Sunday, 15 May 2011

David Aaronovitch: expert on lies

Accountability depends on long memories. Alistair Campbell's performance over the Iraq war was transparently mendacious to rather a lot of us, but it's apparently only now, at a comfortable temporal distance, after he has 'moved on' and nothing is likely to be done about it, that his lies on behalf of the Blair government are being nailed down.

Major-General Michael Laurie, a former intelligence official involved in the dossier that's not already known as 'dodgy' and which was defended so passionately by 'tears on tap' Campbell has recently given evidence to the Chilcot inquiry:

In written evidence to the Chilcot inquiry, Maj-Gen Laurie rejected Mr Campbell's claim that the dossier was not intended to make the case for war: "This was exactly its purpose and these very words were used."

Among former and current members of the BBC news department, the comments were received yesterday with mixed feelings that combined a sense of vindication with anger at the way the organisation's journalism has been treated. Mr Marsh said he was unhappy with the implications by Lord Hutton in his 2004 report that the staff on Today had shown a lack of professionalism. "This vindicates our position and shows Hutton was wrong in criticising Andrew, criticising me and criticising the Today team," he said. "Just flat wrong." Rod Liddle, a former Today editor who hired Mr Gilligan, said: "These comments tell us what we knew already – that the BBC told the truth, Gilligan told the truth and Alastair Campbell's outrage was confected and it was a lie."

While we're revisiting old lies, it's worth having a quick shufti at what David Aaronovitch had to say about the dossier and the wider case (such as it was) for war. After all, Aaronovitch certainly seems to consider himself an authority on who is or isn't lying, as the ex cathedra pronouncements throughout his voodoo theories book bear witness.

So his expert opinion on this little matter? We weren't lied to.

That's bollocks of course, but perhaps Aaronovitch suffered from the same problem that, if he is to be believed, afflicted the Blair government: The government didn't deceive anybody over Iraq and WMD, but was misled itself. I couldn't possibly comment - let the reader be the judge.

To assist in that process, here's a pertinent passage:

In May 2003, Andrew Gilligan famously asserted that 'a week before publication' (of the September dossier), Downing Street 'ordered it to be sexed up ... and ordered more facts to be discovered'. The following weekend in the Mail on Sunday, Gilligan elaborated: 'I asked my intelligence source why Blair misled us all over Saddam's WMD. His response? One word ... Campbell.' For weeks, various parts of the BBC continued to make the claim that the complaint of government ill-doing came from the heart of spookery. News 24 on 4 June 2003, for example, began an item: 'An unnamed intelligence officer has told a BBC journalist that the government probably exaggerated the threat posed by Saddam in order to justify the war.'

This source was David Kelly and the recollection was Gilligan's. But around the same time, Kelly had had a conversation with Newsnight reporter Susan Watts. This conversation was taped. Kelly told Watts: 'You have to remember I'm not part of the intelligence community.' Watts asked him about WMD. 'My own perception is, yes, they have weapons,' said Kelly. 'A "clear and imminent threat?"' 'Yes.'

That's: Watts asked him about WMD. 'My own perception is, yes, they have weapons,' said Kelly. 'A "clear and imminent threat?"' 'Yes.'

And here's the full passage Aaronovitch is quoting, from the transcript of the interview:

SW: Do you think there ought to be a security and intelligence committee inquiry?

DK: Yes but not now I think that has to be done in about six months time when we actually have come to the end of the evaluation of Iraq and the information that is going to come out of it.

I still think it's far too early to be talking about the intelligence that is there, a lot of intelligence that would appear to be good quality intelligence, some of which is not and it takes a long long time to get the information that's required from Iraq.

The process has only just started I think one of the problems with the dossier - and again I think you and I have talked about it in the past is that it was presented in a very black and white way without any sort of quantitative aspects.

The only quantitative aspects were the figures derived essentially from Unscom figures, which in turn are Iraq's figures presented to Unscom - you know the inaudible litres anthrax, the 4 tonnes VX - all of that actually is Iraqi figures - but there was nothing else in there that was quantitative or even remotely qualitative - I mean it was just a black and white thing - they have weapons or they don't have weapons

That in turn has been interpreted as being a vast arsenal and I'm not sure any of us ever said that, people have said to me that that was what was implied.

