10 Downing St Press Briefing: IRAQ - Niger/Uranium
10 Downing St Press Briefing: 11am Wednesday 9 July 2003
IRAQ - Niger/Uranium
The Prime Minister's Official Spokesman (PMOS) advised journalists that the Defence Secretary, Geoff Hoon, was writing again today to the Chairman of the BBC Board of Governors, Gavyn Davies, because of an apparent confusion at the BBC this morning. The organisation seemed to think that we were asking them to name the source of their story. We were not. The person who might be the source had already volunteered his own name and had also offered to appear before the ISC in person. It was therefore not a question of the BBC revealing their source. We were not asking them to breach anyone's confidence. On the contrary. We were simply requesting them to confirm whether or not the person who had come forward was their source. This was not a trap, as some had suggested. Mr Hoon would be writing to the BBC today to supply them with our name. We were merely asking them to say whether it was the wrong one or not. If it was wrong, then no doubt they would want to say categorically that that was the case, if only to confirm that the source was a senior intelligence official - because quite clearly the person concerned could not be described as such. He was a technical expert who had worked for a number of Government Departments, including the MoD where he was currently working, although his salary was paid by another Department. This issue was important because the BBC had consistently put the onus for the allegations which had been made on the status of its source. The BBC Governors had said in a statement on Sunday night that it was that status which justified the use of a single anonymous source for the story. This morning, the Daily Telegraph had quoted the BBC as confirming privately that Andrew Gilligan had met his source in a central London hotel on 22 May - the same day the person who had come forward had had his meeting with Mr Gilligan. Was that coincidence or not? Today the BBC would be given the name of the individual concerned. Only Mr Gilligan and a few senior managers at the BBC would be able to answer our question as they compared our name with the name supplied by Mr Gilligan.
Asked to explain how Mr Gilligan's source and the individual from MoD could be the same when Mr Gilligan had told the FAC that he had known his source for years whereas the MoD person had said that he had known Mr Gilligan only for a matter of months, the PMOS said that as he understood it, the MoD person who had come forward might have met Mr Gilligan in a number of different guises over the years in terms of the different jobs he had done. Asked if he was implying that our man had in fact known Mr Gilligan for years, the PMOS said that he was simply making the point that the individual concerned had been acquainted with Mr Gilligan. Questioned further by the BBC about the discrepancy, the PMOS said that as people disputed certain aspects of the information that had been put forward, it was inevitable for points to be clarified further. We had no problem in issuing factual corrections - and doing so immediately. Asked why the error had arisen in the first place, the PMOS said that as new information came to light, it was important to check existing facts again. That was the nature of a proper investigation. Pressed as to why we believed the person who had come forward might be the BBC's source when he didn't appear to fit any of the criteria, the PMOS said that he had met Mr Gilligan at a central London hotel on 22 May and had discussed the agenda which Mr Gilligan had said he had discussed with his source. Was this or was this not coincidence?
Asked if he would go so far as to say that Downing Street and the MoD believed that Mr Gilligan might have lied both to his employer and the listening public, the PMOS said that he was simply making the point that there appeared to be a discrepancy between the account given by the person who had come forward of his meeting with Mr Gilligan and what had actually transpired. If Mr Gilligan's source was not this person, then there were questions about the account Mr Gilligan had given the FAC and his assertion that he had only discussed the September dossier with one source. He had told the FAC, "I want to make a distinction between the specific source for this specific story, which is a single source, and the three other people who have spoken to me generally of their concern about Downing Street's use of intelligence material over the last six months". He had then gone on to define what it was that he had talked to those three other people about. One had been about the February dossier, another about the link between Saddam Hussein and Al Qaida. Another had been subsequent to the story being broadcast. If Mr Gilligan had spoken to somebody else other than this person, you would have thought he would have mentioned it at the FAC and said that he had spoken to a variety of sources about the 45-minute claim.
Put to him that the person who had come forward at the MoD had claimed that it was Andrew Gilligan who had raised the 45-minute issue and had told him about Alastair Campbell's role, the PMOS pointed out that the individual himself had admitted that when he had been asked why the 45-minute claim had been included, he had replied 'probably for impact'. Given that was the case, one would think that Mr Gilligan would have referred to the person in his evidence. This whole matter could be cleared up very easily if the BBC stated categorically whether our name was the wrong one or not. Any discrepancies in Mr Gilligan's evidence to the FAC was a different matter. Asked to give one good reason why the BBC should accede to Downing Street's request when doing so would mean revealing its source, the PMOS said that all we were asking the BBC to do was confirm whether our name was the wrong one or not. If it was the right man, there would be no problem about revealing the identity of a source because he had already come forward voluntarily. Questioned as to whether the man had been pressurised into coming forward, the PMOS said that he did not recognise the scenario being presented.
Questioned as to whether Downing Street was disappointed that the intelligence services had been unable to identify who the source was, the PMOS said that we never commented on intelligence matters. Asked if he accepted it was right for journalists to protect their sources, the PMOS repeated that we were not asking anyone to reveal their sources. We were simply asking the BBC to tell us whether our name was right or wrong. It was not something the organisation was usually shy about doing.
Asked if Downing Street had a problem with Susan Watts' report of the same story on Newsnight, the PMOS said that the report on which we had been focussing from the outset was Andrew Gilligan's because he was the one who had made the original allegations. The fact that Susan Watts had repeated them did not make them any truer and we would dispute her claims as well. Both Mr Gilligan and BBC senior management had insisted that the story had been based on the comments of a senior intelligence source - not a description that could be ascribed to the man who had come forward. He was not a member of the Senior Civil Service or of the Security and Intelligence Service. Nor was he involved in military intelligence. He was a technical expert who had worked in a number of different areas and Departments. He was currently working with the MoD, though his salary was being paid by another Department. Once the BBC received Mr Hoon's letter identifying who he was, it would be easy for them to compare his name to the name that had been supplied by Mr Gilligan and confirm whether or not it was the same person. Only the BBC could answer this question.
