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Dennis Hans: British Intelligence Is an Oxymoron

“British Intelligence” Is an Oxymoron:

What Brit spies “know” is determined by what foreign spooks tell them
they are allowed to say they “know,” Hutton Inquiry reveals
By Dennis Hans

A confidential memo to Tony Blair’s director of communications and strategy, Alastair Campbell, from the chairman of Great Britain’s Joint Intelligence Committee (JIC), John Scarlett, has left me shaken AND stirred. If this gentleman embodies British intelligence at its best and brightest, pray for the Crown.

Campbell had written to Scarlett on September 17, 2002, asking the JIC chair to consider changes to the wording of a number of points in the September 16 draft of the the document that would emerge eight days later as the official British government dossier on “Iraq’s Weapons of Mass Destruction.”

“Can we say he has secured uranium from Africa,” asked Campbell, underlining the word “secured” for emphasis and leaving off the question mark in his question.

It was a perfectly reasonably request. The draft of the dossier dated September 10/11 included three references to that uranium. The strongest, in a section setting out “what we know” about Saddam’s WMD programmes, said “Uranium to be used in the production of suitable fissile material has been purchased from Africa.”

Campbell is a very sharp guy. He must have noticed that in the comparable section of the September 16 draft, setting out “what we now know,” Scarlett had, in effect, “sexed down” the dossier: “Uranium has been sought from Africa. . . .”

If your goal is to build public support either for war or, taking Blair at his word, a U.N.-imposed rigorous inspections regime to rid Iraq of WMD by peaceful means, it helps your cause if you can portray Saddam as having bought, not merely sought, uranium.

On September 18, Scarlett wrote back with bad news: “on the uranium from Africa, the agreed interpretation of the intelligence, brokered with some difficulty with the originators and owners of the reporting) allows us only to say that he has ‘sought’ uranium from Africa.” (Single parenthesis in the original.)

(To read the exchange of memos, first click here: The actual documents, in PDF format, are numbered CAB/11/0067 and CAB/11/0071.)

How can you “know” something on September 10/11 and no longer know it on September 16? I thought the gaining of knowledge was a cumulative process. If you knew a week ago uranium had been purchased, maybe this week you also know the sale price or time and method of delivery.

Apparently, it works in reverse at the JIC: Intelligence bosses start out “knowing” uranium was purchased, then later “know” that it was sought but not necessarily bought. Perhaps soon the JIC will announce that they now “know” that what Saddam sought was not uranium but something easily mistaken for uranium: political support from African governments for the lifting of economic sanctions against Iraq.

And who are these mysterious knowledge brokers? I thought knowledge was gained through learning, not hard-fought bargaining between yourself and the “originators and owners” (“O&O”) of “intelligence” that is subject to “interpretation.” If Scarlett had thrown in 50 million lira, would the O&O say “That’s more like it. You may continue to state that you ‘know’ uranium has been ‘purchased’”?

It would seem that if the O&O — in all likelihood, intelligence officials of the scandal-plagued, rightwing Italian government of Silvio Berlusconi ( — get to tell British intelligence what is permissible for the Brits to say the Brits “know,” then the O&O are the only ones truly in the know. That is, they would know whether or not they actually “know” something, while the party receiving information from the O&O would not know if they were gaining knowledge of facts, knowledge of suspicions or knowledge of nonsense.

Let me tell you something I “know.” I know that on August 26, I sought AND bought a box of microwave popcorn. Ask me about it next week, and I guarantee you I won’t backtrack. I know what I know. Nothing you can do or say, short of torture or bribery, can get me to say next week, “I sought popcorn on August 26, but I can’t say for certain that I bought popcorn.”

The very day I bought microwave popcorn, Scarlett testified at the Hutton Inquiry and answered a number of questions about the preparation of the dossier. Perhaps next week Scarlett will maintain that he “attended” the Inquiry on August 26 but that it’s now an “open question” as to whether he testified. He may need to check with Italian intelligence before he can say for sure what he “knows.”

*** # # # ***

©2003 by Dennis Hans

Bio: Dennis Hans is a freelance writer who has taught courses in mass communications and American foreign policy at the University of South Florida-St. Petersburg. Prior to the Iraq war he published “Lying Us Into War: Exposing Bush and His ‘Techniques of Deceit’” ( and “The Disinformation Age” ( He can be reached at

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