Again we discussed it, and I discussed it with many people, that my own perception is that yes they have weapons but actually not
inaudible [not problem] at this point in time

The PROBLEM [sic - TW] was that one could anticipate that without any form of inspection, and that forms a real deterrence, other than the sanctions side of things, then that that would develop I think that was the real concern that everyone had, it was not so much what they have now but what they would have in the future.

But that unfortunately wasn't expressed strongly in the dossier because that takes away the case for war [cough] to a certain extent.

SW: A clear and present, imminent threat?


And now a reverse-angle zoom shot of the two quotes (presented as one by Aaronovitch) in context:

First, Aaronovitch's 'My own perception is, yes, they have weapons,':

And the original: my own perception is that yes they have weapons but actually [not problem] at this point in time. The problem was that one could anticipate that without any form of inspection, and that forms a real was not so much what they have now but what they would have in the future.

And now, a super slo-mo hi-def split-screen replay of the second quote, side-by side with the original:

Aaronovitch version:

'A  "clear and imminent threat?"' 'Yes.'

And the original:

[DK:] was not so much what they have now but what they would have in the future. But that unfortunately wasn't expressed strongly in the dossier because that takes away the case for war [cough] to a certain extent.

SW: A clear and present, imminent threat?


It's a mistake anyone could make.

UPDATE May 16 2011:

Bensix has politely pointed out that (as I should have guessed, and indeed checked) Aaro retracted the claim in question:

Two weeks ago, on this page, I attacked the notion that we had been lied to by Tony Blair about the threat from Iraq. My main argument was that scrutiny of the Joint Intelligence Committee reports in the period up to and including 2003 would have left a reasonable person to conclude that there was a significant threat from Iraqi WMD.

However, in one passage in the article, I quoted a transcript of a conversation between Dr David Kelly and the Newsnight reporter Susan Watts. In it, Kelly says: 'My own perception is, yes, they have weapons.'

'A "clear and imminent threat"?' asks Watts.

'Yes,' replies Kelly.

A reader subsequently wrote to The Observer's readers' editor, pointing out that the context of these remarks made it clear that Dr Kelly actually meant the opposite, that, in fact, there was little by the way of imminent threat. I went back to the Hutton documents, and the reader is right and I was wrong.

I am sorry about this; I should have been more careful. And although this doesn't affect the argument about the government lying, it does narrow the gap somewhat between the account of events supposedly given by Dr Kelly to Andrew Gilligan and that given by Kelly to Susan Watts.

Bensix also points out that Gilligan had some pointed remarks on the topic too.

It was a bit of a quick post, but I should have done me due diligence (not to be confused with Aaronovitch's kind of 'being more careful'). I think because I hadn't heard about this one before, I may have subliminally assumed that the transcript had only become widely available some time later.

So, ignore me.


  1. Difficult to ignore when that's some creative reporting there by Aaro, only retracted by circumstance rather than integrity? Surely some mistake?!

  2. Indeed. What are the odds that Aaro would have retracted before being found out?

  3. Tim, have a look at Aaronovitch debating with Michael Powers Q.C. at about 12.22 here on the Kelly Inquest. Aaro deviously invokes one of the original medical signatories who has since changed his tune , based on, basically nothing. Aaro also uses the fact that the family apparently don't want an inquest to prevent further investigation into the circumstances of Dr Kelly's death (for whatever reason).
    Of course, for example, if I had some bodies buried under my patio (or whatever) of course I might not want any case reopened. I think it is nothing to do with the family that due process should be followed. What think you?

  4. Did you ever review Voodoo Histories?

    It has more outright errors than I'd picked up when I had a stab at it. For example, he mentions accounts suggesting that the 7/7 bombs went off beneath the carriages and claims that "all reports" stemmed from a piece by Mark Honigsbaum. Yet, turning to Nafeez Ahmed's The London Bombings one finds several other sources quoted.

    What makes this worse is that Ahmed's book is cited in the bibliography. He read a whole book, made one point about its claims and stuffed it. Not quite debunking...