Asked which Department paid for our man's salary, the PMOS said that providing such information would make it easy to identify the person which was something we were not prepared to do. Asked whether it was the Foreign Office, the PMOS said that he had no intention of getting drawn into a discussion about this matter. Asked why the MoD was refusing to name the individual, the PMOS said that it was important for the MoD to deal with personnel issues in the appropriate way, according to its own rules and procedures. Asked if the individual had been assured that no disciplinary action would be taken against him, the PMOS again declined to provide further detail because he did not feel it would be appropriate to do so.
Questioned as to why journalists should take seriously a corrected 'second-hand account' of a man who had admitted to his bosses that he had broken the rules and who might be disciplined as a result, the PMOS said that it was important to keep in mind the original source of the story and the allegations that had been made. Challenged that the original source of the story was Downing Street who had pursued an 'absurd vendetta' day after day when we ought to have been talking about hospitals, education and transport, the PMOS pointed to the two-ways which had been done on the day that Mr Gilligan had first made his allegations. These had said that the claims went right to the heart of Government because if we had been guilty of inserting the intelligence material into the dossier against the wishes of the intelligence agencies and knowing it to be wrong, it would undermine the Government's integrity. Consequently, since the Government's integrity was at stake, we believed we were perfectly entitled to bring into the public domain information which we had carefully investigated and which raised questions about the status of the BBC's source. It was the BBC who had built so much on one single anonymous source, not us. Pressed as to why journalists should consider the account of the person at the MoD who had come forward to be credible when he had broken the rules and we had changed his story, the PMOS said that all we had done was to develop our understanding of the individual's background rather than change his story. The MoD had been careful yesterday to say that they did not know definitively whether this person was Mr Gilligan's source. Given the information that this individual had given us, in addition to Mr Gilligan's on-the-record evidence to the FAC, it was clear that there were genuine issues, away from the rhetoric, which it was correct for us to address and ask others to do so as well. This was not an assault on journalistic sources. It was not an assault on the BBC. It was not a vendetta. It was a genuine attempt to get at the truth behind one of the most serious allegations that could be made against any Government. The PMOS said he understood that people were bored with this story and that the BBC wanted to move on. We all did. However, given the seriousness of the allegations and the fact that they had been defended from the very top of the BBC, we believed that it was right for us to put our perfectly legitimate questions into the public domain.
Asked if Downing Street would consider the BBC to have lied if the person who had come forward turned out to be their source, the PMOS said that we were deliberately not over-stating our degree of knowledge over whether this was or was not the BBC's source. We were also being very careful not to leap ahead and reach conclusions about what the implications might be. Journalists might want to do that, but he would not until he had a basis on which to do so.
Asked for a reaction to the US's admission that the Niger/uranium claim was false, the PMOS said he was surprised that journalists had not yet picked up on what we had been saying consistently about this matter. As Mr Ehrman from the FCO had told the FAC on 27 June, this intelligence had not been based on the forged documents, but had come from a different source. "The intelligence came from a foreign service and we understand that it was briefed to the IAEA in 2003". Put to him that the US was saying that the entire claim was untrue, the PMOS said he did not think that was precisely the Americans' point. But, as he was not a spokesman for the Administration, he would leave it to them to explain.
Asked why Downing Street disagreed with the White House's view that President Bush should not have referred to the Niger/uranium claim in his State of the Union Address, the PMOS said that it had been included on the basis of the US's knowledge. We had included the material in our dossier on the basis of our knowledge, which was different. Asked if our information had been based on material passed to our intelligence services by other security services - as the Prime Minister had appeared to imply to the Liaison Committee yesterday, the PMOS said no. Questioned as to whether the intelligence had come from the CIA, the PMOS said no. Asked who had provided the information, the PMOS said that he was unable to comment on intelligence issues. That said, journalists could be assured that the material had been properly assessed and had been subjected to rigorous JIC procedures. Asked whether the intelligence would be passed on to the ISC, the PMOS said that he had no intention of providing a running commentary on the work of the ISC. It went without saying, however, that the Committee would be supplied with all relevant material. Asked if the intelligence would be passed on to the US, the PMOS said that we always shared information with the relevant people, as you would expect. The important point was that we had included it in our dossier following our own analysis and assessment. Pressed as to why we weren't handing the information over to the US authorities to help them 'get out of a mess', the PMOS pointed out that the US was referring to the forged documents on which they had based their assessment. We, on the other hand, had been relying on other intelligence. Put to him that President Bush had said specifically in his State of the Union Address that the 'British Government' had intelligence, which would imply that the information had been shared, the PMOS acknowledged that the comments which had led to recent stories in Washington appeared to be the subject of some dispute. He was making the point that the material included in our dossier had been based on our intelligence and our intelligence assessment. Questioned as to whether the British Government had seen the report by former Ambassador Joseph Wilson following his visit to Niger and if so, at what stage, the PMOS said that we had only recently become aware that a US envoy had visited Niger in March 2002. The visit had taken place before the intelligence on which our dossier had been based had been received. If he was being asked whether the visit had affected what we had said in the dossier about Niger, the answer was no.
Asked for a reaction to yesterday's vote on foundation hospitals, the PMOS said the important thing was that the Health and Social Care Bill had been voted through. It was still an important plank in the Government's health strategy. As anyone who had seen the Granada debate with health professionals last week in Liverpool would know, what people wanted on the ground was a combination of national standards and local flexibility to respond to local needs within the NHS. That was precisely what foundation hospitals would provide.