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.