  5. felix - yes, I think I mentioned the family angle in a previous post - probably the piss and wind Aaronovitch/Kelly one. It's not up to them, end of story. But AFAIK, 'the family' means Mrs Kelly (maybe the children?). I'm fairly sure I remember at least one other family member saying that they wanted more investigvation.

    Also a bit annoying that Powers allowed Aaro to get away with calling him a liar (in claiming that he didn't 'know' what the Kelly family wanted). But I suppose he is secure enough in his status not to need to do too much protesting there, and stick to the point.

    Aaro did an especially blatant bit of 'read-ahead' too, getting very thoughtcrimey and psychiatric about it - 'but secretly, you do have a theory, don't you Mr Powers you fucking nutter'...

    He has a new name for those who insist without scare quotes that they are just asking questions or, as in this case, demanding questions be asked: 'Defensive innocence' which is a less catchy and far less useful version of 'passive-agressive'.

    The key idea that isn't quite asserted is that those who think the case is not closed do so because they have some exogenous beliefs about what happened, which distorts their assessment of the evidence (not like DA, Rentoul etc., of course, who would never have any prejudice, and never ever say anything like 'there was no conspiracy therefore this contemporaneous credible eyewitness statement is wrong, mumble mumble).

    He got that bit of instant jargon from the same psychoanalyst friend - he always pretends is more than one: 'psychoanalysts friends tell me..', but I think he relies on just the one - who cooked up some speculation for him about the comfortingness of paranoia blah blah., for Voodoo Histories. DA thus able to present 'some bullshit his mate helpfully came up with' as 'a psychological theory'.

  6. bensix, no I still haven't done the VH review; the only version of it is a kind of draft done on that long 'Aaro breaks America' comment thread on Aaro Watch. I should get back to it, but it's so riddled with that kind of thing it's a pretty daunting task - and since I'm not an authoritative-recommendatory reviewer but only a persuasive-critical one, detail is everything - whatever I leave out is something I let DA get away with, which rankles.

    One rich vein of 'error' currently represented by healthy sprigs of post-its protruding from the pages of my copy of VH is DA's habit of reporting people's claims that their post has been interfered with etc. Not only does he fail to give any credence to such claims whatsoever, inviting his readers to join him in tacitly supposing such a claim ridiculous, he calculates he can get away with actually raising such reports, without further comment, as evidence of lack of credibility (due, presumably, to supposed paranoid delusion). Needless to say no evidence is supplied for any of this.

    Also, I'm not surprised Aaro concentrates on Honigsbaum - he was good enouigh to do a spurious retraction routine in regard to his own report of eyewitness testimony - by much hemming and hawing, and handwringing about how unfortunate it is that he should have reported something that may be of use to CTists, he's provided a statement that can be used to pretend it was all a silly mistake (see 'fog of war'; 'until we have the full picture', etc.).

    In other words, Honigsbaum is cherry-picked as the best case, with other much more inconvenient sources (including H's) ignored - but he provides a very poor case, since he wasn't a witness, and didn't even actually clearly retract anything.

  7. Yeah, that journalists feel they can just "retract" somebody else's claims is mildly sinister. Honigsbaum even refers to them as "my comments" and appears they're "canards". Is he suggesting that the witnesses never existed or is the idea that evidence sometimes conflicts with a - apologies for the word - "narrative" alien to the guy...

  8. Not 'defensive innocence': violent innocence - nice.

  9. Have written about DA's latest, Here:

    Would love you to read and possibly comment? Will link to your blog.

  10. The new term Aaronovitch has introduced for those who have questions is "violent innocence"

  11. Some one else who needs keeping an eye on is Simon Hoggart. He wrote the following piece:

    The real scandal of David Kelly's death

    In it Hoggart said the following:

    "Mr Grieve acknowledged there were generally sane people who thought differently from him, "but the evidence is overwhelming that it was suicide that caused Dr Kelly's death."

    "To prove it, he produced a 60-page "schedule", which rebuts 169 points made by the people who believe the murder-by-the state theory. You can find it online."

    Thing is Hoggart didn't provide a link and I have not been able to find online this mysterious "169 point rebuttal".

    So was Hoggart mistaken or did he know that such a document didn't exist but said it did anyway in order to falsely assure the many who he would hope couldn't be arsed to check?
    If he did that would be deception undertaken with deliberation.