Whitewashing Blair

Whitewashing Blair

Meteorologists may disagree, but the political weather in Britain almost always comes from the United States.



Meteorologists may disagree, but the political weather in Britain almost always comes from the United States. So it could hardly have been more fitting that just as the first flakes of winter were starting to fall here, the British government’s conduct in going to war in Iraq was also buried under a thick blanket of white. When Lord Hutton opened public hearings into the death of Dr. David Kelly, the British expert on Iraqi chemical and biological weapons, back in August, the former Chief Justice of Northern Ireland said his inquiry was “not a trial conducted between interested parties who have conflicting cases to advance.” But his report, issued on January 28, went well beyond acquitting Prime Minister Tony Blair and his former spokesman, Alastair Campbell, of knowingly taking Britain into war on false premises. Hutton’s finding that the government had not “sexed up” its dossier on Iraqi weapons, and that the BBC had been wrong to suggest otherwise, gave a huge boost to a government that only a day earlier had come within five votes of losing on a major parliamentary showdown despite a 161-seat majority. By the end of the week both the director general of the BBC and the chairman of its board of governors had resigned.

How could Hutton disregard so much of the evidence his inquiry uncovered? Not only were there memos from Campbell and Jonathan Powell, Blair’s chief of staff, urging changes in the language of the dossier (many of which were adopted), there was also Campbell’s diary, with its admission that the government wanted to publicly identify Kelly as BBC reporter Andrew Gilligan’s source in the hope that Kelly’s outing would “fuck Gilligan.” That there were errors in Gilligan’s initial story is beyond question. Nor did BBC management help by refusing to issue a speedy correction. But to focus on such matters while ignoring the fact that Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction–the Blair government’s sole justification for going to war in defiance of the United Nations–have been shown to be nonexistent takes a special talent.

Perhaps the most surprising–and revealing–aspect of the Hutton report is that it was a surprise at all. In the long, shameful history of British cover-ups, few men have come as well prepared to wield the whitewasher’s brush. As plain Brian Hutton he represented British paratroopers who killed thirteen unarmed civil rights marchers in Derry on Bloody Sunday, January 30, 1972. When the Irish government took Britain to the International Court of Human Rights for torturing political detainees, Hutton acted for the defense. As a judge in Northern Ireland he often presided over so-called Diplock courts, where major crimes are tried by judges alone and where the prosecution is given wide latitude in the use of paid informants. More recently it was Lord Hutton who, during the Pinochet extradition hearings, criticized one of his fellow judges for not disclosing his ties to Amnesty International. When it comes to vigilance in defense of the British establishment, Hutton, as the handicappers like to say, has form.

But if Hutton’s conclusions were foregone, the response has been more interesting. The Independent left most of its front page white the day after Hutton came out–a gesture of outrage expressed less graphically both by the left-leaning Guardian and the right-thinking Daily Mail. Parliamentary opposition to Blair, which reached its high-water mark on the showdown over allowing elite universities to charge higher tuition fees, remained feeble. But the media (with the sole, significant, exception of the Murdoch press, whose owner is the BBC’s main competitor) were remarkably quick to consign Hutton to history’s dustbin. If the backlash against Hutton signals a split between the government and the political class, the public is firmly on the side of the latter. Over half the voters in one poll thought Hutton wrongly cleared the government of sexing up the dossier. In another, the Hutton-battered BBC emerged as three times as trustworthy as the government.

The habit of deference is hard to shake off, as is the habit of regarding Britain’s record in Northern Ireland as a historical curiosity. And in secular Britain, supposedly impartial judges have long assumed the sacramental duties of a priestly class, wafting incense and mystification over the brutal exigencies of power. By bringing the whole sordid ceremonial into disrepute, Hutton may inadvertently have done his country, if not his masters, a favor. On February 3, Blair was forced to announce that Britain, too, would hold hearings on its intelligence failures in the run-up to war on Iraq. But any revelations from that process are likely to come out of Washington, where David Kay’s candor and Bush’s own concession cut the ground from under Blair’s previous reluctance.

In the meantime, the best test of Blair’s newfound enthusiasm will be how his government treats Katharine Gun, the former British intelligence officer who told the truth about Washington’s efforts to rig last year’s Security Council vote on Iraq. For blowing the whistle on British collusion in a US campaign to spy on delegates from Angola, Cameroon, Chile, Bulgaria, Guinea and Pakistan–the crucial “swing votes” on the Security Council–Gun was charged in November under the Official Secrets Act. Her American supporters include Sean Penn, Jesse Jackson and Daniel Ellsberg, but here in Britain Gun’s ability to defend herself has already been hampered by a government move to prevent her from telling her lawyers anything about her work. Gun, who is pleading a “necessity defense” arguing that her actions were justified to prevent an imminent threat to life and limb, would make an ideal witness for Blair’s new inquiry.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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