassessed intelligence from MI6. Indeed, even the toothless Intelligence and Security Committee in Parliament stated in paragraph 82 of its 2002–2003 Annual Report ( Download ISC_2003) that:
“We believe that material produced by the [intelligence] Agencies can be used in publications and attributed appropriately, but it is imperative that the Agencies are consulted before any of their material is published. This process was not followed when a second document was produced in February 2003. Although the document did contain some intelligence-derived material it was not clearly attributed or highlighted amongst the other material, nor was it checked with the Agency providing the intelligence or cleared by the JIC prior to publication. We have been assured that systems have now been put in place to ensure that this cannot happen again, in that the JIC Chairman endorses any material on behalf of the intelligence community prior to publication.”
At the time it was reported that Blair and Campbell had spontaneously distributed this report to journalists travelling with them on a tour of the Far East. The ISC confirmed that the intelligence had been passed to journalists without the permission of MI6 in its September 2003 special report — “Iraq Weapons of Mass Destruction: Intelligence and Assessments” (see pars 131 to 134):
“The document was originally given to a number of journalists over the weekend of
1 and 2 February and then placed in the Library of the House on 3 February. The Prime
Minister described the document as follows:
“We issued further intelligence over the weekend about the infrastructure of
concealment. It is obviously difficult when we publish intelligence reports, but I hope
that people have some sense of the integrity of our security services. They are not
publishing this, or giving us this information, and making it up. It is the intelligence
that they are receiving, and we are passing on to people. In the dossier that we
published last year, and again in the material that we put out over the weekend, it is
very clear that a vast amount of concealment and deception is going on.”
“The Committee took evidence on this matter from the Chief of the SIS on both
12 February and 17 July and separately from Alastair Campbell on 17 July. Both agreed
that making the document public without consulting the SIS or the JIC Chairman was
a “cock-up”. Alastair Campbell confirmed that, once he became aware that the
provenance of the document was being questioned because of the inclusion of
Dr Al-Marashi’s work without attribution, he telephoned both the Chief of the SIS and
the JIC Chairman to apologise.
“We conclude that the Prime Minister was correct to describe the document as
containing “further intelligence… about the infrastructure of concealment.… It is the
intelligence that they [the Agencies] are receiving, and we are passing on to people.”
“However, as we previously concluded, it was a mistake not to consult the
Agencies before their material was put in the public domain. In evidence to us the
Prime Minister agreed. We have reported the assurance that we have been given
that in future the JIC Chairman will check all intelligence-derived material on
behalf of the intelligence community prior to publication.”
Crucially, Blair and Campbell had jumped the (old Iraqi super-) gun by issuing this information, but Campbell seems to have got away with it by describing such a breach of the OSA as a “cock-up”. Or perhaps just another precipitous “rush of blood to the head” on his part, as recently described in the long-suppressed testimony of SIS2 revealed around the Chilcot Enquiry and reported in The Guardian:
“Papers released by the Chilcot inquiry into the war show that an MI6 officer, identified only as SIS2, had regular contacts with Campbell: “We found Alastair Campbell, I think, an enthusiastic individual, but also somewhat of an unguided missile.” He added: “We also, I think, suffered from his propensity to have rushes of blood to the head and pass various stories and information to journalists without appropriate prior consultation” (my emphasis).
So why do I suggest that Campbell could be liable for prosecution? It appears that he was a “notified person” for the purposes of Section 1(1) of the OSA. While not employed by the intelligence agencies, notified persons have regular access to intelligence material and are subjected to the highest clearance — developed vetting — in the same way as the full-time spooks. As such, they are also bound by the law against disclosure of such material without the prior written permission of the head of the agency whose intelligence they want to disseminate. There is no room for manœuvre, no damage assessment, and no public interest defence. The law is clear.
And a report in today’s Telegraph about Andy Coulson and the phone-hacking scandal seems to show clearly that Campbell was just such a notified person:
“Unlike Alastair Campbell and other previous holders of the Downing Street communications director role, Mr Coulson was not cleared to see secret intelligence reports and so was spared the most detailed scrutiny of his background and personal life.….
“The only people who will be subject to developed vetting are those who are working in security matters regularly and would need to have that sort of information.
“The only special advisers that would have developed vetting would be in the Foreign Office, Ministry of Defence and maybe the Home Office. Andy Coulson’s role was different to Alastair Campbell’s and Jonathan Powell.
“Alastair Campbell could instruct civil servants. This is why [Coulson] wasn’t necessarily cleared. Given [the nature of] Andy Coulson’s role as more strategic he wouldn’t have necessarily have been subject to developed vetting.”
So it would appear that Alastair Campbell is bang to rights for a breach of the Official Secrets Act under Section 1(1). He released new, unassessed and uncleared MI6 intelligence within the dodgy dossier. This is not just some technical infraction of the law — although even if it were, he would still have a case to answer.
No, this report led inexorably to our country going to war against Iraq, shoulder to shoulder with the US, and the resulting deaths, maimings, poisonings and displacement of millions of innocent Iraqi people. It has also directly increased the terrorist threat to the UK, as Tony Blair was officially warned pre-Iraq war by the then-head of MI5, Eliza Manningham-Buller. With the dodgy dossier, Campbell has directly harmed countless lives and our national security.
Of course, many of us might fantasise about warmongers getting their just deserts in The Hague. But perhaps the OSA could prove to be Al Campbell’s Al Capone–style tax evasion moment.
Now, what about The Right Honourable Tony Blair?